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Twenty-one feet is the anecdotal distance that separates self-defense from murder. It’s based on work done by Sergeant Dennis Tueller. Tueller timed volunteers to see how quickly a determined attacker could cover 21 feet (about 1.5 seconds). In doing so, he identified a dilemma for anyone involved in a potential DGU. If you use a firearm to defend yourself at too great a range, you are at risk for being charged with murder. However, as Tueller demonstrated, 21 feet of separation can disappear in a flash . . .

By the time you draw your weapon, you may only have a split second to respond. Note how quickly this guy goes from a dead stop to delivering a mortal poultry wound using a bladed weapon. He closes the distance so quickly that I doubt I could draw and fire my firearm, at least not without plenty of practice.

The key issue is the time between the moment the guy begins his beserker move and the point blade strikes flesh. He could have just as easily plunged a 3″ knife center of mass.

All of which illustrates the importance of training. The cool part: you don’t even need to go to the range. You can practice your draw in the comfort of your own home (gun safely emptied and all four rules observed, of course).

A full-length mirror will help, too. Just practice clearing your cover garment and bringing your gun to bear, ready to rock. The more you do, the faster you’ll be.  Don’t forget to draw and move, and draw as you move. In a DGU, a sitting duck is a foul thing to be.

And when you’re down at the range, practice the Kenik drill (named after TTAG’s own rabbi): shoot your gun as fast as you possibly can. Then check out your group. Speed isn’t everything—unless it is.

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  1. A very good book to read that ties into this topic is “No Second Place Winner” by the late Bill Jordan. His emphasis was to be slow, quickly. In other words, to be slow enough that your movements are not frantic and out of control. And as mentioned above, training, training and more training will get you to the point where you can move in a familiar way with control AND speed.

  2. Good info, but two issues here.
    First, if a civvie, with no specific relevant formal training, shoots a lone knife threat on the street at 20 feet, and he gets sued or causes a public outcry, he’d better have something else to justify it than “I read about the Tueller 21 foot rule on the internet or a book.” Even LEOs, formally trained in the 21 foot rule, by certified tactics instructors, can’t rely on the Tueller thing to justify their shoot, because they’re not being judged by a jury of cops, but by citizens, even though the Tueller thing has been taught in police academies for 20 years. The Tueller rule is counter-intuitive, and most people first hearing of it do not tend to believe it.

    Second, about shooting as fast as you can. Counter terrorist units have a better drill, which goes by many names, most of them some version of “the rhythm drill.” One of the better known is the “six round rhythm drill.” The first time you do it, it requires a pact-type electronic timer or someone who’s good with a digital stopwatch. The goal is to fire six rounds in sequence, but no faster than two shots per second (o.5 sec per shot), and no slower than .75 second per shot. It’s easy to “clap out the rhythm” with your hands to illustrate, but of course near impossible to depict here. Why use the rhythm drill instead of shooting as fast as you can? Because in the under-trained, or even in the well-trained under gunfight stress, shooting too fast will short-stroke triggers and cause malfunctions, in both revolvers and pistols. It’s easy to see this problem even in combat drills where the shooter is pushed to shoot at max speed, and that’s nothing like actual fight stress.

    • Hey koolaidguzzler,

      I take issue with your characterization of Tueller in # 1. If you shoot a guy who has a knife when he’s 20 feet away from you, either you drew well before he reached 21 feet (around 30-35 feet) or he’s not coming at you and you have no legal basis for your shoot. So Tueller’s rule would not really apply…

      My .02

      • nathan, here’s a simple example: You’re in a bar parking lot. Man exits bar 30 ft away, yelling at you, as fallout from a previous argument you had in the bar, so you know he’s after you. he pulls knife as he walks toward you. you draw at 25 ft. When he keeps walking toward you yelling, you shoot at 20 feet. That’s just one of numerous possible setups.

        • Tueller does not say to fire at 20 feet. It says you are already behind the power curve if you have to draw on someone who is 20′. That was the original drill, DRAW and fire. If your pistol is already out, it’s not a Tueller situation.

          The point at which someone draws a knife and proposes exploration of your innards, you have justification for use of deadly force and can legally draw without being charged with assault. If there is some question regarding the legality of DRAWING, the Tueller drill is the answer your defense attorney should produce, with appropriate documentation and video evidence.

          If said asshole believes he can beat the bullet and you shoot, he’ll be a lot closer than 20′ by the time you fire. At that point you are not shooting someone a long way away from you and the Tueller drill does not have to be introduced.

          The other principle Tueller reinforces is to keep that 20′ cushion by giving ground. To witnesses, you are backing up and attempting to disengage, which never hurts when bystanders are interviewed. In reality you are trading distance for time and options and keeping the range advantage of a firearm on your side.

          General CCW practice should be to not get into bar fights in the first place if you’re armed.

        • “If said asshole believes he can beat the bullet and you shoot, he’ll be a lot closer than 20′ by the time you fire. At that point you are not shooting someone a long way away from you and the Tueller drill does not have to be introduced. ”
          It also helps that the guy is charging at you with a knife.

  3. In my own close call,when the flag flew my opponent was approximately 5 feet away.When he came at me with a weapon I instantly realized I was waaaay too close and was moving backwards on the draw,facing forward the entire time.My attacker was disarmed before I cleared holster,but on the scene my distance was about 21 feet-and I could go no further as my back was to a wall at that point.

    I learned two lessons of many that night.One,scout your location.Call it paranoid,but if the poop hits the oscillator having your back against the wall is bad juju.Two,practice drawing-and shooting,if possible-while moving backwards.I didn’t have any special training beforehand,I just knew on the spot that I was way to close to the attacker and needed space NOW,which is why I backed myself into a wall.

    • Lateral movement is also preferable, as it mildly negates the attacker’s advantage (they need to change direction and you can move sideways faster than you can walk backwards)..

      • I would agree with the lateral idea. It only occured to me post-incident that I could have stepped sideways and put even more distance from the threat instead of going straight back and into a wall.

        You notice things like that afterwards. There’s plenty of time to dissect the event in the aftermath, that’s for sure. At that terrible moment my mind shifted into a single-point mode of operation. Many people think Massad Ayoob makes his stuff up, but I can vouch for the fact he sure ain’t lyin about time displacement. Your mind just doesn’t operate the way it does in day to day life, and being focused on the threat and addressing it thereof is so powerful outside thought simply ceases.There is the threat, and what must be done to stop it. Its a place where direct thought ends, and adrenaline directed action-reaction choices begin.

        After that incident, I understand why its so vital to choose your actions and weapons carefully pre-incident. Once the flag flies you won’t be thinking about lawyers. Afterward, everyone’s going to have an opinion, and your actions will seem like something of an out of body experience. It is akin to your waking detailed mind going on the blink for 30 seconds, and leaving raw action -reaction in its place. Once conscious , directed thought comes back in the aftermath and the shakes set in -an unnatural thing for a 20 something guy to experience- you see things as if there was someone else , and you were just an observer along for the ride.Then the enormity of what happened sets in,combined with the adrenaline withdrawal it makes for a fragile emotional condition. In that state, you just want to find someone to talk to , anyone who can understand what you just went through….when the pros say shut up and get a lawyer, they ain’t kiddin’. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I wasn’t in a condition to tell anyone what time it was at the scene, to say nothing about giving a detailed statement about who did what , descriptions of stance and position, and the timing of it all. Cops and citizens who give weird or odd responses at the scene of a self defense incident aren’t usually being deceptive, its usually because they were too busy fighting for their lives to count the shots fired or remember the shirt the bad guy wore.

        I didn’t need to clear holster, but I warn all the macho man guys out there to beware what they wish for. They just might get exactly what they asked for , and then some.I pray to never have to even so much as reach for my carry weapon again.

  4. In video taped road side shootings you frequently see police backing up while withdrawing their gun, sometimes even firing it while moving backwards. That can buy you some time and distance, and gives weight to the idea you were trying to flee the danger while preparing for the worst.

    If an attack comes at speed towards you then you may have to resort to eluding, taking cover, or even running away. I don’t think George Z was able to do any of these things before tiny little cute Trayvon jumped on him.

    • You also see a lot of videos where officers attempt to back pedal, but trip over their own feet in the heat of the moment.

      As mentioned above sidestepping is a good option. Practice both while drawing…and or know your limitations

      • There is a third option which some officers have performed instinctively, and which was illustrated in a well-known dash-cam video of a texas trooper when attacked by multiple threats during a car stop. The officer did an about face, and shot backwards with one hand toward his threat while the officer looked in the direction he was running. He ended up running into a circle and re-approached his threats, who were scattering from the gunfire. The officer did not put them all down, but he disrupted their attack and he survived as a result.

  5. You can practice your draw in the comfort of your own home (gun safely emptied and all four rules observed, of course).

    I also have an altar in my home where I worship Jeff Cooper every day. It makes a great aiming point for dry firing without putting my finger on the trigger of a gun that I’m supposed to treat as unloaded even when it isn’t.

  6. This is the reason I prefer pocket carry.
    Most of my practice is with the gun below eye level, much of it from the hip, between ten (10) and forty (40) feet.
    And live in condition yellow.

    • I pocket carry all the time — but in jeans, it’s not very effective. The pockets are just too small and too tight.

  7. Focusing too much on a quick draw may distract you from the correct response to any such surprise encounter. The correct answer should be to make an advantageous COUNTER MOVE. And backing up is NOT a good counter move– backing up while drawing sounds like a) an untrained reflexive response and b) a great way to end up on the ground fast.

    There’s a lot to be said for focusing 100% on FIRST getting to a better position before even BEGINning to draw your weapon.

    • I STRONGLY second the observation to think twice before adopting the tactic of backing up while pointing a gun forward, unless you have a partner spotter guiding you backward, like operators often train to do. Why not back up while pointing forward? Because in too many situations, the shooter does not know his background, and is too likely to trip over curbs, objects, etc.

      However, what people SHOULD practice much more is moving LATERALLY. Many agencies teach a lateral sidestep as a standard tactic, and it’s been proven in actual LE gunfights to work. More often than not, your threat shoots where you were a second ago, not the two-feet-to the right that you are now. BTW, lateral movement is also the key to surviving the 21-foot knife charge.

      • +10

        I was taught to side step, too. In fact, at my local range, when the shot timer goes off, I frequently bounce off the edge of the stall. Muscle memory is funny like that.

        • I do the same thing. On a controlled line, I can only step a foot or two to the right, then next time I step a foot or two left to return to original spot. And I sidestep every time I reload. When i’m on a range whre such movement will fly. And unless I’m in a non-dynamic mood, which is usually the case on my first runs.

      • +20
        Agreed, a lateral move is safer in many ways, when possible. Also if the attacker has a knife for instance, now you are on their side with gun drawn they might just run away which is a good thing. Maybe not but you gave yourself a few feet of space, time, and allowed your brain to process more of the situation which is huge.

      • Agree. Lateral is a good option. However, stepping to the side is not the only option and in the “turkey run” above, I’d actually consider stepping IN on the attacker (!!)–unlike a guy coming at you with a knife or with bare hands, a long sword/bat can actually become a hindrance to an attacker if you can throw them off rhythm.

  8. Unarmed practice.

    Do it a lot.

    Go sign up for some boxing courses at the very least.

    Knives are brutal and very quick.

    You need to make sure you can create a window to draw and fire.

    The Tuller drill ends up looking real different if you have a good right cross waiting for who ever is charging you.

    I was taught that if some one is charging you, moving backwards is not the answer. Go forwards and use their momentum against them. For one, its unexpected, for two, there are lots of situations where you really cant move back any further.

    My good friend Brett got attacked once, at fairly close range, inside a business by a man with a knife. He backpeddeled straight into a table, and ended up on his back. He manged to fight the man off of him with the help of some others, but he never got the chance to clear leather.

    • Move forwards and use their momentum against them.

      Won’t work well against a knife and a determined attacker inside 21 feet, which seems to be the general scenario here. An attacker holding a good combat knife with training could slice you to ribbons.

      I’ll create distance from the knife wielder just long enough for him to realize that he’s brought a knife to a gunfight. That might happen by sidestepping or a full on sprint, depending on the. circumstances. YMMV.

  9. The training I received was two quick shuffles to the side could often be enough to buy time. However I was also trained that you’ll be lucky to get 7 yards in an urban environment. If you’re healthy enough to do so, make sure your self defense is more than just guns.

  10. There is a draw style I occasionally practice with and have actually taught for just this type of situation. Unfortunately, it only works with a wheel gun. When it’s warm, I carry strong side in a tuckable holster. Rather than pull out my shirt with one hand and draw with the other, I grab the butt of the pistol through the shirt, point a squeeze two shots rapid fire before changing to a real, hand on gun grip. Yes, you burn holes in the shirt, but it is FAST and inside of 20 feet puts two rounds in a man sized target.
    It is the warm weather equivalent of coat pocket carry where you shoot through the pocket without using the sights. It’s dirty but it works, and losing a shirt is better than losing your life.

    • When I knock around some of the more interesting parts of Seattle late at night (I do club photography as a poorly paying hobby) I keep a S&W J frame in my coat pocket, and my hand on the grip.

      I really like my leather jacket, but I like the current number of holes I have in my body a lot more.

      My J frame is ported, though, so I have no idea what that would do to my jacket/shirt/hand.

      It is also sometimes useful to practice the old cowboy style of drawing and firing: As opposed to bringing the gun straight up, press the barrel forwards real hard as you draw, and the second it clears holster, fire. Terrifically inaccurate, but its quick, and you don’t have to extend your arms or bother acquiring a sight picture. If some one is within arms reach, that might be the best thing to do.

  11. I can’t stand the dude in that video. That being said, if I see a guy with a sword on the street I’m staying away from him. Problem solved. If I can’t and he’s unstable looking and paying attention to me? I’ll drawn down on him.

    21 foot rule only applies to drawing and shooting. If the gun’s already up and out he’s going to get drilled.

    Have to say, I’m not too worried about random knife attackers.

    • No kidding re: guy with a sword. I’ll see your katana and raise a scoped semi-auto rifle from a hundred yards back, we’ll see how that works for Sword Boy if it comes to that, but meanwhile I’m using the most important part of my EDC loadout — the phone. I have been issue a CHL by the State of Texas, not a cape and a mask.

  12. I’ve been through the Tueller drill in training. There is no way I can draw and fire at someone who is already no more than 21 feet away. Situational awareness (spotting the guy at the greatest possible distance), improving the distance by moving sideways, and making sure the first shot counts, are about all you can do. And even then there are no guarantees. Life is like that. Sometimes you do everything right and you still lose.

  13. “shoot your gun as fast as you possibly can…”

    Would LOVE to Tim! But allowed less, at fewer & fewer Ranges – both Private AND State-run.

    Despicable, cowardly behavior on the part of the Range Owners – but hey – its their property, their rules (except for State-run).

    STILL say “Screw ’em.” Thats not nice.

  14. If you focus on your weapon hand you are shorting yourself. Blind mindless violence can only be met with blind mindless defence. Of course, there are variables.


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