Bang, you’re dead

  • The assailant could pull a gun, knife, ID document or cellphone out of his pocket and the trainee has no way of guessing which it will be.
  • The bullet trap, comprising compressed vulcanised rubber blocks, safely retains each round as a whole, preventing splintering and thus eliminating toxic dust.
  • Military personnel undergo standard rifle training.
  • The soft airgun looks, works and feels like the real thing to give novices an idea of what to expect when shooting live ammunition
Date:30 April 2010 Tags:, ,

High-tech shooting range makes firearm training more realistic

A sudden movement flickers at the boundary of your peripheral vision. Pirouetting, lifting and aiming in one swift, adrenaline-pumping motion, you spot the intruder – he’s pointing something at you! – and instinctively you grab the trigger.

He jerks back like a rag doll. It’s then that you realise, with a sinking heart, that his “gun” was a container of window cleaner. You have just shot an innocent person.

Unfortunate incidents involving firearms happen all the time. If it’s not some panic-stricken home owner accidentally killing a loved one after being disturbed in the dead of night, it’s an overzealous (some would argue poorly trained) member of the police.

Knowing when or when not to shoot is not a skill easily learned, especially when you consider that the decision must be made in a split-second, when your life potentially hangs in the balance.

To even the odds, high-tech shooting ranges are helping improve firearm proficiency by incorporating both laser and live fire, as well as interactive videos, to get novice shooters up to speed fast – and keep them there.

Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa is all for making things simpler – for those under his command, at any rate. Mthethwa argues that police are hamstrung by legislation that legitimises deadly force only in extreme circumstances.

In life-threatening situations, while weighing up the risks of meeting fire with fire, the forces of law and order often have come off worst.

In effect, the Minister is calling for wider licence to shoot to kill. The bad news: since he issued his call last year, several innocent people have died as a result of misguided police actions.

Marksman Trainer’s Thomas Kritzer holds a different view. He believes it’s a simple matter of training: the more proficient you are with your firearm, he reckons, the more likely you are to make the right decisions on the fly. “The spate of civilian deaths caused by faulty police judgement warrants an urgent rethink of their live fire training approach,” he says.

Marksman Trainer has been developing and producing sophisticated indoor shooting ranges for the police, security companies and military for the last 25 years. The company, working in conjunction with German-based company SST Scheubeck GmbH, has also expanded its audience to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. “The beauty of our system is that we combine the firing of live ammunition with laser simulation,” Kritzer says. “Trainees get to shoot at interactive videos rather than just static targets.”

Almost any weapon can be converted to laser simply by fitting an insert into its barrel. This makes it extremely safe for novice trainees because they can familiarise themselves with their weapons before progressing to live fire training.

The two training options – Tactical or Musketry and Simulation – use similar technology but are geared for different applications. Tactical focuses on security personnel, the police, task teams, hunters and civilians. Musketry and Simulation caters exclusively for the military. Both systems can accommodate handgun and rifle rounds up to 7,62 mm, as well as hunting rifles.

Good guy, bad guy

Basic components of a Marksman Trainer Tactical indoor range include a bullet trap, a specially coated screen (to prevent light passing through from behind), projector, speakers, infra-red camera and computer system. The bullet trap, comprising compressed vulcanised rubber blocks assembled in a pattern resembling a brick wall, safely retains the round as a whole, preventing splintering and thus eliminating toxic dust.

Between the bullet trap and the screen, infra-red lamps illuminate the void. When you shoot at the moving target projected on to the screen, infra-red light escapes through the bullet hole, where it is picked up by the hit detection unit (infra-red camera). Sophisticated software then calculates the X and Y co-ordinates of the shot to determine whether it was a hit or a miss. If you hit the assailant in a critical area – for example, the torso – he drops to the ground. However, if he shoots you first, the screen turns red and the video clip stops. That means you’re dead.

The instructor, sitting safely at the back of the range, manipulates the computer system to project different scenarios on to the screen. There are various options available in his arsenal. “The assailant could pull a gun, knife, ID document or a cellphone out of his pocket,” says Kritzer. “The trainee has no way of guessing which option it’ll be.

“Then again, he could even start talking innocently on his phone, only to surprise you by pulling out a gun later. The videos can incorporate innocent bystanders alongside assailants, so you have to stay seriously focused.”

Because the co-ordinates of each shot are captured automatically, it’s not necessary to continuously patch holes on the screen when shooting live ammo. The system can handle about 1 000 shots before this becomes necessary. The hit detection camera can pick up about 3 000 rounds a minute, so rapid fire can be accommodated. Ambient noise (think sirens), fog (smoke machines) and lighting effects can be incorporated to increase trainees’ stress levels to simulate real life. If you want to simulate a hot Karoo summer’s day, all you need do is crank up the air-con.

To make exercises progressively harder, the instructor can determine the location and size of a “hit zone”. Says Kritzer: “Your body language and choice of words when arresting a suspect can dramatically in uence how scenarios play out in real life.” If the instructor considers the trainee to be acting too indecisively, he can make the suspect retaliate… because he can.

Even bullet-proof vests are catered for. In one scenario, the weapon-wielding bad guy, wearing a vest under his clothing, slams into the wall behind him every time you shoot him in the chest. Emptying an entire magazine into him makes no difference – only when you hit him in the head does he drop and stop trying to fire back.

Whether you’re shooting live ammunition or using the laser, the system works in exactly the same way, says Kritzer. The system’s controller software comes with about 120 video clips. Each has between five to eight programmable scenarios, as well as numerous static targets for conventional target shooting. Custom movies can also be made to suit specific requirements so clients can integrate their own environments.

For example, says Kritzer, a local security company can incorporate their own cars, their staff , their typical surroundings and threats as well as innocent pedestrians

Going live

Training with the laser alone is nowhere near as realistic as shooting real bullets. For starters, there’s no satisfying loud bang or muzzle flash. Other than that, it provides distinct advantages. It keeps costs down because no ammunition is consumed. It also prevents instructors from having a heart attack every time a novice does something stupid, such as recklessly waving a “piece” around. A trainee is allowed to move on to live ammunition only when the instructors are happy with his proficiency. It’s just as practical for experienced personnel undergoing tactical training, as they are not exposing their colleagues to any risk.

In a firearm modified for laser operation, the tap of the hammer forces vibrations down the barrel, causing the laser unit to emit a 0,4 millisecond burst of light that is registered on the screen. However, because this option provides no realistic “kick”, Kritzer prefers using a soft airgun instead. These firearms – powered by compressed air – look, work and feel almost like the real thing and provide “a bit of kick” to give novices an idea of what to expect when shooting the real thing.

The trainee’s score – including total shots fi red, hits, misses, time taken between each round and total time – can be captured and printed out for accurate tracking of progress. Every exercise can be played back shot by shot to provide positive feedback to those undergoing training.

War games

Conventional mortar training methods require endless firing scenarios and hundreds of expensive live shells. Even in the most practised military environment, it takes many months for a mortar crew to become and remain proficient, which can cost taxpayers millions of rand. Simulated firing significantly reduces costs due to savings in logistics, training time and live ammunition. That's why the SA Defence Force has taken so readily to this company's musketry and simulation range (of which there are several in the country).

Unlike the tactical range, the military range uses a motorised paper screen consisting of four layers. As a shot is fired, the software detects it and freezes the target on the screen. The bullet hole then becomes visible to the shottist to provide instant feedback before automatically advancing the paper rolls to close the hole.

For understandable reasons, no live mortar rounds are fired here. Instead, modified "pipes" and dummy shells are used. The observer remains inside the range and communicates by radio with his mortar team, who set up in a remote location. Any training area can be integrated and simulated, utilising satellite imaging and actual maps. The observer's toolset includes binoculars, laser rangefinder, GPS and compass. The system also allows for real-time display of environmental factors such as wind, which can be manipulated to blow at various strengths and from different directions.

Once the observer is "in position", he works out the trajectory and elevation to the target before radioing his crew. They then set their weapon (and attach an appropriate charge to their shells) according to the observer's instructions before firing a smoke shell to determine their accuracy.

Once they've found their mark, they follow up with high explosive (HE) or white phosphorous shells. If the HE shell hits the target, the observer actually sees it explode and destroy the target on the screen. He'll even see details such as simulated wind blowing the smoke away.

Military ordnance catered for includes 40 mm automatic grenade launchers (AGLs), 106 mm recoilless anti-tank guns, RPG-7 anti-tank weapons and the 12,7 mm beltfed, rapid-fire machine gun.

*To find out more, contact Marksman Trainer on 021- 790 6339 or visit

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