USMC Pistol Qualification – Training and Related Gear

By September 20, 2018Defensive, Shooting

Editors Note

Welcome to our new contributor Aaron Sands. For background, Aaron (alias) is an active duty Marine. This is his first contribution to So let’s welcome Aaron. If you want to know Aaron’s background please take a look at his Bio Page.

In the Beginning

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At the USMC School of Infantry there is an overhead arch that reads “Every Marine a Rifleman”.  However, nowhere on base is there a sign that says “Every Marine a Pistolero”.  Wars are not fought with pistols.  A .380 caliber slug was fired into the body of Archduke Ferdinand and started the first “big war” of the 20th century. Historically military forces have never taken pistols seriously as weapons for general issue.  Shocking as it may sound, Marines who can hit a target at 500 (m) with a rifle often can’t hit a man-sized target at 15 (m) with a pistol.  Only within the past 4 years has the Marine Corps buckled down on its pistol training and created the Combat Pistol Program (CPP)  – the subject of this article.

The CPP is now standard replacing the Entry Level Pistol (ELP) qualification that the USMC used for 30 years.  Both courses were shot with the standard M9, aka the Beretta 92F 9mm.  The ELP was an odd qualification mix of the old bullseye style course with “modern” techniques.  All of the ELP was done from the “ready” position.  The ELP was mostly shot from 15 and 25 yards, with 15 of 40 rounds being at the 25 yard line.  Only a few rounds were shot at 7 yards; one speed reload was incorporated; and the old NRA bullseye target was used.  It was intended to be an interim qualification while the collective military figured out what to do with that “dern ferrin eye-talian Beretter” pistol.  With peacetime laxity in the 1990’s followed by a sudden intense jump to war in the 2000’s, the ELP would stay as the standard training course for Marines.

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Beretta 92F/M9

Not special, but valuable

Elite MARSOC, Raider and Recon units had their own special courses where they shot with God’s gun, aka the 1911 45 ACP.  Most M9s were in the hands of rearward staff NCOs and Officers – was the reasoning of the brass.  As it often happens, reality caught up their reasoning.  Mortarman and machine gunners scrounged for pistols whenever possible.  Grunts found pistols handy for clearing the very tight spaces inside Iraq.  With that, this fulfilled the eternally correct Colonel Jeff Cooper’s saying: “Pistols may not win wars, but if I’m going to war, I want one”.  After a decade of experience and cross-training with the elite units, the CPP was developed in 2013 and was disseminated Marine Corps-wide.

The CPP is shot from the holster at 7, 15 and 25 yards.  It incorporates failure drills, speed reloads and “cough” time limits.  (Note:  see scorecard below for exact times and round counts).   A perfect score is 400, fired with 40 rounds.  The gun used is almost always the M9. The occasional plain clothes units used the SIG M11 and the occasional “odd” 1911 (Personally, over multiple years and qualifications, I have only seen the M9). Nevertheless, during safety briefs, the question is always asked if anyone is using the SIG – thus I mention it here.  The holster is the much debated “slurpy holster”… sorry, the Blackhawk! Serpa.

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Blackhawk Serpa Holster used during CPP course of fire.

While I like the Serpa holster about as much as I like kale for supper, I will say I’ve never seen an accident on a Marine Corps range with this holster. That being said, in my old  FAST platoon when I constantly carried a pistol with my rifle, Safariland holsters were tactically acquired from an Air Force base as soon as possible.

Marines and the CPP

To an experienced shooter the CPP’s times and scores look easy and in truth they are.  The key to note about this qualification is that it’s intended for people who have never shot a pistol before.  Most people carrying an M9 in garrison are duty standers, armorers and Military Policeman (MPs). A majority of whom have not and will never use the pistol for serious social work.  For most Marines, pistol qualification is an administrative checkbox.

This may sound as though Marines don’t train, nor do they want to train – au contraire.  Personally I have found that most Marines enjoy shooting the pistol qualification.  A combination of getting out of work for a few days, acquiring another badge on your uniform and general Marine enthusiasm for shooting things makes pistol qualification highly desired.

Tried and true…

While widely derided by casual shooters in the military, in my eyes the Beretta M9 is actually a truly great pistol.  Its reliability is outstanding, especially since I don’t think the USMC knows what replacement recoil springs are.  Given a modicum of cleaning the guns just run.  The triggers are not great and occasionally one of those terrible Checkmate brand magazines show up in circulation.  Sights tend to become worn and faded, as well as the grip checkering having long been worn smooth.  The last pistol I was given for qualification had one white rear dot and a blacked out front – the opposite of what you want for shooting.

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Typical 1911 style of pistol used by higher speed, lower drag Marines than me.

These things are not the fault of the Corps nor of the guns – they are normal for working guns that see tens of thousands of rounds every year.  It may be a striker-fired world these days, but I would have no qualms about carrying an M9 again for social work.  Jim Marsal (in this blog) puts these guns on his short list of favorite guns, as does Bill Wilson of Wilson Combat 1911 fame.  Bill Wilson flatly stated that the Beretta 92 is the most reliable factory pistol made – even over a certain Austrian pistol.

The only real flaws I see during qualifications are learning the DA/SA trigger and awkward safety placement.  The M9 is carried “hot” with a round chambered.  So, the USMC requires the guns to be carried “safety on” for qualification.  Many new shooters, under stress, struggle with applying and taking off the slide mounted safety.

Soldier’s perspective

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Gun sight view shooting CPP

Back to the CPP…a good feature is its excellent target (see pic).  The widest part of the “A” circle is about as wide as the 9 and 10 rings on a standard bull and is worth 10 points.  The next ring is 8, then 6. The scoring rings are hidden. This discourages “gaming the game” trying to find the rings. There is no pelvic girdle (Praise Chesty) and the head is a suitably small circle encompassing only the eyes, nose and mouth.  The target is easy to score and does not encourage the speed shooting that is so common to IPSC, USPSA and IDPA.  If you miss the 10-point zone, you’re usually hitting the 6-point zone.  A few misses result in your score considerably reduced.

Another salient point for the CPP qualification is the lack of care for shooter induced errors.  If you somehow don’t make the time, fail to properly clear a malfunction or miss a reload – well, tough stuff Marine.  Alibis are given for malfunctions, but only if the Marine shows he properly cleared the malfunction during the drill.  Since coaches are from other units, there is no “pit love” from your buddies to bump you up a few points like during rifle qualification.

The stance techniques taught are the “modern” Isosceles Stance, with the Weaver Stance given a quick explanation.  Almost everyone shoots qualification using the Isosceles Stance. In actual combat and force on force training, we have learned that this is usually what most shooters revert to under stress.

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Marines shooting CPP

As far as the safety issue, I find it helpful to flag the shooting hand thumb “up” to ensure the safety stays “Off”.  Also, I always use a slide lock instead of racking the slide – the safety has a tendency to go “On” when you overhand the gun during reloads.

Just for fun

Personally I use the Isosceles Stance although for giggles in 2014 I shot my qualification using the traditional Weaver Stance.  They could have used my Weaver Stance for an advertising poster for Gunsite.  I used this stance solely to tee-off my team leader.  He had insisted no one could shoot at expert level from the Weaver Stance because “You’d never be able to control the recoil”.  Note:  Expert score is 364/400.  My score was a 386/400, but I was just a L.Cpl. back then what did I know?

Most Marines can qualify fairly easy.  As long as you hit paper with most of the shots then you will pass.  The average guy with a good head for shooting can hit 350/400 where the practiced shooters will easily hit expert.  My past qualifications for score have been a 392/400, a 386/400 and recently another 386/400.  Time to hit the range for practice….

Last thoughts

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Marine shooting CPP note the stance.

Curiously, I’ve never seen anyone clean the CPP (400/400) with the issued gear.  But with using personal gear and guns, I can’t imagine it being too hard.  If you want to try it out, I recommend this qualification in your weekly practice routine.  It does not take many rounds, targets are available online and it requires shooting from distances (sadly) considered long distance by today’s shooter.  I would definitely cut the times down, as they are extremely generous.  When done, if you shot expert, take pride in the fact that you just out shot ¾ of pistol qualified Marines.

Authors note:  As most are aware, the military recently adopted the SIG 320 as standard issue. The Army is on track to replace the M9 by 2022.  Going by history, this means the USMC will probably have the SIGs by 2026.  Oorah.

 Courses of Fire

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CPP Target

  1. ELP course of fire: all shots from low ready at standard bull’s eye target, 40 rounds total.
  • 7 yards, 1 shot in 3 seconds, 5 times
  • 7 yards, 2 shots in 5 seconds, 4 times
  • 15 yards, 3 shots, reload, 3 more in 20 seconds, 2 times
  • 25 yards, 15 shots, single action, 10 minutes
  1. CPP: all shots from the holster at CPP target, 40 rounds total.
  • 7 yards, controlled pair in 5 seconds, 3 times
  • 7 yards, failure drill in 7 seconds, twice
  • 7 yards, 2 shots, speed reload, 2 shots, in 9 seconds, once
  • 15 yards, controlled pair, 6 seconds, 6 times
  • 15 yards, 2 shots, speed reload, 2 shots more, 12 seconds, once
  • 25 yards, 8 shots, single action – I have shot this both from the ready and the holster and this seems to be the coach’s choice.

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