The Cornered Cat
“Train as you fight!”

Came across this discussion awhile back, on an old forum best forgotten. Someone posted a picture of a defensive handgun class where students were told to point “unloaded” but functional firearms at each other as part of role playing exercise.

When some people protested that this was (and is) a violation of the most basic safety protocols, others responded: “Train as you fight!” The contention was, of course, that a person could never develop a proper fighting mindset if they were worried about something so mundane and childish as following the safety rules.


Train as you fight.

Hopefully, when you fight — which I sincerely hope you never have to do — it will be with fully loaded gun. Not with a checked and triple-checked “unloaded” one. But with one fully and immediately capable of dealing death or grave bodily harm to the person at the noisy end of the muzzle.

To “train as you fight” in this context would be to accept, with full intention, the likelihood of killing the person in front of you when you press the trigger.

That is training as you fight. You fight with full understanding that you may kill your attacker.

In the context of a class, innocent assistants and fellow students will be role playing the attacker. And since killing innocent students is not okay, we need to find another way.

Mindset Goal

Instructors who take the job seriously do want to erase potential glitches and freezes before they happen, building a strong and determined outlook in our students’ minds. We want to reduce the possibility that our students will freeze under pressure. We want students to act quickly, correctly, and without hesitation when the time comes.

That is why many instructors work hard to help students overcome their reluctance to point gun-shaped objects at criminal attackers or to press the trigger while someone else is directly in front of the muzzle.

That’s the goal.

Fortunately, we can help students begin to break down their reluctance using role play with inert gun-shaped objects (dummy guns). We don’t need to use working firearms here, and it’s better if we don’t.

Whatever the training objective might be, we should only simulate deaths and serious injuries during training — not cause real ones.

So here’s the rule: whenever we have a simulated attacker, we use a simulated weapon.  Only real attackers should ever get the honor of being really killed with real weapons. 1

Every fake bad guy gets up and goes home at the end of the day.

As long as we are not willing to accept the real-life consequence of killing a fellow student or an instructor during training, we should never use a functional gun for this type of drill.


Back when I taught my own classes, we practiced gun retention (and a few other things) using blue plastic dummy guns. And we would often notice glitches and hesitations beginning in the very first drill — when we asked them to point the dummy gun directly at their “bad guy” partner’s chest.

Glitches an instructor might spot here include:

  • Pointing the muzzle off to the side, or at the ground.
  • Doing as instructed, but look incredibly uncomfortable, refusing to look at the “bad guy.”
  • Pointing the muzzle correctly, but never touching the trigger.

I think my favorite weird glitch (and it’s not an uncommon one!) is the one where a person will say, “Bang” as if they are shooting the simulated attacker, but do it with trigger finger straight alongside the frame. Most truly do not realize they are doing that, and need someone else to point it out to them.

In all these cases, when we spotted the glitch we would explain that they need to build a mindset of being willing to shoot a living, breathing human being under some circumstances. We would also point out that they won’t be able to protect themselves using a gun if they aren’t willing to point even a pretend gun at someone “attacking” them in a very controlled setting.

We drag their discomfort with all of this into the light and we force them to confront it and some people think it through and decide carrying a gun isn’t for them and others think it through and get much more serious about learning to defend themselves effectively.

Either way, the mindset mission is accomplished.

Or at least, beginning to be accomplished.

For most people, the very simple exercises we do in most classes won’t fully meet their mindset needs. It will, however, get them moving down the right path. In the long run, it takes repeated exposure to well-designed, well-run interactive scenarios before most people fully internalize some of those lessons, and I always encouraged my students to go on and get that additional experience.

Pretend Attackers, Real Consequences

Back to my primary point: all roleplaying scenarios — no matter how basic or advanced, static or active, entangled or distant — can be run without any risk of a gunshot hitting one of the participants. They can be run without compromising the mindset goal in any way simply by using an inert replica or dummy gun that could never launch a bullet even if someone did make a mistake by bringing ammunition into the area.

Although the benefit of realistic mindset training is substantial, the death of an innocent student is not an acceptable risk for anyone to take in a world where it is so easy to use realistic dummy guns and training replicas to get those benefits. For any drill that requires innocent people to stand directly in front of a muzzle, the muzzle should simply not be capable of launching a deadly round.

The bottom line here is that we won’t do those things because we are absolutely not willing to risk making a mistake about the status of the gun when an innocent human life is at stake.

Checking and re-checking the gun does not erase the potential consequences of getting it wrong. This means a person should never point even a triple-checked “unloaded” gun at someone they are not willing to kill.

Because while the role-playing situation might be only make believe, the consequences for making a mistake with a deadly weapon always happen in the real world.



  1. This is similar to the safe-direction rule. When we use a simluated firearm for a training exercise, such as a dummy gun or a regular gun that has been disabled and is currently non-functional, we can also use a simulated or designated safe direction. But whenever we handle a real gun, even an unloaded one, we must treat it with real repect. This includes keeping the real gun pointed in a real safe direction, one that will definitely bring the bullet completely to rest in a known and acceptable place.

One Response to “Train as you fight!”

  1. larryarnold says:

    Someone posted a picture of a defensive handgun class where students were told to point “unloaded” but functional firearms at each other as part of role playing exercise.

    As I recall that particular “technique” came and went pretty fast. A young sheriff’s deputy got fatally shot by her instructor, and an instructor teaching a civilian class killed the local librarian.

    As usual, you are spot on.

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