FOREFRONT: The Rules of a Fight


By Duane Wolfe© 2012 and North American Right

The Rules of a Fight

Know the rules of a fight so you can survive and win.

As a police officer, trainer, firearms, and arrest and control tactics instructor I have the opportunity to attend a lot of training and be around some of the best trainers and training out there for law enforcement. Whether it’s one of the big-name instructors or any of the multitudes of other trainers at the trainings I attend, I always try to pick up whatever pieces of advice I can to make me a better cop and trainer.

With that in mind, I also have to sift through all the ideas, concepts, theories and tactics and try to find those that make the most sense to me. I see and hear things that I like and will then use, things I don’t care for and choose not to use, and things that just don’t make sense.

With that in mind, during this ongoing quest for knowledge, I hear advice that makes sense and some that doesn’t. Some of the advice I repeated early in my career because I heard it from someone with more knowledge and experience than I had. Some of it has stood the test of time and some has fallen by the wayside because of what I have learned over the years.

There are No Rules in a (Street or Gun) Fight

To my mind, this statement is without a doubt false. Each person who walks into a fight (suspect, victim, or police officer) each has his/her own set of rules. The average human being is decent and will fight with a set of rules that most would determine to be “fair.”

Criminals, by their very nature, do not play “fair,” but not all criminals are killers. So each criminal has his/her own set of rules. There are those who will run, but not fight, fight but not kill, and then there are those who will try to kill you. Some will require a load of drugs or alcohol on board and some (the smallest portion) will kill without hesitation or provocation. The problem is that you may not know what set of rules the criminal is playing by until the fight starts and then it may be too late.

Ninety-nine percent of the contacts we have in law enforcement require no use of force. Of the 1 percent that does require a use of force, only a fraction of those require the use of deadly force. Are you prepared to deal with the 99 percent, the 1 percent, and the fraction that will try to kill you?

Law enforcement has a set of rules too. Court decisions, state statute, and department policy are the rules we must follow. Graham v Connor is your guide. If you are a cop in the U.S. and you don’t know it well, then you don’t know the rules by which you are allowed to fight. Those (victim, suspect or police officer) who don’t follow the rules can find themselves facing criminal and civil charges. As a police officer, anytime you hear the statement, “There are no rules in a fight,” remind yourself that it is false.

“In a Fight, Cheat?”

If you are a trainer using the phrase “In a fight, cheat” then you need to remove it now. Imagine that you have just finished the first portion of a Use of Force class involving a review of the state statutes, case law, and departmental policy. You then administer a written test on that subject and, because you’re a good instructor, your students all pass with high scores. This indicates that they understand the rules. You now move into the hands-on training (empty hand control, baton, OC, ECD, firearms) and during that block of information, you make the statements “If you ain’t winning, cheat”; “Cheat if you want to win”; “Cheat” or whatever other versions of that statement. Whether your audience is in-service or, even worse, new recruits, ask yourself one very important question. Do you want your students to follow the rules you have already taught them or are you advocating they break department policy, state statute, or federal law?

A group of veteran officers is more likely to understand your intent than a group of fresh rookies, but you still planted that seed during training. This is training that officers depend on to keep them safe physically, mentally, emotionally and legally.

There is No Such Thing as a Fair Fight

There is such a thing as a fair fight, but only in a sporting arena with a referee standing by. The state legislature and courts recognize law enforcement’s need to win when involved in physical confrontations or gunfights. With that understanding, we are allowed to use a level of force that can “reasonably” accomplish that task. We can legally use tools that the suspect cannot. If an assailant puts up his fists, law enforcement officers can use empty hand tactics, baton, or an electronic control device (ECD). In very rare cases, under the totality of the circumstances when you are in reasonable fear of serious bodily harm or death, a firearm can even be utilized.

One of the serious problems that I see with some of our training and a lot of our mindset comes from sport, competition, and a fair play mindset. If your training in arrest and control tactics consists of standing in front of the “suspect” and receiving an attack resembling a sporting contest, then you are not training to play by the rules of reality.

In most cases, if a suspect indicates verbally, physically or both that they are not going to be arrested peacefully and therefore intend to fight, then you do not have to stand your ground and wait for them to attack. Based on their words and actions, you are authorized to use whatever tactic is reasonable to take them into custody. Action is faster than reaction. You can keep them at a disadvantage by acting before they can. Waiting for the suspect to “swing first” may be on the list of rules for old Hollywood movies, but it has no place in the police use of force. The “let them swing first” type of training is “Defensive Tactics” where you are waiting to defend yourself. I prefer the term “arrest and control tactics.” In Verbal Judo there is a saying, “When words fail, act.” I prefer to change that to the acronym A.C.T. for “Arrest and Control Tactics.”

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Do you and your fellow officers train and work on team arrest tactics? Does this training involve one officer trying to work his/her way behind the suspect while the other remains in front to keep the suspect focused so his/her partner can ambush the suspect from behind? Fights are won a whole lot easier and a whole lot faster if the fighting suspect is surprised from behind with a takedown, a strike, a baton blow, or ECD (and the back is the preferred ECD target).

Are you training to end each arrest confrontation as quickly as possible? Years ago, I was told that my goal should be to end a confrontation in 30 seconds or less, and for each second that it lasted longer, my chance of losing and being injured increased. It would seem that piece of advice still rings true today.

The Force Science Research Institute along with the Winnipeg PD recently conducted a study on exhaustion. They had a group of officers strike a 300-pound water bag as hard as they could to determine at what point the officers would reach a point of exhaustion. The testing indicated the power of their strikes started to taper off at 20 seconds. At 45 seconds, the strikes were deemed, “not meaningful.” The minimum time to exhaustion for the officers was 37 seconds, the longest 65 seconds, with the average time being 56 seconds.

With that knowledge, do you need to rethink your training? Does it change how you will plan to fight your next fight? Remember that physical exhaustion is one factor that can be used to justify an escalation in force.

If You Aren’t Winning, You Are Not Cheating Hard Enough

It depends on how you define cheating.

1. To deceive by trickery.
I’m all for winning the easy way and trickery is a tool all cops should have on their duty belt.

2. To violate rules deliberately.
Intentionally violate the rules (department general orders, state statutes, and court rulings) and you’re going to find yourself in a place you don’t want to be. If you’re not winning, then you’re not escalating appropriately. The rules are set up for you to win. If what you’re doing isn’t working, then you are authorized to step up the level of force. If baton strikes to the long bones prove ineffective, move to the joints and escalate your strikes.

I know that some trainers have their trainees fight to a point of exhaustion. For a one-time example, I think it’s a good idea to understand and experience how quickly an officer will reach the point of being unable to continue with the fight. However, repeated training of this type fails to train the officer to appropriately raise the level of force to win the confrontation quickly, which should be the intent of effective arrest and control tactics.

If you have to break the rules to win the fight, you have either been trained to fight under the wrong set of rules or you are taking a step toward becoming what you took an oath to defend against.

A Fight is not a Game

Much of the arrest and control tactics training out there has a sport origin such as boxing, karate, judo or jujitsu. Does your training include empty hand tactics, baton, and ground fighting that escalate up to and including deadly force and the use of firearms? If you were to take out the rule book for the respective art, would you find that your training for a street confrontation obeyed the rules for a sporting event? It’s your responsibility to take what you know and make it work on the streets you patrol, not in a ring, a square or an octagon.

The Real Rules:

1. Train to understand, obey and apply the rules of arrest and control tactics both mentally and physically.

2. Win.

3. If you are not winning, see Rule #1. PM

Duane Wolfe has a BS in Criminal Justice and an MS in Education. He recently retired after 26 years as a police officer. He has been a full time trainer for the last 20 years. He is a firearms and Use of Force instructor.


1. The author attempts to apply an armbar and the subject forcibly resists.

2. The author bypasses the suspect’s resistance and moves behind him.1. The author attempts to apply an armbar and the subject forcibly resists.

3. The author applies an elbow strike to the subject’s back.

4. The author moves behind the resistive subject and uses a balance displacement technique prior to taking him to the ground.

5. The author moves behind an armed subject, changing the angle of fire to avoid hitting others in the area. This provides nearly cost-free training opportunities, while reducing live-fire costs through numerous repetitions.

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