There are many kinds of competitions that challenge your ability to shoot accurately.  From bullseye to IPSC, they combine fun with a big incentive to improve your skills, and, usually, a dollop of stress for added excitement.

The National Tactical Invitational, or NTI for short, is a different kind of competition.  Oh, it’s major fun, and there’s plenty of incentive to practice, but the NTI is unparalleled on three fronts: its focus on making tactics truly as important as accuracy, its combination of live fire shooting with human-to-human interaction, and its ability to deliver unbelievable levels of stress in very realistic settings.

After shooting a scenario at the NTI, you get a detailed discussion and critique of your performance from each stage judge, instead of a numeric score.  The competitors range from the top tactical shooters in the country to relative newcomers to defensive personal firearms.  I’ve seen people from top federal agencies at the NTI, as well as ordinary Janes and Joes.  This is one “competition” where most people don’t think too much about competing with other shooters, but end up competing mostly against themselves.

The NTI is organized every year by the American Tactical Shooting Association, better known as ATSA.  The NTI fosters true defensive skills, things like using cover properly, managing a limited ammunition supply, dealing with new places (no walkthroughs!), and talking to live opponents (who may, or may not, be bad guys).

If you have been reading this magazine for a few years, you know that I’ve shot this match many times, and have tried to convey my experiences, good and bad, to readers who are trying to raise their own tactical awareness and capabilities.  I’ve tried to be especially forthright about the less-than-optimal experiences, mistakes, and ways I got shot in some scenarios, since errors are powerful teachers.

Most readers appreciated the honesty of presenting the actual details of these NTI encounters, instead of an idealized description filtered to include only the good parts.

Well, this year I decided I was tired of writing about my own actions, good or bad.  I vowed to take the sound advice of Otto von Bismark, “A fool must learn by his own experience.  I prefer to learn by the experience of others.”  So, instead of shooting the match, I took the vantage point of the range officers and judges, observing participants closely as scenarios unfolded.

What an education!  In just a few days, I saw dozens of folk go through ATSA Village, the “Hogan’s Alley” of the NTI, where NTI-provided guns are loaded only with ammunition that fires water-based paint “bullets” (Simunitions, or Code Eagle), where the role players you meet might, or might not, be up to no good, and where the most intense lessons of inter-personal interactions take place.

For obvious reasons, the participants who taught by negative example shall remain nameless in this article.  There were plenty of superb examples of good tactics, and those can be identified by name, as they are in the photos.

ATSA Village

ATSA Village is the part of the NTI where participants are given a revolver loaded with 5 rounds of marking ammo, and only 5 spare rounds.  They must go through the “village”, an ingenious construction of wood and plastic creating two streets with 4 or 5 “stores” on each.  This year, there were also two long alleys, made dim by a dark plastic roof.

The process at ATSA village is to go about your “shopping” under the guidance of your own personal NTI staff judge.  When you encounter other people in the stores or on the street, you should interact with them as naturally as possible.  The goal, at this part of the shooting match, is to get through all the interactions without having to use your gun!  That’s emphasis on tactics!!

If you do have to use your gun, of course you should.  The scenario doesn’t end when the last shot is fired, however, you still have to deal with the police (ATSA’s Sheriff, or Deputy Sheriff) who are called to the scene, any bystanders who happen to be there, and so on.

This year, there were three basic types of scenarios in the village, robberies, domestic situations, and a dark parking garage.  Here I got to be a “fly on the wall”, watching the action from very nearby.

For two days, I followed participants around these stages.  What did I learn?

Lessons from Robbery Scenarios

Robberies are always difficult.  Is he after my money, or me?  If I give him my money, how can I be sure he won’t suddenly shoot me anyway?  If there is more than one assailant, are they going to goad one another into a higher level of violence than either would dare to do alone?

Lesson: Give them the money, and run!  Don’t bring your gun into the situation unless you are absolutely certain that it is you he is after, not your money.

In several of these scenarios, both the robber and the robbery victim were shot. It tended to happen when neither party moved off the line of force, but instead they just stood there flatfooted and shot at one another!  Firearms instructor Vicki Farnam, role playing the part of the Deputy Sheriff of ATSA Village, calls this “a moral victory, but a tactical loss.”

Lesson:  The best tacticians move instantly when anything unusual occurs (a sound, movement, etc.), then analyze what is going on and react in other ways (talking, shooting, etc.).

When “shopping” in the ATSA village stores, where robberies or other problems are to be expected, virtually everyone knew not to stand or sit with their back to the door.  However, many people chose a position near the back of the room, often in one of the rear corners.

It does feel safe to know that you are protected from surprise 270 degrees, so that all you have to watch is a 90 degree area.  The disadvantage, however, is that as soon as one or two people come into the room with you, they can easily trap you in the corner.

Lesson: If your primary strategy is to disengage from any altercation rather than get further involved in it, a better tactical plan is to stay quite near the door, positioned so that nobody can come into the room behind you, but so that you can also slip out the door quickly if trouble starts to boil in the enclosed space.

Lessons from Domestic Violence Scenarios

Domestic violence doesn’t always stay confined to domestic environments.  It can erupt in very public situations.  ATSA village has more than its share of these incidents, thanks to the hard work of role player Robin, a.k.a. the infamous “Crazy Mary”,  who undoubtedly had the hardest job of all the NTI volunteers.  Most role players got to stay on their feet most of the time, but Robin often had to hit the muddy ground as her “partner” convincingly pummeled her.

Sometimes Robin and her husband/boyfriend would walk along the streets of ATSA Village arguing, and escalating to violence.  Sometimes they would be quietly sharing the post office or a store with the participant, when her “husband” would loudly accuse the participant of staring improperly at his woman.  Sometimes Robin would begin the encounter by claiming, loudly, to her husband that the participant had tried to grab her ass.

Whatever the provocation, it was all too easy for the situation to get out of hand quickly.

There were basically 3 ways the participant could react: watch what was happening, run for help, intervene (with or without using a firearm) to help the woman.

Passively watching almost always would get you into more trouble, as the fight pinned you in a corner of the room, or weapons came out.  Intervening sometimes resulted in being shot by the husband.  Sometimes, intervening resulted in being shot by the woman, who suddenly didn’t like you threatening her man!  Getting out and calling the cops was definitely the preferred strategy.

Lesson:  Don’t be too eager to get involved in other people’s quarrels.  If it appears that a woman is in trouble, ask her if she needs help — it could be that she and her husband argue like this at every opportunity, are perfectly happy with this relationship, and deserve one another.

Most experienced NTI participants knew what was expected, and found a way to exit the hostile atmosphere  and summon the police.  One participant, famed firearms instructor John Farnam, took another approach.  He used inert OC spray to subdue the violent husband, and then reached down to take Robin’s arm.  “We’re getting you out of here,” he told her as he dragged her to safety.

In the two days of the ATSA Village scenarios that I observed, Farnam was the only man to “save” the woman in that fashion.  John later told me, “I know what they (the judges) were looking for, but sometimes you just have to do what you know is right.”  Thanks, John.  It’s good to know there are men like you around.

Lesson:  Sometimes you just have to do what you know is right, even if it means making a change in your practiced tactical plan.

Lessons from a Dark Parking Garage

ATSA village had one large, interior building that could be made completely dark.  The story was that you entered an underground parking garage to get your car just as the power failed, all the lights went out, and the door locked behind you.  Your task: to go through the dark garage until you found your car, or an exit.

Oh, yes, you might not be alone in there.

The role players and judges saw to it that everyone who went through this building spent at least 10 minutes in the dark.  Trust me, that’s a long, long time.

The interior area had doors, hallways, and huge cardboard boxes big enough for someone to hide in..  The space was so large and complex that it taxed even the most experienced participants. “There were at least 20 times in there when I was sure I was about to be attacked,” one of the participants said.  That’s a lot of stress!!

One of the most common mistakes was making too much noise – inattention to noise discipline, as the judges called it.  If you rubbed against the walls or cardboard boxes that littered the “garage”, you could be heard distinctly, and your position pinpointed by anyone else in the building.

Diabolically, but not unrealistically, the ATSA crew littered the floor of the “garage” with empty soda cans and stuff that crunched under foot.  Do you have any idea how much noise it makes when you kick a can in the dark, or step on a handful of corn flakes?

The best tacticians used their flashlights to illuminate the floor in front of them as well as places a person could be hiding.  They saw the cans and avoided them, and either tiptoed among the cornflakes or carefully scraped them aside with a flat foot instead of stepping on them.

Another common mistakes was using too much flashlight time.  Keeping a light on all the time just because you have one with you is “emotionally  satisfying”, as one participant put it, but very dangerous because it shows your position at all times.  It is better to flash the light just long enough to see a segment of the floor in front of you, and part of the room ahead; then turn the light off, move swiftly (and quietly) to the farthest point where the light had showed the floor to be clear (hopefully there is some cover there, too); repeat as needed to search and move through the building.

Lesson: In such an environment, sound and light discipline are critical.  Know how to get the most out of your flashlight without making yourself a target, and know how to move quietly.

Part way through the maze, participants encountered a “homeless person”, drunk and/or acting strangely.

How did people deal with this man?  Some talked to him fairly reasonably, while maintaining plenty of distance.  Others immediately switched on their “command voice” and started giving him orders to stay away, or move aside; he did not obey those orders.  Some drew their guns, or had drawn their gun early in the scenario, and had to negotiate with the gun at the ready; the drunk became belligerent, and uncooperative.

The incredibly high stress generated by this long, complex, dark environment made it very easy to over-react to the homeless man.  Participants tended to interpret his belligerent, uncooperative attitude as quite threatening, although he did not display a weapon or make any direct threats.  More than a few participants interpreted his behavior as presenting a danger, and ended up shooting him.

Lesson:  People you meet will often reflect your attitude toward them.  If you are hostile, abusive, easily spooked, and obviously frightened, they are likely to be hostile, abusive, and frightening.  If you approach them as calmly as possible, and take the time to observe their behavior carefully, you may be able to keep the interaction at a non-confrontational level.  


The best shooters may be able to pour lead through an A-zone or a bullseye, and reload at blinding speed, but the best tacticians combine excellence in gunhandling with a thorough mastery of other skills, such as how to use cover, how to manage scarce resources (such as only 10 rounds for an afternoon in ATSA village), and, most importantly, how to evaluate the words and actions of other people, and influence them using only words and (non-gun) actions, in order to avoid confrontations whenever possible.

For some lessons on tactics for couples, see the Defensive Strategies column in this issue.

This article originally appeared in the Sep-Oct 1999 issue if Women&Guns magazine.  Copyright (c) 1999 Lyn Bates