Small Unit Tactics in a Post Collapse Environment, by Gunfighter

The time may come when all order and civility have broken down into chaos and unrestrained evil. You were a wise prepper and worked through your list of lists, acquiring all of the necessary knowledge and tools for survival. All of your bases are covered. Your survival retreat is intact and manned by your entire survival group. Each individual is most likely capable of firing a weapon and you probably have a survival retreat defense plan in the event a band of raiders, or some other group of people who wish you harm, decides they want to take what isn’t theirs. One skill may have been overlooked however… What is your plan, if a group of individuals must leave the defensive perimeter of your survival retreat? How do they mitigate risk before departing? How do they act and move? How do they posture themselves for a high rate survivability? What actions do they take in the event of being engaged in a firefight? These are all valid and relevant questions that need solutions in a post collapse environment. Tactical movement skills necessary when moving off of a retreat, on foot and overland, include: bounding, bounding over watch, movement to contact and react to contact. These terms may be foreign but I assure you, you will feel more confident and better equipped with some small unit tactics knowledge after reading this article.

The small unit tactics that I will discuss here in this article can be tailored to any situation or terrain. These tactics are meant to be used within a loose system or framework. It does not have to be “By the book.” There is plenty of room to adjust the tactics to fit the situation. The number of personnel can vary and does not need to be fixed. The best way to master these tactics is to train to the point where you are comfortable adjusting them to fit the need. Everything I discuss here in this article can be found in multiple military manuals (I will reference as I go) all of which are available to the public. Nothing I discuss will be sensitive or secret in nature. These are simply some small unit tactics that have been used for a long time.

First I will discuss the administrative organization of the group of people leaving the immediate area of your survival retreat. For the sake of continuity when I am referencing this group of people, their number will be nine, and they will be called a squad. This squad of nine personnel will want to posture themselves in such a way that improves all of their chances of coming back to the retreat alive. It is also important the squad be broken down into two smaller elements with element leaders and a leader over the entire squad. The smaller element leaders will now be referred to as team leaders. The overall leader of the squad will be referred to as the squad leader. The two teams within the squad are Alpha and Bravo teams. In this article each team will consist of one team leader and three additional riflemen. The squad leader manages the team leaders and the team leaders manage their individual teams. So in review; there is a squad of 9 personnel, that is broken down into two teams, Alpha and Bravo teams, each team consists of four personnel, one team leader who manages three additional rifleman, the squad is managed overall by the squad leader. It is imperative that survival retreat members elect tactically competent people as leaders for extra-retreat excursions before actually going on, what I will now reference as a patrol.

After SHTF “Old World” leaders may not have what it takes. The positions or offices that once protected individuals as leaders, though they were not capable or proficient as leaders, will no longer exist. The law of the jungle will now be in effect. Those individuals who are capable and competent will be easily recognizable, and out of necessity placed into positions of leadership. I realize that is a lot of information so if you need to, go back and read from the top of this section.

Now that the administrative portion is out of the way we can discuss the tactical organization of the teams and squad. Each team, as we discussed before, will be comprised of four personnel. In this article, during movement, each team will be in its own wedge formation with the team leader in front of his team. I would like you to visualize four personnel in an echelon or inverted V formation with the team leader at the front of the direction of movement. One rifleman will be off to one side and staggered behind the team leader with the other two riflemen off to the other side staggered off of one another.  I made a simple illustration below:

                 ^    TL                                                       TL= Team Leader

   ^    RFLM            ^      RFLM                                RFLM= Rifleman

                                           ^     RFLM                       ^ = Person

There is a visual in the Ranger Handbook SH-21-76 under Formations. I highly recommend using a search engine to find images of a fire team wedge before continuing on. Now that the team formation is solidified in your mind, think of Alpha team in a wedge formation followed behind by Bravo team also in a wedge formation. Both fire teams are moving together in the same direction of travel. In between the two teams is where the squad leader is positioned during patrol. This position gives him moderate to high control over the squad. The two fire team wedges combined together with the squad leader is called a squad column fire team wedge. I made a simple illustration below to demonstrate a Squad Column Fire Team Wedge.


                   ^    ATL                                                     ATL= Alpha Team Lea

    ^    RFLM              ^      RFLM                              BTL= Bravo Team Leader

                                             ^     RFLM                      SL= Squad Leader

                    ^    SL                                                       RFLM =Rifleman


                       ^   BTL

            ^   RFLM            ^   RFLM

^   RFLM                            
Once again use a search engine to look at a picture of a squad column fire team wedge before continuing on (supplement rifleman in the grenadier and squad automatic weapon positions, unless your squad is fortunate enough to be equipped with such weapon systems). The distance between each man and each team can vary terrain dependent and movement technique desired. For example on open ground with few obstructions you can space out 35 or even 50 meters between personnel and the same distance between teams. The opposite terrain would be woods or a forest where visibility is restricted, and distances between personnel and teams can be as close as 10 to 15 meters. The distance and staggering of the personnel in the squad column fire team wedge is meant to increase survivability so a single burst of fire cannot take out more than one individual. As I explained before, the concepts of these tactics are loose and can be adjusted as necessary. Now that the squad column concept is understood we have the basis for the rest of the article. From now on when I say squad, refer to the squad column fire team wedge visual. Remember you can always go back and review the previous concepts before continuing on.

You should have a warm and fuzzy at this point in regard to the squad column fire team wedge. It is important for each member of the squad to know and understand the 5 Principles of Patrolling before heading out from your retreat. The 5 principles can be found in the Ranger Handbook SH-21-76 Chapter 5 Patrols. Even though no one in your survival group may have military experience, these principles still apply and are relevant to any group of people moving through a possibly hostile area after a total collapse scenario. The 5 principles as they appear in the Ranger Handbook are:

  • Planning. Quickly make a simple plan and effectively communicate it to the lowest level. A great plan that takes forever to complete and is poorly disseminated isn’t a great plan. Plan and prepare to a realistic standard and rehearse everything.
  • Reconnaissance. Your responsibility as a Ranger Leader is to confirm what you think you know, and to learn that which you do not already know.
  • Security. Preserve your force as a whole. Every Ranger and every rifle counts; anyone could be the difference between victory and defeat.
  • Control. Clear understanding of the concept of the operation and commander’s intent, coupled with disciplined communications, to bring every man and weapon available to overwhelm the enemy at the decisive point.
  • Common Sense. Use all available information and good judgment to make sound timely decisions.

Your squad is assembled and spaced out, ready to initiate movement into whatever area that you intend to go outside of your survival retreat.  You begin movement at “Patrol speed.” Essentially it can be as slow or as fast as you want, situation dependent and movement technique desired. You want to move at a speed that is conducive for each individual to scan with their eyes the area the squad is moving into, as well scanning the flanks and rear. You also have to decide the current threat level to your squad and how likely it is there are people who wish you harm where you are going.  I will skip the Traveling technique because contact with potentially hostile groups must always be assumed in a post collapse scenario but please research this technique on your own if you wish. The squad leader should direct the squad to assume Traveling Overwatch, in which contact with hostiles is likely. In this movement technique, terrain dependent, there are 20 meters of dispersion between personnel and 50 meters of dispersion between fire teams. The lead team should be far enough in front of the trail team to detect and engage any threat to the squad, as to allow for the trail team to not become decisively engaged with an enemy. This allows the trail team to be in reserve and maneuvered by the squad leader to support the team in contact and destroy the hostile force. \

The second movement technique that I will discuss is Bounding Overwatch. This movement technique is used when contact with hostiles is imminent. The distances between personnel and teams remains the same as Traveling Overwatch, but as always can be adjusted situation dependent. During Bounding Overwatch, the forward team will occupy an overwatch position while the trail team bounds to a position alongside or forward of the overwatch team. The overwatch team is static and occupies any cover (object or position that can stop bullets) and or concealment (object or position that hides personnel) it can find, to cover the bounding team’s route, with fire if necessary. The bounds can be successive (the bounding team moves up alongside or online with the overwatch team) or alternating (the bounding team moves up and passes the overwatch team). Once the bounding team completes it’s bound and sets in, it then becomes the overwatch team and the previous overwatch team becomes the bounding team and initiates its bound. These movement techniques can be found in the Ranger Handbook SH-21-76 in Chapter 4 Movement. Search Traveling Overwatch and Bounding Overwatch on an internet search engine to find more information of these movement techniques.

So far, no offensive tactical operations have been discussed. A tactical operation called Movement to Contact is used as an offensive operation to gain or regain contact with an enemy unit. This would be used in the event that you have a general idea where hostiles may be. I do not advise the use of this tactical offensive operation using an element as small as a squad, especially in a post collapse scenario when you have no reserve force. In fact, Movement to Contact is reserved for a platoon size element in support of a larger force. With that disclaimer aside Movement to Contact if modified, can be an effective tool for your squad in a post collapse scenario, if the right conditions are met. An example of the circumstance when I would use Movement to Contact would be; if it became apparent that a small number of hostile individuals were in vicinity of my survival retreat and could be approaching. To avoid a firefight at the survival retreat and mitigate the risk of other survival retreat members becoming casualties I would muster the squad and conduct a movement to contact in the direction of the last know location of the hostile individuals. This is still not a perfect solution. Other considerations must be taken into account such as leaving a defendable position and who will remain behind for retreat security. It is just an example of when this offensive operation could be used.

Now let’s look at how to conduct Movement to Contact with your squad. There are two types of Movement to Contact: Search and Attack and Approach March.  Search and Attack is used on an enemy that is most likely dispersed and is not expecting attack or is expected to withdraw. The overall intent is to deny the enemy movement by saturating the area with platoon, squad, and team sized elements that find, fix, and destroy the enemy. This could prove difficult for a squad to do but against a small number of hostile individuals it is possible. The second type of Movement to Contact is the Approach March. The concept for this technique is to make contact with the enemy using the smallest possible friendly element. Once contact is made using the smallest element and the enemy has committed to the fight, all of the remaining friendly units maneuver on the enemy and overwhelm him. Once again this technique is intended for multiple platoons, squads, and fire teams in support of a larger force. This offensive tactical operation can be altered for use by one squad, given the right conditions.

For a the practical application of Movement to Contact for use by one squad it will be necessary to combine the two techniques, as you will recall are Search and Attack and Approach March.  It will take some creative thinking to maneuver a squad in order to saturate an area, make contact with only a fire team, and finally maneuvering the remaining team to crush the hostiles. The best solution would be to give clear and concise guidance to your team leaders to get both teams online, Alpha on the left and Bravo on the right. The teams should be in a shallow wedge. The distance between personnel and teams will need to be exaggerated, covering a larger area than normal. This is so that if one team makes contact with the hostiles, the other team will not be decisively engaged. This tactic may entice the hostiles to fully commit before they are aware of the other team. Once the hostiles are committed in a firefight with the first team the remaining team can move into position to bring the full force of the squad’s firepower on and overwhelm the hostiles. Remember that nothing is ever certain and this plan is not fool proof. There are many other ways to address the issue of possible attackers moving in on your survival retreat, Movement to Contact is just one tool in your bag. Consider your options, and then act. For more information on Movement to Contact reference FM 3-90 Tactics, Chapter 4 Movement to Contact or SH 21-76 Ranger Handbook Chapter 5 Patrols. You can also do a search of Movement to Contact in an Internet search engine.

Up until now we have discussed how to assemble your squad, move your squad, and find the enemy. Finally we come to how to destroy any would be attackers. The scenario is you’re squad has left the survival retreat, as it has before. Every member has their head on a swivel looking for signs of danger, rifles at the ready. You’re not looking for a fight, but are ready if one comes your way. You’re focused on the task at hand, whether it is gathering supplies or going to a town meeting your squad is ready to do what it needs to.  Multiple individuals a few hundred feet in the direction your squad is traveling expose themselves from behind cover and begin to fire their weapons at your squad. You’re squad’s training kicks in, you begin React to Contact.

React to Contact is a battle drill. A battle drill is defined as an action rapidly executed without applying a deliberate decision making process. Basically it means it is an instinctual reaction that has been engrained into your mind and body. You know what you need to do and you act immediately. Like the scenario I described above, your squad, specifically Alpha team, has been engaged by several hostile individuals to your front or 12 O’clock position. Multiple things occur all in the same instant, upon receiving hostile fire. They are: return fire, seek cover (preferably in the prone) and alert the rest of the squad to the hostile’s location by use of the 3 D’s (shout out: clock direction, distance, and description of the hostiles. This sounds like: “Twelve O’clock, 100 meters, 3 enemies behind a berm). Since Alpha team is in front of Bravo team and the hostiles are to the 12 O’clock position, only Alpha team returns fire. Bravo team will hold their fire so they do not shoot their fellow squad members in the back. Bravo team’s job is to seek cover, echo the 3 D’s, pull security to the flanks and rear, then await further instructions. Alpha team upon contact, will rapidly fire at known, likely, and suspected locations of hostiles simultaneously seeking cover and giving up the 3 D’s. When Alpha team is behind cover, generally online with one another, and engaging hostile targets, the squad leader will move up to their position. The squad leader will get eyes on the hostiles and receive a report from the Alpha team leader.  At this time Alpha team will be attempting to gain fire superiority over the hostiles.

Observing three hostiles the Alpha team leader informs the squad leader he can’t take them without Bravo team. The squad leader acknowledges and instructs the Alpha team leader to continue to suppress the enemy. The squad leader will also tell the Alpha team leader where he intends to maneuver Bravo team.  This scenario, in a moderately wooded area, has three hostile individuals about one hundred meters to the 12 O’clock position. They are lying prone and firing from behind a low berm, obscured by brush. To the squads left flank the woods become less dense and the ground slopes downward. To the squad’s right flank the ground slopes slightly upward with several large rock formations on the high ground. The squad leader likes the high ground and the possibility of using the rock formations as cover so he will be flanking to the right with Bravo team. The squad leader moves back to the rear where Bravo team is pulling security and informs them of his plan (the elapsed time from contact to now should be very short, approximately 30-40 seconds. The longer Alpha team spends slugging it out with the hostiles, the higher chances of a friendly casualty and more ammunition being expended than necessary). Bravo team gets up and follows the squad leader. He rapidly retrogrades with Bravo team back the way they came, preferably out of sight of the hostiles but remaining within hearing distance. Once he believes he has gone far enough he and Bravo team move up to the high ground far enough to turn back toward the contact and moves above the rock formations perpendicular to the hostile’s position. Alpha and Bravo teams will essentially be forming an L shape and be able to overwhelm the hostiles with fire from two directions. I have included a simple illustration for an example:


Hostiles                  # # #               <             Bravo Team



Alpha Team   ^        ^        ^        ^

Once Bravo team is online perpendicular to the hostiles and are not compromised, they will begin to creep forward undetected to the last covered and concealed position in between them and the hostiles. In this case it will be the rock formations. Under the guidance of the squad leader Bravo team will open fire on the hostiles with a rapid rate of fire. After a few good seconds of a hammering the enemy position, Bravo team with begin bounding to the hostile’s fighting position. Bounding with a total of 5 personnel will consist of individual bounds. One at a time, while the other team members cover their movement with fire, each individual will bound up to the next cover. They will each stay in an imaginary “Lane” as to not stray into other team members’ covering fire. Each bound should be 3-5 seconds.  At the end of each bound the individual drops down into the prone behind cover then begins to fire on the hostiles while covering the next individual’s bound. This should be done very rapidly in succession and in specific order. Back at Alpha teams position the Alpha team leader will be watching for a shift fire signal from the squad leader who is bounding with Bravo team. The shift fire signal is a predetermined audio and or visual signal given by the bounding team, to the support by fire element, to shift their fires away from the advancing team. So in this case Bravo team is bounding from right to left as seen by Alpha team, Alpha team will be shifting their fires to the left approximately 15 degrees ( 30 degrees if using a belt fed weapon on bipod) in front of Bravo teams advance, but continue to fire. The Alpha team leader has complete control over his element and can shift the team’s fire on his own if he feels Bravo team is at 15 degrees and no shift fire signal has been given.

Once Bravo team has one bound remaining before assaulting through the objective, the squad leader will give the lift fire signal.  Alpha team will pour on an increased amount of fire onto the hostile’s position for a battlefield handover to Bravo team. After a few seconds of cyclic rate of fire Alpha team will stop firing completely. Bravo team will pick up their rate of fire once Alpha team has lifted fire in order to compensate for the reduced volume of fire on the hostile’s position. Bravo team will make the last bound and then collectively get up approximately 35 meters before the hostiles and assault through the objective. Remaining generally online and staying in their individual lanes, Bravo team will quickly move through the hostiles fighting position shooting any armed individuals and clearing any rifles that are found. Once Bravo team has cleared through and has taken up defensive positions 35 meters past the hostile’s fighting position, Alpha team will also pick up and assault through the hostiles fight position. They too will take up defensive positions.

At that point, while maintaining security, execute a 100% check on men, weapons and equipment. This is to ensure everyone, their weapons, and gears are accounted for. Any friendly or hostile casualties can be treated at this time. It would be best to check the bodies for identification to use in notifying any local authorities that may still exist. React to Contact seems difficult and confusing but when actually put to practice it is rather simple. This is only one way it can be done and there are many alterations that can be made. Once the concept is concrete in your mind you can take that base of knowledge and adjust this battle drill to fit the situation. More information can be found in FM 7-8 Infantry Rifle Platoon and Squad Chapter 4 Battle Drills and in the SH-21-76 the Ranger Handbook Chapter 6 Battle Drills.

In no way is this article comprehensive or exhaustive on small unit tactics. This barely scratches the surface on the specific tactics I described alone. This article was meant for individuals who may not have considered these things as an important subcategory of their overall survival education. Like I have said several times in my article there are many ways to do the same thing when it comes to small unit tactics. If you master the basics you know all there is to know. In reality there are no advanced small unit tactics. The idea again, is to master the basics so you can operate within a framework of knowledge and modify these tactics to suit your needs and the situation. I urge you to take this seriously because there will be no cavalry that swoops in and saves you at the last second. There will be no “That was a close one!” Either they will die, or you will. It will come down to who is better trained. Survival is most likely when risk is mitigated to the highest degree. I say most likely because it is impossible to avoid risk entirely. Risk mitigation in order to survive can come in many forms. Preparing for all possible situations or difficulties that may arise is the preferred method for survival. I say all of this to emphasize that all facets of preparation are necessary in the full spectrum of survival. Learning to fight as a unit is just one more skilled needed for TEOTWAWKI.

JWR Adds: Learning military tactics could indeed prove crucial, depending on the severity of WTSHTF. However, keep in mind that standard military doctrine is far more aggressive and risky than would be appropriate for most foreseeable situations faced by survivalists. Keep in mind that military tactics are geared toward offensively, boldly, and rapidly taking and then holding ground, while at the same time incurring “acceptable losses.” It also assumes that advanced medical care is available rapidly via helicopter Medevac. Modern military organizations also have the advantage of helmets and Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) being available for every soldier. Your mileage may vary substantially. (As a survivalist, your tactical concerns will more likely be primarily defensive, less hurried, and with a premium placed on minimizing casualties.)

Also, keep in mind that unless you are sitting on a stockpile of a lifetime supply of ammunition, then the typical military “suppressive fire” doctrine will probably be either out of the question, or curtailed substantially.

I recommend modifying military tactics to suit your particular circumstances. Typically, this would mean operating with less speed, greater stealth, and an emphasis on camouflage. Also, depending on circumstances, it would also mean conservation of precious ammunition and pyrotechnics.

Under current U.S. Army doctrine, there is just one Squad Designated Marksman (SDM) per squad. But for TEOTWAWKI, I would advocate having as many as three per squad, especially in open terrain. That will increase your standoff distance and hence minimize friendly casualties. I would also recommend having every member of your patrol wear full ghillie suits in all but the hottest weather.

The bottom line: When you are out patrolling with members of your own family, then the concept of “acceptable losses” takes on a whole new meaning.