More than 100 law enforcement officers from across the region tested their trigger fingers and their aim in Charles County on Saturday on a course that could have come straight out of a life-size video game.
The Charles County sheriff's office held its second annual Combat Pistol Match, in which officers use live rounds to attack targets that move, swing, duck and hide. The objective of the contest is to shoot up bad-guy targets, avoid shooting a good-civilian target and poke fun at rival agencies when their shooters mess up. The winning team took home shirts, hats and bragging rights as the fastest, most accurate guns in the land--or at least in the Washington metropolitan area.
Charles County sheriff's officers finished third this year in the competition at the Sportsman's Club near Waldorf, trailing the first-place Capitol Police and the Prince George's County Police Department, which landed second. In the individual category, Drug Enforcement Administration officers took first and third places, while a Capitol Police officer ended up second.
Unlike, say, shooting cans for sport or other pure target shooting, combat pistol matches hone skills that make for better officers, said Detective Don Stahl of the Charles County sheriff's office. Stahl has been shooting for 15 years and has participated in civilian pistol matches as well as last year's officer match.
Before he runs through a course, Stahl follows a routine to ensure he is mentally prepared to enter the makeshift apartment building, shoot through some windows, use a patrol car for cover and make it out "alive."
"You have to form a strategy before you even step up to the starting point," he said. "I lay off the coffee, relax and get into a calm mind-set. There's a lot of quick thinking, and you have to get yourself prepared."
In one exercise, the contestant approaches a table in front of several targets. On the table, cards are spread out, and the officer must pick a card and shoot the corresponding target. One wrong move and a no-shoot target may be hit--the kind of accident that in real life could lead to a well-meaning officer taking an innocent life.
Elsewhere on the course, the shooter has to grab the gun of a downed officer and use it to finish that stage. At all times, range monitors carefully watch the contestants for safety violations, such as moving from target to target with a finger on the trigger.
"There's shooting on the move, shooting backwards, or you open the door and a target pops up," said Detective Ray Aportadera, an event organizer who is with the Charles County sheriff's office. "This is the wave of the future for pistol matches."
The Charles County match is the shoot-'em-up, interactive mutation of the old Practical Police Combat matches, in which officers stand in front of stationary targets and shoot from varying distances, Aportadera said. But officers wanted a more realistic match that placed them in adrenaline-heavy situations where they are judged on speed and accuracy. So Charles became the first county to adopt this style of match. Its popularity is evident in the 21 teams from 14 agencies that took part last weekend.
Many officers stressed that while the camaraderie and good-natured ribbing is the fun part, the real mission of the match is for officers to sharpen their gun savvy in order to perform more effectively and safely when they are on duty.
"People think we're learning to kill better," said one contestant, Detective Steve Potter of Charles County. "Actually, we're learning to save lives better."
CAPTION: Paul Mason, above, of the U.S. Practical Shooting Association, goes over specific shooting instructions with members of the Charles County sheriff's office pistol team. Jeff Hoge, below, also of the association, takes aim and fires his weapon during his run at the shooting range.
CAPTION: Detective Steve Potter draws his weapon on one of the shooting ranges.