Know Your Gear: Sticks & Stones – Force-on-Force Platforms

The phrase “practice makes perfect” has become commonplace and for good reason. There is no better way to improve a skill than by actually doing it. This mantra also rings true when it comes to armed combatives. Throughout history warriors have used “force on force” sparring to train for battle. It’s no surprise that well-practiced warriors have proven infinitely superior.

Today battles are fought with modern firearms – pistol, carbine, rifle and various crew-served weapon systems like the venerable machine gun. Warriors still train with their weapons, and weapon facsimile just as warriors such as the Samurai used wooden sticks to practice swordsmanship.

There are a handful of weapon simulation platforms available for force-on-force training. I have been lucky enough to train extensively with each of the major simulation platforms over the years, and will offer an assessment of each system. This includes Paintball, Airsoft, Simunition®, MILES and Nerf. Yep, even Nerf.

To assess any system we need to establish our metrics. We’ll use a rating system of ten points. Our five metrics include cost, realism, range, feedback, and safety.

(1.) Cost of the system is pretty self-explanatory, but we’ll try to include information regarding the purchase, operation, and upkeep expenses. (2.) Realism includes both the look and feel of the weapon simulation platform, but also the level of stress induced. (3.) Range includes the distance a shooter can expect a 50/50 chance of hitting a human-sized torso while under fire. (4.) Feedback involves how the simulation platform indicates a hit on an opponent. (5.) Safety, our last but arguably most important category explores the inherent risks to the users.

Nerf = 3.5 Rating

I started wargaming at a young age when my mom bought me my first Nerf guns. Large sofa forts were constructed and neighborhood kids gathered for epic dart wars in the trenches of La-Z Boys. Now at the time, I definitely did not consider my Nerf battles to be a representation of battle. However as I recollect, if it wasn’t force-on-force training then what was it?

As a simulation platform Nerf is overall quite lousy. The realism is poor and Nerf is clearly a flimsy toy with no stress value. The effective range is about 5 meters, tops. There is virtually no feedback as the Nerf dart leaves no mark and inflicts no pain. Yet given those obvious shortcomings, Nerf guns are very affordable to purchase and maintain, and are a hellacious amount of fun! Nerf is quite safe when used with any pair of sunglasses and it allows junior warriors hours of trigger time.

Paintball = 5.5 Rating

As I grew older I yearned for a new and more exciting game of war. This came to me in the form of my first job at a local Paintball field, where I quickly became a proficient and regular player. I was able to play so much Paintball that in just a couple years’ time I was playing at a professional level and was sponsored in national tournaments around the country with the KC Impact, Explicit Content, and Diesel teams. I really enjoyed the small unit micro-tactics of “shoot, move, and communicate” that were so essential to Paintball.

The cost of Paintball is middle of the road at several hundred dollars for the marker and protective gear, plus up to $100 for a single day’s game. The realism of the marker is low, but the stress induced is very high because a Paintball hit leaves a painful bruised welt. Range is also midland with an effective range of about 60 meters. Feedback receives a high rating because the Paintball breaks on the opponent leaving a mark. And when used properly with the required protective equipment, safety receives a middle score as well – although there have been rare cases of eye injury due to improper use.

Airsoft = 6 Rating

I continued to develop into even more of a “war nerd.” I started looking for something that was more realistic than Paintball so I joined the Kansas City Airsoft Association, a military simulation (MilSim) community. It was through Airsoft MilSim that I was finally able to sink my teeth into the fire and maneuver of battlefield tactics.

An Airsoft gun runs several hundred dollars and there is a slight amount of maintenance involved. Cost savings come in the very affordable ammunition of 6mm plastic BBs – making a daylong game very affordable. The realism of Airsoft is superior as most guns are 1:1 replicas in size and nearly the same weight. Airsoft hit produces a more modest sting than Paintball, but is still stress inducing. Yet the weakness of Airsoft in realism is that it sounds like a racecar toy when it fires. Very disappointing. Range is also limited at an effective distance of just 60 meters. And there is virtually no feedback to the shooter because the plastic BB leaves no mark. Safety is good if the proper protective goggles are used, although there has been an occasional eye or tooth injury when improperly protected.

Simunition® = 6.5 Rating

As my experience expanded into “real steel” firearms and tactical training I joined Summit Tactical, a community of law enforcement and security professionals that focused on the tactical use of firearms. Through this community I was afforded the opportunity to use Simunition® – a sort of hybrid between Paintball and blank ammunition. Simunition® rounds use gunpowder to project a plastic paint filled bullet from a simulated firearm upper attached to an actual firearm. Military, law enforcement and security teams often use Simunition® for force-on-force engagement training.

The Simunition® system is prohibitively expensive, costing as much as an actual firearm. They are relatively affordable to maintain, however the real expense is in the ammunition with can run $1.75 per round. That said, Simunition® receives top scores for realism because it employs the lower half of the firearm it is simulating. And painful hits on target create a stressful training situation. Ranges of 45 meters are acceptable for pistols, but lackluster for rifles and carbines. Simunition® does leave a mark on the target, offering good feedback. But it is known to sometimes over-penetrate. Given the relatively small numbers of professionals using this platform, it has produced a small but worrisome number of injuries.

MILES 2000/IWS = 8 Rating

My path through gaming and toward more serious training led me eventually to One Shepherd. This training institution uses immersive tactical gaming in military simulation to teach the constructs and processes of leadership. This struck me as a strange approach, and although I was initially hesitant I participated in my first event and I was hooked for life.

One Shepherd employs the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System in its fourth generation (MILES 2000/IWS). MILES gear is an eye-safe laser that is fastened to an actual firearm. The firearm uses blank ammunition and a blank firing adaptor. The laser is activated by a combination of light from the muzzle blast plus an internal mercury switch that detects the recoil of the weapon.

Yet the purchase and maintenance of MILES is so excessive that it is the only simulation platform to receive a flat zero for costs. The blank ammunition keeps operational costs similar to paintball expenses. Realism receives high marks because MILES is used in conjunction with real firearms, including the flash and recoil of blank ammunition. And while there is no pain involved, experienced warriors still find themselves under considerable stress when the “near miss” tone beeps during the chaotic noise of battle. Engagement ranges are phenomenally good, easily engaging targets at 400 meters and even out to 800 meters (a half mile) with small arms weapons. Feedback provides not only “near miss” and “kill” shots, but identifies who shot whom and with what weapon system. Even hit/miss statistics are available. Finally, safety is very good because MILES emits nothing more than an eye-safe beam of light.

MILES deserves a further mention in this article because it is the only integrated system on our list. That means tanks, helicopters, rocket launchers and crew served weapons are fitted with MILES to engage targets at realistic ranges – even miles away. No other simulation platform can accomplish this because they all involve projectiles, and the energy necessary to achieve such ranges would be consistently lethal to exposed warriors at close range.

Keep in mind that no simulation platform is perfect. When firearm simulation behaves exactly like a bullet, it is fatal. So imperfection is the price we pay for safe, non-lethal force-on-force simulation.

I am reminded of the childhood taunt “sticks and stones may break my bones” – yes, but bullets usually kill. And harm is not the intent of weapon simulation. The purpose of any force-on-force simulation platform is to offer as realistic combative experiences as we can afford. When taken seriously any of the aforesaid platforms can be beneficial to warrior training.