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Target ID

By Drew Estell


One thing that military and Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) share, as well as civilians who carry for personal defense, is the need for target discrimination. Considering the civilian perception of LEOs recently, it has never been more critical that an officer properly identifies his or her target. In the military, we train hard to ensure that non-threats are not engaged. Our operating environment is very different regarding threat assessment and rules of engagement. What constitutes a threat on deployment may not constitute a threat here in the states for our LEO brothers and sisters. Generally speaking, we are probably better trained in this regard, depending on the military specialty and due to the time we have to devote to it, but your actions are held to a much higher level of scrutiny by the public. Even when it is a good choice, which is 99% of the time. In the military we don’t have to worry about our actions being blasted all over the American media with every possible aspect analyzed by some arm chair expert sitting behind a desk with a microphone in their ear.

I am no expert in how police forces train either. I have seen some of the training on the flat range by a few LEOs and it is only setting up the officer for failure. Hopefully some of the experience and insight I can provide will help explain how military Special Operations Forces (SOF) conduct training and allow us the time to assess a threat while still allowing us the ability to take the life of a bad guy before they can take ours.

Before I moved into a more specialized assault role the majority of target ID was explained by saying, “if they are a threat, shoot them, if not, don’t.” Once I was fortunate enough to attend high level CQB training, it was explained much more in depth and broken down so that the mental process of identification could allow me to be successful.

One of the things that our unit does well is incorporate a sports psychologist into our training section who shows us and our instructors how to do this effectively. A lot of our training cues incorporate three words that get us from threat to decision to action very well. The method that they came up with was the hands, aim, shoot (HAS) phrase. It’s very effective and literally as simple as it sounds.

When you have a potential target one of the common mistakes is looking at “them” by means of the face or center mass. We do this because that’s how we normally train at the flat range. We step up to the line knowing that we are going to take a chest shot or a head shot ahead of time, and effectively cut out any decision making process that we could be using to train for the real world more effectively. There is a place for this in marksmanship training, but we have to remember that it is only training marksmanship and not target ID.

In a job like ours, where this is a critical, no-fail component, it has to be incorporated into training once the marksmanship component has been established. When we conduct training on the flat range it should be to prepare us for the tasks we will be faced with when we leave it. A Team Sergeant of mine, who I look up to very much, told me one time, “the mission drives task org.” He was right, and it made me think. Mission does drive our task organization, but it also drives a lot more. It drives physical training, job training, range training, and anything else we do to prepare for our jobs and mission at hand. Our flat range training should incorporate some aspect that prepares us for what we will face when we are on mission or working our shift.

To accomplish this, we use a lot of different types of cartoon/realistic targets on the range. When we start to remember which target is a threat and not one, we cover up the guns or paste something on them which make them a non-threat, which emphasizes our need to identify threats, not just recognize targets. In addition to using them in shoothouses, we use them in drills that incorporate target presentation. Pie-ing off windows, barriers, movement in width where they present around the corner of a barrier, or turning drills like the el-Prez.

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When the target presents itself to us we are focused on the hands first. We aren’t looking at the face, chest, or anything else. Marty the meth-head’s cracked out scowl and broken teeth aren’t going to get us killed. Neither is any other part, besides the hands, of any other stereotype going to take our life. What’s in their hands will. For us that can be a weapon or a detonator such as a cell phone, garage door opener, or homemade battery pack wire combo. For you guys and gals the latter probably isn’t something to worry about but could be in the future. Terrorism is at our doorstep and it’s only a matter of time until those tactics make its way over here on our soil. The hands are the mechanism which can take our life. Outside of drawing down on Chuck Norris where his feet may be the other mechanism, we focus on the hands.

At this point if I have a person who is deemed a threat I raise my sights onto the target and get my sight picture. Notice I said, “raise my sights onto the target.” You aren’t looking down your sights the whole time. Before I reach aim, the eyes should be out of the sights and weapon in a low ready position or suppressed muzzle. A good rule of thumb that we use is I should be able to turn my head left and right and my chin clear my butt stock if I am using a rifle. If I have a pistol, my weapon should be low enough to effectively see the threat area of a target to include the hands if they are down at their sides.

If the muzzle of my pistol is pointed generally at their baby making machinery, that should be enough to see the hands and target area, while still being able to quickly raise my gun the few inches it takes to engage. The pelvis is a good reference point as well because it is large, relative to the body, there are major arteries running through it, and no one moves well when their pelvis is broken.

I have identified a threat and now brought my weapon up to engage, flipped my weapon to fire, if applicable, and about to fire as many shots as required to eliminate the threat, taking their life if necessary. The split second it takes to raise your weapon is enough for your brain to make any correction if needed. By identifying the threat while staying out of the sights, the 0.75 seconds it takes to raise your weapon up and aim will allow you to correct yourself if needed in the event you misidentified your target. This could be the difference in being on the news and having an investigation run as to whether or not you should have shot. In the diagram below you’ll see it looks much like an upside “Y”or “V”. Depending on where the hands are it could also look like an upside down “T”.

There are numerous reasons for the two different locations of the shot. We might have to bypass the upper chest area and go for the head. In my job they could have body armor, explosive vest, hostage, or be behind a certain amount of cover. It could become a low percentage shot quickly depending on the situation. In your job, I would imagine many of the same could apply, and I would add in a baby for all our officers in Oklahoma and Kansas. I feel like I see that on the TV show Cops a lot. Either way, be prepared to have to recognize what is at the chest and whether or not you need to move to a lower percentage shot at the head and face.

Target id

Now is the easy part. Shoot them. You and your department know what is acceptable in this regards. You’ve hopefully established training standards to hit a target at different distances and now it’s time to execute. Pull the trigger and put as many rounds into the threat as fast as you can while maintaining accuracy to ensure a good kill. You can’t kill a bad guy if you don’t hit him. With that in mind, the person who wins the gunfight is the one who gets the shot off quickest while being accurate.

When we train on the flat range we get into a habit during marksmanship training to put a dot on target and fire. Staying out of the sights is critical during our identification process so that we don’t put sights on target and instinctively pull the trigger if we didn’t mean to. Allow yourself the time and space to make the right decision to take life.

You’ve identified the threat during HANDS. You’ve given your brain the amount of time it needs to find the proper location for your rounds during AIM. You finished the fight and engaged the target when you SHOOT.

The reason we train this way is so that in the moment it’s the only way we know how to do it. It ensures that when we determine a threat we consciously aim our weapon so that when we shoot, we don’t miss.

This isn’t the end all be all in how you apply this. I know officers have certain verbal commands they have to give to legally be within their rights. You are the subject matter expert on that, not me. I’m sure there will be some modification between a patrol officer and SWAT, or it could just be situationally dependent. I hope you can take this and apply it to your next training event so that you are more confident and competent in your jobs.

Thanks for all you do for us, and know that it doesn’t go unnoticed. I appreciate you men and women because you put up with a lot of shit.

Expert bio pic 400x600 drew estell
Article By Drew Estell
Shooting, CQB, Consulting Solutions
SOF Veteran specializing in training shooters in rifle and pistol by giving the why and how, not just leading students through drills. Individual shooters, individual solutions.


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Outstanding article. This is almost completely absent from the civilian world, which is quite scary. So many people practice blasting away at every target they see but this is simply missing from the practice. Thank you for this information. I'll ... Read More
I'm so glad I found this article, this is almost never talked about. It's so crucial!
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@MICK1331 That's a great drill and a lot of good ways to vary it. I do something similar that I mentioned to @ABC_COOK below. I try to use progression from hands and guns, to hands/guns/badges, to hands/guns/knives with badges mixed on some of the... Read More
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@ABC_COOK I do a dril very similar to that with stencils from Patriot Stencils. You can spray over them, and repaint new threats and non threats on there each time. Start with 5 ash IPSC targets, back turned, then on buzzer turn and engage the thr... Read More
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Good stuff Drew, love how it's broken down for shooters to digest easily.
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“HAS” Like it ! Great read thank you. 🙏
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Good thing to bring up. As a civilian learning about threat assessment, it’s a good drill to practice, always looking at hands...for those of us who haven’t had the formal training you guys did. This site is a goldmine.
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HAS, I dig it. One thing I emphasize in the Hands phase is narrow to wide focal shift. Look at the hands then widen out to the whole body. The guy with the gun your Narc dude who popped in the backdoor? An off-duty dude responding to the Active Sh... Read More
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Great article. Here's a way to practice this. Go to your local Mall, Wal-Mart, or next time you are taking a trip at the Airport and visually scan everyone you pass by analyzing what is in their hands. "RH: Purse, LH: Empty, RH: Cell Phone, LH: La... Read More
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Very well explained. One of my favorite drills to do in the range is if I have a partner to bring threat assessment targets. Different targets with different items in their hands some require a shoot response and some do not. I like having a partn... Read More
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Great read man. Being in this field of work and now training our officers it has brought this to light. We have started to incorporate exactly what you are talking about. With that the flat range is for one purpose in my mind. Fundamentals. O... Read More
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Awesome article with some great, non-circulated information! Thanks!
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Great stuff! On the range where I worked at up until I upgraded my career earlier this month, we offered a Basic Pistol skills class that is taught by some arguably top-notch instructors. Now I'm not making this an ad or anything; my point is that... Read More
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good simply explained article. and another acronym to add to my archive. HAS hands aim shoot. i dig it
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Awesome read! I'm a younger male who is passionate about the sport of shooting and training for real world situations. I'm a active shooter but always trying to improve on my basic fundamental skills. After reading this i've learned a lot abou... Read More
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Top Notch article, sold and thoroughly explained. Can't wait to see the other knowledge bombs you drop. Thanks for the information.
I’ve been looking for a simple way to break down this process and you explain it that way in this article. Thanks for the guidance.