The Next Best Thing to Combat

A belt fed machine gun loaded with Simunition training ammunition featuring their distinctive blue tips.


Experience is king in combat. The one who’s been in the most fights generally has a considerable edge. But experience is a hard thing to get.

Not only is it difficult and infrequent, but that kind of experience comes with a substantial amount of risk. And while you can learn far more from failures then you can from success, failure in a fight could mean you don’t get the chance to fight again. So, the problem then becomes, how to fail safely?

What is Force on Force?

Force on Force Training refers to any event where the trainees are expected to treat a made-up scenario like they would in real life. This can take many different shapes and it’s nothing new. In sports, skirmishes between teams make up the preseason as the players shake off the rust before they have to play for keeps.

In the military, war games are played (sometimes on a grand scale complete with land, sea, and air assets), with a dedicated contingent of opposing forces (OPFOR) to increase the realism. Boxing and MMA fighters routinely spar with one another to get ready for the ring or Octagon.

I’ve participated in force on force training in all roles; student, instructor and role-player. The value I’ve personally experienced and observed in other students is substantial. Training as close to real life as possible helps put you into the proper mindset and allows you to gain the valuable experience that wins fights.

U.S. Marines

Reasons for Force on Force Training:

Test yourself

One of the primary reasons for force on force training is being able to test your skills and abilities. A reasonably normal thought for someone who carries a weapon for self-defense is, “how would I react?” Force on force training, because of the realism, is the best way to tell without having to actually go to combat.

Many of the students I have interacted with reported large boosts in confidence levels after participating in force on force training. Even those who have carried every day for more than a decade were encouraged positively when they discovered they were capable of competent self-defense

Test your training

Testing the training you have already received is an essential part of force on force. If you think you have a decent reload time, try performing a reload when you have snarling role player running at you with a knife. It can help put a self-defense encounter into perspective and help to prioritize training and tactics.

Do you have a trick you think would work well against an attacker? How about that one thing your Uncle Lenny said worked great when he was in Nam? Force on force training is where you can test it. That way, if it doesn’t work, you’ll know before your life depends on it.

Test your gear

You might also want to know if your gear is going to get you killed before your life hangs in the balance. You might have the most expensive holster on the market, but if you find your draw severely restricted in a highly stressful situation, you might want to re-think it. Though in my experience it’s usually the Uncle Mike style holsters which are the first to go.

Often, students find out if their gear works or not with in a few hours of training, but even if a piece of kit is working okay, there might be better ways of doing it and force on force allows students to experiment.

Stress Inoculation

Stress inoculation is a term that is often used to describe age old traditions in preparing warriors for combat. Military members are first vetted by basic training where they are subjected to more stress then they have perhaps experienced in the past. This is to help encourage them to perform despite high levels of stress during a time of war.

This is the same idea with force on force training. By engineering real life scenarios and presenting them in a realistic manner, the student gets an idea of the intensity that occurs during a self-defense situation.

Just like small and controlled amounts of a virus are given to patients in order to inoculate them against disease, small amounts of carefully planned and controlled stress can have similar results. Getting used to performing while your heart is racing carries over into a real-life engagement, and you will be less likely to freeze up since you have already rehearsed the scenario or one like it in training.

How it works

The instructors present the students with a preplanned scenario, who are then expected to work through the situation like they would in real life. One of the most common might be a robbery at knife point at the ATM. Or being in a convenience store while it is being robbed.

Not every situation has to be a ‘shoot' scenario. One of the great benefits of force on force training is teaching students when, and how to engage a target if they should at all. Because not every self-defense situation requires the drawing of your pistol.

Say, for example, a role player is acting their part of the script of erratic behavior. The student draws their weapon and shoots, only to discover the role player is, “a diabetic with a low blood sugar emergency.” While this is a difficult (but realistic) situation, it drives home the necessity to properly identify a threat and use other means if possible. Such as utilizing distance and/or bystanders more effectively to assess the situation.

The saying, “to every man with a hammer, every problem is a nail,” highlights a potential problem in the self-defense plans of many people. It’s not uncommon for a person’s preparation for self-defense to end at purchasing a gun.

The problem with this is, self-defense is an extremely dynamic situation with many moving parts and considerations, and not every problem can, or should, be solved by pulling a gun. But if that’s the only solution you’ve prepared yourself to take, you won’t know what other options might be available to you.

Force on force training allows students to see they have options other than drawing their pistol, and encourages them to find less drastic means of defense if possible.

The options are endless and only restricted by the imagination of the instructors, and the student’s abilities to problem solve under stress.

Good role players are essential to good force on force training. These highly valued individuals are often instructors themselves and their goal is to teach, not to win. The best role players are looking to create a realistic, but winnable situation. Make sure to give them a thanks, it’s hard to find people willing to get shot over and over again just so you can progress.

Sometimes, since good role players are difficult to find, you may get to play the bad guy if the school happens to be a hand short. If you are presented with this opportunity, I highly recommend taking advantage of it. There are few perspectives as highly valued as your enemy’s, and by pretending to be the “bad guy” you’re given a better view of what works, what doesn’t, and why. This is the ultimate, “if I was a bad guy, how would I attack me?” thought experiment.

Just make sure to listen to the instructors and do everything exactly as they tell you to do it and you’ll have a blast.

The Equipment

Innovations by companies like UTM and Simunition have made this type of training safer, and more effective, allowing actual firearms to be safely used in training. These companies produce conversion kits which replace the entire slide assembly of a pistol, allowing man-marking rounds (but not live ammunition) to be fired from the weapon.

The marking rounds can be loaded into stock magazines to allow realistic reload training; however, the .38 caliber revolver conversion kits require a special adapter in order to function properly. A small baggie of the adapters is thoughtfully included with each box of .38 caliber Simunition marking rounds.

The marking material is essentially just colored dish soap and washes out easily.

For those looking to work on rifle tactics for home defense situations, AR bolts are available which simply drop in to replace the bolt of your personal home defense rifle. This allows you to further test gear like lights, optics, triggers etc.

The slides and AR bolt are painted a bright training blue or otherwise marked for quick identification between a training gun and a real one. However, the .38 revolver conversion kits are so simple that orange tape on the end of the muzzle signifying a training weapon may be necessary.

The marking rounds are traveling at speeds around 375 FPS, so they’ll leave a noticeable reminder of your failures. And that’s a good thing. Revel in this pain secure in the knowledge that it’s the pain of progress.

UTM Man-Marking Rounds

Pain increases the stakes, because more then wanting to win, you don’t want to be shot. This helps to prevent a myriad of stupid decisions you might otherwise make if you didn’t respect the consequences. The motivation of not being shot in training translates well into a real-life scenario against real bullets. Pain is a wonderful teacher.

And to be honest, it’s not that bad. It’s worst against naked skin, but for the most part, its only a little bruise which most students compare to paintball. Don’t expose any skin, wear gloves and the mask that should be provided for you. If the training company wants you to bring anything in particular, they will say so in the information about the course.

However, wearing an athletic cup might be a good idea for those students who may require one. While some pain during training can be a good thing, other pains are better off imagined.


The conversion kits that fire man-marking rounds can be a little expensive. Not to mention the ammunition to keep them fed. For this reason, some schools, may choose to supplement their training arsenal with realistic airsoft weapons which are far cheaper to feed. While airsoft lacks some of the realism of Simunition or UTM, any force on force training is better then no force on force training.



This kind of training brings with it a certain amount of risk which should anticipated and mitigated by the training company putting on the event.  If they are not approaching the training with a constant vigilance to safety protocols, it could be a sign of a bad company.

A strict, “no weapons but our weapons allowed” policy is generally what most force on force training companies observe. This includes anything that could be used as a weapon other than firearms like pocket knives, tactical pens etc. When the stress levels are high it’s easy for mistakes to be made unless the training evolution is carefully controlled.

There have been occasions where a person has been participating in force on force training, then loaded up their CCW weapon before heading to a restaurant for lunch break, then coming right back to training, forgetting they are carrying a hot weapon.

Don’t be surprised if the training company pats you down and/or uses a metal detector before each scenario to ensure a sterile training environment. Safety should be a priority.

Pay attention to these rules when attending force on force training and be observant for someone who may have missed the memo. Nothing ruins good training like a negligent discharge.

Force on force training can be some of the most significant training you can participate in if you ever get the opportunity to do so. If you have been through this kind of training before, let us know in the comments below what your experiences were.

About Brian McLaughlin

Brian grew up hunting and shooting on the Eastern plains of Colorado. He joined the Navy and spent time working in the 29 Palms Robert. E. Bush Naval Hospital Emergency Room before being sent to Afghanistan with the USMC.
Brian has extensive experience in treating and teaching combat trauma management and has acted as both a student and instructor of live fire and Force on Force training.
Currently, Brian is a full-time student at UC Denver for English, and the father of 3 small boys.

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