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The new models in firearms training

By Ralph Mroz
Director of Training
Police Officers Safety Association

Those of you who’ve been following the issues in firearms tactics and training over the last decade will by now have noticed something significant. There’s been what management theorists call a “sea change” in thinking about how we use handguns in actual encounters and how we train people to survive them. This revolution in thought and approach is now a fait accompli-at least as far as the cognoscenti go.

Now the real work begins-getting this information disseminated and put into action by the legions of trainers and operators everywhere. This is no small task…and indeed, not one that’s certain to succeed.

What is this sea change in thinking and understanding to which I refer? It is essentially three-fold.

First, that our central nervous systems undergo significant changes during most life-threatening encounters, and that our performance is significantly degraded as a result. Second, that the time frames involved in real-life violent encounters are so much shorter than the time frames employed in formulating responses to them that many of those responses are null and void. Third, that practical responses to deadly assaults can only be achieved by realistic force-on-force training.

Performance Under Stress

The first-the degradation of performance under stress-is a phenomena that has been well known for a century in scientific circles, and for as long as man has been on this planet otherwise. Soldiers, students of combat, and researchers formulated the “fight or flight” response decades ago, and delineated its effects: tunnel vision, threat focus, auditory exclusion, loss of fine motor skill, a distorted sense of time and distance, and so on.

This knowledge was pretty much confined to scientific circles and combat war veterans for a long time, however. The great “revolution’ in so-called combat shooting that occurred after WWII lead us, in fact, in the opposite direction-to technique dependent on sight focus, fine motor skill and unnatural physical movement. So sexy was its visual result when demonstrated on a non-threatening range, however, that it took on the trappings and substance of a cult religion.

Massad Ayoob was a lone voice in the wilderness in the 70s, trying to re-focus us on the reality imposed by our biochemistry and cognitive structure. He called his approach “Stressfire”, and it became harder and harder to argue against its factual basis during the 80s and 90s.

Then in the 90s a great deal of research and meta-research again led us back to the truth of our “fight or flight” response during the encounters for which we purchase arms and train with them-and this time, the scientific and field evidence was overwhelming.

Today we understand the effects of sympathetic nervous system over-ride, and there is no debate anymore in educated and/or experienced circles about the necessity of basing our training around it. Trainers such as Lou Chiodo in California and Mike Conti of the Massachusetts State Police are now leading the way in practical, results-orientated training for life-and-death encounters.

The debate is over. The hard work of training begins.

Compressed Time and Short Distance

Likewise with the second element mentioned above-that of the extremely short time frames of violent encounters. This fact wouldn’t be so important except that most deadly encounters happen at less than five feet! Not five yards, but at nearly touching distance!

For far too long the shooting community has deluded itself into believing that a deadly force assault should always be met with a deadly force option-to wit, a firearm. The fact that it is often simply impossible to access and operate a firearm when attacked with focused deadly intent at five feet was a fact entirely glossed over, with some pretty ridiculous techniques passed off for that purpose when pressed.

Firearms trainers simply didn’t know non-gun responses, and didn’t bother to test their armchair theories at full speed and full force. (A video of mine: Extreme Close-Quarters Shooting from Paladin Press, explored this issue in depth.) We’re over that now, as far as I can tell, and the educated in the firearms training community now preach the necessity of empty-hand skills for such close encounters.

A true integrated use of force approach is now regarded as essential. But the word has yet to widely get out.

Realistic Training

Likewise also with the third element-realistic training. I have written a whole book on the subject (Defensive Shooting for Real-Life Encounters from Paladin Press) so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say that you can only develop realistic, stress-based workable responses to deadly force assaults by practicing them full speed, full force, and full stress against a moving, thinking human being.

Airsoft technology and FIST suits make this entirely possible, and well within the reach of anyone. There is now a cadre of knowledgeable instructors out there doing exactly this kind of training. If your instructor isn’t, you have to ask yourself, “Why?”

Answer: either he or she doesn’t understand the problem (therefore demonstrating stupidity) or is too embarrassed to put their teachings to a real test (thus admitting incompetence and deceit.)

There is no question anymore that realistic force-on-force training is absolutely necessary. Making it happen is the issue.

Meet the New Boss?

Remember the line in the Who song: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?” Let’s hope it’s not the case here. The issues discussed above are now well understood and agreed on by knowledgeable people in the field. But that doesn’t mean that that knowledge will wind up in the minds and skill repertoire of the average student. Cultural barriers to change-even demonstrably beneficial change-are often too great for the truth of a new way to overcome. In sports, in business, in health, in relationships, in politics, and in personal development we see everywhere the continuation of old, outdated, dysfunctional and discredited behaviors. Will that be the case in firearms training? I hope not.

The revolution in handgun training is over-now the real work begins.

Validating Technique through Force on Force Training- A BAD Idea

One of the methods now coming into widespread use to accomplish the training we need is force-on-force training. And no one has been a more vocal proponent of force on force training over the last several years than I have. I, and many others, have correctly pointed out that static range training is useful for nothing more than developing basic marksmanship and gun handling skills. We have proclaimed to anyone that would listen that force-on-force training with something like Airsoft technology is an absolute necessity for developing the skills that will save a person in a real-life encounter.

And I stand by that last sentence. Force-on-force training is a necessity to develop those survival skills.

But too many instructors have made the jump from acknowledging the necessity of FoF training to saying that they are validating their curriculum with it. That is, they point to the fact that the tactics and techniques that they teach hold up well on FoF training, and therefore they are validated survival skills.

Wrong, wrong. wrong! They may well be teaching techniques that will get their people killed!

It’s wrong because much FoF training is different from many real-life encounters. In a spontaneous, violent, real-life fight for your life, you are probably going to drive your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) into an extreme state that I call SNS over-ride. This state is characterized by the well known “fight-or-flight” symptoms: tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, the perceived slowing of time, target focus and so on. (Note the common mis-conception that you can’t see your sights under this condition.

In fact you can--it’s just that you won’t since you will be driven to focus instead on the threat-which is actually the tactically sound thing to do at close distances.) In FoF training, by contrast, what we are doing is inoculating people to higher and higher levels of stress, so that they can perform various weapons/survival techniques without suffering the effects of the “fight-or-flight” (or SNS over-ride) phenomena.

Notice the difference. In a many real life encounters we will be in the severely debilitated state of SNS over-ride. In FoF training, we are training people not to enter this undesirable state. Therefore, we cannot claim that because a technique holds up in FoF training that it will be reliable-or even possible-in a real-life encounter.

We will never be able to determine what works in real-life encounters except through after-action reports and videos of them. In order to respond as if you were in fear of your life, you have to be put in fear of your life-which cannot be done except to actually put your life in danger, and which we obviously cannot do in training.

As all Airsoft and Simunitions® veterans know, it’s the first couple scenarios with these technologies that have any severe stress effect on participants. Participants very soon learn that they won’t die and won’t even get hurt all that much in them. After these initial scenarios, these simulations do become good validators of tactics and time-frames-but they are not forums in which we can observe the effects of genuine fear for one’s life, and therefore what works under that condition.

What we hope for in FoF training is that the level of stress to which we have inoculated participants will be more than the level of stress they will feel in a real-life encounter, and therefore that the techniques they have honed in those FoF simulations will get them through a real-life situation. This often works as planned when we have control of the real-life situation, such as with warrant executions and HR entries. But all too often we see operators not able to execute trained skills when they lose control of the situation. In these cases they simply revert back to whatever Mother Nature allows them to do in the state of SNS over-ride.

So where does this leave us?

I submit that for the most part we need to train extensively in those few techniques, tactics and skills that are possible in SNS over-ride. These basic skills are the only things that will be available to us in most spontaneous encounters not pre-planned by us, and will often be necessary even in those that are. This assumes that we know ahead of time what these skills are.

And we do: one one-handed shooting, target focus, and so on-the basic curriculum taught by men like Fairbairn and Applegate who’d been there. These skills can be honed successfully with FoF training-indeed they need to be. After this baseline of skill has been achieved we can utilize FoF simulations to train more complex skills, by inoculating the operators to high levels of stress. But we need to recognize that unless operators have been trained thoroughly in the basic skills that are possible when their stress threshold has been exceeded, they will be helpless.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that your FoF simulations are verifying that the skills you are teaching are actually possible under extreme stress. They can’t do that.

The Police Officers Safety Association (POSA)
The Police Officers Safety Association (POSA)

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