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Addressing Legal and Ethical Use of Force

Updated on January 7, 2013

Introduction to the Use of Force Continuum

Use of Force Continuum

The legal use of force is often overlooked by some gun enthusiast and martial artists. Though people have the rights to defend themselves, the force that they used on the other person must be appropriate in accordance to law. This becomes extremely important when the person is using force that can cause significant injury or death to another person. Use too little force and you can be injured or killed. Use too much force and you can be in jail. This fine line has forced civilian self defense courses to create or adopt legal use of force standards or force continuum to address some of the legal issues in using force.

Introduction to the Use of Force Continuum

The Use of Force Continuum is a guideline used by police and the military to ensure the appropriate force is used in certain situation(s). This allows individuals/organizations to address the complexity of legal use of force in restraining or capturing subjects, and to set guidelines to let personnel have an idea of which force is appropriate in given situation(s). Though it is not a perfect system by all means, it is a pretty good guideline to start out with when using force. Now, many civilian self defense, conceal carry courses and martial arts implement the Use of Force Continuum to better address the issues with physical self defense.


There are five major components to the use of force continuum: presence, verbal, empty hand techniques, intermediate techniques/weapons and deadly force. Depending on the situation and law, the person doesn’t necessarily have to go through all the steps. However, it is ideal to use the minimum force possible to control the situation when the situation allows the person to safely do so.

A person(s) presence can deter crime or an assault. This is an effective prevention technique as well. Just being there or with a group can make someone think twice about assaulting you of the other people. When presence alone cannot prevent an attack or crime, verbal commands should be used. Remember this is not a request, it’s an order. The verbal commands should be done in a concise and tactful (without excess yelling and swearing). This is particularly useful for defusing potentially violent situations where one verbal mishap can escalate.

If necessary, physical force is used to defend the victim and control/neutralize the attacker. The least amount of force needed is ideal. We will examine some of these areas in some detail:

Empty hand techniques- these include a variety of basic controlling techniques, holds and escapes to cause minor discomforts or hyperextensions. It can be used to allow escape, for control or to set up a more damaging technique as needed. Strikes are generally not used; however, some effective controlling techniques will allow the defender to cause more damage if needed. An example of this is the arm bar take down. Once the person is taken down with this technique, the person applying the technique can go up the force continuum ladder as needed.

Intermediate techniques-this includes a wide variety of techniques to temporarily incapacitate the attacker ranging from strikes to using nonlethal weapons such as tasers, pepper spray and batons. A number of empty hand techniques can also be used as intermediate techniques as well. In the previous example of using the arm bar take down, the elbow can be hyper extended or snapped in two if the attacker still resists. Intermediate techniques can be useful to quickly and effectively end the assault when the need for deadly force is not required.

Deadly Force- when your life is in an immediate, life threatening danger, deadly force may be required to save your life or the lives of innocents. Consequences for the attacker range from severe injury (injury a person can die from) to death. Peoples’ idea of when deadly force varies. Here are some conditions in where deadly force legally justified not limited to the following:

1. A person who is a victim of an armed assailant, especially one armed with a deadly weapon.
2. A person being raped.
3. A person who is physically smaller, weaker, and/or has less combat skills than the assailant may use deadly force.

4. Being in a disadvantaged position such as facing multiple attackers may warrant deadly force.

The techniques used can range from blood chokes, strikes to vital areas, using improvised weapons/knives and/or using firearms. The decision to use deadly force is not to be taken lightly as it can have legal and psychological consequences. However, one should not hesitate if the situation warrants it as well.


The use of force for self defense can create confusion with the law and ethical issues. The use of force continuum is designed to address some of these issues with using force. Those wishing to learn more should seek a self defense course, use of force seminar for civilians or tactical firearms course. While practicing self defense techniques, it is vital to go through a variety of scenarios that will require different levels of force. Also, remember to be aware of local laws as some jurisdictions may differ.


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    • Alberic O profile image

      Alberic O 4 years ago from Any Clime, Any Place

      Thanks for the comment. The situation also depends on your combat skills and the situation. For example, if you were in a position of disadvantage (ie: the guy is bigger, stronger, has a weapon, has better combat skills, in a physical position to do severe harm to you and/or has his buddies attacking you), then by all means go to the max: shoot him, stab him, break his arm, slam his head to the cement, etc. However, such response (listed above) in this situation may not be appropriate for dealing with a drunk guy (let's say he is smaller, unarmed, has no buddies and no combat skills) at the bar you is just grabbing/shoving you where walking away or a simple pain compliance will do the trick.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Good information, and although we all hope it would never be needed it could be.

      Personally though, if attacked I will respond with the maximum force I can, whether it be bare hands or an improvised weapon. With no training, I can only assume I will last but a very few seconds and must stop any attacker immediately; that would seem to indicate maximum force.