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Mastering Jim Cirillo’s Technique For Coarse-Aim Shooting

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Lethal-force events can happen in a split second, you need the capability to respond in kind. Here's how law-enforcement legend Jim Cirillo got the drop on the bad guys.

How Does Jim Cirillo's Coarse-Aim Shooting Technique Apply To Defensive Situations:

The British have a saying (or did, before the anti-hunting zealots made riding horses a heretical offense), “Horses for courses.” That is, if you want to win, you ride the correct horse for the course to be ridden. Cowboys understand this, as the smart ones would not select a Budweiser Clydesdale for a barrel-racing event.

And so it is with firearms. While there are good “do-all” firearms that can cover a lot of problems, you still want the best for the job. And you want the best technique.

That was the problem faced by Jim Cirillo, and the rest of the NYPD Stakeout Squad, when dealing with bad guys. In this sedate and safe second decade of the 21st century, it’s difficult to imagine just how hard and dangerous our cities were in the past. In 2016, NYC had a violent crime rate of 540 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 1969, the rate was 955, and by 1975 it would rise to 1,411. In the late 1960s, the armed robberies had an added problem: The armed robbers, having held up a bodega, were shooting the cashiers so there wouldn’t be witnesses.

This target represents the use of the Cirillo technique, featuring five sets of three shots, at max speed, at 5 yards. That’ll get the job done.

The Stakeout Squad was formed to deal with the problem. They would study the patterns, select a few bodegas and find or build hideouts in them. When the bad guys went to hold up the store, the Stakeout Squad would arrest them. As you would expect from armed criminals enacting violent felonies, there would be some resistance. Shootouts were common.

Now, for those of you who have not been in a bodega, the distances were not great. A bodega is a small store that handles all the usual odds and ends, and daily needs, of the patrons. In NYC, they could even offer more than just milk and bread, but they were small. Readers in the Midwest or far West, imagine the smallest party store or local mini-mart you’ve ever been in. Then, chop it in half, or even down to a third of that. Make the aisles narrow and not more than 50 feet long. That describes every NYC bodega I’ve ever been in. Stores today might be more roomy (I was last in a bodega in 1998), but in 1968 when the stakeout Squad was formed, they were narrow, small and not deep.

Seeing With Clarity

When he first started shooting people, Jim Cirillo saw his front sight clearly. So clearly, in fact, that he could see the grooves cut into it. The problem was, he couldn’t identify the bad guy or guys. He could identify them by color — “Shoot the guy with the blue sweatshirt on” — perhaps, but not more than that. When the light was good and the distance warranted it, he by all means used the sights.

But, he had to make sure he was shooting the right people. So, he developed an amalgam of a shooting technique that suited the situation, right there and then, at the close distances involved.

What he did was look at the perp (I know, first heretical act) and then bring the pistol up and push it forward. He would then keep most of his focus on the bad guy (second heretical act) and verify pistol alignment. Then he’d shoot the bad guy.

At 7 yards, the author found that the groups started to open up, and the pace slowed just a bit. But, the hits are good, and the results can be gratifying.

He was aiming by using the outline of the pistol or revolver as his sights. This method works out to a certain distance: As long as the outline of the bad guy was wider than that of the pistol, and he could not see the sides of the slide on either side (i.e. it was centered), he could count on getting a hit.

Now, let us be clear on this: It’s not “point” shooting. It’s not “instinctive” shooting. It’s warp-speed fast, coarse-aiming shooting.

You do not do this when you have to make a tight shot, say, on a bad guy holding a hostage. This is not an appropriate technique in that situation. Horses for courses, remember? In that situation, you bear down and see every line scored in your front sight blade, and then do a clean trigger press.

But, when turning the corner in a bodega and being faced with a bad guy at 20 feet who’s already holding a firearm? Cover the “A” zone with the back of your slide and start shooting.

I had a chance to talk to Jim at an industry gathering a couple of years before his untimely death. Yes, he used this technique, but it was one technique in his bag of skills. And, it worked with handguns — but not rifles or shotguns — all of which he used at one time or another.

And, he used it at close range. When the distance opened up or he had to make a tight shot, he used the sights. He was a skilled competition shooter, he knew how to hit what he was aiming at, and he did it.

Applying The Cirillo Method

To verify my memory and to get a sense of what this can be like, I hauled a 9mm pistol and some targets to the range.

When stepping back to 10 yards and employ thee Cirillo technique, the place slows enough that sights become competitive, and the group opens up enough that the results might not be so satisfactory. The cutoff distance for you will vary depending on the firearm, the ammunition and the amount of practice you put in.

The pistol was just the first 9mm hi-cap that I laid hands on — the excellent Walther PPQ M2 — and I loaded each magazine to 15 rounds. I set up three targets: one at 5 yards, one at 7 yards and one at 10 yards. The process was simple: On the beep, I’d bring the Walther up, shove it forward, get a Cirillo index on the target and fire three quick shots. Then I’d re-engage the timer and repeat until the magazine was empty. I did not record times; I simply shot as fast as I could get the index working for me.

At 5 yards, the USPSA target looks to be the size of a Buick, and the back of the Walther slide barely covers the “A” zone. However, by going back just 2 yards, the slide appears much wider against the cardboard. At 10 yards, the slide is almost as wide as the target. So, for the Walther, 10 yards is the outside limit of useful distance. Perhaps a pistol with a narrower slide would do better, but it also depends on your arm length.

The targets also told their tales. The 5-yard target had all 15 shots well inside of the “A” zone, and they were all in the upper half — the location I was focused on when the beep went off. Given the “shooting with my hair on fire” speed I was working at, that was pretty impressive.

At 7 yards, one shot of the 15 was left on the edge of the “A” zone, and two others were high right and out of it. The total of the shots looked quite good, but not nearly as good as those at 5 yards. So, at 30 feet, this is still working for us.

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At 10 yards, well … hmmm. Not only was my shooting pace markedly slower (while still being quite brisk), I had five hits on the edge of the “A” zone, and three that are outside of it. Clearly, with this pistol at 10 yards, using the sights is smart. Just on a whim, I then set up a fresh target, and timed the 10-yard runs. At that distance, my average for three-shots, and the same general group size with the Cirillo Technique, was right around 0.80 seconds. My splits were pretty pokey by competition standards — generally at 0.20 seconds — and I got the same sort of hitting percentage.

The comparison would not be entirely fair because I was warmed up, but I did the same thing again, but this time I went into competition mode and used the sights fully, and I made sure every hit was an A-zone hit. The stats? My average three-shot set was closer to 0.70, the splits were in the upper teens and every hit was an A-zone hit.

What does this prove? That practice is more important than anything else.

Practice Trumps All

I’ve practiced using the sights for a half-century now, firing well over a million rounds. You could startle me out of a deep sleep and I’d be using the sights as I came up on the target. However, the Cirillo technique does have its uses.

But make no mistake: It, too, requires practice. As I said, this is not point-shooting and this is not instinctive — there is neither such a thing, and no viability to such approaches. You have to aim, somehow, and you have to practice.

But, if you do practice this, someday you might wake to hear a bump in the night, turn the corner and find a bad guy at close range — so close that if you spend too much time refining your sight picture, he’ll take a couple of steps forward and slap your muzzle aside. Instead, cover his center with the outline of your handgun and solve the problem, sights or no sights.

The Stakeout Squad members were too good at their job. They shot so many bad guys, so often and in such a short period of time, that people noticed. And then the Squad was disbanded. That was 1973. The crime rate in New York, and everywhere else, kept rising for some time after that. However, at least there were a few bad actors who couldn’t contribute to the rise. And some of them were “retired” from their profession by use of the Cirillo technique.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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