Man stands with gun drawn.

Firearms facelift

Training added to RCMP's annual pistol qualification

The qualification has shifted from a four-hour target-shooting test, to a one-hour test followed by three hours of training on new skills. Credit: Courtesy Martin Racicot

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S/Sgt. Sheila White stands in the middle of three pylons, weapon drawn.

"Move left!" barks a firearms instructor. White shuffles to the left. "Move right!" he shouts. "Contact right!"

White swings toward the right and takes a shot. Success — her bullet has made contact with the target.

"It wasn't intimidating, it wasn't nerve-wracking. It was kind of exciting to not just be standing on the firing line, but actually moving and shooting at the same time," says White, an officer from Merritt, B.C. "This was something we haven't done before."

Each year, all active-duty RCMP officers must get re-certified to use their weapons in the field by passing a test — the Annual Firearms Qualification (AFQ). Reflecting on her experience with the RCMP's newly updated AFQ, White says changes to the program are right on the mark.

"It's heads above everything we've done before," explains the 30-year veteran. "It's real — or at least as real as you can make it in a training environment."

The new AFQ officially rolled out in April 2016; it's the first change to the program since 1995. In addition to completing the qualification, all RCMP officers were also issued and trained on a new general duty holster.

Keeping current

Since the horrific shootings that took the lives of three officers in Moncton, N.B. in 2014, the RCMP has rolled out many changes to programs, policies, equipment and training. The updated AFQ is just one of those changes stemming from the MacNeil report — an independent review of the force, which looked at ways to better prepare members for incidents like Moncton.

"The crimes are changing and we need to change to adapt to those," says Sgt. Steve Burke, from the RCMP's National Use of Force section. "We needed to improve and modernize what we were doing with our firearms."

The new qualification has a renewed focus on training rather than testing, preparing members for confrontations with active shooters and lethal force encounters. New skills such as moving and shooting, firing at different distances and proper pistol manipulations are now taught in the yearly session.

The new AFQ also better prepares members for new mandatory courses recommended in the MacNeil report, such as Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) training and the Carbine Operator Course. All cadets at Depot now receive both carbine and IARD training immediately after graduating, and other members must complete the IARD course by 2019.

Additional tactics and skills will be incorporated into the AFQ as needed, to keep the training as current as possible.

"Every year members come back, they're going to get something new in the training segment," says Burke. "It's going to help our shooters learn new skills, rather than the art of target shooting."

Not just testing

The four-hour qualification used to be all about testing. Members would start their AFQ session by shooting practice rounds at a firing range before getting tested.

"But that's not realistic in a lethal use- of-force encounter," says Burke. "Now when they show up on the range, the first shot that comes out of their pistol counts. It's much more realistic."

The new training is divided into two parts: one hour of testing followed by three hours of training.

Cst. Michael Jaszczyszyn, a firearms instructor in Alberta, says another important change to the program allows teachers like him to offer assistance to members during the training portion. Whether it's helping them readjust their grip, working on trigger speed, or helping them line up their sights properly, instructors make sure that members come out of the AFQ having learned something.

"Members are leaving the range far more capable with their pistols," says Jaszczyszyn. "We're seeing them get their gun out faster, get more rounds in less time and manipulate their pistol better."

After the testing component, the rest of the course is about self-improvement in the training exercises. Since class sizes are typically no more than 12 people, instructors can work one-on-one with members, tailoring the training to different levels.

In the six months since the program's release, overall firearms skills have improved, according to Jaszczyszyn. Even White saw a marked improvement in her firearm capabilities, despite having completed more than 30 AFQs in her career.

"I know it gave me more confidence in my skill set," she says. "It's a definite upgrade to what we've been doing in the past. The training made me realize, 'I can do this.' "

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