Counter Ambush Tactics
thanks to The Bunker

Are you an accident just waiting to happen by blindly walking into an ambush, or do you take the tactical “high ground” to avoid such an event? Rarely do the “bad guys” announce their intended attack upon you. Rather, they lie in wait to seize the element of surprise. They pounce when you are least aware. A burglar creeping through your house won’t turn on the lights or make unnecessary noise to give you a chance to arm yourself. A mugger won’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk and risk you taking a detour away from the “fatal funnel.” And, you won’t find a person about to carjack you leaning up against your car as you approach. Although many violent attacks occur as a result of an ambush, does your training include counter-ambush tactics? It should.

Most martial arts training start with two opponents facing each other and giving the proper salutations. Western boxers come up to each other before a bout and knock gloves together as a sign of good sportsmanship before the first round. Asian based fighters sharply bow or bring their hands together in a Yin Yang fashion then slip into a combative stance. European Fencers salute one another with their naked blades, as do Filipino Kali practitioners. Although this practice is very colorful and rich in tradition it can negatively condition fighters who are in it for purely survival reasons. Subconsciously this practice sends a message to the fighter that there is a preparatory period just prior to combat. To many my statement may sound ludicrous, but ANYTHING we do in training can carry over into actual combat. Let me give you a startling example.

In law enforcement training many Defensive Tactics (hand-to-hand combat) programs use a hard plastic red colored handgun when practicing gun retention techniques, car stops or subject stops (police contact with a person or arrests). The “red guns” are used in place of real firearms to avoid a possible Negligent Discharge (ND). They are red so that at first glance everyone involved in the training knows that they are a training tool and not the real thing. Using real firearms is also a common practice, but it requires weapon safety checks, and marking the barrel with colored tape. The colored guns makes for an overall safer training environment. However, after repeated use of these colored replicas many officers became so conditioned to the red color that on occasion, actors who played the role of the contactee (the person being stopped by the police) pulled out a red wallet or other red object and suddenly found themselves being “shot.” Why? because, the officers associated the color red with a threat. It’s for this very reason that many agencies paint their training guns black or silver, or buy products that are already colored similar to that of actual firearms.

Rituals in training, salutations before combative encounters, are very much like the conditioning of the red guns. Although innocent at first, they can lock a person into a potentially dangerous behavioral pattern. In this article we will examine training methods that will prepare you for sudden violent ambushes.

Before the ambush

Throughout my law enforcement career, and even today in my current duties, one of my biggest concerns is walking into an ambush. Just last year an officer in my department was killed in an ambush. A man armed with an AK47 assault rifle waited at a mini market frequented by police officers. When the officer drove up to get a cup of coffee the suspect came out of the store and sprayed the patrol car with bullets. The officer never had a chance to exit his vehicle. He was cut down before he knew what hit him. However, you don’t have to be wearing a uniform to walk into the center of an ambush. If you’re not paying attention you can end up walking into a store or a bank and find yourself right in the middle of a robbery as you are doing your errands; many people have.

Whenever you are going up to an ATM machine, inside a bank, airport, or other potential “targets” you should always observe the surroundings as you make your approach. For example, as you walk up to a liquor store you should scan the immediate area for suspicious vehicles. If somebody is in a vehicle nearby the exit with the engine running it could possible be a “getaway car”. Another telltale sign of a crime in progress, or about to occur, is someone “posted” on the inside who is nervously watching the door and parking lot. This person could be a “lookout” for the accomplices inside.

A few years ago, while off duty, my wife and I were about to enter a drug store for some eye infection medication. As we were about to enter through the double doors I noticed a young woman holding the electronic doors open by standing still in the sensor area. At first I thought she was just being polite and holding the doors open for us, but it soon was apparent that she was looking past us and nervously scanning the parking lot. I sensed that something was wrong and grabbed my wife’s arm to pull her back. Just then two men jumped the store guardrails and were about to run right over the top of us. They had just committed a commercial burglary and were making their escape. Without thinking I pushed my wife aside, sidestepped, and purposely tripped the first suspect with a sweep. The case of beers that the suspect was clutching onto tumbled in front end over end of him on the sidewalk as he skidded to a stop on his palms. The second suspect in hot pursuit leaped over his fallen partner in crime like a clumsy hurdle runner, then turned around to “take care” of me. I pulled my concealed pistol from my pancake holster and ordered him to stop. The surprised attacker, dressed in gang attire, decided that dying for a few beers was not worth it, turned and fled, leaving his accomplices. In the commotion the other two scurried off. I wasn’t about to stop them without a radio, vest, or back up. Plus, a violent encounter was not worth it for some stolen bottles, and my wife standing next to me. I decided to be a good witness instead.

When approaching, or walking through a potential ambush area, always follow the first tactical rule – Stop, Look, Listen. In my example of the drug store incident, the moment I sensed something “unusual” or “out of place” I stopped, I looked, and I only had a split second to decide what I was going to do when the two men came running at me. Had I not been paying attention as I was walking to the entrance of the store the thieves would have plowed me and my wife over.

Whether you’re in a military unit walking through hostile territory or you are walking through a dark city alley, you should stop, look and listen every few minutes, even if there is no apparent danger. If is quiet, move on. If you hear or see something, prepare yourself.

Stop, Look, Listen exercises

In the Australian military manual, Patrolling and Tracking, Section 5 No. 74 it reads, “Patrol leaders must try to anticipate where contact with the enemy (ambush) is probable. Action to be taken must be planned and rehearsed before the patrol moves out.” In a martial arts training environment you can do a simple exercise that will help you learn to “anticipate” contact with the “enemy.” I call this exercise Walking the Gauntlet. It will develop alertness, mobility, and attack.

Have several participants line up, spread out evenly, on each side of the room facing inward. Place a student (the trainee) in the middle of the two lines and have him or her walk down the center through the two lines. Prior to conducting the exercise the trainee faces the wall as the instructor selects a couple of attackers on each side of the line. Each trainee that will walk through the Gauntlet will receive a different configuration of attackers. The trainee is then told to turn around and walk through the midst of the participants. The trainee, unaware of who was selected for the attack, cautiously moves through the “crowd” until a noise or aggressive movement from one of the selected attackers catches his or her attention. The trainee quickly defends against the sudden attack. After the appropriate action has been taken against the attacker (be it knife defense training, hand-to-hand, etc.), the trainee returns to the place where the attacked had just occurred, and picks up where they left off to walk the rest of the Gauntlet.

I do this exercise often to prepare police officers for walking through agitated crowds, such as parties, labor strikes, bars, etc. Not everyone in a crowd is going to jump you, but you have to be prepared for those few who might. It makes for a very nervous trainee, but it helps them get use to possible ambushes.

Attack the attacker

In an ambush the ambusher has the tactical advantage. Whether it’s a military operation or a crook waiting to jump you, the ambusher will have done their homework prior to the attack; they will have studied the terrain in which you will pass, note the fields of fire and observation, cover, concealment, obstacles, and avenues of approach and withdrawal. Then, when you come walking into the “killing zone” the attack is launched. In the case of an attempted rape, robbery, or other criminal assault the ambush will be what we call a “near ambush.” In other words, the attack is right on top of you, as opposed to a “far ambush” such as a sniper attack. In a near assault the US military teaches its personnel to attack the enemy if caught in an ambush. By doing an immediate action drill, suddenly counterattacking the enemy even under concentrated close-range fire, moves you out of the killing zone, and prevents other ambushers from closing in on you.

Although each incident must be weighed separately, most criminals expect their victims to comply when faced with the threat of violence or with violence itself. Whenever you submit to a criminal you can never know the outcome. You are at the mercy of the criminal. Although fighting back can get you hurt, a sudden violent counterattack may catch the attacker off guard affording you the opportunity to move out of the “killing zone.”

In any ambush the natural instinct is to take cover and save your skin. However, that’s exactly what the enemy is hoping for and picks you off as you cower in a defensive position. For survival, sometimes you must go opposite your instincts and meet the danger head on. As the famous Chinese guerilla fighter, Mao Tse-tung, once said, “In every apparent disadvantage, some advantage is to be found.”

When I am training correctional personnel how to survive a jail or prison riot, I purposely put them at a disadvantage in order for them to find some advantage. I have an exercise where I simulate a worst-case scenario – a group of hostile inmates have blocked the escape route for the correction staff. The natural tendency is for officers to separate from one another and push directly to the exit or to huddle in a corner and fight defensively. However, these methods are almost always doomed to failure. The proper tactic is to stick together and follow a wall so the inmates cannot come up from behind. In order to have a chance of getting out they have to move together as a group and violently push through. To do the exercise I usually put five officers on one side of a room (fitted with protective gear) and seven “inmates” (also geared up) on the other side of the room blocking the exit. The goal of the exercise is to move as a team and get all five officers past the inmates and out the door. Students learn very quickly that if they do not push for the door and attack the inmates with what the Marines call “violence of action,” they never make it to safety. Of course this exercise can carry over into civilian applications, such as training your family to stick together and push through as a unit.

Think like the crook

Of course, to outsmart an ambusher you have to think like one. When you walk anywhere, especially high-risk areas, you should always ask yourself these questions:

1. Where would someone most likely be hiding?
2. Should an attack occur where are my avenues of escape?
3. What would the best tactics be – counterattack, submit, run?

A good exercise to run, in order to sharpen your reaction skills in sudden ambush situations, is an exercise I named Door number 1, 2 or 3.

Stack cardboard boxes up vertically to create a few “walls” the attacker can hide behind, or hang a few sheets of black painters plastic from the ceiling to the floor. As the trainee makes their way from one end of the room to the other, the attacker lies in wait behind one of the walls. When the trainee comes within range, the attacker, or attackers (it’s good to sometimes have multiple attackers) launch an attack; be it a hold-up, knife attack, a fist fight, or whatever other realistic simulation you can come up with. The trainee will soon learn some valuable lessons in avoiding, or reducing the consequences of an ambush:

1. When turning corners, make wide turns to give more reaction time.
2. Use “noise discipline” (don’t make noise) as you approach a hostile area, so the bad guy can’t hear you coming.
3. Anticipate likely hiding areas that an attacker may take.

Final thoughts

Awareness is the key to avoiding many potentially dangerous situations – such as ambushes. But just talking about it does not train you for an actual event. You must put these principles into practice so that they become “muscle memory” (ingrained reactions). The next time you’re about to spar with your partner, try having them pop out of somewhere and engage you. By doing this you will be better prepared for the real thing.

By Officer Jim Wagner