“Average” Self-Defense Shooting Distances

A common phrase heard about self-defense shootings is that “they occur, on average, at 3 yards, happen under three seconds, and take three shots.”

Now, this sort of thing has never been backed up by any reputable research data, though there IS definitely data showing that many self-defense shootings occur within one car-length’s worth of distance. But because of this “commonly known” phrase, many people think that practicing for further distances isn’t useful. (Some instructors go so far as to say “if you are shooting over 15 yards, you should be running away, not fighting” and other similar comments.)

Between the concepts of “acceptable combat accuracy” and “average self-defense distance,” many people’s idea of what they should hold as standards for effective gun skills often end up being “hit a silhouette target at 9 feet, and you are GOOD!”

The problem with that, of course, is that it is nonsense.

We DON’T know the “average” distance for defensive gun uses, because there isn’t any overall research data repository that records this data. We DO know, however, that people have engaged criminals from bad-breath distance up to 100 yards, with a pistol, under justified circumstances.

So why the huge range?

Because all self-defense situations are not the same—and a SIGNIFICANT indicator of what distance you may need to be able to manage is based on who exactly is being threatened.

It is certainly true that someone trying to directly kill you (specifically YOU), generally does so from up close. As such, most self-defense situations of this type do tend to strongly match the “within a car’s length” distance, according to what data we have.

However, the situation in which that distance may be much farther is when you are caught up in a mass shooting situation. The criminal isn’t specifically only attacking you. Instead, he is attacking everyone. You are under threat, but it is likely to be from a distance AND you might not even be the target at that specific moment.

For those citizens who are armed and decide to attempt to stop the attacker, the distances involved are likely to be significantly larger in a mass shooter situation than in a direct assault.

The good side to that is that the shooter is likely to not be directly shooting at you at that point in time, so you have a good chance to make your first shot COUNT.

The question is, have you only practiced “combat accuracy” at 3 yards?

Or have you actually worked on your shooting skills?

Sgt. Johnson made a one-handed shot at 104 yards while holding the reins of two horses. Eli Dicken made 8 of 10 shots from cover/concealment (opinions vary) at 40 yards braced against a pillar. Jack Wilson made a headshot at 12-15 yards.

No matter WHAT situation you find yourself in, you need to make that first shot count–no matter the distance.

And no matter what someone tells you, “three shots, three yards, in three seconds” may not be good enough.

“What would you do if…”

How often have you seen the phrase “What would you do if…” in a defensive tactics forum, shooting forum, or martial arts forum?  I’m pretty sure your answer is “pretty often.”

How many times have you seen people immediately give specific, detailed answers about how they would competently handle the threat/attacker/situation?

Unfortunately, I bet the answer to that is also “pretty often.”

Why is that unfortunate?  Because most of those “what if” questions give few details, and as such, there is no way to give a definitive, solid answer.  Which means that all of the people who did so either 1) added lots and lots of details in their own minds to an open-ended question so that they could give an answer where they could use their skills (making me wonder how realistic they are in terms of their own skills) or 2) don’t know what they are talking about in terms of actual self-defense.

Or most likely both 1 and 2.

Self-defense, as a concept, is very straightforward.  Self-defense, as a set of principles, is very simple.  Self-defense, as a set of techniques, is very basic.

Self-defense, as a set of choices in an unknown situation, is extremely variable.  Yes, there are a few situations in which your reactions should be cut-and-dried.  (Example:  someone tries to force you into a car to take you someplace different.  This is a “fight immediately” trigger.)  However, most situations are highly dependent on a large number of variables.

Some basic modifiers (and in this case, confounders) with regard to decision-making:

1) are you alone, or is there someone else with you, like a spouse or a dependent?
2) what routes of egress are there in the given situation?
3) what level of threat is being presented?
4) is the threat presented directly, or indirectly (to a group including you, as opposed to specifically at you)?
5) what level of force is being presented?  (not only for legal use of force responses, but also for decisions on reaction type based on threat level)
6) what physical condition are you in?
7) what encumbrances do you have?  (are your arms full?)
8) how immediate is the threat?
9) what defensive tools are available to you?  (not merely what are you carrying, but what are the surroundings like?)
10) what is the nature of the threat to you?  (junkie in withdrawal needing juice now versus a gang of teenagers out for a “lark” versus drunken ex-boyfriend—even if they all have the same weapons, that doesn’t mean your reaction is going to be the  same for each case, particularly due to the type of actions they will present.)

….this list could go on and on and on.

Which is why it is so important to have a solid understanding of the concept of self-defense.  And a clear set of self-defense principles.  And a good, practiced set of broad-based techniques.  Because if you have those, often the choices you will need to make will be clear.  However, if you aren’t “at that time,” the chances that a random question on a discussion forum will have enough details to make said choices obvious is—-small.

And if you think the answer to “What would you do if you are being mugged?” is “I’m going to explode off the X while acquiring my firearm and shooting them to the ground until the threat is stopped, then check my 360 after which I’ll tac-load to survive this dynamic critical incident”  —-then you REALLY need to go to to a class that teaches you about realistic self-defense.

Recently, MissMichella over on the NFOA forums (in this thread:  http://nebraskafirearms.org/forum/index.php/topic,10374.msg72925.html#msg72925 ) asked the following three questions:

1.  If you were in a business and someone was committing armed robbery, what would you do?
2.  If you were told to get in a stranger’s vehicle…and you could tell they had some evil intentions, what would you do?
3.  If you were mugged while armed, what would you do?

I was extremely glad to see that with the exception of question #2, most people’s answers were effectively “it depends.”  In the cases where people gave more specific answers, they almost always carefully added specifics of details that affected their decisions—but still left it mostly open-ended with a “it depends” tacked to the end.

As for me:  If I were in a business and someone was committing armed robbery, what would I do?

Depends.  Is it my business?  How many other people are in the store?  How many armed robbers are there?  Is there anyone with me?  Is the armed robber paying attention to only the cashier?  Is the armed robber actually pointing the weapon at anyone?  Have they already shot someone?  Have they threatened to kill anyone more than “give me the money?”    Can I simply slip out the back/side/front doors?  What are my egress points?  Is there any cover near?  Are the robbers paying any attention to me?  Who is in the line of fire?  Where will misses go (from either side)?  Is the cashier simply going to hand over the money, and the robbers are fairly calm and might just leave?  Am I being directly threatened?  Is my life in immediate danger?  If the cashier doesn’t pay, will my life move to being in immediate danger?  How am I armed?  What weapons are available?  How much attention are they paying specifically to me, and how much time would I have to access and use a weapon?  Can I just leave?  Move away from the situation?

Give me a specific situation, and I’ll answer the question—because discussing choices about these things IS important.  (And that’s why I think that scenario training is so important when learning self-defense.)

But only ask me a short question like the above, and I’ll need more details before I’ll be able to say anything.  And if YOU think you can answer the above question with a simple “I’ll just do THIS!” answer, you really need to take some different self-defense training.

Timers and Practice…


I’m a big fan of using a timer for shooting skills practice.  HUGE fan.  I believe strongly that if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you need to go.

And yet, I almost completely agree with John Wallace in his blog posting about Randomness in practice:  Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer (Part V: Randomness)   In it, he suggests doing a whole LOT of things that mean you can’t actually track your progress over time, and sometimes can’t even use a timer in the first place.

So how can I agree with both of those perspectives without demonstrating some significant schizophrenia?  (And we are going to leave my mental health out of this, thank you very much.)

Simple:  one of the above methods is for practicing shooting skills.  The other is for practicing applications of shooting skills.  There is a bit of grey area in there (for example, when practicing the skill of using cover, you still don’t try to beat the timer) but for the most part, the issue of randomness should occur when attempting to prepare for real-life self-defense (or military, or LEO) applications–not when learning the skills in the first place.

When do I use a timer?

  • Practicing my draws (hands at sides, surrender, concealment 2-handed, concealment 1-handed, WHO draw, sitting, prone, supine)
  • Practicing my reloads (emergency, speed, one-handed SHO, one-handed WHO)
  • Working transitions and splits
  • Practicing explosive movement into and out of positions onto near/far targets
  • …and many other specific physical skills.

Put it this way—specific skills, practiced in isolation, make you good at those skills, such that in terms of applications of said skills, you don’t have to think through the skill itself.  In application, you can then use the majority of your brain to concentrate on the situation, instead of having to devote part of it to remembering (for example) how to get a good draw using only your strong hand.

When you first learned how to work a manual transmission, you had to think about it a lot—at the expense of paying attention to your surroundings.  Someone ever try to talk to you when you were first trying to go from a stop into first gear uphill?  How’d that go?  Did you tell them to shut up until you got the car moving?  (I’ll bet you did.)

And yet, as you got more comfortable with the transmission, the amount of brainpower you had to spend on it became less—so that you could spend more time watching the road, and paying attention to the situation around you.  And talking with friends.

In a similar fashion, If your shooting skills are good, it’ll make your ability to apply those skills far greater.  You’ll have more brain capacity available for problem-solving, as less of it (less of the conscious part, at least) will be needed for the skill itself.

Using a timer for building skills means you have a way to measure your practice–what works, what doesn’t, what helps you improve most.  It gives you a standard against which to practice, a point at which you can say “okay, this skill is pretty good, time to change training priorities.”  (We don’t want to say “good enough,” unless it is “good enough that I should be practicing something else before I try to get this one better.)  For example, if your draw from concealment on a target at 7 yards is already 1 second, you might be better served by practicing other skills as opposed to trying to drop another 0.15 seconds.

But after your skills are solid (and while you continue to practice your skills), you should be practicing applications of those skills.  Say that you can already draw, reload, and shoot on the move.  Now, (with a training partner) set up a situation in which there are three targets in front of you, with varying (and mixed) colors, numbers, and shapes on them.  Have your partner yell out a combination that you have to recognize, and only shoot those targets.  Or maybe only NOT shoot those targets.

Too easy?  Have the targets appearing, (visual start, instead of an audible start) and also require that you shoot on the move to cover.

Still too easy?  Have your training partner give you a magazine that has an unknown number of rounds it in, forcing an emergency reload at some point in time.  Or instead, include a dummy round in the magazine somewhere to force remedial action under stress.

Those applications really aren’t made for timer work.  (You could use one occasionally if you want, but it won’t really tell you anything.)  The purpose of those applications is to train your brain to make appropriate situational choices—in which you need as much free brainpower as possible.  (As opposed to training your body to perform physical skills.)

If your skills practice was solid enough, then you should HAVE free brainpower available.  If, on the other hand, you haven’t put yourself on a timer for basic shooting skills, chances are that your skills are weaker than you think, and your shooting application success level will be far lower.

We use bullseye targets to measure accuracy, don’t we?  In a similar fashion, you should use a timer to measure speed.  (Unless, in your lifestyle, shooting is all bullseye and never self-defense.  No, there isn’t a timer in a self-defense situation.  There is another guy there who really is trying to be faster than you, however.)  And you should use a timer in your practice fairly often.

But you should also NOT use the timer fairly often, because in addition to training your body to handle specific skills, you need to train your brain to handle varying situations.

You are practicing two different things.  And unsurprisingly, the best methodology to use in these two different things, with two different goals—-is different.

What a shock.

Use a timer on known drills.  Also—incorporate randomness in your training.

(I will note my biggest disagreement with John is in his title.  He calls it:  “Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer” —I think that Randomness and situational training actually should start occurring AFTER you’ve been chasing the timer for awhile.  Get good at specific skills.  Then, start practicing occasionally with randomness.)

Timers, Competition, and Self-Defense, part I…

Recently, John Wallace at Midwest Tactical Solutions has written a series of articles titled “Things to Consider Before Chasing the Timer“.  In it, he discusses some aspects of practice that many people ignore, such as the size and composition of training targets, movement, cover, and target discrimination.  It got me to thinking, particularly as he used a quote from me in his discussion of cover, to wit:  “Thomas Howard of Precision Response Training recently told me, “If there is one thing competition shooters suck at, its using cover.” Since he is way better at and more into competitive shooting than me, I’ll trust his judgement on this.”

I completely agree with him in his contention that 1) many people practice on static targets of ridiculous size, 2) without practicing shooting on the move, 3) without use of cover, and 4) without even elementary factors in terms of target discrimination.  (I’d actually frame it more strongly and simply say that most people don’t practice, period.  And many of the ones that do go to the range do not “practice” in any way that resembles the meaning that I would give to the term.  Going out and plinking a bit is not practice.  It may be fun, but it isn’t practice.)

That being said—I’d like to comment a bit on some of the things John said, and give a different perspective.  John is coming from a background/viewpoint that regards shooting as a combat act, particularly with respect to the rifle and carbine classes that he teaches.  When I was at the skillbuilder seminar where I gave John that quote regarding competition, in return John talked about the fact that his focus is on tactics applicable to combat.

And while I believe that combat skills and tactics are applicable to self-defense training, I believe that there are just as many differences between combat skills and SD training as there are between competition skills and SD training.  Which, I’ll note, is why I’m perfectly good with people learning both combat skills and competition skills on their way to becoming competent at self-defense.

This isn’t to say that I think that either combat skills or competition skills (or a combination thereof) actually cover the full range of specific skills most important to citizen self-defense—I don’t.  There is, however, overlap in both cases.  (In a later post I’ll talk about what self-defense skills are lacking in both the combat skillset and the competition skillset.)

In the third part of his series, John talks about use of cover, and how competition shooters are really bad at it.  (Which they are, for the most part.)  He, quite rightly, discusses how cover can make a significant difference in your ability to stay alive in combat, talks about some ways to practice it, and lists some very good things to keep in mind.

Tanish Hanish, Team FNHAt the same time, I think that his commentary regarding competition shooter’s use of cover is a bit overly simplistic. He shows a picture of a competition shooter (Tasha Hanish) firing around a barricade with most of her body visible from downrange and with the muzzle of her rifle past the barrier, and asks “How many bad training habits being built can you spot in the pic below?”

My answer to that is:  It depends.  Do you normally use effective cover when you play baseball?  How about basketball?  Why would you then use or practice it in any other type of sport in which it has no value?  So why would you critically analyze someone’s actions in a sport in light of requirements that don’t exist in that sport?

How about putting it another way:  In slow-pitch softball, do we criticize the pitcher for not having a fast overhand cast?  No?  Why not?  Because that isn’t what the sport is about, and using one set of requirements to criticize someone operating under different ones doesn’t make sense.  Do you think that the pitcher CAN’T perform a fast overhand cast, just because we don’t see her doing it in a slow-pitch game?

In competition shooting (specifically, in USPSA and Multigun), there is no emphasis whatsoever on use of cover.  (In IDPA there is, and whether or not that is useful is an argument for a different day.)  As such, any wall, port, door, window, barricade, etc, is merely treated as a vision block where the competitor attempts to (within the fault lines) get their sights on target and get good hits as soon as possible.  For those sports, practicing using cover in a way applicable to combat or self-defense simply isn’t necessary, and wastes time.  As such, competitors, when practicing their sports, don’t do it.  (Just like slow-pitch softball pitchers don’t practice their curveball.)

And so, my quote was quite true:   “If there is one thing competition shooters suck at, its using cover.”   However, I should have added a followup comment, which is:  “Just like anyone else who hasn’t practiced using cover.

Most people HAVEN’T practiced using cover.  As such, they will suck just as badly as many competition shooters.

I, for example, suck at using cover when operating a carbine in the outdoors.  About the only time I shoot carbine is for local multigun matches, and since cover isn’t an applicable concept for those, I don’t practice using cover at all with a carbine.  As such, I suck just as much as any other person who hasn’t practiced using cover.

That being said, since I’m a lot more comfortable with my carbine than most people, can move it around easily, know how to handle it under a number of circumstances, and have shot it under stress while keeping my stage plan in mind—I’m pretty sure that if I actually took the time to practice use of cover with a carbine, I’d pick it up pretty quickly.

In contrast, I’m really good at using cover when I’m operating with a pistol–even though USPSA pistol competitions don’t use cover at all, nor is it a concept that has any value in that particular sport.  (You’ll never see me do it in a competition, at all.)  And yet—I do it well enough to teach it to others.

Why is that?  Because oddly enough, just because one is a competition shooter, doesn’t mean that one is ONLY a competition shooter.  (I’m not sure why, but many people think that shooters can only pick one training track–either you are a “tactical shooter” or a “competition shooter”—which is ridiculous.)  I have spent significant amounts of time practicing competition skills with a handgun.  I have also spent significant amounts of time practicing self-defense skills with a handgun.

Oddly enough, when I’m on a stage with an RO giving me range commands, waiting for a timer to start the stage, I have no problem focusing on a set of competition skills.  And yet, when in a self-defense situation (in which, oddly enough, I don’t expect to hear a timer go off) I have no problem using skills appropriate to the situation.  Why is that?  Because I practice those, too.

John says:  “I also see competition shooters who think they are using cover, but are actually WAY overexposed, flagging their weapons beyond corners, through windows, hanging out in the fatal funnel, etc, etc.”

…I doubt they were thinking this in matches, because there is no value or merit to “cover” in a Multigun match.  As such, being overexposed means that you have a better view on the target.  Having the weapon extend beyond the barricade is fine when you have to move close to the barricade and not transition from one side to another, especially if you entered the barricade area from that side.  It is true that sticking the barrel through a window is a bad idea, but only because that means you have to pull it back out before you can move—and it is often useful to use the window frame as a support.  There IS no fatal funnel in a match–so that isn’t relevant either.

So if what he is talking about occurred in a match—then those shooters thought nothing of the sort.  They didn’t think they were using cover at all, nor were they attempting to use cover and doing it badly.  They were doing the correct technique for the sport in which they were participating.

Now, if those competition shooters were in a tactical combat class, and thought that they were using cover appropriately—then yes, they were seriously screwed up.  (I’ll note I didn’t have that problem in the carbine class referenced above—my problem was that I often didn’t move out from cover enough, and tended to clip the barricade. I sucked at using cover for the opposite reason.)

So—do I think John has some good things to say here, in his commentary on cover?  Certainly.  Do I think that using a competition shooter in a competition match where cover has no value creates effective support for his arguments?  No, not at all.

Is is true that most competition shooters suck at using cover?  Certainly—just as much as everyone else who hasn’t practiced using cover.

I will bet that competition shooters who HAVE practiced using cover will be just as good (probably better, but I’m biased because most competition shooters are better shooters than non-competition shooters, on average) as the “tactical” folks who have practiced using cover.

Stay tuned for my next post in which I completely agree with him about how “chasing the timer” is a bad idea, and offer some suggestions for pistol shooters in terms of how to maximize their ability curve while using a timer.

Additional note: I won the overall in that carbine skillbuilder class, that had a combat focus, which was run by John who has significant experience in simulating and teaching real-world situations (from his significant experience IN real-world shooting situations).  I didn’t win any of the individual competitions, but my skills were such that I consistently placed high, so that in the end I initially tied the person who had won several of the individual competitions—who happens to be a carbine expert, and who teaches carbine to others.  And then I won the shootoff for the overall title, because I could, under stress, do exactly what I needed to do while the other person instead, under stress, defaulted to how they’d been training instead of what they were told to do.

The guy who ended up second, by the way, is obviously a better carbine shooter than I am.  There is no doubt about that, and if you want to learn how to run a carbine with respect to military combat skills, David Petta of DCPrecision and John Wallace of Midwest Tactical Solutions are excellent people to learn from, because they have spent considerable amounts of time learning and practicing their carbine skills.

But I’m thinking that at the same time, people should think critically about what it means that a mere “competition shooter” should win the combat-oriented carbine skillbuilder seminar, even though I spend hardly any time with a carbine.   Just because someone practices for competition shooting doesn’t mean that is all that they do—and it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn anything else, or have built bad habits that STOP them from learning other things.

It is true, though, that most competition shooters suck at using cover.   Normal shooters suck at using cover because it doesn’t occur to them (if they haven’t trained for it) and they don’t know what they are doing.  Competition shooters suck at using cover because it doesn’t occur to them (if they haven’t trained for it) and they know what to do to get shots on target as fast as possible, which just so happens to be bad for effective use of cover.