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December 20, 2015: Military and police organizations are eager to get their hands on another new electronic marksmanship tool; Shootback. This is a remotely controlled (by a shooting instructor) weapon that shoots accurate (up to about nine meters) plastic bullets during kill house training. What makes Shootback so useful is that it records audio and video of each shot it takes. This is especially valuable for trainees who get to see, from the shooters perspective, the shot that got him. With a generation of troops who grew up playing first person perspective (FPS or First Person Shooter) video games, the Shootback videos look very familiar but in this case are helping the trainee learn how to survive in battles where real bullets are used.

After 2001 the military (first the Americans and then everyone else) came to believe in doing whatever it took to ensure the troops could fire their rifles, pistols and machine-guns with great accuracy. This created a growing market for products like Shootback. It had long been known to be one reason why commandos were so effective but as the U.S. switched to an all-volunteer military in the 1970s they discovered that this accuracy could be achieved, and was just as useful, for regular infantry. After 2003 it was found that giving more marksmanship training to anyone (mainly support personnel) operating in the combat zone reduced casualties and improved morale. While electronic bullets (“laser tag”) were useful, what really got troops in top shape was things like the kill house. A kill house is one in which you can use live ammo while carrying out combat training inside buildings. These days, it's more commonly called an "assault house" or "shoot house." But during World War II, when the concept was invented, they were called "kill house," and many troops still use that more descriptive, if less PC, term.

The most difficult type of training is for combat indoors. "Clearing buildings" is dangerous, chaotic and hard on the nerves. Again, very deadly for green troops. Commandos developed the "kill house" concept to provide realistic experience for that sort of thing, as even elite troops needed practice. If was soon found that this experience provided a decisive edge when facing troops without such training, or experience in fighting in buildings. When fighting indoors, everyone is unsure of who is where and up to what. Whoever moves the most decisively, and shoots the straightest, tends to win fast, and with little loss.

Kill houses can be used firing blanks, but that does not give the same training effect. Another option is using "simunition." This is special, lower velocity, ammo that will leave a welt, but not cause a serious wound if you get hit. Even commandos sometimes use simunition, but this requires special parts for their weapons and, of course, the special ammunition. Much better to use the real thing.

By 2009 the U.S. Army had created a portable "kill house" (Live Fire Virtual Targeting, or LFVT system). What's really remarkable about the army's new LFVT is that it's mainly for training infantry. Back during World War II, kill houses were developed to train commandos. You couldn't trust anyone but commandos to use live ammo, in close quarters, during training. But with devices like simunition you can use the kill house effectively that less intensively trained infantry.

Training standards for American infantry have gone up quite a lot since the 1990s. The troops are now expert enough to train regularly with live ammunition. Part of this is due to the introduction of MILES (think laser tag) gear in the 1980s. With MILES (“laser tag”), the infantry learned how to use their weapons without shooting each other with real bullets. In all earlier wars, you didn't want to be near green troops in their first battle. Such inexperienced troops tended to fire haphazardly, often hitting each other. MILES cured infantry of that habit, without using real ammo. The value of MILES was seen in the 1991 Gulf War, and that led to more training with live ammunition.

The portable LFVT uses computer generated, photorealistic images of rooms and people (both hostile and not) inside them. This is based on the training simulations developed from the "America's Army". This online game was originally developed to assist training, but was so realistic that it was modified for training troops as well. Like "America's Army," LFVT used a lot of technology taken from what is used to make movies and video games.

Permanent kill houses often still use regular ammunition. These have walls with two inches of wood, backed by steel thick enough to stop 5.56mm bullets. One thing that is still difficult to train for is the problem of shooting through walls and ceilings. Sometimes you do this to get at the enemy, but at other times, you accidentally get at your own buddies. So, there's always something to learn once you start doing the real thing. Simunition does not penetrate walls.

New tech like Shootback add another realism element to the kill house and make troops who have not been in combat a lot more likely to survive it in the future.

 


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