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Assaulter’s Guide to Stairways

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A SWAT Team Leader Explains How to Safely Clear One of a Structure's Most Dangerous Areas

Using a stairway to escape or assault a structure when you’re alone is a dumpster-fire problem. No matter how powerful the hose, you still need to get in there and splash around in the garbage to put it out.

In the world of close-quarters battle, it’s widely understood that stairways are highly dangerous places when working as part of a team and should be bypassed whenever possible. When working alone, stairways become an area to be avoided at almost any cost. But there are times when it’s simply impossible to stay out of a stairwell, especially in an emergency. The threat in stairways is so high that, barring some overwhelming priority of life issue — like there’s an active shooter in the office and the building is on fire and your kids are downstairs — you should avoid them altogether. Sometimes barricading and waiting for the problem to come to you is the right answer. Having said that, sometimes the dumpster really is on fire, and you have to suck it up and jump in.

Stairways are dangerous places, not because they go up and down, but because they create more angles than horizontal areas like hallways, doors, and rooms. The more angles there are, the more guns you need to attack them. Understanding the angles and how they create both vulnerabilities and advantages is the key to working a stairway as safely as possible.

There are two kinds of angles: angles of attack and angles of exposure. An angle of attack is an angle that’s covered by a good guy’s eyes and muzzle. An angle of exposure is an angle from which the good guys can be attacked. These two types of angles exist in every combat situation, but they become acutely important inside buildings because the close quarters reduce the reaction times needed to respond to threats. Seeing and identifying your opponent first is critical, especially when working alone, and can be the difference between victory and a “CCW holder tried to intervene and got killed in today’s mass shooting” story in the news.

Training for stairways is made even more difficult by the fact that no two of them are the same. Some stairways are simply a straight line up, making them little more than hallways. Others are wide, complex affairs, with open interior spaces and wide cuts, i.e. the open space down the center of a commercial stairway, turning them into monstrosities of angles of exposure. This variety requires training for stairways based on shapes and angles, and learning to patiently, but quickly, reduce the problems one at a time.

The (relatively) good news here is that most stairs are made up of a series of L shapes. While they’re more complex than a normal L — in that they have an element of up or down — if we can put ourselves in a position to attack them one at a time, we can reduce, though not eliminate, our angles of exposure. The dichotomy we face by handling stairways as a bunch of L shapes is that it tends to slow us down, increasing our time in the stairway, thus increasing our risk.

The Need for Speed
Managing this conflict in priorities requires us to understand what we mean when we talk about the CQB principles of speed, surprise, and violence of action. Speed, by itself, is not a virtue. Moving faster than you can process information and make good decisions in reaction to circumstances creates more problems than it solves. Even if our mission is simply to escape a building, sprinting through the halls and stairways is a surefire way to be ambushed. When we boil down the concept of speed in assaulting or escaping a structure, we’re really focussed on momentum.

Momentum is the element of movement that allows us to keep our opponent off-balance, to deny them the ability to get set to receive our attack. Momentum, when combined with violence of action, creates the element of surprise. Surprise is your friend. Surprise allows you to gain the upper hand in an encounter; it gives you the initiative and aids in your escape, improving the chances of vanquishing your foe.

So, what speed is fast enough to maintain momentum? It can’t be expressed as a foot-speed or velocity, but you’ll know it when you see it. The best way to maintain momentum is to not waste time standing still at problem spots, thinking about them. Avoid the temptation to sprint to a problem, then stop, and look at it and decide what to do. This is especially important in stairways, because unless you have eyes in the back of your head, you’ll have multiple problems stacked up together.

Sprinting up or down stairs leaves you unable to process vital information. Focusing on one problem to the detriment of others can leave you especially vulnerable.

Sprinting up or down stairs leaves you unable to process vital information. Focusing on one problem to the detriment of others can leave you especially vulnerable.

Divided Attention
Have you ever had an argument with a spouse while you cut wood with a chainsaw? Both problems need all of your attention, but focusing on one while still doing the other for very long can result in a painful injury. Stairways are similar, and not only because of the consequences. Since focusing on one problem for too long will lead to missing something from the other problems, we have to divide our attention.

Angles of exposure in a stairway come from three basic areas: the close angle (the next landing to your front), the mid angle (the treads of the opposite side of the stairs), and the high angle (the landing or landings and the cut above or below you). Moving through the stairwell with some semblance of safety, whether heading up or down, requires you to constantly shift your focus among these angles.

The Mechanics
To move through a stairway, you first have to enter it. If it’s an isolated stairwell (imagine a hotel, office building, or school), you have to get to the first landing, usually through a door. As soon as you enter that landing space, you’re in the stairway, exposed to its angles. Make sure you’re not sharing the landing with a bad guy, then focus on the close angle and move to the outside of the stairs (furthest away from the center of the stairway, or the “cut”). Next, clear what you can see of the mid angle, then turn your body without moving forward and check the high angle. It’s important not to move forward when you’re scanning between angles, because every move in that direction exposes you to new angles of exposure.

Once you’ve cleared the close, mid, and high angles, orient to the close angle, take a step, and repeat the process. You’ll need to accept that this process will take some time —keep in mind you have the rest of your life to get out of this stairway. The speed isn’t important; the constant cycling of the process (check close, check mid, check high, move) is the critical action that will help you gain momentum.

The close...

The close…

The mid...

The mid…

...and the high angles

…and the high angles

As you search, you need to listen closely for indicators of someone sharing your stairway and look for parts of people. You won’t encounter someone fully in a stairway like you might in a horizontal space. Because of the vertical angles, you’ll see a part of somebody (usually the top of their head or their feet and shins) before you have a full view. This presents obvious challenges with threat identification: Do you risk exposing yourself in order to identify them? That question can only be answered on a case-by-case basis, deserving caution and a calm mind to avoid tragic and life-changing mistakes.

That’s the good news. The bad news is you have no cover in a stairway, reducing your options if you encounter a bad guy to either attacking or retreating. Standing and fighting, especially if you’re below your enemy, is simply a nonstarter. The only way to win is to attack or run away. If you have to attack, sudden, explosive violence is by far your best option. If you decide to retreat, stealth is your best chance.

The need for stealth is critical when working in stairways. Walk quietly, don’t talk, take your earbuds out, and say your Hail Mary’s in your head instead of out loud. Use all of your senses, keeping in mind that the person who sees, hears, or smells their opponent first has a marked advantage.

Seeing the bad guy’s target indicators first can allow you to dictate the terms of the battle.

Seeing the bad guy’s target indicators first can allow you to dictate the terms of the battle.

A Little Help From my Friends
If fate has put you with family, friends, or coworkers in this situation, use them to help. Just because they’re not armed doesn’t mean they’re not useful. Assuming they’re maintaining some semblance of calm, take 10 seconds and tell them to stay next to you and look up. If they see someone, or part of someone, they can grab your arm as a warning, maintaining stealth and allowing you to shift your focus to their line of sight. Besides, Gary from accounting would make a great body shield. What? Maybe he shouldn’t have used your coffee cup.

Get Out of the Stairway
As soon as you can, get the heck out of the stairway. If you’re in a commercial structure, stairwells have exits that go directly outside on the ground floor. Use them. Sometimes under stress we’ll do what we know — that door leading outside can be missed in your rush to get out your usual way, through the lobby or first-floor offices.

While working stairways are an interesting visualization exercise, there’s no substitute for learning and practicing under supervision. If you often find yourself in multistory buildings, a good CQB course that offers training in stairways is a wise choice for your training time and resources. If you get training and remain calm, you’ll greatly increase your odds of successfully navigating the shafts of doom that are stairways. Stout hearts.

About the Author
John “Chappy” Chapman is a police officer with over 25 years of full time and reserve police service in patrol, training and SWAT positions. He’s currently a SWAT team leader, and has completed thousands of hours of firearms and CQB training with some of the world’s best instructors. Chappy has taught in the private sector since 1999, serving armed citizens, police officers, and military units, most recently as an instructor for EAG Tactical. Chappy, along with John Spears, recently founded Forge Tactical (, an advanced tactics focused training firm, to carry on the legacy of EAG.

Look for fire exit doors and take the first one you find. They lead out of the building and, more importantly, out of the stairway.

Look for fire exit doors and take the first one you find. They lead out of the building and, more importantly, out of the stairway.

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