Defeating the Tactical Fantasy: The Data Behind a Gunfight

For years, I chased the almighty timer. When I achieved proficiency with accuracy, I transitioned to responding faster and more efficiently to the threat. While a non-existent delay in responding to a threat is ideal, it’s simply not possible in a real gunfight. Nevertheless, many training days have focused on reducing engagement time to a threat. Unfortunately, the fantasy of achieving a fast engagement time that outpaces the suspect is unrealistic. As demonstrated in this article, it’s unachievable under most circumstances when face-to-face with an armed threat.

Recently, I engaged in a range discussion stemming from how threat perception in the real world, versus responding to a range command of “fire” or a timer’s start beep don’t readily translate between each other. The issue at hand is the delay in perceiving if (1) the stimulus is a threat and (2) what response you should produce to address the threat. This form of decision-making under stress requires purposeful training with a realistic expectation of how you can respond in a gunfight. From this discussion, we tested some scenarios to formulate a drill, arguably a demonstration, for a shooter to experience and better understand why speed on target is not as important as many of us think.

The Drill and Demonstration of a Gunfight

The initial concept was for two shooters to stand on the five-yard line with a target downrange. The goal wasn’t to achieve hits within a small “A” zone on the target but to obtain hits at least near the target. This was an exercise in speed, not accuracy, as the objective was to measure how fast a shooter could respond to a threat. For purposes of this discussion, “shooter” is the armed citizen or law enforcement officer while the “threat” is the second shooter acting as the “bad guy”.

Scenario setup
The first scenario had both shooters on the line. The threat had the firearm concealed on their person where it wasn’t visible to the shooter.

This “test” evaluated how quickly a shooter responded to a threat’s presentation by measuring the gap between threat and shooter target engagement. Since safety is paramount, the shooter and threat remained on the same plane so no one was “downrange” of the other. The shooter faced the target but turned their head towards the threat to observe the threat’s behavior.

The demonstration began with the shooter in one of two positions: firearm holstered or firearm at low ready. The first scenario had the threat positioned next to the shooter but facing away. The threat faced down range in the second scenario while standing next to the shooter. Each scenario integrated verbal commands from the shooter to tell the threat what they wanted them to do. Some verbal commands, for example, were, “Put your hands up”, “Show me your hands”, “Drop the gun”, or “Lie down”.

Gunfight Scenario 1

In the first scenario, the shooter gave the threat commands to lie down or put their hands up. The threat had no readily visible weapon. In all scenarios, the threat was non-compliant. For the first scenario, the shooter gave verbal commands until the threat complied or responded with a firearm. In the second scenario, the shooter gave a couple of verbal commands and, upon determining the threat was non-compliant, ceased giving verbal commands. The shooter effectively then switched to “observation” of the threat and responded accordingly based upon the threat’s actions. The shooter in this scenario did two variations: holstered or low-ready. Three people alternated as the threat and shooter. This kept our results from favoring a shooter or threat with a shorter (or longer) action/reaction time.

Scenario based training on range
The second scenario had the shooters on the line with the threat holding a handgun at their side. This scenario introduced a known lethal threat to the shooter compared to the relative unknown of the first scenario.

Gunfight Scenario 2

Shooters in the second scenario “knew” the threat was armed. This scenario had the threat stand with a gun at their side. Due to the obvious known threat, the shooter conducted the drill with their firearm at low ready only. In addition, we integrated verbal commands like the first scenario.

The shot time provided data with the start beep initiating the scenario. The threat initiated the action that produced the shooter’s response. The delay from the start timer beep to this occurring varied based upon the threat’s decision when to draw or raise their firearm, which required the shooter to respond at an unknown time. The shot timer recorded the delay in the threat’s shot to the time the shooter fired their weapon.

The Data

We did these scenarios approximately 40 times and obtained an approximate average threat response time. As a disclaimer, this data isn’t groundbreaking nor is it new. The Force Science Institute has produced far more rigorous studies on a gunfight over the last twenty or more years. Our testing confirmed their results.

Data on a gunfight scenario

Our testing tells an interesting story. The slowest shooter response time to the threat was while holstered and using verbal commands. This time decreased by roughly 0.2 seconds when the shooter ceased verbal commands prior to the threat-initiating action. Verbal commands with the firearm at the low ready halved this time. Ceasing verbal commands halved the time again.

As a matter of interest, we conducted the test with the shooter’s firearm in the “bootleg” position. In the bootleg position, the shooter’s firearm is behind the leg. Bootleg was significantly slower than “Low Ready.” It was no faster than drawing from the holster with no verbal commands. I attribute this delay to no one involved in this drill using or practicing the bootleg position. You can’t expect competency if you don’t practice a skill or technique.

The action-reaction gap significantly narrowed when confronted with a known threat (e.g. gun visible at the side). There was little to no time delay change between continued or ceased verbal commands when the gun was visible.

On paper, these times are just, well, times. An average of 0.6 seconds doesn’t seem like a long time. However, seeing this delay with your own eyes is sobering. It’s an eye-opening experience that challenges your perception of what environments or conditions of a confrontation are truly “safe”.

Understanding Why We Lose

Every single scenario had a consistent theme – the shooter lost, or narrowly tied the threat. Tied gunfights are what some refer to as an “undesirable outcome”.

Simunitions or airsoft force-on-force are a better demonstration of this phenomenon. However, we hope to demonstrate this in the future. For now, the data and observations tell an important story. If we respond to a threat face-to-face, we will almost always lose the gunfight.

From our observations and the data, task saturation on behalf of the shooter delayed their response to the threat. The shooters responded slower because of the verbal commands. The shooter perceived the threat and talked at the same time. As a matter of practice, providing several verbal commands repetitively does no good. If the subject isn’t complying, the shooter should change their tactics. Move to cover, change location, or conduct an unpredictable action to the unknown threat.

The addition of repetitive verbal commands only adds to task saturation during a stressful incident. If it’s not working, it’s time to change what you’re doing. Task saturation carries over to keeping the firearm holstered versus being at low ready. Not all situations dictate someone should draw their firearm. However, if justifiable, a low-ready position reduces the shooter’s tasks when evaluating and responding to a threat.

In known threat scenarios, verbal commands didn’t affect the shooter’s reaction. Arguably, verbal commands were less relevant because the shooter had a pre-determined threat response. We respond faster when faced with an armed threat. This is the manifestation of mental rehearsal.

The Final Verdict for a Gunfight

The odds a shooter’s reaction will outpace a suspect’s actions are slim to none. Even the world’s fastest shooters cannot exceed the times achieved during our testing. On average, a threat drew and fired a handgun from a pants pocket in 0.70 seconds, waistband concealment in 0.60 seconds, and their side in 0.30 seconds. Speaking from tragic experience, the armed citizen or law enforcement can never overcome the suspect’s head start in a gunfight.

To maximize your survivability in a gunfight, remember the following factors: (1) minimize the time gap between the threat’s action and your reaction (e.g. speed to engagement), (2) use cover, movement, and distance to your advantage, and (3) take action that is unpredictable or disrupts the threat’s actions. Put the threat on the defensive by changing the conditions and parameters of the confrontation. We minimize our time engaging the threat while adding time to their ability to effectively engage you. Each of these elements encompasses what a friend aptly refers to as “time management”.

Every shooter should maximize their speed in getting rounds onto target. However, a gunfight has far more complex factors beyond speed. The data, tragically, reveals a sobering picture that time is not on our side. Your training – especially your mindset and tactics – should consider this and adjust accordingly.

Tom Stilson's firearms career began working at a gun store counter in 2012. He later conducted fine and collectible firearm appraisals before becoming the national firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service with a career in law enforcement. Tom has a wide range of experience working for big, small, urban, and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is a certified firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. With years of experience in the field of geochemistry and a B.S. from Stanford University in Geological and Environmental Sciences, Tom takes a science-oriented approach to training, reviews, and firearms. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or sharing his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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