Combative: Are You Doing Everything to Win Decisively?

By Matthew W. McNamara

I had the opportunity to study and comment on a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) research project, entitled “Survival Scores Research Project.” Published in April 2004, this study was done to try and determine the dramatic affects stress has on performance by putting officers and cadets through stressful situations similar to those confronted by law enforcement officers nationwide. While studying the research, I came to the following text (taken directly from the report). It has forced me to ask whether or not law enforcement is requiring, providing and receiving the combatives training we need based on the following unimpeachable facts regarding law enforcement felonious deaths in this country. This short excerpt is the impetus for the opinions and discussions in this article, and is something that trainers, leaders and obviously officers need to think about.

“Current significance of the problem:

The FBI Report for the year 2000 provides some alarming statistics in the area of officer survival:

  • The number of law enforcement officers feloniously killed in the line of duty was up 21.4 percent from the previous year’s number—51 officers were slain in 2000, and 42 officers were killed in 1999.
  • Slightly more than half (53%) of the felonious shootings took place at a distance of 0-5 feet, and 70% were at 0-10 feet. These close range killings are also representative of the ten-year period for 1991 – 2000.
  • Body armor appears to provide minimal protection in close range shooting scenarios, as 29 of the 47 (62%) slain officers wore protective clothing.

Many shooting incidents occur in poorly illuminated environments, at close range, with multiple subjects, sometimes including innocent bystanders. Most such incidents are over in less than three seconds. Many routinely recurring situations have the potential to expose officers to inordinate risks (domestic violence investigations, traffic stops, undercover investigations and arrests). Thus, the law enforcement officer must maintain continuous vigilance, exercise sound judgment, accurately assess threat level, communicate clearly, respond promptly and appropriately, and if threat escalation warrants, rapidly change tactics to include force—if necessary, even lethal force.”

In the excerpt above I added the emphasis (bold) to clearly indicate what is happening in a large majority of the incidences where officers are murdered each year; someone is trying to shoot you with a firearm from a distance of zero to ten feet in less than three seconds. Playing out this scenario is what led me to start rehashing what may be one of the simplest, yet least trained and practiced skills in our combatives environment; the weapon takeaway. The facts demonstrate why weapon takeaway training is crucial. The information in the study directs us to what type of training we must be giving and receiving, and it does not lie about the ways in which our officers are being murdered every year (with handguns at close range.) If someone presents a hand held firearm and they are close to you (within feet), trying to pull your handgun from your holster will simply be aiding in your murder; you need to be skillfully attacking the threat. Would you know what to do if you were in this scenario?

After absorbing the excerpt from the study and realizing that officers are being murdered by being shot from less than ten feet away (in 70% of the murders) with a firearm (in less than three seconds), ask yourself:

  • As an administrator, have you given your officers what they will need to win in the worst case combatives scenario?
  • As a trainer, are you providing your officers the skills they need to win the worst case combatives scenario?
  • As an officer, are you willing to do whatever it takes to gain skills to successfully win the most horrific of combative scenarios?

Specifically, if you don’t have weapon takeaway training, get it! If you are a trainer or administrator and are not including weapon takeaway as part of every class you instruct or every in-service training you provide, you are negligent and not doing your best to provide survival skills to your officers. And, this is not where the training or discussion should end. Simply providing or receiving combatives skill instruction is not enough. Too many times, I am reminded that people I know personally have attended and participated in training needed to survive nearly all possible combative situations, yet they’ve done nothing in furtherance to retain these skills and literally couldn’t repeat any of the simple self-preserving techniques if their lives depended on it. Why? Who are they letting down by not retaining what they’ve learned and preparing daily to use such skills? The answers seem clear to me.

In addition to receiving combatives skills we need to continue to do several things, including:

  • Continuing education in legal issues surrounding law enforcement in order to know, not guess, what we are legally allowed to do in terms of use-of-force. The time to wonder about our legal abilities and limitations is not when faced with death or permanent injury.
  • Skill sustainment training in order to maintain skills you have already learned.
  • Continued combatives skill training in all of the ranges.
  • Mental preparation for confrontation.

In my opinion, the most important part of the combatives toolbox is the mindset derived from mental preparation and strategic forethought. Without it, all of the skill in the world will be useless. The majority of this training will need to be conducted internally and continuously in order to maintain the winning edge. Have you done this? It is necessary for your survival! Training is worthless unless the mind is at the forefront, which is where we introduce the term and the process known as “mental preparation.” The mind must be engaged from the beginning, and more importantly before a combatives event. I believe and have often stated that even Bruce Lee, with all of his skill at only 5’6 and approximately 145 pounds, would have been useless unless he had also trained his mind to be ready mentally and strategically for the fight.

Just as important as gaining the skill needed to survive physical encounters is the willingness to prepare the mind to allow you to win decisively and without hesitation. You will not be able to do this without first knowing what you can do legally, and without first preparing your mind to act when there is no time for contemplation. We need to ensure that we have done everything in our power to prepare bodies and minds to respond to the worst case scenario. Receiving and actually possessing the physical skills to win will be secondary to having the mindset needed to survive. Without a winning mindset, born of a firm foundation of competence and a personal commitment to victory, skills by themselves are of little real use. Legitimate warriors are always looking for (and finding) a way to win.

As leaders, our job is to provide opportunity to receive combatives training. As combatives instructors, our job is to provide not only the physical skills needed to deploy winning techniques but also the mental preparation and strategic forethought to allow students to engage skills. As individual officers, it is our responsibility to obtain combatives skills at any costs, to know the legal application of our actions and to prepare mentally in order to maintain and execute life saving skills during the most horrifying of scenarios.

Reprinted with permission from Illinois Tactical Officers Association.

About the Author
Matthew W. McNamara was an officer for 12 years, most recently Deputy Chief at the Cook County Sheriff’s Dept. (Chicago, Illinois). Matthew is a former Team Leader of his department’s Tactical Response Team and he is also a former Director for the Illinois Tactical Officer’s Association and former Chairman of the physical skills committee. Matthew is certified by the State of Illinois Training and Standards Board to instruct a wide variety of tactical, firearm and combatives related disciplines. He is currently the Senior Manager of the Tactical Training Group for Triple Canopy and may be reached at

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