Situational Stress and Shooting Accuracy For Police

The biology of stress can affect your pistol accuracy, but there is a way to condition yourself for the stresses of violent situations.

Going to the range and shooting a firearm while completely un-fatigued is the normal approach. Aiming at a target with a normal heart rate, relaxed mind, and ample time to steady the weapon gives you the best chance of hitting the target.

But put yourself in the place of a real-life law enforcement officer. Enforcing the law to protect citizens usually involves an uncontrolled environment. The officer will experience a high heart rate, stressed mind, and limited time to steady the firearm to make an accurate shot.

The Dynamic of Real Life

In most real-life violent situations the non-law-abiding person has the upper hand and the law enforcer needs to adapt. Both mental and physical factors need consideration to neutralize the lawbreaker. The officer needs to deduce the situation and then process with the appropriate strategy to effectively counter the criminal’s. In other words, law enforcement officers must be able to take control under varied circumstances to adapt to the life-threatening actions they may be subject to.

There are mental and physical stresses for an officer to resolve before using force. The goal should be to better deal with the situation by easing the tensions of the law-breaker to reduce their threat. The law enforcer can attempt this through verbal communication. If that is not effective, physical actions may need to be taken. The lawbreaker needs to understand surrendering should occur and abstaining from further actions will save not only their life, but potentially others as well.

“[I]mproved physical conditioning can result in more accurate pistol shooting when a law enforcement officer is stressed.”

If firearm force is required to subdue a non-compliant person, shooting accuracy becomes an issue when the law enforcer is experiencing physical fatigue. High heart rate, heavy breathing, and mental stress make it difficult to precisely aim. Common sense dictates the better an officer’s physical conditioning, the better chance he or she has of shooting more accurately while under duress.

A Study of Conditioning and Shooting Accuracy

A 2015 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research attempted to emulate a real-life situation involving law-breakers and law enforcers in regards to tactical pistol shooting. The study used 28 healthy subjects using semi-automatic pistols of 9mm, .40, or .45 calibers, fired at seven, ten, and twenty yards. Various body positions (standing, kneeling, and behind cover) and several quick tactical moves were also implemented.

The intent of the study was to evaluate changes in heart rate variability during a shooting competition. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the summation of regulatory methods in your autonomic nervous system (ANS).

police, firearms

The ANS consists of the sympathetic and parasympathic systems. The sympathetic nervous system regulates activities such things as heart rate, the release of sugar from the liver to the blood stream, and other considered “fight-or-flight” responses (regarding potential danger).

The parasympathetic nervous system activates innocuous functions such as saliva secretion or stomach digestive enzymes.

HRV can be affected by internal changes resulting from short- or long-term stress and the surrounding environment. In short, your heart rate can go up or down depending on the situation you are facing.

In this study, the HRV factors measured at rest and during the competition included:

  • Inter-beat interval (IBI) frequency: The IBI is the time between heartbeats and is measured in milliseconds. It can be generated at either a high or low frequency. High frequency ranges from 0.15 to 0.40 Hertz (units of frequency). High frequency has been found to decrease in conditions where short-term pressure and an elevated state of anxiety exist. In such cases, low frequency (0.04 to 0.15 Hertz) is just the opposite; it increases.
  • Low frequency-to-high frequency ratio: A greater LF/HF ratio suggests sympathetic dominance. A lower LF/HF ratio suggests parasympathetic dominance.
  • Total power: This was also measured during the shooting competition relative to HRV in the frequency domain. The length of IBI intervals that occurred along LF and HF ranges is totaled as “power” at those frequencies. The sum of all the amplitudes on the frequency scale (LF + HF = TP) is used universally as a measure of HRV. The greater the TP, then the greater HRV. A lesser TP means a lesser HRV.
  • Time to completion and inaccurate shots: These were both documented and combined to form a match score. A lower total indicated a better shooting performance.

“The goal should be to better deal with the situation by easing the tensions of the law-breaker to reduce their threat.”

Results of the study:

  • Average total time was 1:36
  • Average inaccurate shots fired totaled 78
  • Average match score was 175.3 ± 39.8
  • Shooting decreased low frequency and inter-beat interval frequency (i.e., increased the heart rate)
  • Changes in high frequency, low frequency, and total power were not dependent on changes in inter-beat interval frequency
  • Total time correlated significantly to shooting inter-beat interval frequency
  • IS correlated significantly to changes in total power and low frequency
  • Match score correlated significantly to changes in inter-beat interval frequency, high frequency, and total power
  • Those with a greater decrease in inter-beat interval frequency performed better by completing the match in less time
  • Shooters with less change in the stress-related measures of low frequency, high frequency, and total power performed better due to improved accuracy


The Practical Applications of This Study

Overall, HRV sympathetic responses correlated to shooting performance. Thus, they can be effective in assessing shooting a pistol under physical and mental stress, and improved physical conditioning can result in more accurate pistol shooting when a law enforcement officer is stressed.

Given all this, it would be prudent for law enforcement officers to practice shooting drills when fatigued. Perform short-term, high-effort runs and drills (i.e., :10 to :30 intervals) then practice shooting accuracy. Replicate real-life situations such as getting out of a car, running for cover, getting into position, and then shooting a pistol. If you do this will your fellow officers, record each officer’s shooting accuracy in a rested state and following exertion. Re-test periodically to track progression.

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1. Thompson, A., et al. “Autonomic Response to Tactical Pistol Performance Measured by Heart Rate Variability.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (April 2015, 29: 4) 926-933.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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