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Taking aim: Lots of practice puts officers at top of their game

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The first shots echoed off steel plates lining the firing range.

In the darkened corridor of the Greenwood Police Department training center, officers took cover behind wooden door frames and other obstacles.

They were focused on the whirring, rotating targets appearing at the far end of the range. Loud music and flashing lights were meant to steal their concentration.

The best shooters could block the distractions, calmly aiming their firearm and hitting the center of target.

“The more you train to do something, the more your brain will tell you do it when you actually need it. Your brain will tell you to pull that gun and pull that trigger, and you never make that conscious decision to pull that trigger,” said Matthew Fillenwarth, assistant chief for Greenwood Police Department.

Becoming a skilled marksman requires patience, body control and hours of practice. The tiniest flinch can be the difference between hitting the target and sending a shot 3 feet wide.

From law enforcement agents to competitive gun clubs and hunters, the best shooters are those who have turned their firing routine into a science.

“Shooting, whether it’s a rifle or a pistol or a shotgun, there are little nuances but it’s all the same,” Fillenwarth said.

The Greenwood Police Department opened its shooting range in 2001, leasing the building that used to house Don’s Guns.

The specially built corridor includes targets at the end of a 50-yard-long building. Computer programs can make individual targets appear and disappear at different intervals.

Instructors can change the lighting, add obstacles and make targets charge an officer, to add different elements of training, Fillenwarth said.

The police department still shoots for accuracy once a year. All of the officers have to qualify by hitting at least 70 percent of the targets.

“As a firearms instructor, you can say that they know how to fire the weapon; they can aim the weapon; they can qualify for 70 percent or 80 percent,” Fillenwarth said.

The facility is used by the Franklin Police Department to train, as well as other law enforcement agencies who need to practice shooting during the winter.

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office has its own shooting range it uses throughout the year.

As a detective and the team leader of SWAT for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, Ryan Bartlett spends about two hours each month training on the department’s shooting range.

Every SWAT officer is required to hit at least 96 percent of the targets each month, a standard Bartlett stressed is vital for their work in law enforcement.

“In this business here, you can be a target shooter, and you can be a hobbyist, but this is our job, and we have to be proficient,” he said.

Often, he will design courses or activities surrounding a shooting exercise to get the officers’ heart rates up. If they can still meet their target quota even with their heart pounding and adrenaline flooding their body, they should be ready for anything.

“We shoot so much with an elevated heart rate, knowing you can hit the center of a target with a high heart rate makes it that much easier to hit it when you’re standing still,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett didn’t learn to shoot until he was into his training as a sheriff’s deputy in his early 20s. Though he had a late start compared to some of his fellow officers, that would prove to be an advantage.

He was free from bad habits and could be instructed and molded into an efficient shooter from scratch.

Taking classes from competition shooters, law enforcement veterans and former military officials, he learned the proper preparations.

The key, he learned, was to focus on the sights.

“What it all comes down to is sight alignment, keeping those sights perfectly aligned all the way back through your trigger press,” he said. “If you keep those sights in alignment, you’re going to hit the center of whatever you’re aiming at every single time.”

Repetition will train the body to feel comfortable with the feel of the firearm, as well as the crack of a shot and the jarring recoil each time the weapon is fired.

According to the National Rifle Association’s Firearms Instruction, Responsibility and Safety Training, first-time shooters are taught to quiet their bodies and shoot between breaths.

As they learn, people are taught to be conscious of every movement they’re making, breathing out part way, holding their breath for a beat and then shooting.

Instead of anticipating the shot, people should gradually increase pressure on the trigger until they surprise themselves with the shot.

“Especially with a pistol — any slop in your shooting will show up in the target you’re trying to shoot,” Fillenwarth said.

Fillenwarth has been a firearms instructor with the Greenwood Police Department for more than 15 years. He’s run the SWAT team for the past five years, and he has been on the team since he started at Greenwood.

When he’s target shooting, he goes through a dialogue in his head.

First he finds his target. Then, he lines it up with his front sight post. When the front sight post is lined up with the rear sight.

“When you squeeze that trigger, the front sight should be in crisp focus, and the target should be blurred,” he said.

Fillenwarth has practiced his trigger squeeze tens of thousands of times, working on ensuring that each time he fires, he’s maintaining his focus on the target.

When he holds the gun, he staggers the pressure coming from each hand. His shooting hand exerts 40 percent of the pressure, while 60 percent comes from the support hand.

To Fillenwarth, that makes it easier to account for recoil and movement after each shot.

The accuracy is important to work on and practice. But on patrol, if they need their weapons, their is rarely time to go through all of those motions, Fillenwarth said.

The hope is that your constant practice will make good form a natural response.

“When you get that adrenaline dump, you’re not capable of those fine motor skills,” he said.

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