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Self Defense: Why Surviving Is More Important Than Winning

Self Defense: Why Surviving Is More Important Than Winning

Photos by Alfredo Rico


I purchased my first gun decades ago, and from that day on I was determined that if I were forced into a lethal situation, I would do anything and everything to win the fight. While that concept sounds common and appropriate, I was shaken by a dramatic mindset shift during an eye-­opening, force-­on-­force encounter at a weekend training seminar.

Force-­on-­force training is the best type of training for learning to defend yourself in a violent encounter. With the use of simulated firearms shooting nonlethal projectiles, usually airsoft or Simunitions, participants are brought into a situation that requires the use of awareness and observation skills, de-­escalation techniques, hand-to-hand fighting and shooting skills while making instant fight-­or-­flight decisions.

When encountering a criminal, you have a split second to decide if you are going to de-escalate the situation or fight.

Sometimes the act of seeing the threat ahead of time enables the participant to avoid a fight. Talking their way out of a situation may work, or the fight might require use of simulated lethal force. It may also be that the fight is a no-­win situation where the participant’s best option is fleeing the scene rather than fighting.

The best and most vital lessons taught by force-­on-­force training are the mental skills required to recognize the situation, determine the best response and perform that action. It is the real-­life embodiment of John Boyd’s OODA loop. While many lessons can be learned by winning an encounter, the best lesson for me came from losing.

Through extensive firearms training and participation in numerous force-­on-­force exercises, I have recognized that gun skills are about shooting, but fighting skills are mental. In most engagements, the skills needed to put rounds in the bad guy are relatively easy. The skills needed to survive a lethal encounter include being aware of your surroundings, assessing your situation, determining your options, picking the best option, then putting your plan into motion — all in an instant. Fighting is a thinking skill.

To be effective, force-­on-­force training requires a realistic scenario and experienced participants who not only convincingly play their part but also can help deviate appropriately when the scenario does not go as planned. In addition to participating in force-­on-­force training scenarios, I have also been the observer. Watching the same scenarios begin the same way, I was amazed that it went different directions every time based on the activity of the “victim.”

The key to successful force-­on-­force training is to make the victim feel like they are in a legitimately life-­threatening situation. This creates real-­life stress and causes body alarm reaction (BAR). Under BAR, the body dumps adrenaline and other chemicals into the system, which causes a variety of physical manifestations such as tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, rapid breathing, increased heart rate, decreased dexterity, time and distance distortion and reduced cognitive function. The mental and physical consequences can dramatically affect the victim’s ability to react.

Training under BAR conditions is especially valuable because it is the closest you can get to the stress of a real-­life violent encounter. The more you train under stress, the less the stress will affect you. This is the real benefit of force-­on-­force training.

Permanently Altered

Never get close to your attacker to prevent gun grabs.

The training scenario that changed my mindset was fairly simple. I was told that I was arriving at an office for a job interview; the makeshift office was made with plywood walls arranged in an L shape, with the interview room around the corner. I was told to enter the office, turn left and go into the interview room to await the personnel director.

After a minute or two alone in the interview room, I heard a loud scuffle and noises in the outer office. A man came running down the hallway toward me saying he was shot. Since I had already scouted the area for exits and entrances, I knew there was no way out of the building without going through the outer office where the gunman was located. Rather than staying in an indefensible location, I made my way out the same way that I entered.


I had my gun out and stayed close to the walls as I proceeded down the hall. As I came near the outer office, the gunman shot toward me then barricaded himself inside a closet. I made my way to the outer office, keeping the closet door in my gun sights. While I had a clear shot at the closet door, there was no cover or concealment available.

Backing myself against a wall so no one could sneak up behind me, I ordered the criminal to drop his weapon and come out. Nothing. I repeated the command numerous times. I was determined that I would shoot him before he could shoot me. After what seemed like several minutes of this futile nonsense, a second gunman, who was completely hidden, rose up and shot me. I never saw him.

Regardless of carry method, quick access is crucial.

The observer interviewed me immediately afterward and asked my purpose in demanding the gunman to come out. I stated that I knew he wanted to kill me as he had already shot at me and that I wanted to make sure that I shot him before he shot me. He then asked me a simple question: Instead of standing there demanding action from the gunman, why didn’t I just continue through the office and out the front door that was just a few feet from my position? I felt my face go flush when I realized that I lost the gunfight due to stupidity. The observer then asked if I went into “hunter/killer” mode. That was obviously the case; I knew the gunman wanted to shoot me, so I wanted to hunt him down and kill him before he killed me.

My goal was to win the gunfight. I carried a gun, trained and practiced for years, and I was determined to win. With bright lights and angels singing, I had an epiphany: My entire purpose for carrying and using a gun was wrong. My gun was not to win gunfights but to get out of gunfights. That is a major mindset change.

While hindsight shows the stupidity of my actions, and it may sound elementary to many readers, it is important to understand the mindset instilled by decades of training. Every International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) scenario that I participated in was a shoot scenario. Every International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) stage that I ran was a shoot scenario. Every training class that I took was filled with shooting exercises, and every practice session focused on shooting. Decades of experience taught me to fight. My instincts were honed to fight. My mindset was to fight — and to win.

With that hard-­learned lesson in mind, I made a simple change to my practice sessions. I added no-­shoot exercises to my routine. In some of my practice strings, I draw and don’t fire. In others, I draw and command the bad guy to drop his gun, or I draw my gun and simply back out of the range. The object is to break the mindset that I have to shoot every time I draw my gun.

Instead of escaping, the author continued to confront the bad guy in the closet and was “shot” by a hidden accomplice.

Regardless of my agenda, when I leave the house each day, my primary goal is to come home. If I am forced into a lethal encounter, my goal is not to fight and win but to do anything and everything that I need to do to come home. That might be shooting, it might be de-­escalation, or it may simply entail backing out the door. Going home is my new mindset.

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