Personal Defense

Scenario-Based Training: If There’s a Shortcut for Defensive Skills Training, This Is It

elderly couple participation in scenario-based firearms training featuring live actors

If you carry a gun for self-protection and are interested in being as prepared as possible, don’t miss out on quality scenario-based training (SBT). What is it? Scenario-based training is the name given to a spectrum of choices in video or role play format. Simulator and reality-based training are interchangeable labels for this kind of learning.

Regardless of what it’s called, the first question that needs to be answered is “Why is this method of training highly recommended?” Designed and first used by police agencies in the 1990s, SBT proved effective in helping officers perform better with critical skills such as verbal de-escalation, the decision to retreat or use deadly force, and the timing of deadly force — when to draw as well as when to fire. In the process, managing internal and external stressors such as a racing heart or noisy bystanders are learned as well.

Video simulator of steel targets providing simulator-based training to increase marksmanship skills
This is an example of a video simulator exercise that was designed to practice the skills necessary to improve marksmanship.

Value of Training

Exposing officers to imitation street scenarios quickly proved its value in keeping the peace and applying deadly force in a timely manner when necessary to save lives. “Stress inoculation” is the term that refers to the ability to continue making logical decisions and acting wisely in the face of threatening situations. Aside from actual violence, SBT is the best vehicle to develop stress inoculation. Today, scenario-based training is a standard practice for most law enforcement academies and many continuing education programs.

Armed civilians, of course, bear far less responsibility for keeping the peace than police officers. However, they also face special risks and considerations in terms of their comparatively limited exposure to criminal violence and disruptive human behavior (generally speaking). Less opportunities to regularly practice verbal skills on high-risk people, and a daily routine that’s removed from violent culture, can make a person less likely to respond effectively to a threat.

Many civilians have not subjected themselves to timed tests of accurate shooting that — while a canned exercise, even for law enforcement — forms an important building block of readiness. Legal factors may also be included. The qualified immunity that police in most jurisdictions enjoy, regarding the things they say during and in the moments after a show or use of deadly force, is absent for civilians.

A civilian bears the risk of being mistaken for a criminal actor by responding officers and bystanders. This is especially true when physiological responses to stress can make a person exceedingly unaware of stimuli such as sirens and verbal commands. These responses can lend the appearance of resisting or evading police. Stress inoculation through scenario-based training is the best choice to reduce the likelihood of a such an honest mistake and potentially tragic outcome. Conditioning the mind, as well as learning habits of gun handling and situational awareness, reduces risk of mistaken identity.

Scenarios to train armed civilians will generally not be the same as those used in law enforcement training. However, the value of police simulator training has been beneficial in many communities to educate citizens, and members of the media, who range from the armed to even anti-gun in their philosophies.

Most often done with video simulators, this kind of exposure usually goes far in helping people understand realities such as the speed at which an attacker can approach, the time it takes to draw and see your sights on target, and the impossibility of taking in even 180 visual degrees of imminent threat information at once.

Such factors as these are often misrepresented on the news. The reality of how violence can unfold, and how the pressure of time and space affects the responding party, is difficult to appreciate until experienced. From concealed carriers to news reporters, many people count their simulator experience as an eye-opener.

scenario-based training gear including a rubber knife, airsoft mask, gun and pellets
Protective gear should be worn when training includes any sort of projectile.

The magic of a well-designed scenario-based training works in a three-phase process. That process starts with discovery of how an individual is affected by and tends to respond to a potential threat or in-progress violence being exacted upon themselves or some innocent party in the vicinity. In non-specific terms, common discoveries include:

  • Creative ability or lack of it regarding skillful communication for de-escalation
  • One-handed and “point” (not seeing the sights) shooting are the norm in a defensive encounter
  • Physiological reactions to stress (tunnel vision, accelerated heart rate, etc.) often show up unexpectedly
  • Lack of accuracy in immediate post-event recall, even pertaining to one’s own actions

Choosing a provider or source of quality scenario-based training is sometimes more challenging than choosing standard firearms safety or self-defense training. Fewer providers exist, and some are less suitable than others — especially for people who are not capable or trained in hand-to-hand combat in addition to firearms. A fairly reliable strategy is to seek out video simulator training, which does not entail much physical effort or involvement by the student.

man holding a gun pointing at an aggressor during a scenario-based training
This scenario showed an obvious bad guy that demanded the subject’s attention. However, two more suspects suddenly appeared from behind the cars. One was outside of the defender’s peripheral vision.

There are many simulator facilities around the country. Companies such as Gander Outdoors and numerous local indoor ranges offer simulator experiences. As when seeking any instruction, it can be valuable to ask around regarding whether the available instructors are qualified to teach civilians and personally experienced with home defense and concealed carry, including familiarity with the laws of your home state and city.

Getting Training

If you’re interested in seeking out a more immersive, role-play experience for yourself or your family, here are some pointers on selecting a curriculum/provider suited to your needs.

If projectiles are used, what kind are they and what protective gear is provided and/or required?

Two types of projectiles are commonly used. Those can be airsoft pellets, propelled by gas or spring pressure, or a glycerin-filled “marking” cartridge that leaves washable proof of hits, often color-coded in multi-participant scenarios so hits can be accurately associated with a specific shooter. Some programs even use game-derived paint cartridges.

Most of these projectiles are capable of creating bruises and sometimes a bit of broken skin. Avoid any program that does not require eye, ear/temple, teeth, and neck protection. Permanent disability or death can easily result from a projectile impact to these areas. The risk of not protecting these regions outweighs learning benefits.

Potential damage from projectile impacts on other areas of the body should be considered on an individual basis. For people who aren’t used to persisting despite a little pain or taking some minor bruising hits, this type of training can be valuable for instilling the confidence to stay in the fight.

Anyone taking prescription medications should consult their physician before participating in any contact sport. That word “sport” is used with a touch of caution. While training can be fun, the purpose addressed here is education, not recreation.

Is physical contact between participants involved, and if so, what previous experience or training is necessary?

While the real world has no rules about whether an attacker will strike, push, or otherwise commit physical violence, responsible providers will have rules about this that applies to both role players and students. For some participants with appropriate training and using the appropriate protective gear that may include things in the environment such as wall or floor mats, physical roughness can be a valuable component. For others, it is patently dangerous. A reputable trainer will be able to assess your needs and describe why or why not their program is a fit for you.

gun writer in a multiple screen simulator for scenario-based training
A fellow gun writer takes on a scenario. The experience was as humbling as it was educational.

What can I expect to learn by participating?

A good curriculum should allow participants to discover their natural tendencies of reaction under stress and provide opportunities to practice improved tactical/firearm skills or styles of communication. It should provide an understanding of the lawful and appropriate times to put a hand on a gun, draw, and present a gun, and fire in the face of a developing threat.

While the possibilities of individual insights are many, some variation on these objectives should be part of the course description, along with a description of expected physical activities, risks, and protections.

Keep in mind that risk exists in everything. Choose a curriculum that sounds challenging but does not require more than you’re ready for. For example, if you’ve never taken a martial arts class and are awaiting a hip replacement, the armed Tae Kwon Do-based use of force class is probably one to pass on. Use common sense, and take charge of your responsibility for self-defense.

Have you participated in scenario-based training? What lessons did you learn? Any specific training you would recommend? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • elderly couple participation in scenario-based firearms training featuring live actors
  • scenario-based training gear including a rubber knife, airsoft mask, gun and pellets
  • gun writer in a multiple screen simulator for scenario-based training
  • Video simulator of steel targets providing simulator-based training to increase marksmanship skills
  • man holding a gun pointing at an aggressor during a scenario-based training
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (3)

    1. Gunsite and Front Sight are two of the best known, but you may also want to look at SEALed Mindset and Defensive Mindset. I have worked with both and enjoyed their formats. ~Dave

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