Training, Zombie Style!

Zombies? Yeah, I know – if you are looking for detailed gun info, best to leave now and check back tomorrow. But if you have a moment, stick with me…

With friends at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event
With friends at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event

I spent a very fun evening a few days ago at Apocalypse: A Zombie Kill Event, and I propose that this sort of event can teach some valuable real-life skills if you take it seriously.

To give you a basic idea of the event, we have a group here in town that bought up an old abandoned beef slaughterhouse. It’s a two-story concrete building, about 10,000 sqft on each level, with a few outbuildings and some acreage. They whole place is pretty decrepit, and any new industrial tenant would have to just demolish it all and build from scratch. So around Halloween, this group sets the place up as a huge and extremely well-done haunted house. Well, they were looking for a way to utilize it year-round, and came up with the idea of having actors playing lots of zombies (more or less what they do as a haunted house), and have groups of 3-5 patrons go through the place with weapons and trying to shoot the zombies and get through without being “eaten”.

I was hoping to get a photo from them of the actual site with some people going through it, but they are a bit concerned about getting the ideas perfected before someone else beats them to it, so they’re pretty tight-fisted with photos and video. Anyway, their first go-around used airsoft guns, which had some flaws. For one, patrons would negligently shoot their own teammates at point-blank range. It also forced the “zombies” to wear safety masks and plenty of padding, which made the experience a bit under-dramatic. They have now switched to using AR-15 clone paintball guns (for the weight, feel, and noise of firing) combined with basically MILES laser gear instead of paintballs. The zombies now wear MILES target receivers, and can be much more mobile and realistic-looking.

The environment is dimly lit, with plenty of strobe lights, air cannons, creepy sound effects, themed props, narrow passageways, tight corners, big rusty machinery, and so on (remember, this is all set up in an old industrial building). As your team moves through the course, zombies come at you from ahead and behind, out of dark corners, behind counters, out of boxes, and even from catwalks above. When you fire your paintball rifle, the sound triggers a laser emitter mounted above the barrel, and if your aim is good it will set off the target receiver on the zombie, at which point the actor will “die”, potentially reanimating to come at you again after you’ve passed by. Some are slow, some are fast, male, female, and even little kids (we encountered one particular sprinting little blankety-blank who must have been about 12 years old). Great stuff, right out of a zombie movie. It really kept us on our toes, and was loads of fun (we went through a second time because it was so much fun).

Zombies as Training

I think that this event (assuming you go into it with this in mind) does a surprisingly good job addressing a bunch of the really important aspects of a fight that most shooting classes and other orthodox shooting training skip over. Specifically, working with other people, and interacting with actual human beings as targets.

I’m sure there are some particularly good shooting schools that do force-on-force scenarios with airsoft/simunitions/lasers and actors playing realistic roles, but most places don’t. Most shooting schools and other accepted training regimens focus on gun handling – can you bring your weapon on target quickly, make fast and precise hits on your targets, and do so from a variety of physical positions. Those are important skills, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone do less of that sort of training and practice – but it really has a pretty limited relationship to a real lethal encounter. Even simple linear motion from a target is rare at classes or range practice, much less unpredictable movement, much much less having targets show up above or behind you unexpectedly.

I found that going through the zombie course made me focus on caution, navigating corners with minimum exposure, predicting potential hazard points, communication with teammates where to pay careful attention, and assessing whether zombies were just props, “live” and waiting to ambush us, “dead,” “dead” but potentially waiting to reanimate…or live and actively attempting to eat our brains.

The experience taught nothing at all about ammo management or reloading (infinite ammo in the compressed air tank!), little about aiming (engagement distances were about 15 feet maximum), and nothing about minimizing exposure to return fire (zombies can’t use guns, duh!). But it did give us the opportunity to really exercise teamwork, situational awareness, dealing with disorienting conditions (one area had a bridge through a rotating tunnel of black light decorations about 10 feet in diameter and 25 feet or so long – it was very difficult to walk through without clutching at a handrail for balance, despite the bridge being totally motionless), and having to assess target status (some zombies went down with one hit; some took a bunch). It forced us to pay attention to a full 360-degree world, plus a 180-degree arc above our heads as potentially hostile – definitely something outside the typical class or range scenario.

So, obviously I don’t think this should replace firearms training for anyone. But I do think you might benefit from seeking out some of this sort of experience, be it airsoft gaming, paintball, or something like the zombie-themed event I took part in. FWIW, I think the zombie event had some real advantages over airsoft or paintball combatives, because the zombie actors were paid to be there and play a specific role – no enticement to try to “game” the event to win. Their goal (and they did a great job at it) was to give the paying customers like my friends and I a fun and “realistic” experience (they also keep score of how many people actually wet their pants, and reportedly topped three figures last year).

I am really curious to see what could be done with a professional trainer and a group of serious students at an entertainment-oriented place like Apocalypse…



  1. So how accurate are the MILES things? My problem with paintball, using rented guns, was the horrible accuracy. I usually couldn’t keep shots on a target much over 7 yards. I realized that I preferred real guns and fake targets instead of fake guns and real targets. It didn’t help that I was a really big target.

    • I believe they can be very accurate – they are lasers, after all. I haven’t used the system in a military-type training environment though. I have run into the same objection as you about paintball accuracy – it was pretty frustrating to have no sights on the marker and watch the paintballs curve gracefully left and right as I fired. For this Apocalypse setup, though, paintballs weren’t used, just the markers to give noise and heft. The laser was triggered by the noise of the marker’s air blast (you could also “fire” the laser by tapping on the side of its casing).

      • The essential problem with MILES is that it is easily gamed, and GIs figured out how in short order. It also can encourage recklessness because only a very sold hit produces a “kill” deedle (sound). For example, to a MILES laser any concealment is cover.

        It is pretty good, in SF world we’ve largely replaced it with simunitions. Sims sting when they hit you so they encourage proper use of cover. They are range-limited but they have been a vital part of sFAUC for years.

        Sims also work well with the crawl, walk, run methodology the mil uses. Back in Blue Light/SOT they used to do a dry run, then a BB gun run, THEN a live-fire run. With Simunitions you can go right from dry, to blank (optional), to simunitions, to live fire, all using your own weapon, just with the sim blue barrel upper….


  3. I see this as being the future if ammunition prices remain constant. If it becomes (stays?) too expensive to shoot, there could very well be a market for training with pneumatic/electronic replicas instead of shooting expensive ammunition.

  4. Interesting setup.

    Slightly related: I’ve been through a live-fire “movie firing range” in the Norwegian military a bunch of times. There is a video of the system here, being demo’ed for the US National Guard (only the shootiest scenarios are shown in the video, unfortunately). You have a loaded weapon (MP5 in my case) and are facing a projection screen showing a scene from outside the tent. The tent is pointing downrange, and the actors appearing on the screen are really behind you. There is two-way video and audio so you can communicate, and you run small scenarios where you are a guard, and people approach you for different things. There’s everything from a lost tourist to an all-out assault with a LAW, but you don’t know what will happen next while you stand there.

    Like the people in the video comment, it really gets your adrenaline going. There’s the scenario itself, of course, but you’re aware that you have your buddies from your unit watching you from behind, and you really don’t want to screw up too badly. And you’re standing there with a live weapon, which also tends to focus one’s mind.

    The focus is on proper escalation of force, something which I guess is a hard sell as a course for civilians, but I feel that the training was very valuable, and having gone through some scenarios like this beforehand can help calm your nerves when things start to heat up in real life.

  5. Teamwork is never overrated, practice it however you can. I actually play airsoft to overcome the limited accuracy and range of paintball guns. It’s also very cheap, and with the ammo shortage, I find myself doing target and drawing practice with my airsoft handguns.

    Harald, that video system is used in some defensive pistols classes here in the states. I am extremely impressed with it. They laid down some very hard scenarios with it for my wife when she did her training, including an agitated but unaggressive deaf man… Most people fail that one.

  6. The company I work for makes “non-guns” (mostly M240s) that are non-firing replicas that are externally identical to the real thing. Our customers retrofit them with lasers and pneumatic pistons to replicate the recoil, so a trainee can shoot at video representations of people instead of using live ammo on real targets. There are some companies that make M4 training systems. The light felt-recoil is relatively easy to simulate with pneumatics. I can almost see something like that being marketable to individuals, what with ammunition costing $.85/shot or more.

  7. I’m one of the trainers/mission commanders for the Apocalypse missions. I’m very glad you and your crew had a good time at the event! We have been working hard on trying to give the customers an amazing expirence from both the massive attack aspect and the blood and gore realism that caused me to fall in love with working at the Slaughterhouse. I do have to agree with you as far as the teamwork aspect – I’ve taken teams through the house several times and you would be suprized how many unintentional “friendly fire” incidents we would expirence every day (which is no fun at point blank with airsoft – trust me), most of those came about when one of the group was seperated a little ways from the group and mis-identified as a hostile during a large attack.

    As far as the actors for the scenario, now that they don’t have to wear the padding they are much faster and more nimble – attacking from unexpected places and more often – the amount of awareness required to avoid suprizes is pretty extreme. That coupled with the creepy air of the place and knowledge of imminent danger can really put you in a mental state comperable to the real thing… I’ve been through the scenarios with teams (and now without) many times and it NEVER gets old!

    To add to your comment on minimizing exposure to return fire – we are working on having some added features of having other resisters waiting to meet you in there, however they may be a little “off” and you may take incomming fire as they attempt to defend themselves. Another adventure in the works is the “overnight” mission – which will involve building a shelter, having to secure your own supplies, and defending yourself and your camp/supplies from attacks (another group and a group of raiders (employees)) – that will be an intense expirence which may hit on several of the “lacking” areas mentioned above. We are also constructing a completely seperate course with the entire upstairs of the building which – when online – will give people approximately a 45 minute expirence complete with tasks, friendly fire opportunities, and a zip line escape which will traverse the entire yard!

    As for your question about the pro-trainer and students – I can’t vouch for that, however we have had a team of rangers (they were amazing) and many other military/law enforcement personnel who have come through and done awesome.

    I’d like to think the Slaughterhouse Team does an awesome job creating an expirence with this new event – and seeing how things have been evolving and knowing the future plans, I can say with no dobut that this is probably one of the coolest expirences in Tucson! And it’s only going to get better!

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