Target Evolution: B-21, B-21X, to B-27 and beyond

In the spring 2021 Historical Handgun course Tom Givens and I co-taught, Tom presented some information about the history and evolution of the B-27 target. After that course, a retired Indiana police instructor named Bob Givan found one of my blog posts about the B-21 target and contacted me. Bob shares our interest in the historical evolution of handgun training, and back in the 1980’s he was teaching his own class on the evolution of police training targets (which counts as a part of handgun training history). The information below is a compilation of recent discussions between the three of us on this subject.

Before the B-21

In 1917, British military officer C.D. Tracy published his concept of a design for a realistic humanoid target in his book, “The Service Revolver and How to Use It” (reviewed previously on this blog).

There are no records indicating any of these targets were ever printed in a formal way, but the shape and dimensions of Tracy’s target are very similar to the target used by the US Practical Shooting Association. The normal size for this target is 18″x30″.

Birth of the B-21

J. Henry Fitzgerald, who worked for Colt, published the Police Revolver handbook in 1920. It included instruction in technique, and a police course of fire, using the Colt Silhouette Target, which he probably designed. The standard B-21, as the Colt Silhouette Target became known, is 35″x 45″, wider than the 24″ x 36″ targets in common use today, and much wider than the 18″x30″ targets used in USPSA, IDPA, GSSF, and NRA Action Pistol matches.

The B-21 has “K” (Kill) scoring values, and “D” (Disable) scoring values, from back in the time when police (or perhaps police administrators) considered the idea of using deadly force to disable attackers (this idea faded quickly, and D-values were not used by the time the FBI introduced its classic Practical Pistol course in the 1940’s.

The target remained in use through the early 1960’s. From trainer Bob Givan:

In 1963, we were issued S&W model 10 nickel plated fixed sights. At 7 yards we were instructed to take a step to the left to get off of the line of attack, then shoot one handed from the crouch position. We loaded with 5 rounds and a big deal was made about getting the empty charge hole under the firing pin making sure of the indexing.

The course of fire, originally shot on the B-21 target (later on the B-27) was:

  • 7 yards 10 rounds in 25 seconds with a reload.
  • 25 yards 15 rounds in 90 seconds Left & Right hand barricade and kneeling all double action.
  • 50 yards 20 rounds in 2 minutes and 45 seconds sitting, prone, left and right hand barricade single action.
  • 60 yards 5 rounds in 15 seconds, prone single action.

All stages started in the standing position with the revolver loaded and holstered. I don’t recall what year that we dropped the 60 yard line and went to using the 15 yard line shooting from the point shoulder. The times stayed the same when we went to loading 6 rounds. Sometime in the mid 70s, we dropped the sitting position at the 50 yard line and shot off a shelf on the barricade to represent shooting over the hood or trunk of a car. The sequence went prone, shelf, left, and right hand barricade. Now single or double action was allowed. I think that we followed the NRA’s PPC course times and most of our instructors were trained by the FBI. I think that it wasn’t until the early nineties that the 50 yard line was dropped.

Over time (particularly as hip shooting at 7 yards was replaced with point-shoulder “over the sights” shooting and later, aimed fire), scores began to increase, and a circular X-ring was added to the B-21, making it the B21X.

B-21X target

Later versions of the B-21 that removed the D values were called the B21-E.

In James Mason’s “Combat Pistol Shooting” book from 1976, the B21-X target was still in use, firing the “Advanced Military” course of fire.

I shot that same course of fire using the IDPA target at the 2019 Practical Pistol Reunion, except we used our sights and did not hip shoot.

The Prehle Target

As Tom Givens pointed out during his lecture on target development: when shooters begin shooting perfect scores on timed courses of fire, there are only a few options to make the course of fire more difficult: make the scoring area smaller, or decrease the times. By the end of the 1950’s, the FBI Practical Pistol Course of fire had become a shooting sport known as PPC. According to this history, in 1962 the National Rifle Association formalized PPC and held the first National Police Revolver Championship match.

The International Rapid Fire target actually comes in two parts. It consists of a stylized torso, with a stump of a neck but no head. The second portion is a tapered area that represents the groin and legs. These rings were superimposed on the Colt Silhouette in 1962 and called the “Prehle target”, after the guy whose idea it was.

B-18 and Prehle target

From Bob Givan: I have been trying to find the INTERNATIONAL RAPID FIRE PISTOL TARGET for some time. Well, I have found it with the help of Guy of the National Printing Co. and his research assistants. The National Printing Co. stopped printing this full size target in 1982. It was designated the NRA B-18 at the time.

The Prehle target had many problems, from a defensive pistol perspective. It moved the highest valued scoring zone down into “center mass”, from the high chest area where the X-ring on the B-21X was located, and it introduced many smaller scoring zones, bringing the sport of PPC closer to bullseye than to actual combat.

It also treated shots that went low, below the belt line, as hits that were as acceptable as the upper chest hits on the high side of the 10-ring. The arms were removed, the scoring zones in the head and lower torso removed, the target simplified, and the result was called the B-27.

The B-27

For better or worse (mostly worse), from 1962 until the early 1980’s, the B-27 gradually replaced the B-21X as the default police training target. By the 1970’s and 1980’s, the black color of the target was controversial. Green and blue versions, as well as many photographic variations were produced.

Some trainers began mixing existing targets and photographs to provide better and more varied training, as in this example from Bob Givan.

Beyond the B-27

It wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that targets began to change again, with the development of the IPSC Item and Option targets.

The FBI Q, IALEFI Q (International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors) target, and many variations were produced in the 1980’s and beyond.

The IALEFI Q was later modified to add a belt line, and the FBI-QIT target mirrored this change.

In 1995, Texas designed its own target for use in the (new) Concealed Handgun License training course. It was closer in design to the IPSC Option target, with a large circle in the upper chest, than the B-27.

Sadly, in the early 2000’s, Texas DPS abandoned the use of this target and returned to a B-27 derivative for our state carry permit qualification.

The Rangemaster updated B-21

After teaching his material on the evolution of target development, Tom Givens went back to the original B-21 and integrated more modern elements, such as circular head and body zones, and a belt line defining the bottom of the primary target area.

The Rangemaster RFTS-Q2 target

Historical perspective

I’ve spent the past several years diving deep into the history of handgun training. In the 1910’s and 1920’s, ideas like using the sights, realistic humanoid targets, rapid fire drills at close distances, and gripping the pistol with two hands began to evolve, only to be tossed aside for less effective one handed hip shooting techniques and slow fire, long range bullseye drills shot on unrealistic targets (particularly the B-27). It wasn’t until Jeff Cooper and those influenced by his ideas to put training back on the path it has followed since the mid 1970’s. Today’s shooters have a very wide variety of better-designed qualification targets, and courses of fire more relevant to actual defensive pistol use. The RFTS-Q2 B21 variant is a great example of fusing 100 year old ideas and 21st century thinking.