A Little Pain, a Lot of Gain: Force-on-Force Personal Defense Training for Civilians


It’s not every day that you get a chance to practice self-defense tactics against opponents who actually shoot back, especially as a civilian. If you get the chance to do it through force-on-force training, grab it. I’ve been training everyday people how to use firearms safely and effectively for nearly twenty years now. I’ve taken coursework for even longer.

I’ve been through dozens of schools and classes in my time. The force-on-force coursework I’ve completed has consistently proven among the most useful, enjoyable – and easily most memorable. My fellow instructors all feel the same and they too rave over their experiences at FoF courses. Today, through our training team GSL Defense Training, we’re paying it forward to other civilians (and a few law enforcement officers) in America’s heartland.

This type of training has been around for a couple of decades or more for law enforcement and the military, especially with the advent of Simunitions marking cartridges. Simunitions-modified guns fire a little paint-filed capsule which hurts like the dickens when you get hit with one. You get to feel the sharp pain on impact, and a lingering ache when the adrenaline wears off. Then you’ll have a visible reminder for a couple of more weeks. This is why masks, throat and groin protection are pretty much mandatory for Sims training.

Why do people submit themselves to this?

Because they see for themselves the value of the training right away.

When the “bad guys” are able to shoot back, it leads to significant physiological reactions among the training participants, “encouraging” them to take the training seriously and to use good tactics. Plus, real-life adversaries don’t stand still.

Participants experience first hand how fear and adrenaline degrade fine motor skills.    Couple that with most times at close range, the “good guys” don’t use their sights, and students see first-hand how their own accuracy and performance degrades. Through this training, students learn now to manage fight-or-flight responses in their bodies, giving themselves some degree of stress inoculation to help them better navigate future real-life deadly-force confrontations.

It’s not surprising that researchers have applied the scientific method and documented this effectiveness of FoF exercises as well. In “Force-on-Force Handgun Practice:  An Intra-Individual Exploration of Stress Effects, Biomarker Regulation, and Behavioral Changes“, scientists found:

Results: Compared with the standard cardboard practice condition, FoF exposure caused significant increases in anticipatory distress, subjective stress, and sAA secretion. Furthermore, participants’ first encounter with FoF practice (vs. cardboard practice) substantially degraded their shooting performance and had a significant positive impact on the earnestness with which they approached their mission during the workshop.

Conclusion: FoF practice is an effective training tool for armed officers because it simulates a realistic work environment by increasing task-specific stress such that it affects important outcomes of professional performance and leads to desirable behavioral changes during training.

Application: Potential applications of this research include the introduction of biomarker assessments in human factors research and the design, based on reality-based practice, of effective training procedures for high-reliability professionals.

Force Science Institution wrote at Police One:

…FoF handgun practice is “a potent training tool to prepare armed officers for performance in a stressful real-life environment.”

“This study,” says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, “provides reassuring support for progressive trainers who are already engaged in reality-based instruction and should also prove valuable to those who are trying to persuade their agencies to upgrade and modernize outmoded firearms programs.”

As I mentioned above, it’s really good stuff and just as it is a potent training tool for cops, it’s very much the same for civilians as well.

Sadly, it’s still relatively rare for civilians to find this training, but it’s growing and I’ll tell you why: because it is incredibly effective even utilizing Airsoft “guns”.

Yeah, I know. “Airsoft?” you ask. “Aren’t those like kids’ toys?”

They aren’t all like what you find at your local Walmart.

Make no mistake, while safer, more affordable and (somewhat) less powerful, there’s still plenty of pain penalty and realism with certain Airsoft guns. Some, especially the CO2 guns, fire those little plastic BBs out at 500fps or more, which is faster than the Sims handgun rounds. Because they weigh about a quarter of a gram, there’s not much energy, but there’s more than enough to make a welt.  Even models firing at 400-450fps will get your attention through a shirt or jeans, increasing the realism and retaining much of the physiological aspects of Simunitions-type training.

Then there’s the pump shotguns that fire three pellets at once, tripling that pain penalty.  Shotguns are fearsome for a reason. The full-auto Airsoft guns, while fun, don’t really have an application for civilian training.

Even better, you can get Airsoft guns licensed to look just like most common self-defense pistols.  These guns fit and deploy from holsters for real guns, just like the Sims guns do, so classes can be run from concealment to increase realism for civilians who will almost always be carrying concealed, not in the open.

I got my formal introduction to force-on-force training with Black Flag Firearms Training in Chicago suburbs.  I have enjoyed training with some others, including Craig Douglas (aka Southnarc) and Frank Sharpe and his Fortress Defense Consultants.

While “square range” training helps you build fundamentals, nothing prepares you for managing that physiological response like FoF.

Yes, you can do some good stuff with square-range training at all levels to get the adrenaline going a little.  You can help students lose fine motor skills and get auditory exclusion.  You can get their heart rates up, but at the end of the day, when they make a mistake, it’s only their ego that gets bruised.  When adversaries can shoot back with “marking rounds” or Airsoft pellets, and move around as well, there’s a huge physiological fear response, especially the first few times.  And when you screw up, it’s more than your ego that gets bruised.

For more details on force-on-force is all about, Jim Barrett wrote a couple of very good and detailed articles here at TTAG back in 2013.

Intro to Force-On-Force Training, Part 1: Technology
Intro to Force-On-Force Training, Part 2: The Practice

Things we see in teaching Force-on-Force

As I mentioned, my training team runs our own force-on-force training for civilians called Critical Threat Management.

We have a solid pool of instructors to “referee” the scenarios and help students learn from their mistakes.  We have friends, former students and other volunteers to act as role-players and aggressors for us.  They do this for the free lunch and for the enjoyment of helping pass on empowerment and knowledge to other good people to help keep them and their families safe.

We teach at the wonderful Timber Pointe Outdoor Center, an Easter Seals camp on Lake Bloomington in Hudson, Illinois. It’s primarily a camp for disabled young people, and outside of their kids’ summer camping season, we rent a section of the camp that’s “ours” for the training weekend. The cabins, trails, open spaces and whatnot make an excellent location where we can set up multiple scenarios and run them almost like a golf course for the students, without the students seeing what awaits them at other stations.

Our role-players are trained in the pre-incident behaviors and pre-violence body language cues we want them to exhibit.  Our repeat role-players are movie-quality bad guys, knowing what to do and how to do it.  Others are just in the scenes to clutter the it up as “innocents”.   I’ve got to tell you, hearing a pre-teen or teen girl screaming in abject fear gets the adrenaline going, especially for guys.  It’s almost a primal response.

Speaking of scenarios, realistic scenarios adopted from everyday life are a critical ingredient to a great class. We’ve stolen some from others, and created others from news headlines. All are relevant to the civilian concealed carrier and even cops who have taken the course praise us for them. We know they are effective when we see physical reactions from the students. We weren’t ready for people to break down crying on occasion. The plot-lines can hit a little too close to real life experiences for some past victims, taking them to places they would rather not revisit.

As the name of the class suggests, the class is more about identifying trouble and avoiding it than it is about shooting. We do dedicate time Sunday morning to live fire before sanitizing everyone of firearms, blades and other weapons before resuming more scenarios.  We spend hours lecturing on identifying bad guy behaviors and body language, tactics and techniques for dealing with bad guys including de-escalation and mindset. Our Krav Maga instructor comes in and teaches segments on empty-handed combatives, weapon retention, and how to defeat chokes and grabs as an added bonus.

It’s a busy weekend, and frankly, we’ve learned a lot watching the students navigate these scenarios.

Here are some things we’ve seen over the last two years.

Technique degrades, sometimes dramatically, under stressful situations

Even people with training from multiple classes from regional and nationally-known schools sometimes see big flaws appear in their technique when they begin experiencing that fear response for the first time.

Force-on-Force training exposes flaws in techniques, even for experienced shooters

And others with only a modicum of training?

Force-on-Force training reveals flaws in weapons handling

Even when there’s no danger of getting shot, under a little pressure, people with previous training still exhibit difficulties and sometimes serious failures.

Force-on-Force training reveals much

Force-on-Force training errors appear

Sometimes when you try to help them overcome some of these issues, the students deny doing these things until you show them the photos and then they are like, “Oh my god!”  They were so target focused on the threat that they were completely oblivious to their mistakes.  It shows them the importance of good fundamentals.

Learning about the reactionary gap and tactics

People vastly underestimate how long it takes for a bad-guy to close on them.  Sometimes it’s a case of a bad-guy turning on them and attacking.  Other times it’s just a complete underestimation of the time it takes to draw from concealment.

Force-on-Force training reactionary gap

Force-on-Force training reactionary gapHe’s not going to make it in time… and he’s not even retreating. But he might be starting to put his finger on the trigger a little early.

CriticalThreat2Don’t let them flank you and get close, otherwise it becomes a struggle for the gun.

GSLDT1Sometimes it’s best not to engage, especially in a crowded location.  What’s more, our good guy didn’t see her partner in the back who promptly shot him DRT – dead right there.

A growth of confidence

As we watch people learn how to identify and better manage threats, we see their confidence grow dramatically.

Force-on-Force training escorting a loved oneEscorting a loved one out of danger.

Communicate before shooting!Communicating! Get back!

Force-on-Force training protecting an innocentDefending innocent life from an attacker.

Krav Maga techniquesDeveloping empty-hand skills, including how to defeat a choke.

GSLDefenseTrainingCTM8The Nike defense works great in many cases.

Force-on-Force training situational awarenessMaintaining situational awareness even when helping someone.

Force-on-Force training domestic violenceIn rare cases, it’s justifiable to shoot a bad guy in the back. And it can be good tactics.

People shining

The best part of teaching is watching students do well as they build on what they know in handling situations. By the end of the second day, the improvement from early day one is dramatic.

Force-on-Force training bravery

This woman wasn’t going to let a madman set a little girl on fire to burn the demons out of her, rushing to close the distance and stop the threat.

Force-on-Force training car prowlersMaybe she’ll just stay inside and call police instead of making contact with a suspicious pair casing out her car as she gets ready to leave work.

Force-on-Force training maintain reactionary gapAssertiveness in maintaining that reactionary gap.

A good force-on-force class will do wonders for how well you handle the physiological response to “fight-or-flight”.

A better force-on-force class will help you identify potential threats and manage them so you don’t need to escalate to that point though.

But even a so-so force-on-force class will help you learn where you need more practice and skills building, and at the same time help acclimate you to the stress and how to manage the fear that comes with a critical incident.

Again, if you have a chance to take force-on-force training as a civilian, take it!

And if you’re in law enforcement and your department isn’t offering it, get on them.  If they still won’t do it, seek it out on your own.  It’ll make you a better cop and help keep you safer at work and off duty.

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