Tool Cycling

Having more than one option ready to go is an essential self defense skill.

posted on April 30, 2024
Tool cycling

I currently teach several different classes that help people make a decisive first decision in the amount of space and time that is available in a potentially violent encounter, but it does not stop there. What if that first decision does not work out as you planned? You need to be able to rework the problem immediately and cycle to other solutions very quickly.

When practicing at the range, have you ever considered drawing to a “low ready” (firearm low and usually off to the side of your target) while using verbal commands?

Have you ever practiced using your flashlight to ID a potential threat and then dropping it to draw your gun, or even drawing one handed?

Have you ever practiced deploying a pepper spray training unit, spraying across the targets face ear to ear, dropping the canister, and then cycling to your firearm to simulate that the attacker has escalated to deadly force?

These are all forms of tool cycling.

Cell phoneWhen teaching, I like to focus on 8 main “tools” that you can “cycle” through if escalation or de-escalation is necessary. We need to fill the gaps in our non-lethal and less-than-lethal training by understanding these options and when to use them.

  1. See the threat from a distance and walk away, aka avoid
  2. Use your practiced verbal commands and de-escalation techniques
  3. Run away
  4. Pepper spray
  5. Empty hand skills (force-on-force)
  6. Flashlight
  7. Firearm
  8. Phone/911/Getting help
  9. (First aid/lifesaving skills)

Not long ago, I started thinking about tool cycling in the civilian world versus tool cycling as a peace officer, so I asked my friend Chuck Haggard, who is a career police officer and a renowned trainer in his own right, what his thoughts were on this subject.

Haggard said that “Early on in my police career I learned the limitations of traditional police-academy training, which taught skills in a 'block and silo' paradigm. This 'block and silo' approach is dedicated to each topic until the officer knows as much as possible about that one topic. Psycho-motor skills were taught in a closed loop, typically in a highly controlled environment (mat room or flat range), and with a definite start and end to the specific skill. This paradigm of skill acquisition often did not hold up in the real world. I noted that as the law enforcement world was given more and more tools for arrest and control, and self-defense, the training problem and real-world issues increased. Officers were often unable in a fluid situation to switch, or cycle, between force tools or options, and would get stuck in a loop.”

After teaching for many years, I have noticed that a high percentage of students have a hard time stacking cognitive decisions in a short period of time. Some seem to get “stuck” after the first decision, are more prone to make poor second choices due to lack of practice or can even fall into the “I can’t believe it is happening to me” scenario, which often causes you to freeze.

Haggard has also noted that officers showed similar issues as the civilian students in my class.

  1. Tool fixation; choosing a tool such as a Taser for use in the scenario, and when that tool fails, failing to cycle to a different tool. We often see this in newer jiujitsu students when they “chase a technique” that has failed in the first attempt.
  2. The inability to flow up and down the use-of-force continuum as the situation rose or fell between deadly force and non-deadly force.

Haggard thinks that “in the world of non-police self- and family-defense, we can learn a lot from this history. Examples of the inability to 'cycle' in a self-defense paradigm would include not having options, such as having no TTPs (Tactics, Tools/Techniques, Procedures) to handle that vast area of what he calls 'between a harsh word and a gun,' or the inability from lack of training to shift or transition as the situation unfolds.”


run away
You win 100 percent of the fights you avoid.

Here are a few examples that Haggard believes would be beneficial for civilians to be aware of:

  • Have a robust trained response to malfunctions with a semi-automatic pistol
  • Have the verbal agility to handle voice commands under stress when dealing with a potential threat
  • Have a practiced draw stroke while standing, moving, seated, or prone body positions
  • Have one or several means of deadly force, while not possessing tools or training to handle less than deadly force threats
  • Being trained and educated on how to handle ambiguous scenarios, and when one can do things lawfully, such as draw their gun
  • Work on drawing your gun when you are caught with other objects in your hands

I think you need to make the decision to see what works for you, such as training in martial arts or other empty-hand skills, and/or to carry a flashlight, pepper spray, firearm, knife, etc. and do so well ahead of time. Once that decision is made, you need to practice tool cycling up and tool cycling down so you don’t have a “now what” moment. Every second counts.

Haggard believes that “knowing your state laws and what is allowed in your jurisdiction” is a must, training to automaticity in the use of things like your carry pistol, practicing tool cycling in your normal regimen of practice. A simple drill that he often incorporates into firearms training for his students is a “busy hands” drill. “In the past I would have my officers holding something like a mock clipboard, which they had to drop in order to have a clean draw and grip on their duty pistol. In a similar task loading for the CCW (carry a concealed weapon) person, I might incorporate the student holding an inert can of OC (Oleoresin Capsicum) spray in a firing position in their gun hand, replicating that they had a rare failure of the spray to take effect and then the situation rose to the level of deadly force.”

Scenario: You are craving your favorite sandwich, so you leave the house about 8:45pm to pick up a few groceries with nothing but a flashlight in one pocket and pepper spray in the other. You are walking to the car with a couple bags in your hand. Your intuition has just alerted you so you ask yourself, “Could I be in danger?” You scan harder and the answer is yes because you now see a dude in dark clothes standing between two cars about 30 feet from you. You are his target. The first tool is to move your feet: RUN! He follows you through the parking lot; did you drop the bags so your hands are free? With free hands, you cycle to 2 more tools, pepper spray and flashlight. You cannot outrun him, so you stop and use a car to keep him at a distance and manage the space. He is now about 10 feet from you, so you use verbal commands, shine your high lumen flashlight into to eyes to distract him while pepper spraying him at the same time. You don’t wait around; while you have the advantage, you run to a safe place and call 911 to communicate that you need help.

You made a great first decision, ended up cycling through a ton of tools, and used them at the correct distances. You are safe and all you lost were supplies to make a sub sandwich. Excellent job!

Chuck Haggard has played a large part in my education via great conversations, participating in his public classes, assisting him in hosted classes at our range and attending his instructor certification courses. Many thanks to him for being a good friend and a valuable part of the self-defense community.


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