If you have ever thought of using a gun for defense, you have undoubtedly asked yourself, “How can I be sure I’d do the right thing? Above all, I don’t want to shoot the wrong person! How can I really be confident in my ability to judge when and how to use a gun?”

Those sorts of questions are perfectly normal. They mark you as a good, moral person, thoughtfully considering the pros and cons of a serious issue. The proper way to answer those questions is NOT to just sit and think about them. It is to get the best training you can, and then test yourself in the most realistic circumstances you can find, short of inviting a real criminal attack. Excellent training is available at a number of nationally-famous and local schools, but opportunities for realistic testing are rare. The National Tactical Invitational (NTI) is the best test I’ve encountered.

Skip Gocenour is the Director of ATSA (the American Tactical Shooting Association), the organization that puts on the NTI every year. Skip says “The thinking of evil people, derived from my hundreds of lengthy interviews with killers, has been incorporated in to the development of courses of fire.”

“The NTI uses realism to teach lessons.” Skip continues. “Tacticians who attend the NTI are asked to think their way through scenarios using their shooting skills, tactical skills, verbal skills, and judgment to solve the realistic problems presented.”

Verbal skills? The stuff women are supposed to be better at than guys? Yep. Judgment? The part of the self-defense equation that might have been left out of the course you took, leaving you feeling like you’d been given a driving license without the rules of the road? Yep.

“The essence of freedom is the ability to make judgments,” Skip continues. “Good judgment is a learned process. The more practice that you get making specific types of judgments, the better your ability to make them. The NTI teaches good people to make judgments about the handling of their environment when wicked people enter it.”

The Continuum of Tactical Awareness

It is hard to measure something as complex as tactical behavior under realistic stress, but Skip has come up with a simple model that describes the general levels of competence that NTI participants exhibit.

1. Unconscious Incompetence. This is the beginner’s level. You don’t know a lot, and you don’t even know that you don’t know it. You are likely to be dangerous with a gun in a tactical situation, even if you have had basic gun safety. Get some defense-oriented training.

2. Conscious Incompetence. You know that you don’t know enough, or haven’t practiced enough yet. You’ve had some training, and you can carry out gunhandling operations safely, but tactical situations are very difficult. At your first NTI, you might be at this level.

3. Conscious Competence. You understand, intellectually, most of the tactical issues and problems presented by the NTI and can do them if you have the time to think about them, but, under stress, it often goes to hell and you find yourself doing things that you know, later, were less than optimal. Most NTI participants, particularly those with one or more NTIs behind them, are at this level.

4. Unconscious Competence. You have made the tactical, gunhandling, and other maneuvers so much a part of your life that, like driving a car, you can perform them automatically when necessary, even under considerable stress and in the face of surprises and situations you have not encountered before. Very few, maybe 12%, of the participants attain this level of skill and are able to demonstrate it throughout all of the challenges of the NTI.

The purpose of the NTI is to test you, and to give you feedback so that you know where along that continuum you currently belong, and what you have to do to move forward toward Unconscious Competence.

The live fire stages at the NTI are something like IPSC stages, except for two things. They have been carefully designed to pose specific tactical problems; sometimes the same problem occurs several times during the same scenario. And there is no walk-through. Everything is a surprise, just like in real life. You must distinguish the (clothed, lifelike) targets as “good guys” (police or people who appear to pose no threat) or “bad guys” (holding a weapon, but no badge).

The stage judge who accompanies you through the scenario observes your tactics and scores them both objectively and subjectively.

The targets used in all the live fire stages this year have been under development by ATSA for the last several years. The main criteria in their design was that they react to being shot like a person would – they should move, or “go down”, only when hit with a good center hit, or a good head shot, not a peripheral hit. That was achieved last year. But this year, in addition to real clothing, the targets featured extremely lifelike heads and hands.

The plastic figures came from a martial arts supply house that developed them originally for martial arts practice. The faces began with neutral flesh tones, but were painted in a wide variety of ways. Some looked Hispanic, some Black, some Caucasian, and two looked distinctly like space aliens. The facial expression was grim, ambiguous between worried and hostile, perfect for both hostiles and innocents suddenly caught in a dangerous situation.

The hands were remarkable in detail, right down to fingernails and veins. Heavy wires in the fingers allowed for some grasping, so instead of the hard-to-see two dimensional pictures of weapons that separated the hostiles from the innocents last year, this year’s targets held realistic, easy-to-see plastic guns, knives, cameras, telephones, and other objects.

You might be thinking, “Ugh, how awful to shoot at such ‘lifelike’ targets.” But actually, the more realistic the targets, the more aware you are aware of the tactical situation, and the more you want to avoid shooting one unless necessary. There are a high proportion of innocent targets in the NTI world, and it is easier to make the conscious choice whether to shoot or not based on the presence or absence of an explicit threat (gun, knife, etc.) than based on some arbitrary “don’t shoot” color or stripe on a piece of cardboard.

“These targets are designed for testing skills on demand, not skills on command.” Skip says. For example, some shooters, at the Conscious Competence level may shoot a perfect failure drill (two shots to the body, followed immediately by one to the head) when instructed to do so on the line in a class, but at the NTI would empty one and a half mags into the unreacting body of these lifelike targets, without ever remembering to switch to the head as a target, in case the hostile is wearing body armor.

Gear is really unimportant in this match, as long as you have a concealment holster you can draw from rapidly. I carried my favorite Novak Browning Hi-Power in a Bianchi Lady Gunsite holster, with my S&W 3913 LadySmith in a Galco Escort nylon waistpack.

Some of the specific tactical situations (“problems”) posed by the NTI, and their solutions, are found in future Defensive Strategies columns in this magazine. This article, however, will concentrate on situations in the NTI where moral judgment, not just tactical awareness and gunhandling, plays a part.

A Series of Moral Problems

In past NTI’s there have always been stages in which, stripped of all real weapons, you were given a revolver loaded with Simunitions ammunition (paint pellets) and a few rounds of extra Simunitions ammo, and were sent into a situation in which you had to deal with real human beings that could talk, move, and shoot back. These stages were the heart and soul of the NTI, as they approximated “reality” even more closely than the live fire stages.

However, some Simunitions’ stages were virtually unsurvivable, since they often involved complicated, unrealistic, multiple assailant situations. The NTI staff didn’t like the fact that people tended to enter these stages in a condition of high readiness, complete with gun hand hovering just above the supposedly concealed weapon.

This year, all those issues were completely resolved.

Instead of several Simunitions scenarios, each with a 3 minute limit, this year the NTI offered ATSA Village, an entire complex of buildings such as a bookstore, a sushi bar, a post office, a pizza restaurant, a bar, and a jail.

You entered the village as if starting a day of errands, your friendly stage judge at your elbow. He would tell you what was next on your shopping list (“Go into the post office and buy some stamps”). You would carry out the task, and deal with whatever happened during the transaction, and then go on to the next.

Maybe nothing happened. Maybe the people who talked with you were just ordinary folk. But if you got antsy and exposed your firearm when there was no reason to do so, the Sheriff of ATSA Village (in real life, recently retired Sheriff John Adler) would come and take away your gun for a period of time (during which you would still have to deal with whatever happened). The Sheriff could even take you to the ATSA jail for serious infractions of public safety (that happened only a couple of times during the entire event).

Everyone who entered ATSA Village stayed there for 45 minutes to an hour. That’s a long time to maintain vigilance, if you aren’t used to being in Condition Yellow at all times.

As in the live fire scenarios, the judge was with you at every moment, alert for any safety infractions and watching your tactics closely. After each encounter, there was an immediate debriefing, discussing the pros and cons of your actions. Then, immediately, on to the next errand.

The situations in the village were, on the whole, as realistic as they were ordinary. Most threats came from muggers, bank robbers, the occasional abduction attempt, guys trying to pick up women, drunks, and bums. The bad guys (and gals) came in ones and twos, usually, so participants with a tendency to snivel could not claim to have been outgunned.

The role players walked, talked, and they expected you to talk back. Verbal skills actually counted for more than gun-handling here! The role players acted just like real criminals – they tested you, and decided whether you would make a good victim; they listened to what you said, and watched what you did. If you handled yourself well enough, the scene would end with no shots fired.

This year, instead of claiming lots of “kills”, the top participants came out saying “I didn’t get shot, and I didn’t have to shoot anyone!” That’s success in real life, and now it is success at the NTI as well.

“This is about thinking your way through a problem, not just shooting your way through it.” Skip says. “The NTI is a series of moral problems, some of which require the use of force to solve, and some of which don’t.”

Here are a few of my encounters.

The Post Office

I bought some stamps from a machine (there was no staff in the post office), and looked closely at the man and woman who came in just behind me. They looked perfectly normal. We were the only people in the post office. They looked at the posters on the wall, and then turned to me. “Hey, there!” the man said. “Stop a minute.”

I didn’t want to be impolite, but knew that muggers and others often use that polite-response-reaction to get victims into a dangerous position. I decided I didn’t want to be in the small room with them, so I walked out of the door into the village street. They followed.

“Hey, your picture is in there! You look just like that woman who is wanted for murder!” the woman said, menacingly.

I denied that, but they insisted. I suggested they call the Sheriff, and when they didn’t want to, I got very suspicious.

Moral problem: Were these actually bad people trying, for some reason, to scam me, or were they genuinely mistaken? How could I deal with the situation without escalating it to the point where I might have to reach for the revolver tucked into my fannypack?

Fortunately, I noticed the Sheriff working nearby, and called him over myself.

“Sheriff, these folks have mistaken me for someone who is wanted for murder. Can you please talk to them and straighten it out?” He agreed that I looked nothing like the woman on the wanted poster, and the couple, clearly unnerved by the presence of the law, quickly left.

“No way! I know about secondary crime scenes. I would never have gone anywhere with them.”

The problem posed in this test was to judge whether these folks were indeed “bad guys”, and to figure out how to deal with their accusations. Nothing they said or did was enough of a threat to justify even putting my hand on my gun.

One transaction survived. No shots fired. No weapons even drawn.

The Bookstore

I was told to go into a bookstore that was empty of patrons and staff. While waiting for the clerk to show up, I noticed a mirror on the floor leaning against the wall in one corner. When someone finally entered, he said he was the clerk and had been checking on stock. (Notice how being in ATSA village makes you suspicious of everyone — normally I would have said that the clerk came in, but I really was conscious of the fact that he might be just claiming to be the clerk.)

He bustled about, dealing with stock for a minute or so, and just as I was starting to be annoyed at not being waited on, two men burst through the doorway. The one in the lead had a gun, which he waved around not very professionally but with convincing intensity.
“Which one of you is the clerk?” he demanded.

“He is,” I said rapidly, before the clerk could think to point at me and say “She is!”

“Open the cash register, fast,” he growled, waving the gun again. “You, get your hands up!”

“Don’t hurt me!” I said, to enhance my image as a harmless victim, while at the same time I was considering the gun that was nestled in my Galco fanny pack. If he asked for my money, could I give it to him without exposing the gun?

Moral problem: Should one draw a gun in a robbery situation like this?

My decision was no, not as long as the money was all they wanted. Tactically, the situation was bad. Close quarters, no cover available, and they already had guns out. But even if the situation had been tactically ideal, using lethal force to protect money (mine or the bookstore’s) is not justified.
Once the money from the till was in the first robber’s hands, he started yelling at us to turn around and face the wall.

Moral problem: How should I react? Was his command preparatory to shooting us both in the back, or simply getting away?

I considered moving to the wall near the mirror, where I could see what they were doing, but realized that they could equally well see me fooling with my fannypack there, so I moved to another part of the wall, glancing over my shoulder to keep an eye on them while I surreptitiously pulled the string to open the fannypack’s zippers part way, giving me instant access to the gun. I was deeply grateful for the relatively quiet zippers on the Galco Escort waistbag instead of the noisy Velcro on most gunpacks of similar design.

They backed out the door, and ran down the street.

In the post-scenario feedback session, the stage judge pointed out to me that instead of giving away my position by looking out the door after the robbers, it would have been more tactically sound to stay inside the store in a position from which I could cover the door so that, if they came back in, I could shoot instantly without their even being aware that I was there. Good advice.

Final analysis: The clerk and I both made it through that situation unharmed. No shots fired.

I was sitting by myself at a small table in a restaurant. The wait staff were nowhere to be seen; the only other person there was a friendly young woman at the table next to me, who kept trying to strike up a conversation.

But my attention was riveted on three men I noticed on a corner down the street. One of them was showing off a large fixed-blade knife to the others.

“Do you know any of those guys?” I asked my companion.
She looked at them, and said “Nope,” but by this time the knife-admiration society meeting had broken up, and the knife was back in the belt of the guy wearing the black shirt. She continued her chatter.

“Well, they have a knife, and they are headed this way, “ I said. “Excuse me, but I’m going to leave.” And with that I left the restaurant and walked down a street that was perpendicular to where the trio was walking, so I could see them without having to cross their path.

At that point, the stage judge told me that leaving before trouble started was indeed commendable, but that I should go back into the restaurant to let the scenario play out.

By this time, I was thoroughly convinced that she was the innocent party. As I exited the restaurant I think I yelled for someone to call the Sheriff, but the village was unusually deserted, and the Sheriff was nowhere to be seen.

Now the woman was down on her back, and each of the guys held an arm or leg or shoulders as they started dragging her. No knife in sight. They gave no sign that they even knew I was there, though I was only 10-15 feet away, and shouting.
I continued to yell “Leave her alone!” as I drew my gun and looked around for cover. Damn, this was the middle of the street, and there was none! I positioned myself so that one of the men was between me and the guy with the knife (not very good cover, but you take what you can get) and continued to yell commands, which they continued to ignore as they yelled at her and at one another, and continued to drag her away from me. At one point, they actually lifted her off the ground, cursing and kicking her, as she struggled ineffectually.
I knew if they got her into a van or other vehicle, it would be very bad news. There was nobody else around to help, or to go for help.

Moral problem: shoot, or don’t shoot? What would you have done?

The standard of justification for shooting someone is that they pose an immediate and unavoidable threat of death or grave bodily harm to you or another innocent person. That’s a very precise requirement, and usually easy to apply. But not always.

I know the dangers of coming to the aid of strangers in public. I teach people about the incident where a truck driver intervened in what he thought was a rape attempt, only to find that it was actually an undercover police officer arresting a prostitute. But this abduction had been going on for quite some time now, and none of the three had attempted to identify themselves as police officers, nor were their actions those of professional trouble-fighters getting a prisoner under control. They were a gang of thugs about to rape a woman, or worse.

Finally I stopped worrying about whether the woman knew these guys or not. Even if she did, she didn’t deserve to be endangered this way.

My voice was going hoarse from shouting, and I knew that if they hadn’t obeyed my commands, or even noticed me, yet, words were not going to work. I searched my mind once more for alternatives to shooting, and came up with none.

The sights of the little revolver were steady on the upper body of the leftmost man as I made the decision, pulled the trigger, moved the sights to the second man, made the decision again, pulled the trigger again, moved the sights to the third man (thinking, “If this gun made a loud bang, maybe he would know his buddies have been shot and stop, but he’s still pulling her arm”), reacquired the sight picture in the middle of his chest, and pulled the trigger a third time. Then I rapidly moved my gun back to the first assailant to see if he needed to be shot again, but the stage judge was moving in to tell me it was over.

In the debriefing that followed, I got a chance to explain about the knife that I had seen at the beginning of the scenario, and why I felt I had to stop the situation before they could get her into a van. I was told that the reason they ignored my presence was because they couldn’t hear me (got to work on that command voice!), but that the judge liked “the deliberate way you shot one after the other.”

I left that incident glad to be alive, but uncomfortable that I had had to shoot all three members of the gang. When I replay the scenario in my mind, I prefer an outcome where two of them run off as soon as the first one is hit, but I know I’m prepared to make “The Decision” multiple times in a short space of time, if circumstances require.

Another situation survived, at least by the two women involved, though I considered it a negative that I couldn’t find some way to end the situation without shooting anyone.

(Later, after the NTI was over, I learned that this scenario had been crafted for me by role players who had inferred, from my performance in other scenarios, that I had had rape prevention training. They decided to present me with a scenario in that vein, and determined in advance that they would “push me to the wall”. )

Feedback, Feedback, Feedback

If there is one thing that differentiated this (the 6th annual) NTI from all those that preceded it, it was the quality and quantity of the feedback that the range officers and judges were able to provide. As soon as you got through a stage, the judge would walk through it with you, commenting on the problems that the stage presented and how you solved them.

It was also a chance for the participant to explain his or her reasoning, in non-sniveling terms, of course, since sniveling (along with stupid gun handling and boorish behavior) is a disqualification.

This kind of back-and-forth discussion of what was good and bad about the way the problem was solved (or not solved) is where the real learning takes place. The judges learn what is going on in the heads of the shooters, and the participants learn the details of their performance.

The astonishing thing about this process was that, as far as I could tell (and I talked to many, many shooters during the match) every single NTI staff member was able to consistently deliver feedback in a helpful, supportive manner. Bill Chiarchiaro, a first time NTIer, said “Even when I thought I screwed up on a stage, the judges didn’t make me feel like I screwed up. They were extremely helpful and supportive.”

Educators and training theorists have long known that the sooner feedback is made available, the more of an impact it has on the learning process. By giving “instant feedback” after the shooting, instead of written reports long after the match, the shooters learned faster, and the administrative burden on the staff was considerably reduced.

On a personal note, the most surprising, and humbling, part of the week came when I learned that I had been named the 1997 Tactical Advocate, an annual award given by ATSA to acknowledge writing or teaching about the use of firearms for self defense. I’d like to publicly thank ATSA for this prize, a Colt Serengeti Skinner knife and a Colt LW Officer’s Model frame with a Commander Slide (gunsmithing by Jim Garthwaite). I hope I can continue to return to the readers of this magazine many of the lessons I’ve learned from the NTI.

What You Learn

One participant, a local baker, was so appreciative of his NTI experience that he brought chocolate chip cookies and a massive sheet cake for the staff the next day. (Or maybe he was trying to get some post-shooting brownie points.)

Another participant, a police officer, said, “In 16 years on the job, this Simunitions stage was the best training I’ve ever had!”

I talked to one first-time participant soon after he came out of ATSA village. “I made a mistake that was worth the entire cost of the week,” he said soberly. When asked to elaborate, he explained that he was in a robbery scenario in which two armed men asked for his money. As he reached for his wallet (he was going to give them the money, not go for his gun at that time), he inadvertently exposed the gun on his hip. The robbers saw it, assumed that he was an undercover or off-duty police officer, panicked, forced him to the ground, and assassinated him.

A valuable lesson indeed! You could read that a million times and still not internalize it, but the lessons of the NTI, when learned, are learned deeply. You can bet that man will never, ever, flash his gun when reaching for his wallet again.


Give It A Try!

Come on! If you have a gun for defense, if you’ve been through some training with it, aren’t you curious to know how you’d handle yourself if push came to shove? This is the place to find out, in an environment that is supportive, fun, and above all, realistic! Besides, where else are you going to find a shooting event that lets you talk your way out of trouble? The NTI was held this year (and next) at the West Shore Sportsmen’s Association near Harrisburg, PA. Within a few miles of both historic Gettysburg and Hershey (yes, where all the chocolate bars and kisses come from) there is plenty for families to do and see nearby. Next year, there will be some special events for women, too! Check out the web page, Teddy Tactical, which will be updated as plans for next year’s event develop.

This article first appeared in the Sept 1997 issue of Women&Guns magazine.  Copyright (c) 1997  Lyn Bates