FOF: Pros and Cons, Part 1

18-Jul-13 – 16:35 by ToddG

Back in August 2012 I wrote an article called Competition: Pros and ConsToday, 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?

Answer: yes.

“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

  1. 7 Responses to “FOF: Pros and Cons, Part 1”

  2. The lesson that both sides need a chance to “win” (or accomplish their objectives) in any scenario based training or planning is true from card games to strategic forces and more folks need to recognize it. Any scenario that is lose-lose means that one of the players would likely never be there in reality. Your example of the soldier who quits going through doors is spot on. If I think I can’t survive a trip to the grocery store, I would order a lot of pizza, use pea-pod, or hit the drive through. If I am about to enter a scenario I am unlike to survive, I won’t be there. Or I will be there with 5 friends, and much more weaponry than a handgun. Good FOF scenarios recognize the context that the person is training for.

    Can’t wait to hear the up side – I think there are a lot of lessons that matter when scenarios allow both sides to be thinking human beings that would make natural decisions to increase the odds that they are effective.

    By dan-o on Jul 18, 2013

  3. Great article, Todd.

    For the last year I have been a part of the group of core instructors who were teaching the SORAT (Solo Officer Response to Active Threats) for the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy. We spent alot of time discussing the scenarios we were going to put the officers through and had detailed safety measures in place during the FOF portion of the class. Redundant pat downs, the buddy system and draconian enforcement of safety rules are all necessary to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

    Unfortunately, the State decided they could not afford the program anymore so they stopped it after six months.

    My agency does alot of FOF training. Usually 2-3 times a year. Anytime we used non-instructor role players we had a detailed briefing for them so they knew we were not going to permit them to turn this into a game where they absorbed hit after hit after hit. Bad role players can ruin otherwise good training. Carefully scripted and performed scenarios minimize many of the negatives you detailed, but it’s alot of work. I’m fortunate that my agency doesn’t bat an eye when it comes to paying the price for us to train.

    The unfortunate reality from what I have observed is that many of the instructors who design scenarios, run them and act as role players have the wrong personality for one or all aspects of the FOF scenario.

    I’m looking forward to part 2.

    By Lon on Jul 18, 2013

  4. Great article and I definately agree, unfortunately fof is extremely hard to pull off and personnel intensive. What is nice is combatives training with blue guns/sirt/sims and training knives. I have found this training to be invaluable, especially since getting into a fight while having a concealed weapon is more likely than the ok coral gunfights we all inadvertantly train for. Its also great to show people that simply carrying a gun isn’t the answer. Descalation of force and at the same time physical fitness become important. Holsters with retention come into play, I love my shaggy and jm custom as much as anyone else but good luck on that holding your pistol while you do any fighting or even a run for that matter.

    Force on force in the shoot-house is hard to pull of as you mentioned. Along the same line as what I said above, having someone in a fat man suit jump you as soon as you break the plane of the door has immense training value; far more than some a-hole taking 50 sim rounds to the face as you mentioned, usually while half the team is trying to get broken paint rounds out of your barrel.

    By Will on Jul 18, 2013

  5. I have noticed that when FOF is conducted rather infrequently, many trainees become rather timid when entering a scenario realizing that the badguy IS likely armed and will shoot them. Why is it in the real world that officers don’t always take seriously that a bad guy might be armed? I have seen a lot of bad tactics displayedvduring FOF, but also a few good ones. I have made it a point to ask students who made accurate shots during a shoot scenario if they used their sights. Most of the ones who do place accurate shots under stress will admit that they did.

    By walkin' trails on Jul 19, 2013

  6. Thanks for posting this, TG. My own story:

    Some time ago I was excited to see a Simunitions training center and signed up for a class. I didn’t go back because I felt safety procedures were lax. Other than mentioning that no live ammo was allowed, there was no mention of ANY method to guarantee neither student nor instructor had non-simunition gear. No visual check, no patdown (self or buddy), nothing else. Trainers didnt check anyone. Just let us strap our blue Sim guns and off we went.

    The FOF training wasn’t worth going to a place where I was concerned for safety.

    By NWGlocker on Jul 20, 2013

  7. Has anyone tried using the StressVest laser system for force on force yet?

    By AntiCitizenOne on Jul 22, 2013

  8. Very good con points. Can’t wait to hear the Pro points.

    Having spent 10 years conducting FoF training for our agency, it became very important to present realistic, but winnable scenarios. I agree you don’t want the students to become “gunshy” about entering a room, making a traffic stop etc by setting up unwinnable scenarios. Teaching them what to look for, how to react and how to move to cover became more important that hits or misses. The only time anyone failed our scenarios, was when they just did something so stupid that they deserved to be told they failed.

    A good FoF scenario gave them the advantage when dealing with live encounters. Many times our officers prevented getting into a shootout with a badguy because they had the advantage of being prepared to act based on the scenarios they had gone through. We used our legal advisors to help train not only the reaction to a threat, but the legal aftermath and how to explain your actions. That really helped out.

    By KennyT on Jul 22, 2013

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