All Joke Memes Aside: When the Assailant is Armed and You Are Not

held at gunpoint
The thought of being held at gunpoint generally comes to mind easily, as well as the question ‘What would I do?’

I will honestly admit I find the short films created on the internet showing an instructor demonstrating a ‘gun to the head’ disarming technique in a class, spliced with someone trying the same technique in ‘real life’ resulting in them ending up in the afterlife to be very funny.

However, there are three much deeper truths behind these funny videos. One, that many instructors are looking for a hook to help build their brand and their training. Two, that having a gun pointed at you when you are initially ill-prepared is a very dangerous position to be in and there is no ‘magic bullet’ that guarantees success in such a situation. And three, that however unlikely, these situations can and do occur, and like any dynamic self-defense situation, being prepared provides options and a better (although not guaranteed) chance of survival. Let’s look at each of these truths in order.

held at gunpoint meme
Behind the humor of what can go wrong when applying a disarming technique in a high-stress environment is several harsh realities that need to be addressed.

Instructor Branding

A cursory search of the major training organizations that certify firearms instructors will quickly reveal that most instructors are not actually teaching. Basically, there are many more instructors than classes being offered. Obviously, some of these are simply people collecting certifications, but it is also an indicator of the crowded field within firearms instruction. Further considering that unless required by state law, many people never take a class, the competition for dedicated students willing to take multiple or longer classes is strong. Finally, competent, realistic, and safe training based on which situations are most likely to occur is, well, rather straightforward and boring (from an advertisement and branding perspective).

Although there are many ways to build a solid training business model, providing quality firearms training focusing (at least initially) on very basic skills is likely one of the slower methods. Other methods include branding the instructor themselves. Highlighting what experiences, training, law enforcement, military service, and accomplishments the instructor holds to better brand and sell their training. Another method is to offer specialized ‘sexy’ training earlier in the program of instruction. Many people want to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and are attracted to anyone selling a faster, better way. Unfortunately, many of these ‘sexy’ techniques are more complex than a single maneuver and are often focused on very unlikely situations.

At the end of the day, we are capitalists. If we spend time and money becoming certified instructors, we also need to see a return on the original investment and need to see a return on our efforts. I absolutely love teaching firearms and emergency preparation classes, but would I do it for free? The simple answer, except for a few friends, is no. I am not accusing or excusing any instructors, including myself. I am just acknowledging the market forces that result in some instructors featuring what I would consider advanced skills for unlikely occurrences in earlier classes.

Transporter 3
A favorite of media and entertainment, the reality is that being held at gunpoint rarely occurs, and most are simple robberies. Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films

The Danger of Someone Having the Drop on You

The gun-against-the-head scenario is a favorite of movies and series. This is due to the innate drama and implied threat of such a situation. Thus, it comes quickly to our minds and elicits an immediate ‘what would I do’ response in us. Although there are techniques to potentially
regain control in such a situation, they are inherently dangerous and potentially unnecessary. Most firearms training revolves around awareness and hopefully avoiding such situations in the first place. From this viewpoint, having a gun pointed at you is an indication that you have likely missed cues in your environment and have been caught unaware. As in most things I would argue a better use of your time, training, and practice (at least initially) would be to avoid any situation that could result in this eventuality.

Most controlled tests of the techniques taught in most classes to disarm an opponent that already has the drop on you in isolation using Simunition (non-lethal paint rounds) or airsoft guns and safety gear result in success rates in the 50% range. Thus, someone that is well-trained in trying these techniques will mirror the memes (ending up in the afterlife) approximately half of the time. What is often missed when offering one of these techniques in an earlier class is the determination of whether action is the best option, and what needs to be done to distract the person with the gun before the action.

In short, I believe such situations can occur (they are just less likely than many other self-defense scenarios). I believe proper training can increase the odds of survival if the situation does occur. I believe that the technique (disarming) is secondary to building the skills needed to avoid or prepare for the action. I also believe that in a desire to better “brand” initial classes, some instructors offer these techniques as a quick fix that you can learn much earlier by taking their classes. I understand the market pressures that drive these decisions, but it has also resulted in such techniques becoming an internet joke instead of a series of advanced techniques that can be used when there are no other options.

Being Prepared: Training for the Scenario

If you have read this far, you have likely started to realize I do not think such techniques can be easily described and adopted through a short ‘how to’ article like this one. You would be right. But I do think certain core steps can be considered and adopted into your own training. First and foremost is to find an instructor that is offering these techniques as an advanced stand-alone class. The mental preparation and differences in techniques (even while keeping it simple) depending on where the assailant is, necessitates longer training and practice sessions. Also, as with most defensive techniques, if you want to become proficient in these techniques plan to practice them safely and regularly until the actions become second nature.

dummy guns, one with trigger guard removed
Once you learn the various techniques for disarming, practicing them regularly and safely is a must. Make sure you use dummy guns with the trigger guard removed. Trust me your trigger finger will thank you as the gun is abruptly removed from your grip.

The real trick is developing the pre-skills needed before any disarming action you might or could take. The very first step is to keep calm, maintain eye contact with the assailant if possible, and try and figure out what they want. If you panic or are erratic, that energy will be transmitted and communicated to the assailant with the gun, and they will become panicked and erratic. As much as possible, it is in your best interests to be a calming force in the situation. Next is to try and figure out the general motives of the person with the gun.

Recognize if murder was the immediate intent, you would likely not still be in a situation of threat. Thus, the broad possibilities are robbery, hostage, or abduction. Robbery is the most likely, and if that is the identifiable motive, likely the best course of action is to not try a dangerous disarming technique. A more likely strategy would be to calmly, slowly, and, while pre-communicating each deliberate movement, give the robber what they want. This goes under the wide philosophy of “what am I willing to kill or die for?” I doubt that you’d be willing to actually die for a piece of leather holding plastic cards (your wallet), so don’t engage in a technique that may increase those odds of demise if the wallet is all the person wants.

If the person holding you at gun point is using you as a hostage, this suggests the presence, likely police, of a response already on the scene. Again, remain calm, and in this situation, the odds are better if you trust the professionals, though you may also want to consider keeping lines of sight between the assailant and police forces unobstructed by yourself as much as possible. Again, the odds in the robbery and hostage scenarios are more in favor of your survival by playing it calm, than by attempting a potentially deadly disarming technique.

The final scenario is abduction. Adult abduction is very rare, as most cases involve smaller children. However, abductions, especially those involving being taken to a new location, often end in a violent assault, rape, and even death. The statistics on adult abduction do not support that death is certain, but it is more likely than the other two possibilities. Thus, the abduction scenario is more likely to require drastic action. Keeping the situation as calm as possible is still important. The need to communicate with your assailant will be key, as you want them cognitively distracted. Ask them questions, and act during one of their responses. The cognitive distraction, matched with a well-practiced, smooth, and decisive disarming technique will increase the odds of a less-than-lethal (for you) outcome. However, no matter how skillful and calm you are, recognize you are implementing a technique of last resort.

steps in disarming technique
The place to learn proper disarming techniques is not through an article, pictures, or videos. It is best learned in person with someone who knows these techniques inside and out.


Overall, scenarios requiring disarming techniques are much less common in the real world than in our imaginations and the media. Additionally, when such a scenario does occur, the likelihood of it turning deadly is often much lower than the odds of failure while attempting a disarm. This does not make learning such techniques non-valuable. Just make sure such education comes after learning the techniques and skills needed to safely handle much more likely scenarios. Finally, focus on the mindset and skills to stay calm and, as much as possible, ascertain the goals of your assailant, to better determine when such techniques are truly needed.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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