1986, as a whole, was a pretty eventful year. The space shuttle Challenger experienced a cataclysmic systems failure, and exploded shortly after liftoff. The Nuclear Plant in Chernobyl, Russia, experienced a major meltdown, resulting in the deaths of more than 4,000 people. A postal employee experienced a similar meltdown, shooting 20 fellow employees, which coined the phrase, “going postal.” Although Tom Cruise was probably the most popular actor that year for his role in Top Gun, Clint Eastwood should’ve been recognized for introducing one of the best tactical concepts ever conceived in the movie Heartbreak Ridge.
If you haven’t seen Heartbreak Ridge, watch it. Eastwood plays the character of USMC Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Highway. Sgt. Highway is assigned to take over as the training sergeant of an antagonistic, undisciplined platoon of Recon Marines. His training methods would be best described as unorthodox, but highly effective, as he turns his rag-tag group into well-trained fighters. During their training, one of the combative concepts he introduces is IAO: improvise, adapt and overcome.
Yes, IAO does come from a movie script. However, there are countless examples of this concept saving lives, and it’s a concept you should add to your tactical toolset. Let’s look at two examples where unarmed individuals survived, and where others did not, simply by improvising and adapting to the crisis they’d been thrust into.
Feb. 7, 2008: A Small Midwestern Town
A gunman suddenly interrupted a city council meeting by ambushing and killing the sergeant-at-arms police officer. Enraged at the city politicians, he then opened fire on the mayor and council members. Seven people were shot, five were killed. However, the city attorney who attended decided he wasn’t going to be a victim. He applied the IAO concept, with a positive outcome.
The attorney adapted to the situation by making himself a moving target. Even at close range, a moving target is much harder to hit. When the gunman cut off his escape route, with both guns pointed directly at him, he improvised. He didn’t waste time analyzing the situation or looking for a conventional response. He immediately picked up the closest improvised weapon he had available—a chair—and threw it at the gunman. This pushed both guns’ muzzles away from the attorney, who continued to pummel the attacker with two more chairs. These actions not only allowed the attorney to escape unharmed, it also stalled the attacker’s momentum and gave responding officers the time to arrive. The responding officers immediately terminated the threat to everyone’s satisfaction (except maybe for the now-deceased gunman’s).
April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech
We’re all familiar with the shootings that took place at Norris Hall. What you may not be familiar with is the fact that, although there were five active classrooms on the second floor, only one of the classrooms had zero casualties that day. Why? Because those students improvised, adapted to the situation at hand and overcame the threat that many others did not.
They jammed a desk up to the door to barricade it and held it there. The gunman tried to force the door open, partially succeeding. The students plowed their weight back into the desk, slamming the door in his face. After firing two shots blindly into the door and realizing he wasn’t going to get in, he turned his attention to easier prey. Unfortunately, we all know the final outcome wasn’t positive for many, but for those who improvised and adapted on that chilly April morning, it was a bittersweet victory of survival.
Like most concepts, maximizing their effectiveness and potential for success takes work. A little time spent preprogramming responses can pay off in big dividends.
Take a few minutes to look around at the items you encounter throughout the day. Pick out the items that could be used as an improvised weapon, which is just about anything. Think about how you’d grip them and how you would actually utilize them as a weapon.
As I look to my left, I see a lightweight broom that my wife left there. It might not make a good striking weapon, but it might be very effective to put my body weight behind and use it as a jabbing weapon. Could I possibly put the bristles parallel to the ground, slam my foot down on the bristles and snap the handle off, thus giving me a sharp improvised spear? The possibilities are almost limitless. As long as you have objects in your environment, those who see their potential can use them as improvised weapons.
How many of you reading this only fire your guns standing up, in a booth, and are forbidden to even move your feet? Conventional police training like this makes me gag.
The best handgun training I’ve attended came from Dave Spaulding’s Handgun Combatives course. Whether he does it consciously or not, Dave understands the IAO concept very well. He designs his training around it and makes his students adapt to the situation at hand, not vice versa. We drew and fired while moving, while stationary, while standing, sitting, kneeling, on our sides, prone and supine. Two handed, one handed, strong handed, off handed—the variations that I had never encountered before were numerous. Other than shooting while simultaneously spinning on our heads like a break dancer, we drew and fired from just about every unconventional position imaginable. To make matters more interesting, we were doing this in a gravel-lined range with all sizes of rocks. But that’s why I respect Dave and his training. At that moment, that gravel pit was our world, and he made us adapt to it. I believe I’m much better prepared for a real-life gun battle as a result of it.
There are so many uncontrollable variables you’ll encounter on the job. However, by training and practice, you can decide how well prepared you’re going to be. I’d encourage you to add the critical combative concept of IAO to your tactical toolset. Whenever something doesn’t go as planned in an armed, unarmed or other unavoidable conflict, don’t dither and over analyze. Rely on your training, experience and instincts to guide you to improvise, adapt and overcome all threats that come your way.
After 32 years of law enforcement service with a large urban police department, Charles E. Humes, Jr. honorably retired at the rank of Sergeant in 2015. Independently achieved, he is recognized internationally as one of the pioneers of modern, realistic police defensive tactics training. He has taught seminars and instructor certification schools as far West as Alaska and as far East as North Carolina; and has trained police instructors from as far as Hong Kong.
He was a 2016 recipient of the Ohio Distinguished Law Enforcement Training Award from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.