Can you shoot like the original Federal Air Marshal?

From 1992 to just after the attacks on 9/11, Federal Air Marshals had one of the toughest firearms qualification standards in the world. A study from the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) later came out with a classified report during that time placing Federal Air Marshals among the top 1% of combat shooters in the world.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) began hiring approximately 4,500 new hires from October 2001 through June 2002. At the time of the original push to hire, the agency quickly realized the original qualification course of fire was too difficult and eventually dropped the requirement for a more traditional law enforcement course of fire due to the fact well over 70 percent of the academy recruits were failing.

With the date to hire the allotted new Federal Air Marshals (FAMS) by no later than June 2002, it was decided to drop the Tactical Pistol Course (TPC) from training as a pass/fail test. After some push back from the original trainers with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, they designed another course of fire and called it the Aircraft Tactical Pistol Course (ATPC) in 2003 -2004. And shockingly enough FAMs who attended phase 2 training in 2003-2004, over half could not pass it and it was decided it would no longer be a pass/fail requirement to complete phase 2 training. For over 20 years the original TPC is no longer a pass/fail test and new hires are only required to participate.

The only true requirement to graduate the academy now is to pass the practical pistol course (PPC) and this is basically a traditional law enforcement firearms test that most if not all federal law enforcement officers take while in the academy.

The TSA (Transportation Security Administration) to this day still report Air Marshals are the top shooters in federal law enforcement, and this is far from the truth.  The PPC (Practical Pistol Course) is a normal course of fire that almost all federal law enforcement officers must pass.

Image Source: USAToday.com, Robert Deutsch, “Terror in the skies: TSA's air marshals are ‘last line of defense,' but is the program really needed? May 17, 2018

What TSA and FAMs did was just move the passing score a little higher for the PPC and tossed a smoke grenade to hide the fact Air Marshals are no longer in the top 1% of combat shooters in the world like they once were. Shooting the PPC begins at the 1 ½ yard line (shooting from the hip) and ends up on the 25-yard line shooting from a barricaded position. Some kneeling is required, one-handed shooting is required as is most federal law enforcement drills required to pass the academy or training.  The passing score for the PPC was moved up to 255 out of a perfect 300.  60 rounds total are fired during the PPC, and you need a 255 score or better to pass.  I can attest the PPC is not difficult because I normally scored a perfect 300.

The original TPC (tactical pistol course) was the hardest test I have had the pleasure to participate while attending the Federal Air Marshal training right after 9/11. I was hired quickly after 9/11 and was impressed with the long and difficult training to include some of the most advanced handgun handling that I had taken. The TPC was required at the time I was in training and over half of my class failed.

What is not widely known was FLETC (federal law enforcement training center) did not have FAM instructors at the start of the mass hiring, and a private contracting company was hired for the initial hands-on firearms and aircraft tactics training. I remember the instructors wore all black uniforms, black hats and it now reminds me of the SEAL instructors from the movie GI Jane. The contracted instructors were prior SEALS, DELTA and SF veterans and they were not to mess with.

It was a pleasure to be trained from the best and it gave me the building blocks that I still use today when shooting. The instructors were still in their military mind set and had us calling suspects ‘Tangos” and conducting “security taps’ (shooting the suspect in the head to make sure they were dead) after engaging a lethal threat. The practice of conducting ‘security taps’ was quickly changed about 6 months after the initial training was completed once TSA legal found out about this tactic. All employees were forced to have a class with TSA lawyers so they could explain that ‘security taps’ were illegal.

The TPC course of fire demands speed, accuracy and advanced shooting at close range. The course of fire consists of seven stages, which must be shot “cold” with no warmup shots before the test. The course of fire is geared toward semi-automatic handguns carried by Air Marshals and at the inception of the program after 9/11 the issued firearm was the SIG Sauer 229 cambered in .357 Sig. All stages are fired at 7 yards, and the full course of fire requires only 30 rounds. The target used is the FBI-QIT-97 target, which is a bottle-shaped silhouette with an inner-scoring zone (the 5 ring).

Basically, the target looked like an old soda bottle. Five of the seven stages use a single target, while one stage uses two targets, and one uses three targets. And to make it more geared towards FAMs the TPC must be shot while drawing the weapon from concealment. Most if not all the students wore a fishing-type vest and not a sport coat or jacket due to the very hot temperatures while in training in the desert located in Artesia, New Mexico.

The original Federal Air Marshal Tactical Pistol Course the targets are scored as follows: A total of 30 rounds are fired. Hits in the inner bottle count as five points. Hits outside the inner bottle, but within the next bigger bottle count as two points. Any hits outside the inner and outer bottle are zeros. A passing score is 135 out of a maximum score of 150. The target(s) is set at 7 yards. Now the hard part is the par times and let me tell you, these par times are very fast and if you do not get the rounds down range in under the par times it is an automatic failure for the entire test.

For example, during stage one you must draw the weapon from concealment and hit the ‘bottle’ in under 1.65 seconds. Now some if not all of you reading this will say to yourself “I can do that” but remember the original FAMS who took this test had to shoot in front of the entire class alone and if they failed, they were gone. So, the stress level is high and there are no warms-ups on the day of the test and the TPC must be shot cold. You only get 3 attempts and if you did not pass you were gone. Luckily, I passed on my third and final attempt. The par times are a lot faster than you think.

I have seen many people attempt this course of fire on YouTube claiming they passed the FAM TPC but cheated because they did not use the Sig 229 nor did they use the .357 Sig round. If you have not fired the Sig .357 round all I can say, it is a hot round and it has recoil between the .40 and .45 caliber.

The Sig Sauer 229 the first trigger pull is double action so if you are going to attempt this TPC, using a Glock in 9mm with optics (red dot) is cheating. Air Marshals did not have optics (red dots) and they utilized the standard ‘iron’ sights. If you think you have what it takes to pass the ‘original’ Air Marshal Tactical Pistol Course give it a try but don’t cheat:

Stage 1

From a concealed holster, face the target at 7 yards. At the start, draw from concealment and fire one round. Holster and repeat one more time. The combined time for both strings can’t exceed 3.3 seconds. (2 rounds fired total, 2 strings)

Stage 2


From a modified high ready (weapon at your chest pointed down range), face the target and, at the start, deliver two rounds. Repeat this one more time. The combined time for both strings cannot exceed 2.7 seconds. (4 rounds total, 2 strings)

Stage 3


From modified high ready, fire six rounds into the target. This is done once, and the par time is 3 seconds.

Stage 4


With a fully loaded handgun, face the target from a modified high ready. Fire one round, reload, then fire one more round. Repeat for two strings and four rounds total. The par time for the four rounds is 6.5 second.

 Stage 5


From modified high ready, fire one round at 2 targets spaced 3 yards apart. Repeat this once for a total of four rounds in two strings. The combined par time for both strings cannot exceed 3.3 seconds.

 Stage 6


Three targets are placed 3 yards apart. The shooter starts from the holster with their back to the targets. At the start signal, turn, draw and place one round into each target. Repeat this for a total of six rounds. The shooter will be required to turn to their right for one string and to their left for the other string. The total par time for both strings cannot exceed 7 seconds.

 Stage 7


Load one round into the chamber, leaving the empty magazine in the gun. From a modified high ready, fire one round. The slide locks back, drop to one knee, conduct an emergency reload and fire one more round. Repeat for two strings. The total time cannot exceed 8 seconds.

About Jay Lacson

Jay Lacson is an NRA instructor since 2008 living in Florida. He served honorably 3 years in the US Navy and 6 years with the US Army as an MP, held the rank of Sergeant and served as a handgun instructor while assigned with the Army. Jay also served 6 years as a correctional officer and 9 years as a federal law enforcement officer with DHS. Jay has over 20 years of professional firearms experience and training to include USPSA Limited division competitive shooter, an ammunition reloader (he loves the Dillion) and a Glock armorer. "Prepare the battlefield for success."

21 Comments

  1. John H on March 19, 2024 at 8:32 am

    Where do we find such targets. Great training exercises.

    • Jay Lacson on March 19, 2024 at 4:03 pm

      I purchased them at Targets.net and the targets are the FBI-QIT-97. Good luck and have fun.

  2. Josh S on March 20, 2024 at 8:50 pm

    Wow, those par times are fast. I’m pretty positive I wouldn’t pass even with a warm up. But then, if you could pass, apparently you would be in the top 1% of combat shooters! I guess I’ve got work to do

    • Jay Lacson on March 21, 2024 at 12:01 am

      If you spend enough time practicing it isn’t impossible to make the par times. The trick is to get out of the holster very fast and pick up the front sight as fast as you can while you are pushing the weapon out to full presentation while pulling the trigger. It is not normal for most people to pull the trigger when pushing the weapon out to full presentation while picking up the front sight and as soon as your arms are all the way out the weapon discharges. Just practice and you can do it. I recommend dry firing and practicing your ‘draw stroke’ and trigger pull while at home. Good luck.

      • Clark Kent on March 21, 2024 at 12:57 am

        What if you don’t own an airplane to practice in?

        • Jay Lacson on March 21, 2024 at 3:01 pm

          The TPC is done on the range.

          Back when I was with the agency each field office had an aircraft interior inside the office for training. It was ‘cool’ to have that aircraft inside the office for training. But due to budget cuts most if not all the field offices no longer have the aircraft’s and they now must travel to the main training center located in Atlantic City for the aircraft tactics training. The good old days of being trained as an ‘operator’ is now gone and todays Air Marshals are being trained as your normal everyday federal law enforcement officer.

    • Russell Hughes on March 21, 2024 at 12:38 am

      Thank you
      Excellent article
      A perishable skill: doesn’t matter how “accurate or quick you WERE, without consistent practice.
      Again, Thank you for setting such a high bar

      • Jay Lacson on March 21, 2024 at 3:07 pm

        You are 100% correct. I was on the range today and I attempted the TPC with a friend of mine and I failed. Now keep in mind I have not fired this in over a decade so I knew there was no way I was going to pass this today. I shot it cold and it was embarrassing. So I am no longer in the top 1 percent. But I do have access to an outdoor range and will be going back 1 day a week and will keep training. I feel in a few weeks I should be able to pass it.

        I am actually making a video of my progress on my YouTube channel.

  3. Edd Allen on March 21, 2024 at 9:30 am

    Great informative article. Can you tell us the FAM issue weapon now and is a dot included?

    • Jay Lacson on March 21, 2024 at 2:51 pm

      I have been out of the agency for some time now but a good friend of mine informed me they no longer carry the Sig 229 chambered in .357 Sig. They now carry Glock and I think it’s the model 19 9mm. My guess is the agency went away from the Sig Sauer due to a kick back scandal with a prior Air Marshal director (Robert Bray) and a employee (Daniel Poulos) who was getting Sig firearms at a huge discount and then selling them for a profit. I also believe new employees just couldn’t handle the recoil for the Sig .357 round and decided on the 9mm. Last time I spoke to a FAM they do not have optics (red dots).

  4. Chuck H. on March 25, 2024 at 1:01 pm

    This is a great article. Sadly I would hate to have to rely on the current standard of training for air Marshall’s today! I don’t think that they should have changed the training. Being that planes are tight quarters and the cost of a failed or misplaced shot will have devastating consequences it should have remained the same. The only thing that they should have changed is the weapon and caliber. The Delta Force still use the 1911 in .45 to clear hijacked planes when they get on it. There are several good reasons why they haven’t changed that. That’s just my thoughts on it though. Thanks for the information!

    • Jay Lacson on March 26, 2024 at 1:51 pm

      The old days of the Air Marshals being trained as ‘operators’ are long gone. The agency currently has gone away of the old training of flying missions 4 days with 1 full day of training weekly. The day of training started on the gun range from 0730 – 1100, lunch, then in the mat room (hands on), gym, pistol judgment machine (smokeless range) and simunitions on the aircraft. It was the only day I looked forward to was training. I mean come on, what agency is shooting weekly, and it was awesome. Fast forward to today and now they train only 2-3 days a quarter and they must fly to the training center located in Atlantic City for this. Todays Air Marshals are now just smoke and mirrors and I scratch my head why they changed the training tempo.

  5. David Peterson on April 1, 2024 at 4:20 am

    The P229 is a great gun for every use imagined. I’m surprised the Air Marshalls would use the 357 SIG with its very high pass through potential and the chance of collateral damage?

    • Jay Lacson on April 2, 2024 at 6:01 am

      The reason why the Air Marshals were using the .357 Sig round was because of the retired Secret Service agents who were brought in for the initial ramp up of the agency after 9/11. They were all idiots to say the least and destroyed the original idea of the Air Marshal program. The 1st director was a retired SS agent named Thomas Quinn and he was an idiot. He brought all his background as a SS agent to the Air Marshals and that was a bad thing. We had to wear suits, have military haircuts, had to shave and basically we looked like secret service agents and this totally defeated the purpose of being under cover on a commercial aircraft. Thomas Quinn was a full fledged A hole and he did not last long. Once TSA fired his butt the new director changed the dress policy and understood that the air marshals were undercover and had to blend in.

  6. BillyBob Texas on April 2, 2024 at 9:08 am

    After 9/11, they started the Federal FlightDeck Officer FFDO program, training and arming US commercial airline pilots to carry H&K USP .40 Compacts. Lotsa things have changed since then, but the initial training required a week at FLETC in Artesia or Glynco. We were Federal Law Enforcement Officers…..but our ‘jurisdiction’ was only the ~20 sq ft of the Cockpit of our aircraft. We were specifically reminded we were NOT empowered LEO outside the cockpit….but we did have authority to ‘STOP THE THREAT’ to any intrusions to our Cockpits. Therefore, our training was predicated on VERY close in shooting, starting at 1.5 yds. Actually, any defense would be literally at point blank range. Always Undercover. No passengers would ever know if either or both pilots were armed. We ‘armed up’ in the cockpit AFTER the cockpit door was closed. Great program. Good training for what we would be expected to do…. biggest threat to us would have been so close to The Threat that the .40 might be out of battery in a tussle. ‘STOP THE THREAT Quickly!’ The Program has evolved- but as far as I know…still in effect. Like our FAM’s, the actual numbers of FFDO’s is classified- and on which flights???? Don’t mess with the Cockpit or you may well be looking down the barrel of a couple of whatever brand they are now using…..

    • Jay Lacson on April 2, 2024 at 8:22 pm

      No disrespect to the FFDO program but to me it’s just a fancy weapons permit. The reason why the FFDO program was given that super small jurisdiction (inside the cockpit) was so the FFDO’s could carry the issued weapon in a bag (not on the person concealed in a holster) to and from work within the United States. Again no disrespect to the FFDO’s but they have absolutely no law enforcement authority outside the cockpit.

      You would be shocked on how many FFDO’s I caught carrying the weapon when they were not permitted to. One American Eagle pilot had his weapon with him in FFL (Fort Lauderdale) airport and he was on vacation with his wife. He stood out to me because he was wearing 5-11 pants and at 1st I thought he was an off duty LEO traveling. It wasn’t until I did a face to face with him in the terminal when I asked him if he was working or deadheading to work and was shocked when he said he was on vacation. I was like NO! So I did my job and his gun was placed in his checked on baggage, he was pissed off at me and once we landed in Charlotte (US Air) the feds were waiting for him at the gate and boy if his eyes could of killed. A few weeks passed and I caught another pilot doing the same thing. But for the most part 99% of the FFDO’s were professional and great people and I respected them for the skill they had flying the aircraft due to the fact my skills of flying a Cessna 172SP was lacking.

  7. Robert Liken on April 2, 2024 at 12:09 pm

    Awesome article. Refreshingly honest and authentic.

  8. Mike in Charlotte on April 2, 2024 at 12:16 pm

    Last year as a practice, I set up the Air Marshall test. Even the master class shooter couldn’t pass the test. The par times are very difficult even with practice. Props to all that can pass it.

    • Jay Lacson on April 3, 2024 at 9:39 am

      Don’t feel bad. I tried it a few weeks ago and failed. I have not attempted the TPC test in well over a decade when I gave it try. Oh well, I guess I am just old.

  9. Danny C. on April 2, 2024 at 7:33 pm

    Hello Jay, good article and pretty much spot on. I happen to be one of those “contractors” who was brought in for the firearms training from the very beginning. On 09/17 my group drove from Florida as we were from the (ATAP) Anti Terrorist Assistance Program out of Baton Rouge LA. working under the US State Department. But we were a mixture a LEO and SF guys. We were in Atlantic City until close to the end of December, qualifying transferring in federal officers from all over the US. into the Air Marshall program, and yes it was a mess trying to get them pass the Air Marshall’s course. They finally stopped and used the regular PPC course. After Xmas, I then went to FLETC west in New Mexico and help start the firearms program. After the very first class, I returned to LEO work for my 2nd retirement, now in my 37th year in Law Enforcement, here in Central Fla. Also. I too am a competition shooter. Take care.

    • Jay Lacson on April 3, 2024 at 9:37 am

      WOW. I live down the street from you in central Florida.

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