The Distance Your Holstered Gun Is Useless Against A Knife-Wielding Attacker

Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Bob Campbell that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 12, Issue 7 October 2015 under the title, “Cutting Distance: Knife Attacks and the Tueller Drill.” 

For many years, police trainers considered the knife a second-rate tool and, perhaps more to the point, a second-rate threat. These trainers ignored the experience of officers in high-risk districts, not to mention the many knife scars borne by those officers.

The truth is that an edged weapon is as deadly a weapon as any at contact range. Knife attacks are different than your standard rough and tumble hand fight. A boxing match might leave bruises that heal. But knives leave permanent scars.

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The knife was an important sidearm in the times of Jim Bowie, but as handguns became more reliable, the knife on the belt became smaller, relegated to backup status. Just the same, the modern shank might be buried up to Green River (an expression that meant the blade would be buried to the Green River trademark on the choil) with the same effect as back in the days of the Frontier.

By the 1960s, the knife was seldom addressed in police training, and edged weapon attacks were not taken seriously. “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight” sounds good unless your gun hand is pinned down as a razor flashes in the streetlights. A number of incidents in which officers were seriously injured at close quarters troubled a respected peace officer and trainer named Dennis Tueller. He observed that, although the knife was recognized as a lethal threat, officers failed to bring the handgun to bear on a knife-wielding attacker as quickly as they would a felon armed with a handgun.

Tueller found that were a perpetrator to face an officer at 25 yards with a drawn handgun, the officer would fire at the threat or at least draw down and prepare to fire. In some cases, officers allowed perpetrators holding edged weapons to close to 10 to 12 feet before drawing. Some were injured. Their rationale? They feared the shooting would be ruled unjustified if they fired on a felon at too great a distance.

The reactionary gap was too close, and the adversary could close the distance and inflict serious injury or death before the officer could draw and fire. While Tueller knew this to be true, he needed to design a drill that could clearly demonstrate this fault in training. He set out to determine the distance at which an officer should draw his handgun to engage the threat. The generally agreed upon distance was 21 feet, which is the average gunfight distance. (Percentages are not comforting to the man drowning in a stream with an average depth of 2 feet.) Tueller published his findings in 1983.

Role players posing as officers and knife-armed assailants set the scenario, and it was discovered that even elderly, out-of-shape or obese individuals could close 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds. (As many of you know, conditioning and endurance only begin to matter as distance increases.) Again, this rang true as 1.5 seconds is another training standard: An officer or concealed carry handgunner should be able to draw, fire and get a center hit on a man-sized target at 10 yards in 1.5 seconds. The Tueller Drill demonstrated that an assailant armed with a knife could begin running toward an individual armed with a handgun at 21 feet and that only highly practiced individuals could draw and engage before the knife-armed threat closed and inflicted serious injury.

This drill will defeat many who are out of shape or out of practice; it is ridiculous to assume that you will rise to the occasion to deal with such a threat. As a trainer, I deal with individuals on a weekly basis that rely upon skills they cannot demonstrate. Do not be among them.

 You are not expected to precisely measure the distance, but since many of us train on carefully marked ranges, seven yards is easily recognized. The best answer to an edged weapon attack, providing there is sufficient time and distance, is to draw and move to cover. (St. Augustine told us space and time are the same, and I agree: Both are priceless.) An adversary with a firearm might blast your cover, but an adversary with an edged tool loses every advantage. (This rule also applies to impact weapons, such as a ball bat or other club.)

The problem is that when an attacker is armed with a knife, a concealed carry permit holder must act extremely quickly. An officer arriving on a call should be alert to the threat and might be better able to maintain distance. While there is always an exception, a peace officer has a greater advantage than the private citizen in most cases. A citizen will be carrying concealed rather than openly on a duty belt, which results in a slower draw. The knife might be part of a robbery attempt or a personal attack. The distance will be close. The adversary might close with the victim before drawing the knife. As such, drawing against a knife in the hand is at least as dangerous as drawing against a loaded gun. You must practice not only your concealed carry draw but also blocking interference with the draw from the adversary. This is basic nuts-and-bolts close-quarters battle, and close-quarters training and firearm-retention training are essential.

When engaging in force-on-force training, a fake knife and fake handgun are good tools. Ring’s, ASP and Odin Press offer excellent training aids. Even an $8 flea market toy Glock will work if you do not wish to spend the bucks on a true training gun, but something closer to the heft and balance of your personal handgun is a better choice. As each participant trades roles, from the knife to the gun, the aggressor to the defender, you will have a better understanding of the dynamics of edged-weapons defense.

In my experience, the 21-foot rule means that if you are well practiced and competent and the attack originates at 21 feet, you will have an excellent chance of stopping the threat with well-directed handgun fire. Chances are, however, that you will still be cut. In a fistfight, you will be hit. In a gunfight, you might be shot. And in a battle against an edged weapon, you will be cut. I have experienced all three. But the trade-off is that you will survive if you have proper training and have practiced. The close-quarters skills you have developed will allow you to quickly and smoothly present the weapon from concealment and bring it to bear against a threat.

Consider this: If you are slower than the Tueller Drill calls for — a solid hit in 1.5 seconds beginning at 21 feet — then you will be in a terrible position if the attack begins at 10 to 15 feet. You must be prepared with open-hand measures. Throwing the non-dominant side arm up, backing up while drawing and firing from the retention position might be called for.

I actually read a training article not long ago that I was surprised to see published. The author had tabulated results from running Tueller Drills in a recent class. A few students were faster than the average and could reasonably draw and fire inside of 21 feet and make the grade successfully. (This is beside the point, but good performance nonetheless.) The fact is that the legal standard maintained and demonstrated by the Tueller Drill is that it is defensible to draw and fire against a knife-armed opponent at 21 feet. Of course, a shorter distance is defensible, but the 21-foot rule has now been officially established. Jurors will understand the precedent if it comes to this and understand the justification of firing at a knife-armed attacker past conversational range. However, the author went on to discuss other students that had fared poorly. Their “personal Tueller range” was 30 feet or more. One had a “personal Tueller range” of almost 40!

You cannot change a constant to suit your performance. You cannot plan on engaging at longer range when this range might not be legally defensible. Moreover, 30 to 35 feet might not even be realistic in your specific deadly force encounter. What the trainer was saying did not make sense: If your “personal Tueller range” is 30 feet, you need to spend more time in practice and get there quickly, because the overall proficiency of such a shooter is low. An attack with an edged weapon will come at close range. While it is essential to realize that an edged weapon is dangerous past intimate range, also realize that the reactionary gap is tighter at close range.

The balance was well summed up by Sgt. Tueller many years ago. If you fire too soon — say, at 15 yards — you have won the fight, but you might be charged with murder. The only justification for shooting another human is the immediate need to stop him from what he is doing. If you wait until the attacker has closed the distance, you might lose for good. Even if the shot proves fatal, the attacker might continue the attack and inflict serious wounds upon the defender. The 21-foot rule is a benchmark. Practice hard, be all you can be and understand the implications. Don’t stretch the limits.

Editor’s Note: Here is an older video (very old by the looks of it) that highlights Tueller’s findings:

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • bob campbell October 2, 2019, 9:26 pm

    Where did you get permission to use this? Not from me.

    Please respond.

    Bob Campbell

    • S.H. Blannelberry October 3, 2019, 7:33 am

      Hey Bob,

      We have permission from USCCA. Please contact your editor over there if you believe there is an issue. Thanks!

  • LJ May 26, 2019, 9:08 am

    As a 60 year old CCL I’ve become complacent over the years when it comes to practicing with my conceal carry weapon and have gotten in the habit of just dropping a couple of NAA .22 mag’s in my front pockets when venturing out and feeling adequately protected. Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

    This article has given me pause. Thank you for posting it!

  • R Brown May 24, 2019, 1:22 pm

    I struggle with the hard and fast 21 feet rule. Here’s why. I have been shooting for 60 years and while I am still pretty good with drawing my handgun as I still practice, I cannot reach the speed from threat recognition to first shot that I achieved when I was 30 years old. Older people have physical, visual and electro-mechanical issues. My eyes don’t pick movement as quickly and lighting is much more of an issue, my brain does not communicate with my drawing hand as efficiently. Fingers are not as flexible. I could go on but each affects the speed of the draw from time of threat recognition to first defensive shot. It is incumbent upon my attorney to educate the jury as to why I might have chosen to defend myself before the perp was within 21 feet. Just my two cents.

  • ken May 24, 2019, 11:32 am

    I am a civilian with extensive martial arts training. I am also a former spec ops guy and later spent 12 years as a contractor. I have been in numerous fire fights as a young man. I have a CCL.

    About twelve years ago I got jumped by two guys who ran at me from about thirty feet. It was an ongoing argument at a car wash. One had a 2 x 4 piece about three feet long.

    As I saw the two guys working themselves up and showing typical pre attack behavior I was concerned about pulling my pistol, a 1911, in front of a bunch of spectators because I thought I might be charged with agg. assault. I am an attorney.

    The rush was so fast that I never had a chance to draw.

    I knocked out the first guy with a lucky punch. He ran into it.

    The second guy with the 2 x 4 was too close so I wrapped him up by going into him and spinning him around but the 2 x 4 came all the way around me and broke a couple of my ribs.

    I swept the board guy and dropped him on his head and fractured his skull.

    Fortunately there were numerous witnesses. I called 911 and the police and the ambulances arrived.

    I was sixty at the time.

    I was interview in the police cruiser by a young cop. As is the law, I handed him my CCL along with my DL.

    He asked if I was armed and I said yes. He asked me to please put my 1911 in my car and return and I complied.

    He asked me why I hadn’t pulled on the attackers and I told him that it had just happened to fast.

    I told him that I had seen the pre attack signs but that i was afraid that if I pulled too early the bad guys would have backed off and called the police and claim that I had threatened them with a gun.

    They were both charged with agg assault (Texas). I later agreed they could plead to misdemeanor assault for time served.

  • John Bibb May 24, 2019, 10:49 am

    IIRC during my Army Basic training 25 ft. was the minimum distance to start shooting at an oncoming attacker with your loaded unlocked M-14 rifle pointed at him. 2 quick on target center mass hits.
    The training Sergeant demonstrated this with a martial arts expert. He could fire 2 blanks left of the attacker before he got to him at this distance. If he let the M.A. guy get to 15 ft–it was a draw on the first blank getting fired. (Blanks fire a wad that can injure or kill a person at short range!)
    At a closer distance–the M.A. guy hit the rifle down–bayonet into the ground!–and flipped the Sergeant over the rifle and onto the ground. And “delivered” a mock killing blow to him.

  • Michael Gothard May 24, 2019, 8:00 am

    My department practiced this drill in the early ’90s. At 7 yds for most officers it was a tie with the aggressor officer making contact at the same time a round could be discharged. Our best thoughts were that the distance should be 10 yds to make a threat decision on using deadly force. In the real world each situation must be thought out by the officer and he must react immediately to all threats.

  • Bob Gawler May 24, 2019, 6:03 am

    Interesting read, but it’s my understanding that the FBI is considering pushing the distance out to 30 feet due to the prevalence of drugs which can give a performance enhancing effect in terms of being able to continue to advance/fight after a GSW is inflicted?

    If so, why is they mentioned? If not, is the author up to speed on the latest thinking on the matter?

    I believe that is where the “personal Tueller space” anecdote could have originated from.

  • Nicks87 May 21, 2019, 1:27 pm

    Is this article missing a page? It’s like half of a thought. Police used to not train to fight against edged weapons…” ok, and then what? And then, you go on to talk about some very outdated “rule of thumb” which most departments dont even abide by anymore.

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