Back in August 2012 I wrote an article called Competition: Pros and Cons. Today, it is followed up by a similar discussion about another oft-debated aspect of firearms training, force on force (FOF). I was first certified as a Simunition instructor back in 1998 and since then I’ve engaged in FOF training with federal agencies, local law enforcement, and a number of “commercial” classes both as a student and instructor.
So, is FOF training a critical part of decision making and performance under stress? Or is it dangerous testosterone playtime?
“FOF training” means different things to different people, so first it is important to define terms. For purposes of this article, “FOF” means any training in which a live human being is used as an opponent or target. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Simunition or airsoft or SIRT pistols or blue guns.
When you read that definition, the first major problem with FOF should be pretty obvious: FOF is dangerous. Your opponent isn’t a piece of cardboard, steel, or paper… it’s a real person. Mistakes that would be merely embarrassing on a square range are now deadly. Just like live fire training, there are certain cardinal rules of FOF training. Ken Murray’s Training at the Speed of Life is a great primer on all things FOF, especially safety. But many instructors ignore or gloss over safety fundamentals. Following all the safety protocols takes time, manpower, and attention to detail. It slows down classes. It’s boring. It feels redundant. But your life and the lives of your fellow students literally depend on that boring, redundant process. Someone is going to point a gun at you and pull the trigger. Shouldn’t you make sure it’s not a real gun with real bullets?
No one should ever be allowed into a FOF training area without being thoroughly checked for live weapons. Even if the person stepped out for just a minute to use the restroom, he’s now an unknown. Trusting people in FOF leads to accidents, injuries, and deaths. It’s not the malicious assassin you’re worried about, it’s the absentminded student who forgot he put his j-frame in his pocket before lunch. If that loaded gun enters the “safe area” of an FOF exercise, it’s both the student’s and instructor’s fault. People die every year in FOF training. They die because someone screwed up and brought a live gun into a training area.
But safety isn’t the only problem with FOF training. One of the biggest issues I see, especially among trainers and students who use FOF extensively, is that people draw too many questionable conclusions from FOF. Bullet placement is one. Even when using marking cartridges such as Simunition FX, you cannot tell what trajectory a bullet would have taken. A splotch of paint on someone’s shoulder tells you what? Maybe it was a glancing blow that would have caused little or no immediate harm. Maybe it was a penetrating wound that would have found its way to his heart and lungs. All too often, students and instructors look at marks on the head or chest as “good” and other hits as bad. But the reality is that without sophisticated gear and analysis you cannot know what path the bullet took. Judging hits based on paint splotches is of minimal value.
Along similar lines, bullet effect is impossible to gauge with FOF. Most FOF technologies cannot really stop an aggressive attacker. As such, it’s up to the role player (RP, i.e., the bad guy) or the instructor to control the action. I’ve been to classes where a single hit on the pinky caused the instructor to declare the target dead. I’ve been to classes where RPs were allowed to absorb a dozen shots to the face and chest at close range without it affecting them at all. Are both of those outcomes possible? Yes. Are they likely? No. Nonetheless, people actually try to evaluate the effectiveness of tactics and techniques based on these completely artificial and arbitrary “wounds.” A fighting system that is based on the assumption that ten rounds to the face is inadequate to stop a threat might just be a bad system, no? So is one that treats every single hit as fatal regardless of location or severity.
There are countless other artificialities in FOF training, as well. A friend of mine was in a FOF gunfight during a class a while back. He and another student emptied guns at one another in a doorway, neither scoring a hit. The hollow wood door stopped all the bullets. The students’ first thoughts were, wow, we suck… we emptied our guns and missed completely. But the reality is that a hollow wood door wouldn’t stop real bullets. Most interior and many exterior building materials won’t stop handgun bullets. Hiding behind a couch makes you bulletproof against airsoft or Simuntion but would be far less effective against a 230gr FMJ.
Finally, there is the issue of training quality in FOF. Force-on-force scenarios depend on a professional, logical curriculum and personnel even more than normal live fire training… by an order of magnitude. Bad scenarios or bad role players can make FOF training useless or even harmful. Problems run the gamut:
- Some instructors and role players get competitive with students. A role player’s job isn’t to beat the student. His job is to challenge the student and give the student a chance to be successful unless a mistake is made. As soon as the training staff starts caring about “winning” instead of teaching, it’s over. It’s the same as a live fire instructor who is more concerned with outshooting the students instead of teaching them to shoot better.
- Scenarios can be so unrealistic that they teach the wrong things. I knew an instructor years ago who liked to hide in the rafters of a barn and snipe at students with an MP-5 as soon as they opened the door in a scenario that was supposed to be simulating clearing your own home. How many of us have three story high rooms with rafters hidden in shadow? Every single student got hit before they knew what was happening. So what did they learn? To stare at the ceiling instead of the realistic, common ambush locations they should be worried about.
- Students don’t learn from repeated suicide. There should be a path to success in scenarios. FOF training should be about decision making. Did the student use appropriate tactics? Did the student use good judgment? If the student makes good decisions, he should be successful. Any idiot can create a no-win scenario… but every student already knows that no-win situations exist. Setting up an inescapable assassination doesn’t test the student. Some people want to tell themselves that these types of scenarios build warrior mindset or the will to win or whatever… but I doubt that’s true. No-win scenarios are pretty obvious and as soon as a student figures it out, it’s no longer realistic to him. It’s worth noting that some high-level military units have actually scaled back their FOF training because soldiers were becoming too apprehensive when faced with dangerous situations. Teach someone that every time he walks into a room he’ll be killed and pretty soon he’ll refuse to go through the doorway.
Coming next week: the pro side of force-on-force training.
Train hard & stay safe! ToddG