Spaulding’s Rules of Conflict

Operational rules are a sound practice and, over the years, I have created some I use in my classes. Recently, a student said, “You should write those down and give them out to students.” As I sat down to create the list I thought, “Maybe others would like to read them.” Well, here they are.

As a side note, while I was trying to come up with a “tactical” title, I considered “Spaulding’s Rules of Conflict,” but then realized that they can be applied to many situations—not just combat. I don’t claim to be their originator, but I have used them regularly with great success, as have my family and students.

No. 1: You Must Be an Active Participant in Your Own Rescue
People who think the cavalry is going to come over the hill and save them at the last minute have spent too much time in front of the TV. Any street cop will tell you the times when they have interrupted a crime in progress were memorable because it doesn’t happen often. Police response times are measured in minutes, while crimes in progress are measured in seconds. So unless the officer is on top of the event when it occurs, stopping a crime while it happens is highly unlikely.

I recently watched a video of two drug cartel members who surrendered to their captors with the promise they wouldn’t be hurt. After a three-minute confession of their crimes, their captors rewarded their cooperation by cutting one in half with a chain saw and decapitating the other. The point: Don’t trust what you’re told to ensure cooperation—it’s probably a lie.

In life, if you’re unemployed, don’t rely on anyone else to find you a job. If you aren’t happy with your current situation, change it. If you’re in a bad relationship, break up and move on. No one can affect your life more than you—don’t rely on others to do it for you.

No. 2: Never Give Up a Known for an Unknown
Have you ever been on a road trip and driven a route successfully, but on the return trip decided to take a different route because it looked shorter on the map? How did that work out? The map—or the GPS—isn’t the actual territory, so there’s no way to know the road conditions. If you know a particular route works, why follow the unknown to save a few minutes?

When teaching combative pistolcraft, I regularly see students eject a magazine before they have secured their spare in order to act faster. But what happens if during combat, the spare magazine is lost and the combatant doesn’t know this? In competition, the shooter will lose the match. In a fight, the shooter may lose life. Big difference.

The normal response when I bring this to the student’s attention is, “The magazine will likely be empty so what difference does it make?” First, why has it become common practice to just assume you’ll shoot to slide lock in a fight? I know it can happen because it’s almost impossible to count rounds in conflict, but why make it habit during training? I like to teach my students to load when they want to, not when they have to, and slide lock is a bad time to reload. Gunfighting is a thinking-man’s game so reloading when it’s advantageous to you and not your opponent is a good example of using your brain. Additionally, what if you access some ammo—maybe a few rounds in your pocket—with no magazine? They might as well be rocks.

No. 3: If You Don’t Know, Don’t Go
I realize there may be times in combat when you’ll have to go for it if you have no other options. That said, it’s a sound practice to know what lies ahead before taking action.

For example, movement just for the sake of movement isn’t good. Moving makes it more difficult to hit accurately, so make sure you have a reason. Shooting on the move requires a shooter to move slowly if they wish to hit anything. When moving from one position to another, you should know if the new position offers better cover or if it offers cover at all! Those being shot at don’t decide what is and isn’t cover—that’s determined by what enemies are using to shoot at you. What’s cover from a .38 may not be from a 7.62, so know before you go.

Never enter a place you don’t know how to escape from. If a business or residence comes under fire, it’s good to remove yourself from the threat. It’s also a good thing to know if the structure catches on fire, which is far more likely than gunplay. Whenever I walk into an establishment I’m unfamiliar with, I take a few seconds to look for exits, windows, doors, possible cover or other avenues of escape. I also sweep over the other people on scene to see if anyone doesn’t look right, like maybe someone I once arrested. They seem to never forget incidents like that…

No. 4: When in Doubt—There Is No Doubt
Although street experience helps hone the danger sense, I believe everyone has a “sixth sense” that tells them when something isn’t right. If you get an “I-should-leave” feeling, then leave! Too many people tell themselves they’re imagining a threat…its called “normalcy bias” and its deadly! While possible, what’s the harm in leaving? Never doubt yourself! Of all the people in the world to trust, you should be first on your list.

Years ago, I was teaching a female-only, self-defense class when one of the students cornered me at a break. She told me she had worked late in a high-rise office building, waiting on an elevator. When the doors opened, a man was on the elevator. She said, “He looked like a biker with long greasy hair and a beard. He was smelly and unkempt. Everything in my being told me not to get on the elevator, but I just thought I was being paranoid. I got on and, right after it started to move, he attacked. I had no idea what to do so I just went to another place in my brain. The only thing that stopped the attack was that the elevator stopped for another rider and my attacker fled.”

This young lady certainly wasn’t an active participant in her own rescue and was saved by mere dumb luck. She was in the class because she said, “This was never going to happen again!” Good for her!

No. 5: Simple Is Good
I admit to being confused by some of the current firearms training doctrines. Some of it is flashy and cool looking, but does it prepare you for armed conflict? I know it makes students feel like a special operator for the weekend, but do they shoot better?

Recently I was discussing malfunction clearances with a famous instructor, and I made the statement that I teach two methods: one to clear double feeds and another for everything else. This instructor said I was dumbing down my training and not providing a service. I couldn’t help but wonder if this instructor had ever seen conflict.

Simple is easier for me to teach and easier for the student to learn. It’s easier to develop skills during short training periods, and it’s easier to maintain with diminishing ammo supplies and limited practice time. Simple is easy, and easy is the way to fight. If a given technique is hard or confusing to perform on the range, do you think it will be easier when bullets are in bound? It’s not “dumbing down” training, it’s “raising performance” of any combatant during a pandemonium-filled event.

No. 6: Want & Need Aren’t Synonymous
A student contacted me and asked for a recommendation on a new gas piston AR-15. When I asked him what the new gun could do that his old one couldn’t, he paused. “Well, gas pistons are supposed to be superior. They better withstand the dust and dirt common in Afghanistan.”

“Are you going to Afghanistan?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Well then …why do you care?”

He decided to save money and keep his current gun.

If a particular piece of gear doesn’t enhance your performance or enable your skill set(s), then the emotion you’re feeling for a new piece of kit is probably want, not need. Don’t misunderstand—want is fine and there are things I want, but at this stage of my life, there are few things I need. I can’t help but chuckle at folks who have to have the new gun on the cover of a gun magazine (although it could be cars, tools, appliances, etc.) even though it won’t enhance their skills. In every class I teach, there’s a student who will be frustrated with their skills and will change guns mid-class. Sometimes they improve, but it’s usually because they now feel better because they have taken action to improve their situation. Try practice—it works great!

In Sum
Well, there you have it. Use or discard these rules as you see fit. But if you end up in one of my classes, you’ll likely hear them applied at some point during the training.

Dave Spaulding was the 2010 Law Officer Trainer of the Year. He’s a 35-year law enforcement veteran who retired at the rank of lieutenant, and then went to work for a federal security contractor. Dave currently runs his own training company that focuses on the combative application of the handgun. His website, contains information on his courses. He is also an FTA founding member.

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