A Marine trains in the new Combat Pistol Program on a range aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. The Corps is making pistol quals more relevant to what Marines may face in combat. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — The Marine Corps is introducing a new pistol qualification program featuring tougher courses of fire more closely tied to combat scenarios, less time to shoot and a uniquely designed, human-shaped target.
The Combat Pistol Program was approved by Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, deputy commandant for combat development and integration. It will replace the Entry Level Pistol Program across the Corps by fall 2014, marking the first significant change to pistol qualifications since adoption of the 9mm M9 service pistol in the 1980s.
The new program already is in use by students at The Basic School and other personnel undergoing pistol quals here at Quantico, and will be implemented in coming months at other bases and stations for officers and enlisted personnel who must demonstrate their proficiency with a sidearm each year. Tens of thousands of Marines carry sidearms, particularly staff noncommissioned officers, officers and personnel in select military occupational specialties, such as military policemen and Light Armored Vehicle crewman.
The old program taught Marines how to shoot accurately, but it did not sufficiently test whether they could do so under pressure, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Christian Wade, a gunner at Weapons Training Battalion involved in the new program's development. To address that, CPP will introduce significantly stiffer time limits on individual training blocks within the new 200-round course of fire and force Marines to draw from newly issued polymer holsters in some training blocks.
In one stage of ELP Program, Marines were given 10 minutes to work through 15 shots at 25 yards. The new CPP training blocks require personnel to work through stages at seven, 15 and 25 yards, going through 40 rounds in a series of increments timed at between five and 12 seconds.
"It's more demanding than the old course was because the Marine now has a realistic scenario to go through," Wade said. "He has to come out of the holster with a little bit of stress — usually self-imposed — and put the shot where it counts."
Development of the new program took years. Weapons Training Battalion, which develops the Corps' marksmanship doctrine, began searching for ways to fine-tune pistol marksmanship at least as far back as 2008, one of the unit's previous commanders, Col. William Costantini, told Marine Corps Times in 2010. At the time, a pilot program was launched to assess how it'd work, with at least 130 Marines in the Washington area, ranging in rank from lance corporal to lieutenant colonel, qualifying at the time on an experimental two-table course.
The new program evolved several times before it was cleared hot to be rolled out across the Corps, Marine officials said. At one point, Weapons Training Battalion researched the possibility of moving from ELP — which calls for Marines to fire 200 rounds over five days — to a program that would have included a 300-round course of fire. Marine officials eventually nixed that, citing concerns about whether the Corps could supply that much additional ammunition across the service.
‘Fight with a pistol'
A key element of the new program is its emphasis on assessing threats in between shooting, said Sgt. Daniel Limauge, a chief combat marksmanship trainer at Quantico. After each drill, Marines are required to take another look at the target they just engaged, check on the functionality of their weapon and make sure they could keep firing if required.
"I can do a chamber check, making sure my pistol has a round chambered and has no malfunction or stoppage," Limauge said. "The search and assess and checking the condition of your pistol is an important part of CPP because it gets away from the strict marksmanship of just understanding how to fire a pistol accurately. It gets you to start understanding how to fight with a pistol."
Second Lt. William Keller, a prior-enlisted gunnery sergeant who recently became an officer, said that compared with ELP, the new course has much more application in hostile situations. As an enlisted military policeman, he spent a lot of time training with the pistol and found the old course of fire simplistic.
"We did some reloads, but it wasn't really anything tactical," he said after working through the new program in December. "Now we're drawing from a holster, or employing techniques to actually conduct threat assessment. When Marines are going downrange, they can understand ‘If two to the chest doesn't work, go for that fail-safe" shot to the head.
Marine officials are still discussing the specifics for introducing CPP across the fleet. The timeline will depend in part on how quickly marksmanship coaches can be trained to teach the new program, Wade said. At commands where CPP hasn't yet been introduced, ELP will still be considered valid.
Combat marksmanship trainers will be instructed using a "train the trainer" approach and then bring what they've learned back to their units, Wade said. Many Marine marksmanship coaches in units outside the combat arms community will eventually receive it through updates in the Corps' Combat Marksmanship Trainer Course. The 15-day program includes classroom instruction and practical application in both pistol and rifle marksmanship.
"If you're a V-22 Osprey mechanic and you're going to be the coach for your unit, you're going to go to the CMC course and you're going to receive the Combat Pistol Program training," Wade said. "We're going to figure out a way to retrofit the existing coaches we have right now with CPP."
New rifle target coming?
The pistol program will be introduced along with a gray, lifelike target resembling a human torso — complete with a face and pectoral muscles. It was designed to encourage Marines to prepare for combat, rather than aiming at the center of a bull's-eye. It's named the MPMS-1, after the Marksmanship Program Management Section at Weapons Training Battalion that oversaw its development.
The 20-inch-wide, 40-inch-tall target was developed with assistance from ballistics experts and physiologists to determine which target areas should be priorities. It's already in use at Quantico, where new second lieutenants and others learn marksmanship.
Limauge, a trained scout sniper and competitive shooter, said the new target pushes Marines to aim for the head, chest and other critical areas of the body, rather than focusing too finely on a bull's-eye.
"What happens with shooters is they have a tendency to get sucked into that black circle," Limauge said. "With these targets, you're almost forced to aim center mass on what would be a human target."
The Corps will assess this year whether the new target also should be adopted in rifle quals, said Col. Glenn Guenther, commanding officer of Weapons Training Battalion. Depending on the training block, Marines are required to aim at both the target's chest and head to maximize points.
"We're imprinting on these young men and women what they're going to carry forward with them when they go to combat," Guenther said of the new target. "The thinking is that the earlier we can do this, the more effective we can be at training."
Weapons Training Battalion also plans to meet in the future with representatives from the division and force reconnaissance communities and Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command to develop additional tables for the new pistol program, Wade said. They'll focus primarily on advanced fighting skills those elite forces teach and need to know.