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Never throw the first punch and Fire only if fired upon are two pieces of pseudo-tactical advice thrown out so often that people now merely parrot the phrases without ever thinking about what they mean. When examined at the most basic level, the advice is often given by those who will not actually be involved in the anticipated conflict. Parents tell their kids “never throw the first punch” and Military Officers issue orders for their troops to “fire only if fired upon” . . .

In both of the previous examples, the parent or the military officer, neither party is likely to be in actual physical jeopardy when their advice is applied. Nonetheless, telling others to exercise restraint, even to the point of putting them in harm’s way, is on the face both reasonable and civilized.  You see, in a perfect world where the first punch doesn’t maim you and the first incoming rounds don’t kill you, exercising restraint puts one on the moral high ground.  But, is this strategy valid or does it simply embolden and enable the aggressors?

The Shield and the Sword

“The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.” That is one of my favorite quotes from renowned American author John Steinbeck Jr. and one I have related innumerable times during training courses.

In those few sentences, Steinbeck sums up the basic mental strategy of combat whether with a fist, a sword, or a gun.  As simple and straightforward as it may seem, Mr. Steinbeck’s uncomplicated advice is lost on far too many that would issue orders and or give instructions for dealing with conflict.

No soldier would go to war with only a shield in their hands.  No matter how stout the shield, the enemy would eventually overwhelm it.  With the shield defeated and no sword in hand the soldier would have no options but defeat and failure.

Several years ago I was hired by a mid-sized hospital to run their security department.  The hospital administration had budgeted for soft-body armor to issue the guard personnel. Whether by conscious or unconscious admission, they had acknowledged the fact that security personnel were indeed at risk of injury and death by an assailant armed with a firearm. Conversely, the administration had written very specific language that security personnel were “forbidden” to possess any type of “weapon” up to and including firearms.

First of all, for the uninitiated, hospitals, particularly Emergency Departments, are dangerous places.  Hospitals rank at the top of places of businesses where workplace violence is prevalent. By issuing the security personnel soft body-armor but forbidding any type of tool or weapon, the hospital administration apparently expected the guards to simply absorb all of the offending bullets until the attacker ran out or got bored. I mention the previous example not because it is an anomaly, but rather because that kind of short-sighted, feel-good thinking is all too prevalent.

This same hospital administration asked me to teach personal defense techniques to the staff with the caveat that they must be “…only defensive, you cannot teach them anything that might hurt someone.” I respectfully declined the offer.

The thought process of today’s civilized American is that defense is acceptable and moral, but anything overt, proactive, or an action that is deemed “offensive” is unacceptable, immoral, and all around “bad.” Of course, this flies in the face of reality.

First Punch FailureGoing back to the “never throw the first punch” advice, we are assuming that the first punch thrown isn’t going to knock you senseless, unconscious, break your jaw or nose. As a fighting strategy, I would NOT recommend giving Chuck Liddell the first punch in a fight. MMA fighters aside, neither would I recommend letting the 250 pound belligerent drunk punch you first before you decide to act. That first punch might be the last and only one they need to deliver.

The idea or advice that you should never draw your gun unless you know you are going to shoot is still floating around out there. This advice causes the person in danger to move far too slowly when dealing with a threat and also makes them pause and second guess themselves. Both of these issues can prove fatal in a fast moving violent attack.

The folly of “only fire if fired upon” is that it assumes the person(s) shooting at you is (are) incompetent or will deliberately miss you as a gesture of fair play. It only takes one, single bullet to ruin your day and life. Unless you are the Captain of a battleship, letting the enemy fire first is a bit more risk than I’d rather take.

Translated Mental Attitude

While you may never be in a position to either throw the first or second punch or return fire, the mental attitude that defense is acceptable, but proactive action is wrong still pervades, even in the subconscious.

The lawful citizen, those with families and careers and reputations to uphold, will cling to the strategy of defense as their default for all matters or problems they encounter, not just physical combat. These ‘civilized’ and ‘enlightened’ people when faced with troubles and threats, rather than moving forward to deal with them will step back and take the defensive pose.

The Wolf

Consider this, when our ancestors’ live-stock was threatened by wolves they went out to find the wolves and killed them.  They didn’t bar the doors in a vain hope that the wolves would get bored and go away.  They took action because action was the appropriate response.

In our modern, enlightened society, rather than band together and hunt down the wolves in a most proactive way, most of your friends and neighbors would do just the opposite. They would try to hide from the wolf. Many would go so far as to kill the weakest of their calves and leave it as an offering for the wolf thinking that it would appreciate the gift and go away. But the wolf doesn’t appreciate weakness or sacrifices. The wolf won’t get bored and leave. Quite the contrary, when faced with no opposition the wolf becomes emboldened. The wolf invites other wolves to join him.

The Failure of the Defensive Mindset

While the shield is indeed a tool of defense and one that has some use, you cannot rely upon it exclusively. A professional boxer may have the best guard in the business but unless he throws a punch now and then his guard will eventually be worn down and even a mediocre fighter can defeat him. The greatest Defense in the NFL is of little use if the Offense cannot put points on the board.

The defensive strategy is merely a stop-gap.  A strong defense is put up to give a person time to unleash their offense. When you choose defense as your only option it becomes a recipe for eventual but certain failure. The “Defense Only” ideology put the defender in a constant state of reaction versus action.  From a completely practical standpoint, the defender by definition is constantly in a reactive mode and at a distinct disadvantage.

Many citizens look out at the landscape of this nation and wonder how it has come to this sad state. How is it that we are constantly losing ground in the fight of good versus evil? When faced with the pressing problems of the modern world, one can put up their shield and hide in their castle.  However, given enough time, the enemy will eventually defeat the shield and breech the castle walls.

When is the time for an offensive strategy? Only you can answer that for yourself.  However, first you must truly have a proactive mindset to put an offensive strategy in motion. If you, like so many others, have bought into the defense is good/offense is bad mentality, your doom and defeat are eminent.

Paul Markel © 2012

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  1. I agree with Mr. Markel. Teaching both civilians and cops over the past 21 years, I have always emphasized the ability to use preclusive force in the appropriate legal circumstances. If we understand the law, then as “the Ordinary, Reasonable, Prudent, Person(under like or similar cicumstances)” we can aticulate to a jury the necessity of our first strike. Using the principles of Ability, Opportunity, and Jeopardy, we can show a jury that it’s not just the Israeli Air Force that’s entitled to a preemptive strike.
    The more documentable training you have, the greater the likelihood you’ll qualify as an expert witness in your own behalf, thus convincing a jury of the reasonableness of your actions.
    In other words, the law does not require us to become a punching bag. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said in Brown vs. United States,”Detatched refleciton is not required in the presance of an upraised knife.”

  2. This is a good article, but a dangerous one. Getting people too ready to use force causes the deaths of innocents. A better rule than never throw the first punch or only fire if furred upon is verify the threat before using force. The last thing we need is paranoid self-defense gurus shooting preemptively at perceived threats.

    Also on a historical note, I’d like to mention the offensive power of the shield. A man with a good shield was, in many respects, better armed than one with a sword.

    Finally, I’d like to note that the shield of the citizen is Deterrence and avoidance. A person that doesn’t get in a firefight has a 100% chance of surviving it. Defuse situations, avoid situations. These should be the FIRST option for self defense. If it comes to the fight, use force with a clean conscience, but be sure it is your last option.

    • I don’t think the article is dangerous as long as the armed citizen is determined and trained to act within the law. Your caveats, however, MUST be part of any profesional training. Well said!

  3. I think this saying (related to me by my grandfather), sums it up nicely:

    “Don’t ever start a fight – only hit people back. Just understand that sometimes you have to hit them back first.”

    • Exactly. The fight isn’t started when the first punch is thrown, the fight is started when your opponent makes it plainly clear you can’t deter violence.

    • My father told me something very similar. Don’t start a fight, but once it is obvious that a fight is going to happen, don’t just stand there waiting to take the first punch.

  4. What you are saying is true, but we need to be careful not to rely too much on analogies. People who “might” kill you are not wolves. You cannot simply hunt them all down and kill them.

    The whole point of having the moral high ground is not so you can win points in the negotiation, it is so you can walk in accord with God’s will.

    In most wars, both sides tend to believe that God is on their side. Or at least they have been told to believe that.

    Fistfights, burglers, wars … each situation is different. No analogy will serve you in every situation.

  5. “Many citizens look out at the landscape of this nation and wonder how it has come to this sad state. How is it that we are constantly losing ground in the fight of good versus evil?”

    Looks to me like we’re winning.

    Furthermore, my philosophy is this: don’t get involved in physical confrontations if you can avoid them. I have nothing to prove to anyone. If the aggressor has a weapon of any kind they’re getting shot right then and there.

  6. In the paraphrased words of my father, “Don’t ever let me find out you picked a fight, but you better beat the shlt out of anyone who picks one with you.”

  7. I can’t argue with the philosophy behind the article. However, the legal rules of engagement for a civilian in a self defense situation preclude the shoot first option. That is true even in a stand your ground state. The threat must be real, imminent and life threatening before you can use lethal force.

    Mr. Markel also fails to understand the “don’t fire unless fired upon” ROE for military operations. It is given in only two situations. When you are in crisis situation prior to the beginning of hostilities. Nobody wants to give a platoon leader a chance to start a war on his own. The other situation where you wait to fire is during a covert patrolling action where a small military forces is conducting a recon mission. You want to avoid disclosing your position so you maintain fire discipline. until you have been spotted and fired upon by the enemy..

    • You are in no way obligated to give anyone a free shot at you before defending yourself. If someone threatens you with serious bodily harm or death, you can use lethal force. You don’t have to wait for them to act first.

      • If you say so. If you see someone waving a weapon around 50′ from you and you choose to shoot him before he begins to close or fire on you you better have a good lawyer and a lot of money because you are going to trial.

  8. “How is it that we are constantly losing ground in the fight of good versus evil?”

    We are losing? According to the FBI violent crime is at a forty year low. Let’s not resort to FUD to get our points across as 2A supporters.

  9. The rules are different for the military. When I was ordered to not shoot first I was backed up by circling F105’s with clusters of bombs slung under them and AC130 gunships on standby.I was never alone and help was a quick net call away.

    A civilian can only count on what he brings to the situation. So I’m going to take whatever steps I deem prudent to defend me and mine and let the lawyers figure out the details after. If you verbally threaten my life or the life of one I hold dear you had better be ready to settle it at that moment.

  10. A very thought provoking essay. Thank you for posting this, Paul. To err on the side of safety, dogma and political correctness may have the subject erring on the side of eternity. Eternity will be here for all of us soon enough; why hasten the process? The best defense is a good offense, no?

    Every situation is different and only you can ascertain what you’re up against. As Steve noted above (and his grandad was a very wise man), “I think this saying (related to me by my grandfather), sums it up nicely:

    “Don’t ever start a fight – only hit people back. Just understand that sometimes you have to hit them back first.”

  11. The fall of the Byzantine Empire resulted from a variety of causes, but one of them was the belief that the walls of Constantinople were impregnable. That being said, good citizens who shoot first had better be certain beyond reasonable doubt that their lives were in danger. I use that language deliberately, since in such a situation, someone else will be using it too.

  12. Good article, my only complaint is the football analogy, b/c defenses can intercept the ball or recover a fumble and put points on the board that way.

  13. If reacting to an “immediate” threat, the response should be explosive, violent, and offensive. If you “anticipate” a threat, the responsible person should be to either immediately flee or prepare to react. One very good way to access a threat is to command them to halt, stand down, don’t come any closer, etc. This is best done if there’s some distance between you and the threat. If the threat continues to close the gap, then you know you are about to be attacked and you should act accordingly. This is especially useful for women. Don’t EVER let a threat get close to you, else you might not have time to react.

  14. I often believe that the last words said by a formerly free man, when behind the barbed wire, awaiting his death, will be, “No Fort Sumters”. This police state we live in, is as clever as it is insidious. They may not ever give us a moment that we can pin our stripes on, to react. Why provoke,when you can delay, delay, and plunder. A pillow over your face can be used a lot more quietly, than a gun, to kill you. If the Failed Strategy of Defense is known to us, it is known by our govt., and is being used with deadly success, on us. Sic Semper Tyrannus, indeed. And our enemies didn’t get to be the threat to us they are, by being stupid.

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