How Much Does Draw Speed Matter?

For many shooters, accuracy is a consistent focus as part of their training regimen. If the rounds don’t accurately hit the target, there is no point in sending it down range. Ultimately, many shooters develop an acceptable competency in their accuracy and transition towards improving their speed. In the competitive and defensive shooting worlds, speed is measured in many ways. Metrics from drills like splits (time between shots) and reloads are measured by the time taken to accomplish them. The time to draw a firearm and engage a target is not overlooked as a measure of skill and competency, determining how quickly a shooter can engage a threat from a cold start.

Reducing draw time and increasing speed while maintaining accuracy are important skills. However, is there a point where draw time reaches an acceptable competency? Can someone’s draw time ever meet that competency? Does it really matter? While speed is important, it may not make as much of a difference as many think it does.

How quick is a fast draw speed?

Fast draw competition shooters can draw and hit a target in less than a couple of tenths of a second. While impressive, these numbers are unrealistic due to the conditions of the competition and the setup by the shooters. Most combat competition shooters in the fields of USPSA, IPSC, and IDPA accomplish draw times in the sub-second range. These draw times are from competition setups that allow the shooter maximum efficiency in their draw.

The reality for most of us who carry or work in law enforcement is that our draw times will rarely approach competitive shooters’ numbers. Depending on who you ask, the average shooter should be able to draw their firearm and hit a target center mass at seven yards in less than two seconds. A competent shooter should be able to accomplish that in under 1.5 seconds. Practiced shooters can draw from concealment or a duty retention holster in under one second or less.

On my best days, I can consistently hit a 66% reduced-size IPSC target at seven yards around one second or less. This was a goal in development for over a decade and required hours of dry fire practice as well as thousands of rounds down range. The unfortunate reality is that while fast, this range theatric is not directly transferable to law enforcement and defensive shooting applications. In most circumstances, I will be moving to cover, giving verbal commands, or otherwise encountering an environmental factor that delays my response to engaging the threat. Addressing a threat is not as simple as squaring up with the target, drawing, and firing. The real world is far more complex and unforgiving.

Threat Perception

As mentioned above, range speed isn’t necessarily the speed a threat is engaged in the real world. Previously, I’ve discussed the importance of training for threat identification and critical thinking under stress. The dynamics of a violent encounter are far more complex than the environment of standing on the range responding to a shot timer. The shot timer is a Pavlovian tool that stimulates the same response every time it goes off. The shot timer goes beep and the shooter engages the target. Real-life encounters require the shooter to discern if the stimulus is a threat and, if so, what level of force is appropriate to respond to that threat.

As usual, I commandeered a couple of peers to analyze this theory by developing a scenario that requires the participant to respond to a possible threat or non-threat. The methodology of this test was designed to develop two baselines: reaction time to a known threat followed by reaction time to an unknown threat. The difference in reaction time, if any, determined the additional time needed to process whether or not the perceived threat required a lethal force response.

Assessing draw speed during decision shooting
The top image is how the target started. Upon the start beep, the target turned to face the shooter, presenting the scenario conditions. The bottom image shows the shooter engaging a threat armed with a knife.

The test was simple. Using a crude (I’m not made of money, but I have some creativity) turning target, the target began away from the shooter. Upon the start beep, the target turned to face the shooter. In the first scenario, the shooter engaged the target with one round after it turned to face them. Shooters integrated movement and verbal commands as the target presented itself. This established the baseline time for responding to the start beep and a known threat.

The second scenario added a component to the shooter’s response. The target began facing away from the shooter and the start beep initiated the turning of the target. The target, with an item on it, then turned towards the shooter. Occasionally, the target had a combination of items added to it. These items consisted of a handgun, knife, badge, and cell phone. The target may present with a cell phone only whereas it may present with a cell phone, badge, and gun in the next scenario. The next scenario may be a knife and cell phone. The shooter engaged the target, or not, based upon what they observed while conducting the same actions as they did in the first known threat scenario.

Mock-up items for decision target
These items were placed alone or in combination to generate different shoot and no-shoot scenarios. The items were moved around on the target to represent possible locations in a realistic scenario.

During the drills, we attempted to incorporate as much realism into the scenario as possible. Verbal commands and movement are all things we’ve done from experience and knew we would do in a real-life encounter. There was no benefit to us to falsify our responses in the name of producing an artificial result.

The Action – Reaction Gap

In short order, the threat perception test we conducted produced sobering results. The fastest time for any of the three participants was in the low two-second range. For comparison, I obtained some sample data to compare this response time. An individual working based upon action, not reaction to a stimulus, can draw and fire, on average, from their pocket in approximately .80 seconds or less. From concealment in the waistband was approximately .75 seconds or less. The numbers tell an undeniably grim picture of how far we are behind the curve when reacting to a threat.

For the three participants, the average increase in response time from a known threat to an unknown threat scenario was 0.56 seconds. This difference in time is a representation of how quickly our brain processes information, determines how to respond, and then sends the signal to respond when presented with an external stimulus. For comparison, this delay is the equivalent of blinking your eyes five times. While it may not seem like much, an individual can fire approximately four to five rounds during that time. Furthermore, a threat can raise and fire a gun from their side, on average, in approximately 0.44 seconds or less.

This data is nothing groundbreaking nor is it revolutionary. However, it continues to illustrate the reality we face: action beats reaction. Every. Single. Time. As an armed citizen or professional, it behooves you to know when you are at an advantage, but especially when you’re at a disadvantage. If at a known disadvantage, the goal is risk mitigation.

So, does draw speed really matter?

Training should focus on maximizing your skills and tactics. Time, distance, and cover govern the action-reaction gap and should influence your tactics. Cover is an obstacle between you and the threat that, if used appropriately, provides an advantage and buys you time. Distance (and movement) buys time while decreasing the likelihood a threat engages you if armed with a firearm. These things buy time. However, sound tactics and training help buy time as well.

Ultimately, draw time does matter, but to a point. A three-second draw stands no chance of challenging or defeating a threat. Success is more likely with a one-second draw but only with sound tactics. We are all behind the loop and set up for failure. It’s an undeniable part of being on the legal side of lethal force when acting in defense. Hence the term self-defense, not self-offense. Nevertheless, we can employ tactics that counter the risk in a lethal force scenario. Draw time is only one part of the overall skillset that mitigates this stark reality and works to tip the scales in our favor. There is no reason to discard the need for a rapid (and obviously accurate) response to a threat. However, there is every reason to conduct yourself in a manner that uses speed to your advantage through risk mitigation. Train often, but train intelligently.

Tom Stilson began his firearms career in 2012 working a gun store counter. He progressed to conducting appraisals for fine and collectible firearms before working as the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has a range of experience working for big and small as well as urban and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is certified as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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