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photo by Donald J Alley A trainee practices Force on Force with Airsoft in a reality based training scenario.

The Use of Force Spectrum: Introduction

In the realm of personal protection, there are several disciplines that can be utilized to ensure one’s safety. It is very important to study these disciplines and their application, so that not only is the use of force decision applicable to protecting one’s self, but also so that it is appropriate from a legal standpoint. This spectrum covers the various aspects of interpersonal conflict, and has many validations and many myths associated with it. This series is a look at the use of force spectrum and its application. In later articles, we will look at each one more closely.

The use of force spectrum:

  • Awareness of Self:  A general understanding of one’s own responses and capabilities.
  • Situational awareness:  The ability to observe and understand the factors in one’s environment.
  • Avoidance:  The ability to preclude contact with another person or group.
  • De-escalation:  The ability to use charisma-based techniques to talk down an unfriendly contact.
  • Physical force:  The ability to physically mitigate harm to one’s self while precluding further aggression against one’s self, such as empty hand martial techniques or smaller weapon items not designed to inflict severe harm.
  • Advanced physical force:  The ability to use tools or techniques to mitigate harm to one’s self while precluding further aggression against one’s self, such as advanced martial training with small or medium weapon items, chemical sprays, electromuscular disruption, or adaptations of lethal force items designed to minimize damage (such as bean bag rounds from a shotgun).
  • Lethal force:  The ability to use tools or techniques that are designed to incapacitate through bodily trauma, where the result is generally known to potentially cause fatality, such as knife, heavy bludgeoning weapons, or firearm discharge.
  • Advanced lethal force:  The sum of all lethal force weapons designed to incapacitate areas or multiple targets, such as military-use items like grenades, mines, or bombs. This is generally not an applicable option for personal protection. For purposes of our analysis, we will be omitting this category from our analysis.


In theory

In the analysis of the use of force spectrum, it is generally shown from the least severe harm to the most severe harm. This represents the growing chance of harm to one’s self (and to the attacker), which is generally referred to as the ‘severity’ of the situation. It gives a very good idea of the escalating use of force one may be required to call upon in a situation. It can also reflect the increased interaction a person has with the contact (or attacker). Understanding where an action falls on this severity spectrum is very important in determining the legality of a response to attack, and what may or may not be allowed in one’s state or country. Picture1

Disproportionate Force

Disproportionate force is the idea that, even though the severity of each use of force category might be equivalent, the quantity or severity might be offset because of extra capabilities or greater numbers.

For instance, an 80-year-old lady attacking a person in a store with an umbrella because he got the last eggplant for sale does not necessarily warrant even a physical response. Moving away from granny’s wrath (avoidance) is sufficient action to mitigate the situation. In relation to the protector’s capabilities, granny’s wrath may not constitute legitimate “physical force” against the protector.

Conversely, a lone individual against 4 unarmed muggers is also disproportionate, because the protector in the situation may not be able to effectively mitigate the attacks of four people. The extra attackers represent that the force is disproportionate to the protector’s ability to mitigate the harm. In this case, escalating the use of force into a lethal force response may be warranted.

If you are a lone defender and have dependents, such as a wife and child, disproportionate force may also be justified because, if the protector is incapacitated, it is possible the wife and child may also be harmed. In this case, the disproportionate force may be justified because of the lesser capabilities of the wife and child.


In Practice

When put into practice, one must not look at this use of force spectrum and think there is an obligation to ascend through the spectrum from least severe to most severe. For example, a person protecting himself from a knife attacker is already beyond the escape and avoidance options, and the verbal de-escalation options are likely going to be of little avail. Going right into the physical force and greater severity options may be entirely appropriate. In practice, having each of the use of force categories immediately accessible allows quick access to the most appropriate force response. Situational awareness and self-awareness will allow the protector to know what category to access to minimize harm, and legal understanding will temper the response with justifiability.


Training Opportunities

Training in each aspect of use of force is ideal, but one must also train in the transitions between them. Going from verbal de-escalation into a fist fight is fairly well understood in our society. Going from physical (martial arts) into firearms (firing range) is not well understood by most. Look for training opportunities that train in these transitions, such as force on force training.



About donaldj

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Donald Alley is a black belt in jujutsu with over 10 years of martial experience, he has practiced personal protection training methodology with broad-spectrum awareness. Black belt in Yagyu Jujutsu. Brown belt in Yoshinkai Aikido. Licensed Instructor (rank of Shidoin) in the International Sogobudo Federation. Yutto Jusseki 2012 (top graduate award) ISBF Instructor Training Program. Owner of DJA Applications and the Bu Tactical product line. Program coordinator for Martial Tactical Training of Michigan Chudokai Aikido Federation Kenshu graduate 2006. Primary Member of the US Martial Tactical Association. Level 1 Instructor in the US Martial Tactical Association. NRA Certified Instructor in Basic Pistol. NRA Certified Instructor in CPL (Personal Protection In The Home). Published martial arts and personal protection and emergency preparedness columnist.

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