Study Confirms: Force-On-Force Benefits Top Traditional Target Training

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In the first study of its kind, researchers have confirmed that force-on-force training is significantly superior to traditional firearms practice in at least three important ways:

  1. Force-on-force (FoF) scenarios that enable “suspects” to shoot at trainees generally stimulate a stronger physiological stress reaction in targeted officers
  2. They expose how badly officers’ shooting accuracy is likely to suffer in an actual gunfight
  3. They more strongly motivate officers to take training seriously and to adopt protective tactics on their own volition.

In light of their scientific documentation, the researchers conclude in a newly published paper that 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.”

FSI was not involved in this research, although some of the Institute’s work is referenced in the recent paper.


The study was conducted by Dr. John Taverniers, head of psychology for the department of behavioral sciences at the Royal Military Academy in Belgium, and Pieter De Boeck, a military and social sciences expert at that country’s Infantry School.

Their subject pool was comprised of 20 “healthy military men,” ranging in age from 25 to 36, with four to 10 years of service. All were “in full preparation for operational duties abroad,” having received specialized training in urban combat. Two had previously been involved “in real-life shooting incidents.”

Working alone, each volunteer was assigned to clear a four-room house and an alleyway in which “two ‘aggressive criminal elements’ were entrenched.” Each participant was to complete this four- to six-minute “mission” twice, several days apart–and with an important variant.

One time through, they were told in a briefing that their adversaries would be depicted by two “traditional” cardboard targets. But the other time, they’d be operating in a dynamic FoF environment, with live “aggressive opponents” armed with 9mm pistols that fired marker ammunition. These “suspects,” the volunteers were warned, would “probably try to retaliate when confronted.”

The participants were instructed to respond in the same manner both to the paper targets and the live threats: double taps to center mass with marker rounds from their “standard issued” handgun.


In conjunction with the experiment, the volunteers answered subjective questions about their stress expectations and experience; multiple saliva samples were taken for stress-related hormone analysis; and their movements, including shooting responses and tactical behavior, were videoed throughout the mission for detailed examination later.

Across the board, the researchers report, the results from the FoF phase of the experiment proved superior from a training perspective. Specifically, the researchers noted the following:

Anticipated distress

Right after their preliminary briefings, the volunteers were asked to rate on a scale of 0 to 10 the level of distress they anticipated during the upcoming exercise. On average, the prospect of facing live adversaries was perceived as over 1 ? times more distressing than confronting cardboard targets, even before any action began.

Saliva sampling

Salivary samples taken throughout the experiment revealed a “significant” increase in the volunteers’ secretion of stress-related biomarkers during the FoF phase, compared to baseline and cardboard-target measurements. This evidence of a physiological stress impact was more than 2 ? times greater for FoF than for the conventional targets, on average.

Stress perception

Immediately after completing their missions, participants were asked to rate the maximum stress they experienced on a scale of 0 to 10. Results again showed “significantly more subjectively experienced stress in the FoF condition.”

Shooting accuracy

While stress increased in the FoF phase, shooting accuracy–an “essential performance characteristic”–suffered a “significant” and “ominous” decline upon the first encounter with a live opponent. On average, the volunteers’ accuracy dropped by 30% when shooting in the FoF mode.

Corrective behavior

Perhaps most important, the study revealed that the prospect or reality of Simunition rounds flying their way prompted participants “on their own accord” to improve their tactics and training commitment. Examination of the videotapes, for example, showed that they “chose to expose significantly less” body surface from behind cover when facing live adversaries in the FoF mode than when confronting cardboard targets. “This finding suggests a more realistic approach” and a “desirable surge” of training “seriousness” in the FoF condition, leading to “a desirable improvement” in training “earnestness” and commitment, the researchers report.

The research team does not recommend the abandonment of conventional target training. “Cardboard-target practice is the obvious means for skill acquisition in the early and mid-stages of training,” their paper explains. But to better prepare officers to perform well under the stress of life-threatening situations, they need to advance to a more sophisticated and realistic rehearsal level.

“Of course,” Lewinski told Force Science News, “even force-on-force training cannot match the intensity of a truly life-or-death encounter. But with repeated exposure to good force-on-force scenarios, officers are forced to acknowledge the adverse effect of high stress and they can gradually learn to perform reliably and use it to enhance their performance.”

The Belgian study, titled “Force-on Force Handgun Practice: An Intra-Individual Exploration of Stress Effects, Biomarker Regulation, and Behavioral Changes,” appears in the journal Human Factors. A free abstract can be accessed at http://hfs.sagepub.com/content/56/2/403, where the full study is available for a fee.

Note: Ken Murray, whose excellent book Training at the Speed of Life is referenced in the study’s bibliography, is widely recognized as the premier authority on FoF training. For more information on his classes, access the website for the Armiger Police Training Institute at: www.armiger.net

Our thanks to Chris Lawrence, a faculty member for the certification course in Force Science Analysis, for alerting us to this study, as well as to the one reported below.

1 Response
  1. […] Dr. Bill Lewinski of the FSI added; “even force-on-force training cannot match the intensity of a truly life-or-death encounter. But with repeated exposure to good force-on-force scenarios, officers are forced to acknowledge the adverse effect of high stress and they can gradually learn to perform reliably and use it to enhance their performance.” (Force-On-Force Benefits Top Traditional Target Training) […]

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