TAKE IT! Force-on-Force Training For Civilians Is Good Stuff

Force-on-Force training

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 somewhat newer 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 in 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 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 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, IL.   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:  Great, 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 reveals flaws in tactics and techniques, even among experienced shooters

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 & 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 a madman.

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.


  1. avatar NorincoJay says:

    Just don’t do it with the Punta Gorda police department.

  2. avatar Other Tom in Oregon says:

    This guy must have used the word civilian at least 15 times to differentiate between us regular people and civilians that wear a badge. Interesting…

    1. avatar Ebby123 says:

      JBoch comes from Chicago – where you learn first hand that most of the cops are on your side, but their bosses aren’t.

      Its a different world than most of us live in. I can appreciate that he isn’t as libertarian coming from a place where it is literally an all-out warzone.

      I would imagine his interest in firearm rights began more from a practical need (survival) than a philosophical imperative.

      Its a valid point, but I’m inclined to be graceful. GSL is an outstanding organization, and JBoch is a truly effective 2A advocate in that realm.

    2. avatar John Boch says:

      OTIO: Ebby’s right… sadly, we don’t look upon cops as “civilians” in IL. I appreciate your point.

      Also, Ebby: The guy in the top photo is drawing down on an already-presented bad guy gun. It didn’t end well for him. Or, frankly, the photographer behind him. LOL.


    3. avatar Tile floor says:

      Stop being butthurt. You know exactly what he meant by civilian, and civilian is easier to type than “Non-Military or Law Enforcement Armed Citizen.”

      1. avatar Rick the Bear (now in NH!!) says:

        Do we not use specific words on purpose? Do not words have meaning?

        I just took a course at Sig Academy in NH and the instructor corrected “clip” to “magazine” with some of the students, but he used “bullets” when he meant “rounds”, even after I asked him. Oy, what chest pain (not my butt).

        More seriously, I believe that “moving” LEOs from the “civilian” column to, in effect, the “military” column contributes to the perceived distance between police and the people whose protection they are interested with. Simply put, it adds to the the “us” and “them” issues in both directions.

  3. avatar Ebby123 says:

    This training is CRITICAL.
    I cannot stress enough the value of force-on-force. If you carry a gun for defense, you NEED to take a FoF course. Period.

    I vividly remember the first scenario I ever took part in – a store robbery. Despite considering myself an experienced CCW’r and avid “tacitcal” trainee, the sight of a shotgun in my face booted my common sense right out the window. I tried to draw from concealement while his full attention was focused on me, and got dropped where I stood.

    I knew better – I knew to wait until he was focused elsewhere and to take cover first, but in that moment the part of my brain that access memories and critical thinking was completely drowned by adrenaline.

  4. avatar Joe R. says:

    I say ++

    IMHO, I think the adrenalin factor is the most-key feature of the whole thing. High School French is a distant 2nd to how perishable “Firearms” skills are. And your heart loves it when you slowly build in “comfort” into your life and begin to have larger and larger gaps in your adrenalin burps.

    I too think that airsoft is (can be) a good training aid. I highly recommend Jaegers in MO (http://jaegers.com/) to get your heart crank to go around like a fan a little bit. Hell, if you don’t want noise, smell, dirt, of FoF training, at least try some http://www.laserquest.com/public/locations/OK-Tulsa.cfm#hours_tab, and let the crumb snatchers school you and give you permanent FoF nightmares.

    If you can’t do that, find yourself a (working) arcade game of “Time Crisis” [1 thru 5] (sometimes they have them in theater lobbies) and put half a roll of quarters into it, you’ll get to work up a minor lather of sweat from it, and again, watch the little kids that are putting their initials up at the end, the video gamers out there live at 200 cc’s of adrenalin drip a minute.

  5. avatar Sammy says:

    JOHN BOCH, how do I know where your school is if you don’t put your city/location on your website?

    1. avatar JeffCville says:

      “Class Location: Timber Pointe Outdoor Center in Hudson, IL, just north of Bloomington, IL. A map and directions, along with hotel recommendations will be sent with class welcome materials after registration has been received. ”

      Copied directly from his website.

  6. avatar Rick the Bear (now in NH!!) says:

    I have done a bit of FoF and it was a learning experience. The first session was my first time facing a pistol wielded by a maniac. OK, he was one of the instructors. 8>) Still, almost all I could see was that hole. While I knew that it “just” had a paintball, I backed up as fast and far as I could (it was a room entry exercise).

    I’m looking forward to doing more!

  7. avatar strych9 says:

    Generally I pass on this kind of thing. [Insert rant here.]

    In the end, with travel and prerequisites, it ends up costing more than my cheap ass is willing to pay. Sorry I don’t have weeks of time and thousands of dollars to drop on training that may or may not be legitimate and I’m sure as hell not traveling across the country to get it.

    On top of that, quite frankly I don’t trust the people who offer these courses. There’s way, way too much money to be made in the tacticool market and I’m not gonna get myself shot by some dumbass mall ninja who thinks he knows what he’s doing.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:


      You could get a lot of benefit on the cheap if you simply get a couple friends to participate in an AirSoft or paintball encounter. And because you are the one organizing the fun and games training, you can ensure that everyone is using the proper equipment.

      1. avatar strych9 says:

        I used to play paintball all the time.

        My thing with this is that my feeling is that there are a lot of unscrupulous people out there looking to make money off people with this type of training and the real truth of the matter is that it’s not needed anywhere near as much as they say it is. “Untrained” people have perfectly good DGU’s all the time. It seems to me that most of this stuff is a solution in want of a problem and it’s hellishly expensive in many cases.

        If you want to learn how to get out of chokes and fight join a martial arts school that teaches the stuff and goes over it again and again with actual sparring.

        The hype placed on this sort of thing is exactly how you end up with assholes like this collecting a ton of money and teach pure, unadulterated shit:

        1. avatar Indirect Action says:

          “My mancard gives me everything I need to know about surviving a deadly force encounter!”

          Yeah, you can get lucky and survive an attack. I would rather rely on skill sets than dumb luck. I suspect our military and law enforcent wouldn’t devote their time and energy to training if it didn’t work.

          I hope for the sake of your loved ones, you’re not the guy who fumbles with his gun and drops it at your moment of truth.

        2. avatar strych9 says:

          You can talk about my mancard all you want. It’s meaningless blather.

          You have no idea what my background or skill sets are and therefore are talking directly out your ass.

        3. avatar John Boch says:

          Not sure if that was directed at you or not, Strych9.

          Not sure your skill sets or your past, but I do sense you are pretty confident in your beliefs.

          I do know for certain that good tactics and good technique are not acquired in bubble-wrap on aisle 4 of the Dick’s Sporting Goods or divined from on high. A lot of people seem to think they can buy the newest do-dad and it’ll make them competent and / or skilled. Akin to buying a piano and thinking they are a pianist.

          I’ve seen it at Appleseed when most folks can’t even hit a 100-yard equivalent target from prone. Yeah, they’ve got lots of excuses – lumpy ground, no warm ups, haven’t shot for a while, and the list goes on and on. The bottom line is they thought they were competent, but they were less than. By the end of the weekend, there’s usually a dramatic transformation. We see this in our courses as well.

          No, you’re not high-speed, low-drag. You’re not even hanging out of a pickup upside down pretending you’re Walter Mitty. But competence goes way up, along with self-confidence for good reason. And oftentimes we change their mindset about when they would use the gun.

          Yes, there are some classes and instructors that are better than others. Some are good, a few are really good. Most are okay and a few are anywhere from downright piss poor to criminally incompetent. We’ve seen that in Illinois where the number of instructors grew from 42 the year before we got CCW, to about 3200+ today. Dozens have been stripped of their credentials for gross incompetence, fraud or both.

          You have to do your own due diligence at finding the better schools and instructors. Ask for recommendations and referrals.

          I will say that nobody I know is “collecting a ton of money” at training.


    2. avatar jwm says:

      First question I asked my last first aid instructor. How many medical emergencies had she responded to? I was satisfied with her answers.

      If I take any advanced firearms training the first question I’m asking the potential instructor is how many gun fights has he been in? If none, he don’t get my business.

      1. avatar strych9 says:

        “If I take any advanced firearms training the first question I’m asking the potential instructor is how many gun fights has he been in? If none, he don’t get my business.”

        Therein lies the problem. You’ll note that usually you have to pay for this sort of training up front and if you end up traveling out of state you’re not getting any of that money back when you find out that the instructor is Barney Fife. In fact, around me nearly all the training places say that for a refund you have to cancel 72 hours or more in advance of the class.

    3. avatar Tommy Hobbes says:

      Good point re some people running these courses. News accounts outed a “special operator” instructor lwho was total phony and false valor perp.
      Caveat emptor.

  8. avatar uncommon_sense says:

    Here are three more activities that can greatly help improve your ability to operate under stress/adrenaline:
    (1) hunting
    (2) full-contact martial arts sparring
    (3) paintball matches

    1. avatar Myrna Warren says:

      Thanks for posting this comment I’m going to a friends party and I’m going pantballing for the first time, I didn’t know what to bring, Thanks

  9. avatar jwm says:

    Yes, yes and yes.

    Military training and experience is great for learning to handle stress. I have it. But i’m not sure, asides from the stress thingie, how the training and experience would translate into use on the streets of anytown USA.

    I’ve been in a handful of those unreported DGU’s in the last 40+ years. They were ended in a matter of seconds and in only one were shots actually fired. None of these were very involved. Basically pull firearm and address threat with it. Seems real simple in retrospect.

    1. avatar jwm says:

      This was meant as a reply to uncommon sense.

    2. avatar strych9 says:

      It depends greatly on the person. Some people, no matter how much training you give them, will freeze when the metal meets the meat. Most people can be trained to react to a threat but some simply can’t be.

      Honestly, this is one of the reasons why I recommend BJJ to people. First off you can go 100% full speed which makes the training more realistic. You can’t do that with most martial arts because you’ll hurt yourself or your training partner, even with pads. Secondly, you find out a lot about yourself when you’ve got someone much larger than you sitting on your chest and choking you out. You either panic or you don’t. This guy isn’t going to hurt you and you’re not in a position to hurt yourself or him.

      If you panic in that situation then you need to learn not to. If you can’t get over the panic and keep your head in a controlled environment there is no point in taking additional training. You’re simply not wired for combat and you will never get over the panic response. Such people will freeze or fuck up when the situation is dynamic and people really are about to shuffle off this mortal coil.

      1. avatar The Monomanic Gray Man says:

        Motorcycle man and Illinios bad-azz say “I” more than Obama. Tough to do. Though they may be the same person.

        1. avatar jwm says:

          matt, or mono man if you prefer, your homoerotic stalking of me is flattering. But I’m straight. You need to move on and find another to pledge your love too.

          I don’t believe your being gay is a lifestyle choice like some here. I believe you were born that way. You deserve a partner that is also gay.

          And now you think I may be obama? Chocolate is your flavor?

  10. avatar Coolbreeze says:

    I’m 62 years old. I started doing this when I was 5 years old. Called it “Cowboys and Indians”.

    1. avatar jwm says:

      Chuckle worthy.

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Actually, there probably was a LOT of benefit to Cowboys and Indians that applies to real world violent encounters and combat.

      Keep in mind that many children growing up these days have never played Cowboys and Indians and thus lack any potential training benefits.

  11. avatar Accur81 says:

    It’s fun stuff. I’ve seen scenarios where students were unwilling to shoot “bad guys” in the back. Some just hadn’t thought to do that.

    On the other hand, we paid a sim trainer $1500 bucks to train 12 guys for 3-4 hours. It’s expensive training. Sim guns are the closest you’ll come to a real gun fight with similar ergonomics and feel of real guns. In most cases the capacity is exactly the same. I’d rather have a 15-18 shot pistol than a 6 shot revolver against 1-3 “bad guy” role players who are moving and retuning fire.

  12. avatar Patrick Shannon says:

    Here’s a question for all of you, which the author did not address: What about the use of real, functional, duty firearms in these force-on-force exercises? Not blue or orange fake guns, or airsoft guns, but real guns, like the revolver used in the Punta Gorda tragedy. Simunition apparently has conversion kits for real, functional revolvers, that require the insertion of “safety rings” into the chambers of the cylinder, to prevent the loading of live rounds, and to allow the use of Simunition marker rounds instead. We are still waiting for the investigation results on the Punta Gorda shooting, but I am wondering about the sanity of allowing real firearms in force-on-force training. Any comments?


    1. avatar Accur81 says:

      Simunition guns already use real “lowers” such as the frame and trigger assembly of semi auto pistols. You want some difference because you don’t want the Sim gun to be able to chamber a real round. The recoil impulse is different but the trigger pull is similar to the real thing. I’ve never felt recoil under stress / excitement anyways.

    2. avatar John Boch says:

      Patrick: You ask a good question.

      In my opinion, real guns have NO PLACE in FoF training. None. Nada. Never. Ditto for live blades.

      In short, in *every* FoF class I’ve ever been to, the entire FoF area of the training facility is sterilized of real guns, blades, pepper spray and the like. We literally frisk everyone twice after giving everyone notice that real guns – live guns – are to be left locked in the cars in the segregated parking lot.

      People bringing their own airsoft are pulled aside and we double check to ensure they really are airsoft and tape them with blue tape. Most of our training “weapons” aside from rubber knives (hammers, meat cleavers, brick, pipe wrench, etc.) are also “blue” (and plastic or rubber).

      The “sims” modified guns cannot fire live rounds as they are odd “calibers”, but my experience with them aside from shooting them in FoF exercises is minimal.


  13. avatar Default_Sam says:

    I can’t express how butthurt I am that this training opportunity is 45 min from my old home! where were you guys then! Maybe I’ll try to squeeze in a class next time I visit family if time permits and class times jive.

  14. I start this activity when I was 10 years old. It’s also known as “Cowboys and Indians”

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