Deconstructing Tactical Formations

The ideal tactical formation is like an amoeba.

A moving organism possessing the ability to alter its shape and assimilate and adapt to changes in the environment.  It should be fluid and natural like water, ever changing, self correcting, never stagnant or rigid . A single, flexible mass as opposed to a series of different formations for every new situation.

This is doable, trainable and much easier than you think. It is achieved by each member of the formation possessing a thorough understanding of its operating principles, communicating effectively with each other while maintaining the integrity and objective of the formation itself.

It begins with principles.

Principles are the foundation of which all our tactics are built. If you consider that our operating tactics are like branches of a tree, then the principles are the trunk. Any prudent trainer will question and challenge the principles of their own system and when he does, he will learn that although the language, terminology and tactics may vary slightly, its all pretty much same stuff, different pile.

Principles such as John Boyd’s O.O.D.A. loop or Charles Remsberg’s Thought Process have given us a measuring stick with which to quickly evaluate our tactics for effectiveness.

Sound principles give our tactics an anchor point to ask the right questions such as with the OODA loop; will this tactic allow us to observe, orient, decide or act better and faster than our adversary. If the answer is yes, the tactic is sound, if the answer is no, it is not. Quick decisions can be made and we can move on.

Once our tactics are decided upon, the process of training so repetitively to achieve unconscious competence begins. Any trainer will tell you that this is no small task. But all will agree the way to accomplish it is through mass repetitions. When tactical dilemmas present themselves, we can rely on our principles to guide us to tactically sound solutions quickly and hard wire those skills.


The second essential component of an effective formation is communication with our counter parts. One way to do this is the key off. The key off simply means your next tactical movement is dictated by the team member in front of or around you. This can be done verbally (announcing), non-verbally (squeezing up) or visually.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the key off is that it is a built-in corrector. If a team member makes a poor decision, and we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t acknowledge this does happen, the key off acts as a control measure to correct the error and continue with the objective.

By constantly keying off our team members, we maintain a constant state of communication with each other thus maintaining the integrity of the formation and staying focused on the overall objective.

Too many formations are rigid and therein lies their faults. An inflexible branch is easily snapped. There is no question that a file formation, or any formation for that matter, may be optimal for some situations but not good for others. A 5-member tethered or diamond formation, for example, look great on a chalkboard for specific situations, but what if the situation, mission or objective changes without warning and with no time to plan.  The simplest, most flexible and principally sound formation that can be learned quickly, trained effectively and applied to the most situations will give officers the greatest chance for success.

It is not practical to expect human beings with limited training, operating in life threatening situations to be able access a different formation every time the situation changes, especially when you consider the lack of training time most of us experience.

Wouldn’t learning one malleable formation be better?

The focus of our formation needs to be principally based. Each member of that formation must have a sound understanding of its governing principles to mitigate as many foreseeable issues in training as possible. When unforeseeable problems emerge in operation, those members will be equipped to apply those principles and find tactically sound solutions on the fly.

Likewise, when moving as a formation, each principally learned member of the group will be constantly evaluating the environment, weighing the tactical advantages and disadvantages of his position and move and adjust accordingly to enhance their effectiveness. Their team mates will do the same while keeping in constant contact with, keying off, his teammates.


So principally proficient operators and the key off principle, got it. Let’s bring this to life.

Training begins at a crawl by assuming a basic formation, such as a file formation and moving through an environment. The trainer will stop the formation and freeze frame before every action and ask each member what their next movement, positioning and priority should be. Ensure that they are drawing on the principles to make those decisions.

This part requires patience as the students begin to solve their own problems while internalizing the principles and adapting them to changing situations. The tempo increases faster than you think and before you know it you’ll be having to reign them in.

A formation may begin as a file, stack or column. When the formation begins moving through an environment the space may begin to open-up, as in the widening of a hallway, for example. The team may no longer feel that a straight line is the most optimal way to achieve its tactical objectives, so the second man in the formation begins to fan out of the file to gain a better vantage point on his areas of responsibility. The third man in the formation keys off his movement and may do the same.

The formation does not look like a file formation anymore but it is much more effective.

If the situation changes, such as an imminent threat to life, for example, the formation morphs into the most optimal shape given the environment to move directly to the threat without changing or altering its tactics or mind set.

Does everything need to change? Do we throw all principles out the window?

Absolutely not. This is the point we cling to our principles even closer.

All that needs to change is we must adjust our areas of responsibility and priority. In this case, we are now passing areas without clearing them so each operator has to adjust his area of responsibility and rear security has to be addressed.

Yes. It’s that simple.

This approach and mindset can be used for any situation.

Training is greatly enhanced. Once the principles are internalized, the formation doesn’t need to be drastically altered, only adapted to the changing tactical objectives. Members learn one formation as opposed to a different formation for every different situation.

Members adopt a universal approach and learn the skills and understanding to morph effectively to every situation and changing environment. The training focus becomes one of mindset, threat recognition and internalization of principles, not one of chalkboard debates.

The result is a moving, shape altering mass of tactically and principally sound organisms each communicating verbally and non-verbally with each other; making tactically sound decisions in harmony with their mission and environment, kind of like an amoeba.


Three Solutions to School Shootings

Teachers are our shepherds. They teach and nurture our children in our absence but for some reason we presume they’ll protect them too.

I believe this is unfair to our educational professionals but reality being what it is, an armed response as quickly as possible is the only way to terminate a lethal threat and save lives.

I’ll caveat this by saying I  believe that prevention is the key. In the recent school shootings in Parkland, Florida, the shooter made it known what his intentions were and I suggest that this is not an anomaly but the norm. Recently in my home town, a teenager posted on his facebook page that “it’s going to be a good day at school” posing with a replica assault rifle. The school was put into lockdown, the child spoken to strongly and I’m sure asked many questions about his feelings and suspended for 3 days. The parents were told by a school official that the lock down involved a student and it was ‘non violent.’

Ignoring threat cues is the problem but here are 3 solutions.

1.Keep our Fingers Crossed

This is the system currently utilized. Commendably, many civilians are being trained in various run-hide-fight strategies, which is a good start but ultimately the primary response to neutralizing an active killer is too get armed personnel on scene as quickly as possible. Once the 911 call is made, a communication centre call taker would dispatch police units and if response time is good, they will be on scene to deal with the threat in 5 minutes from the beginning of the incident, at best.

But by the time the Police arrived, your kid or mine would be dead.

Part b of solution 1 is to then change our facebook page indicating that we’ll say our prayers for the involved, hold a vigil, shake our heads at the television and probably debate gun control for a few weeks. Rinse and Repeat.

2. Arm our Teachers.

Desperate measures but I’m sure there would be volunteers. Not every teacher would need to be armed but just the knowledge that some may be would be enough to cause a potential assassin to choose another target. Train them in the ways of the would-be assassins and equip them with the tools, training and mindset to protect our children. It almost seems negligent not too!

There are many discreet holsters and clothing options on the market that children would not need to be looking at guns on their teachers belt. If you add a public campaign and some cool stickers on the school entrances; you have just made a very unattractive target for a potential killer.

There would be many issues with this, too numerous to discuss, but it would serve as a strong deterrent.

People who commit mass murders have but one goal, kill as many people as they can.

Active killers all possess another common characteristic, cowardice. If they know there is someone waiting and hoping to end them before they kill others they will pick another place.

3.Armed Off Duty or Retired Police Officers/ Military Members in Every School

If we did this, school shootings would never happen again. According to expert Ron Borsch of the SEALE active shooter training academy, almost all of active killings are aborted by a school resource officer, security guard, civilian or the killer taking his own life. In short, somebody who is already on scene.

If done properly and discretely, you wouldn’t even know they were there. But they would be, and the potential active killer would know it too.

How many retired police officers or service members out there do you know that would be willing to band up with 10 or 20 colleagues and draw up a schedule within their school divisions. My bet is that if there wasn’t room in the city budgets for it, they would do it for free.

This would be the best way to deal with school shootings.

Until this time comes, refer to solution 1.


Stop Debating and Train!


Too much valuable training time is often wasted pontificating the endless tactical solutions to the problems that arise during training. We need to square these issues away in the boardroom before hand and if new problems arise, have an ‘answer key,’ an agreed upon set of standards to measure against our problem, find a solution and get back to work. That answer key or measuring tool lies in our is our core principles.

Principles are the base from which all our tactics stem.

If you consider that our operating tactics are like branches of a tree, then the principles are the trunk.

Any prudent operator or trainer will question and challenge the principles of their own system and when they do, they will learn that although the language, terminology and tactics may vary slightly, its all pretty much a different branches from the same trunk.

In like 500 BC, Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War”, citing one of the first known scripts of the principles of war; also drawing evolution, regurgitation and development by every major military contender up to present day. However, the law enforcement community didn’t recognize more specific operating principles until the birth of the O.O.D.A. loop in the 1960s.


The O.O.D.A. loop is the brain child of United States Air Force pilot and academic Col. John Boyd (ret.) who noted that to succeed in combat the one who is can Observe, Orient, Decide and Act first and most effectively wins.

In his ground breaking and brutally no nonsense book Sound Doctrine; A Tactical Primer, Charles “Sid” Heal, speaks most aptly to this critical thought process required to be successful in combative situations.

According to Boyd’s theory, conflict can be seen as a series of time competitive, Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action (OODA) cycles. Each party to a conflict begins by observing itself, the physical surroundings, and the enemy. Next, it orients itself. Orientation refers to making a mental image or “snapshot” of the situation. Orientation is necessary because the fluid, chaotic nature of conflicts make it impossible to process the information as fast as we can process it. This requires a “freeze frame” concept and provides a perspective or orientation. Once there is orientation a decision needs to be made. The decision takes into account all the factors present at the time of the orientation. Last comes the implementation of the decision. This requires action, then, because we hope that our actions will have changed the situation, the cycle begins anew. The cycle continues to renew itself throughout the tactical operation.

The adversary who can consistently go through the Boyd Cycle faster than the other gains tremendous advantage. By the time the slower adversary reacts, the faster one is doing something different and that action becomes ineffective.

About 25 years later, Charles Remsberg, author of the renown Calibre Press’ Street Survival Series, had similar deductions he called The Thought Process.  He observed that an officer had to go through four distinct stages. He first has to locate the subject. Then the officer has to physically be in a position to react to the subject’s action. He then needs to identify the subject, the level of threat they pose, formulate an appropriate action and then initiate that action in order to control the subject.

The bad guy only needs to locate, react and attack the officer thus giving the bad guy the upper hand.

Consider these actions like a personal roster. Whomever can make their own roster shorter and their adversary’s longer wins.

Both tactical thinking pioneers recognized the importance of initiative during combative encounters as well as a series of time sensitive processes that need to occur.

These are only two examples of principles that serve as excellent litmus tests for the operating methods we employ.

Tactics are like a Pandora’s Box. And when that box opens up and the endless possibilities of appropriate tactics are discussed, valuable minutes and hours are lost. Time that should be spent conducting ad nauseam repetitions.

“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.”  George S. Patton Jr.

Solid principles give our trainers the answer key to measure training solutions.

When debating whether or not a certain tactic is optimal, trainers only need ask a simple question:

Will this tactic enhance our abilities to proceed through our processes more efficiently than our adversary, or, hinder our adversary’s abilities to proceed through his processes? 

If the answer to that question is yes, let’s do it. if the answer is no, let’s not.

Quick decisions can be made and we can move on.  


What if it was your kid being killed?



A trainer needs to be passionate about what they are teaching to be effective, especially when they’re teaching life saving skills . And to be passionate, you need to believe in what you’re teaching.

The question is, do you believe in what you’re teaching and how can you tell? What’s the test?

This is an experience of mine that puts this into clear perspective for many trainers and students. 

I was conducting police recruit training for young men and women entering the field of law enforcement and attempting to prepare them for the worse case of situations. Many long weeks of theory and stress inoculation, skill set, firearms and judgemental training led to this, a mass murder in progress, reality based training scenario.

The objective of the scenario was to push the participants to transition from a situation requiring a slow methodical building search to that of an imminent threat to life, prompting them to adjust their tactics and proceed directly to the threat in order to preserve life.

The briefing given was that the recruits were responding to a workplace where a suspicious male was seen entering the building, possibly with a weapon. It was unknown if people were still in the building.

All participants entered the training area and began conducting a slow methodical building search appropriately.

A gunman then appeared in the hallway 50 yards in front of the participants, executed an employee role player in their plain view before retreating to a room where people were heard screaming  “He’s going to kill us!”  The scenario was designed in such a way that the execution could not have been prevented so as to make perfectly clear the deadly force intentions of the hostile role player.

Most participants changed their tactics accordingly and proceeded directly to the threat, eliminating it. But one crew continued to make their way through the hallway in a slow methodical fashion, clearing room by room failing to make the transition. The shots rang out in the room at the end of the hallway as the trained role player executed another hostage role player on cue every 10 seconds.

Eventually the participants came to the doorway where the gunman and his victim role players were. The recruits cut the pie on the door way entering the room slowly, identifying the threat and ultimately taking the shot.

Several role players were executed as a result of the participants inability to recognize need to proceed directly to the threat.

Overseeing this training I listened as the capable instructors attempted to debrief the participants, the most important part of the process. The debrief is the part of the process where the participants are given an opportunity to reconstruct the event and articulate their actions to the instructors. It is also the part of the process where the greatest learning occurs and therefore has to be managed extremely carefully by whomever is conducting it.

I noticed the trainer struggling to find a way to impart on the participants that their actions were wrong, probably for fear of demoralizing them. But the truth was, the recruits should have proceeded directly to the threat itself and eliminated it as opposed to methodically clearing each area he passed.

The recruit maintained his actions were appropriate and that we should always approach a threat slowly and safely, even if people were being killed.

The trainer looked at me hard pressed to get the participant to recognize the error in his ways. Fortunately I had one.

I said: “I just have a quick question before you move on to the next scenario.”

He said, “Shoot.”

I asked “Where does your Mom work?”

He was confused but responded, “At the post office.”

I probed further; “Whereabouts?”  Again perplexed he said “In the sorting room, why?”

I said, “OK, if this was a shooting at the post office where your Mom works, and she was on duty, and the shooter was heading toward the sorting area, would you handle the situation in the same way?”

His answer was predictably “Hell no, I would sprint in there and kill the m….rf….r!”

Well all of a sudden the light bulb went on and everything became clear, the scenario was immediately repeated and the recruits performed lights out!

So too was born the ultimate litmus test of any training system.

Would you act in the manner in which you are trained, or train others, if you were responding to the scene of someone you loved, like your Mom’s workplace or your child’s school?

If not, I forward the motion you don’t believe in your training system and it wont hold up in the most stressful of situations, the nth degree.

And if your system or principles wont hold up in the nth degree, then your system and training needs fixing.

So the next time you are experimenting with a program or trying to determine it’s effectiveness, or in my situation, just looking for a way to help a student embrace the appropriate mindset, take your principles and tactics to the nth degree and see if they still hold water.

Ask yourself an honest question.

Is this what you would do if you were responding to your son’s school and somebody was trying to kill him?

If the answer is yes, you believe in your system, if the answer is no, you don’t and stop teaching it!




Why do you train?

“To each there comes in their lifetime a special moment when they are figuratively tapped on the shoulder and offered the chance to do a very special thing, unique to them and fitted to their talents. What a tragedy if that moment finds them unprepared or unqualified for that which could have been their finest hour.” -Winston Churchill

I once responded to a friend’s question at who offered the discussion, ” Why do you train?” It should have been a simple one for me to answer but the more I thought about it, the more perplexed I became. I used the process of elimination to probe this quandary and began by exploring out loud why I don’t train.

I don’t train solely for my job as a police officer, because I started practising boxing when I was 12 and Hung Gar Kung Fu when I was 17, long before I was a police officer. They offered me discipline, respect, confidence and family structure in a time when I really needed it.

I don’t train solely for health. Because I can get on an exercise machine everyday, run, lift, whatever; eat well and achieve that.

I don’t train solely for fighting. Because I’ve been in fights with violent, seasoned offenders and I’m quite confident in abilities to handle it the best I can. So this would mean that I can stop learning and just try to maintain my skill level.

I tell myself that I just want to learn a traditional and beautiful art form, that unlike most things in life, can never be taken away from me. If this were solely true, then I wouldn’t pursue arts that I find to be truly effective. I’d practice Chinese ribbon dancing or some other beautiful art form.

The truth is, I’m not quite sure what the hook, or addiction is.

Sifu Joe Laraya of the Oakville Martial Arts Club told me that once you do Hung Gar for 6 months, you’re hooked. I had no idea at the time how right he was.

My journey started out as an amateur boxer, then Hung Gar Kung Fu, traditional Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to get better on the ground, then Judo to improve on the throwing while maintaining my ground fighting skills.

Now they just all blend together as one thing. They become mere brush strokes on the canvas, I’m the canvas.

I believe in the artist, as opposed to the art. All these styles enable me to truly express myself. They cling on to your soul and take you in the direction you really want to be going, which is a different path for each person.

The answer to why I train was not an easy one to answer. I just do it now because I need it. The lessons I’ve learned through training, about myself mainly, are now part of a toolbox that I can use in any situation in life. The ability to successfully defend yourself truly liberates you from the insecurities and fears of the universal phobia-getting hurt, or worse, not being able to defend your loved ones from being hurt.

When your liberated from this fear, you are free to express, admire and explore, without inhibition or ego, all the beauty in the world and yourself. The thought of getting hurt stops entering your mind all together.

Nowadays, the fighting is just a by product of all the other benefits of doing Martial Arts.

And  besides, how else is an potentially violent and angry man supposed to relieve all of his tension, tame the inner beast and walk on through life without those powerful forces of nature controlling you. There’s never been any other way for me.

The beautiful thing about regular training, like any art form, is that you never stop learning.

I remember reading somewhere about a master being asked by his student long he will have to train to become a master himself. The master responded, ” Until you die.”

I believe this.

I guess now if somebody asks me why do you train?; the answer is quite simple after all;

Because I need too.