The Case for 3D Targets

March 7, 2013  
Categories: Assorted Ramblings

Three dimensional (3D) targets for training on the range – we’re chuffed as hell to offer today’s article by Aaron Cowan of Sage Dynamics. He’s an excellent instructor and a smart sumbitch. Give the article a read and we’re sure you’ll agree with our assessment. If you have preferred targets or drills using these sorts of training aids, please let us know in the comments section so everyone will benefit.   MD

The Case for 3D Targets

Aaron Cowan

The case for three dimension training should be self evident.  We live in a three dimensional world.  We have grown up interacting in three dimensions using depth perception, hand-eye coordination and an instinctual math to perform a multitude of tasks on a daily basis.  Yet, when it comes to firearms training, a vast majority of professional shooters are still using two dimensional training models.  Instead of training on three dimensional targets that represent, as close as possible, the threats we will face, training is conducted on two dimensional paper caricatures of the human form that are always conveniently squared off to the shooter.  Even when these targets are utilized on sophisticated ranges with pneumatic or eclectic shuttles that allow them to run side to side, the remain squared to the shooter; as if we are expected to believe that this is an accurate representation of reality.


Instead of admitting that conflict is largely unpredictable on the personal level and the actions of an individual threat when faced with lethal force are even more so, the two dimensional target dangerously reinforces the supposition that in a violent encounter our threat will stand fully erect, squared off and if he moves, it will be forward, back, or running squared-off to the left or right.  Anyone who has ever been in a violent force encounter involving firearms knows this to be almost 100% false.  Due to a natural sense of self preservation, even the most aggressive threats will do everything they can to allow incoming fire the right of way.


Now, some may ask why it matters if we train in 3-D or 2-D, of what possible advantage could it be?  Besides the fact that you will never encounter a 2-D threat, 3-D allows us to train for reality.  We are of course due some training artificialities.  No one to date has been able to produce a 3-D target that looks and behaves like a person and even if one was available, I can only imagine the price.  What I mean by reality is familiarization with shooting on the human form.  Squared off, oblique, flank, crouched, sitting, bent over; all of these positions present a different target with a different center-of-mass.  Do you know the best point of aim from the flank that is likely to produce fast incapacitation?  For those who have been introduced to and train for vital areal incapacitation, the targeting of critical organs, what would be the preferred point of aim if you are crouched or kneeling and the threat is oblique away and bent over at the waist?  Where is the point of aim to strike the upper cardiovascular area of the threat when the threat is seated and the target presents from the flank?


If these questions are not reason enough to be swayed to 3-D target training, consider that many of the commercially available 3-D targets can be set up to be hit-reactive.  For the additional cost of string and balloons, a target will do down when hit in the vital area of your choosing.  Multiple balloons contained in the head and/or thoracic cavity will require multiple hits to bring the target down.  For added realism, an instructor or shooting partner can use a length of string over the support wire to pull the target back up after it has been put down, because as with real life, just because a threat goes down does not mean it will stay down.

Now, at this point I would hope that the case for training in 3-D has been well made, though if you are still on the fence, consider the following.

On any given day we computer hundreds-to-thousands of implicit mathematical formulas to go about our lives; from reaching for a door handle to catching a thrown pen, we gauge distance, elevation, arc, speed, eppoge, acceleration, deceleration, dozens of factors are considered.  All of these are computed in near total subconscious thought.  Think of the calculations required to catch a thrown football, or to throw a baseball into the strike zone or a basketball into a hoop.  Yes, and those are just games, this is serious.  From birth we interact in 3-D, yet when it comes to training to defend our lives and the lives of our partners, fellow soldiers, Marines or loved one, we use 2-D paper that may or may not represent the basic shape of a threat…from one angle only.  We do ourselves a great disservice by not training as realistically as possible.

Will training in 3-D increase your accuracy?  While it may not increase your ability to make neat ragged holes, it will dramatically increase your ability to hit vital areas on the human form.  With minimal investment in targets, training aids and props, you can produce life-like training scenarios that will teach and strengthen use of force against the human form.  Adding clothing to the target, something as simple as pants and a shirt further adds to the realism and will serve to break dependence on artificial points of aim such as an “X” ring, because real bad guys don’t come with those.  Using 3-D targets when teaching civilians, police officers and service members, I have seen a dramatic increase in hit probability, problem solving, mechanical speed and follow-through.  If a shooter has the expectation in training that his target may come back up after being put down, he/she will keep on target instead of holstering up or going to a low ready waiting for the next string.  If a shooter has been trained to engage targets from the flank, even from an austere position like prone or supine; their likelihood to hesitate will be decreased.  Everyone says “you fight like you train,” well with three dimensional targets and a dedication to real-life tactics and realism, this statement becomes much more honest.

When choosing a 3-D target, price is a serious factor.  Due to the material and production costs they will always be more expensive than traditional paper.  I use and recommend the UTC 3-D system.  It consists of a two part construction, front and back with the option of adding arms for increased realism.  The price per target is around $2.00 and with traditional small arms fire and the occasional taping of holes, one target can sustain hundreds of rounds before needing replacement.  Balloons are obviously not very expensive and most shooters have more 550 cord than they will ever need anyway.  Clothing for targets can be bought at thrift stores, as can cheap range-safe furniture for use in more advanced drills.  All in, a small investment will provide as mu

ch realism as you can get outside of a six thousand dollar radio control robot. 

I really cannot emphasize enough the need to move away near completely from any sort of 2-D shooting for anyone training professionally or for self-defense (which I consider professional as well).  If you carry a weapon with any expectation of ever using it, train for it as realistically as possible.



Sage Dynamics can be found on-line at:

About the Author: Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor and police officer with over ten years combined experience including time as a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer.  Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including certifications from the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others.

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