by Jim Higginbotham
Seconds that Can Save Your Life
There is only one type of shooting competition that only has a trophy for second place. The trophy is generally made of granite, has an epitaph inscribed on it, and when it is awarded to you, you are surrounded by everyone you love, crying their eyes out because you are dead. It’s called a tombstone.
A gunfight is a competition, but it isn’t a standard shooting competition like those you see in timed shooting sports. Speed is a factor, but it isn’t the only factor. And there will always be factors outside of your control, such as the physical and mental state of the threatening party, his competence, how well we shoot under the pressure of a gunfight, and what we are doing while engaging our adversary to keep from getting shot (or cut, or bludgeoned, etc.).
Some things, however, you can control, or at least prepare to control, and many of these involve speed and can be practiced. They are how fast you are able to present your weapon, how fast you can fire it accurately, and how fast you can reload when you are out of bullets or in danger of soon being out of bullets.
Wyatt Earp, one of the most famous gunfighters of all time, is quoted as saying: “Take your time…but be quick about it! He is also quoted as saying something to the effect of “Fast is fine but accuracy is final”. The interplay between these two factors, speed and accuracy, is one reality we must always recognize, the faster you go the less accurate you are.
Perhaps the best known articulation of this relationship is a term coined by Jeff Cooper known as “DVC”. Using the first letters of the Latin words for Accuracy, Power and Speed ( Diligentia, Vis and Celeritas ), Col. Cooper codified these elements all being co-equal. The fastest shot is not going to achieve anything if it does not hit. The fastest hit does not achieve anything if it is not hard enough to take the threat out of the fight – or the fight out of the threat, if you will. We have covered the power and accuracy aspects of DVC in prior columns, and now we will talk mostly about the speed element, though as col Cooper noted, the three are fundamentally joined at the hip.
I have been blessed to know many world class gunmen, some of whom are gifted instructors. I soak up wisdom from these folks as often as I can. One such man I highly regard is fond of saying that he never saw a stopwatch during a gunfight, while another, equally wise, is noted for saying that there is a “clock” in every fight. Sounds at odds does it? Well actually they are both right!
The first is something of an answer to the world of pure timed shooting competition where 1/10ths of a second matter. This month there is an article from SSG Travis Tomasie from the United States Army Marksmanship Unit. He is one of these world class competitors who move so fast in shooting and reloading that 1/10th of a second makes a huge difference between winning and losing. Tenths add up over several strings that are summed and often the competitors are so close that one of those tenths decides the winner.
This thinking, about tenths of a second, though, will never be something that we talk about for real gunfights. There are just too many other factors involved that have far more impact on your chance of survival and to say that any gunfight was won or lost over any fraction of a second would be foolhardy.
The other statement, that there is in fact a “clock” in every gunfight, suggests that seconds do count in a gunfight, or even, in rare instances, fractions of a second – but recall it takes 28/100ths of a second to blink your eye. Because when the rubber meets the road, you only have as long as it takes the attacker (who started this fight to begin with, remember) to strike a lethal blow. To be sure, we do not know precisely how long that is, and no matter the gunfight, the clock is ticking. We can however make some educated guesses as to how long that is and what range you should be trying for when it comes to practicing your draw as regards speed vs. accuracy.
Situational Awareness and the Two Second Rule
A huge factor in this, and another area in which Jeff Cooper excelled at mastering as a topic of instruction, is the level of awareness and mental preparation possessed by the combatants. You may be able to draw and fire multiple rounds accurately in half a second but that will do you no good if you don’t know you are in a fight for the first 2 or 3 seconds of it.
We will assume that you are not starting the gunfight. That puts you at odds with that clock that may actually be in your gunfight, because your adversary is presumably going to “draw first”. But you can even those odds by trusting your instinct that a gunfight could possibly occur. This gives you the ability to free your gun of clothing or protective coverings, and either covertly or overtly placing a hand on your gun so that your draw can be expedient and without fumbling. Finding immediate cover would be step 2, and it most likely is not a step that your adversary will be bothered with. Both of these factors are what we call “situational awareness.” It is all about when that clock starts for real, and when you are aware that it started and can begin preparing for your gunfight.
In order to get better at a skill we have to be able to measure it. As I’ve mentioned in other installments, I feel that a shot timer from Pact or another maker is a worthwhile long term investment. Unlike a stopwatch you can use them alone and they are no longer cost prohibitive. A good timer will also have shot to shot comparisons and other functions that you could do with a calculator and stopwatch, but that you probably won’t. A stopwatch is fine though. A quarter of a second here and there is not going to make a difference in your ability to measure your progress.
There is ample evidence that a .357 Magnum JHP through the lungs will not disable your adversary in five seconds, more like 20-30. So the “clock” is still running even after you shoot. What you do after firing will make more of a difference than a fraction of a second in your draw or reload. Time does not stop when the shot breaks (as would be indicated on a timer) but when the shot takes effect! That can be extremely problematical! It also means that precise results cannot be predicted. you need to be doing something besides standing still and getting shot or cut while you deliver your round.
For many years I have referred to this need to be expeditious in a fight as “the two second rule.” I am perhaps guilty of being over generous but it seems a good general rule of thumb. Anything you do during a fight (as opposed to between fights or after fights) should probably be completed in 2 seconds or less to be of any value to you. Even then it is just as well if you incorporate some defensive tactics with any of these operations. Please note I am not saying you will always have two seconds, but you should not count on having more than two seconds to get a particular task done.
|You have to move in a gunfight in order to give your response some time to have an effect. Even in the small space of an indoor range this draw and fire can be practiced, and even ten minutes a week will give you a definitive edge should the need for a real unavoidable gunfight arise. Click Here if you can’t see the video.|
Commonly referred to as the draw, I rather like the term Presentation since you will not always be drawing the weapon. It’s a sticky situation that leaves you needing to draw your handgun fast to save your life. But you need to practice this. Even with acute situational awareness people get jumped, and if someone gets the drop on you a quick and succinct draw is the only thing that can get you out of the mess you are now in.
As many gunfight survivors (who survived by skill other than luck) have pointed out, the fastest draw starts with the gun in hand. Many times if you see a problem developing in advance you can simply avoid it. Do yourself a favor and ARRANGE TO BE SOMEWHERE ELSE! Other times you may not have that option but do have the ability to get your weapon into hand unseen or noticed.
This is not a “how to” article on drawing the weapon. There are so many holster, pocket and other modes of carry that suggesting a given draw strategy would only be productive for the people who carry like me. This is meant to be just a consideration of the time frame you should be working towards in your draw, or presentation.
Again, 1/10ths of a second don’t matter on the street. Unfortunately bullets are not as effective as those in the movies. People are not instantly thrown backwards when shot (indeed many times they fall forward) – that is IF they fall at all. In many instances they just go on for quite a while as if they did not know they had been shot, because in many cases they don’t know they’ve been shot.
I spent years developing a fast presentation, a fast reload and my rapid fire skills. While I don’t feel it was a total waste of time, age and the study of lethal encounters has certainly taught me that it is not always the fastest guy who wins. As my good friend Evan Marshall says; “You don’t have to be fast, you have to be first!” – meaning the one who strikes the first truly effective blow will prevail. Ties are not acceptable in our business. Please see my previous articles about shot placement and other factors that will be just as important to your gunfight as is speed.
So, what is a worthy goal in presenting the weapon? First let me say emphatically, that unless you are a police officer, a deployed soldier or you live in an open carry state where you actually open carry, how fast you can draw a weapon from open carry is irrelevant. This adds up to about a 1/2 of a percent of all of us who carry guns every day.
Second, let me also stipulate that there are viable alternative methods of carrying a handgun that may not be quite as fast. Those who use these methods are consciously making the decision, based on their personal circumstances, so they accept that they may not be as fast. In the interest of space I will be talking about strong side concealed carry here, but it is relevant no matter what you mode of carry. Remember that situational awareness is going to get your head and your body into the fight quicker, which can more than make up for even a deeply concealed weapon.
There are so many factors involved, such as age, physical condition, the type clothes one wears, etc., that I am reluctant to place a “pass / fail” time on this. However one of the first instructors I studied under did come up with a good benchmark. By research he came up with the figure that it takes 1.5 seconds for the average sized male to cover a distance of 21 feet and slit your throat with an edged weapon. His name is Dennis Tueller and the drill named for him is used in many court cases to prove that one is justified in shooting for his life at that distance against an attacker armed with a knife.
The problem is that this is a time frame which shows justification, it is not, as some seem to mistakenly believe, a guarantee that being able to draw and fire within 1.5 seconds will stop the fight! Remember, a hit to the lungs with a full powered .357 does not guarantee a rapid stop!
The biggest mistake I see with people who practice their draw and fire is that they stand still, as if they are a competitor in a competition on a shot timer. The timer is fine as I have explained, but you have to be doing something else while you draw the gun, and even the speed master must do this – that is MOVE! If you stand still in a fight you will attract bullets or blades or bludgeons.
Don’t practice the way you would for a competition, ever.
If you are carrying a gun for the purpose of not bringing a knife or a stick to a gunfight you might find yourself unavoidably in, practice your presentation with your head in a gunfight. Step to the side as you draw. If you are at an outdoor range and you have the ability to draw while taking sidesteps, do that. Think about movement, not just speed. It is irrelevant how fast you can draw standing in one place. And forget that 1/10 or 1/4 of a second makes a difference.
“To save half a second and miss the spine by half an inch may cost you half a minute” and hence your life!
As I said above, the faster you shoot the less accurate you will be. It is part of the “DVC” Marksmanship Triad. You have to find the balance and indeed you will have to find a balance for a wide variety of situations.
We have covered in prior articles choosing a gun that packs enough punch, and you have been given some benchmarks for what you should shooting for with accuracy, and now we have addressed time in detail.
|5 shots in 1.03 second from the Low Ready, shot on the move, including reaction time You can subtract time to the first shot for “Ed McGivern Timing”|
Typically, a defensive situation will arise at 5 to 10 feet – that is right feet! One might think that anyone would have enough accuracy to meet the standard but that might be a fatal assumption. Even a dying aggressor can kill or maim you while he is dying. To prevent that we have to achieve the near impossible. That is to hit the Central Nervous System hard enough to stop the fight “right now”!
The trouble is that I don’t know anyone who can guarantee doing that every time. Sure we could hit a target the size of the upper spine. The trouble is the location is concealed and covered with a foot or more of flesh and bone. The head moves around too much and is too armored to be the prime target, it is a “fall back” option at best. And even a well directed bullet sometimes does not go straight when it strikes various materials.
So we must shoot like they vote in Chicago; repeatedly and often! This is where speed comes in. You have only a certain amount of time to get the job done – that is until the attacker kills you! It may be one second it may be five but we do not know. So obviously the faster you can get hits that have a chance of hitting the Central Nervous System (CNS). With each shot not only do the odds of hitting the CNS – stopping the fight instantly – go up but each successive hit increases the loss of blood so we are at least accomplishing something. Hits to the fat roll don’t count, and even lung hits don’t really count. The CNS is the only thing that ends the fight, and you have to keep shooting until you hit it, or until the rest of your efforts take a summed cumulative effect with successful results.
A good benchmark – 4 to 5 shots per second (not including reaction time) IF you can hold a 5” group or less. Your PACT timer is a great tool for analyzing this; it will result in split times (the time between shots) of around ¼ second. Again we don’t want to get preoccupied with petty increments but it should be noted that 5 shots is 25% more likely to get the job done than 4 when trying to hit a small target. That is IF you are holding a reasonable sized group. 5 shots that cover 10” in 1 second is NOT better than 3 shots that cover just 5 inches in the same time!
There are volumes of material out in the wide world of print magazines and the internet suggesting that most gunfights are over in under a few seconds with less than five bullets fired. In my experience and through years of research this is not most commonly the case. Granted, a lot of gunfight data comes from law enforcement and the military where at least one of the combatants is under some sort of oath to not only be in the gunfight, because it is their job, but also to finish it. Is the data skewed so much that this is not a concern for civilian gunfight science? Not in my experience, and it is not a chance I choose to take.
We would like to think that reloads don’t matter but just in the last year I have had three students who’s skill at “running the gun” saved their lives. Two of these were in fact military, so one might reasonably think this might be a bit unusual on the street. That would in general be true. Lengthy gunfights are not the norm even for law enforcement. But one of these examples was in the civilian world. The situation arose from a combination of factors but just goes to show that anything can happen.
|This is an example of encountering a new threat in the middle of a planned magazine change. It is a fatal mistake to drop your magazine before the next one is up and next to the gun. Click Here if you can’t see the video. |
When it comes to changing magazines or reloading a revolver again we see often that people train as if they are in a competition. They will obsess about small increments of improvement, but they end up becoming skilled at a process that will not increase their survivability in a real life gunfight. Competitors time their reloads from shot to shot with a reload in between, as that is how they are scored in competition. This sometimes leads to something we call “practicing getting killed” unless careful thought is applied.
Normally reloads are done after a fight (or between fights and you just don’t know when the next one starts). If you find yourself out of ammo and the bullets are still flying you probably won’t have time to reload if you are in the open, though it does indeed rarely happen. Remember, normally we are doing this from concealed carry and hopefully behind cover. You are not likely to perform the competitor’s 1 to 1.5 second reload with street gear. This is just one of the reasons I advocate a serious back up gun (B.U.G.) which is not buried so deep you cannot draw it fast (deep concealment is a “hideout” gun – HOG). It should be chambered for just as powerful a cartridge as your primary! Realize that if you are drawing your BUG then things are really bad!
But let’s stick to reloads. The important time is the time the weapon is not loaded. One reason I stress to folks that if it can be avoided do not ever run your gun dry. The principle is “reload when you can, not when you MUST!” An empty gun not only takes longer to reload it often malfunctions when the operator is under pressure. Once one examines the process in detail he begins to realize that it is not the shot to shot time that is important. If he is exposed to fire during that time then he is going to catch a bullet whether he is a duffer that takes 3 seconds to reload or a Grand Master that takes 1 second. What is important is that he stays ready to fight the next fight – or the next part of this one.
Keep your head up and keep scanning for threats. Do NOT point your muzzle straight up into the air or block your vision. It is perfectly OK to glance at the weapon briefly if you need to but you should practice reloads in the dark just to be sure you know how to do it by feel also. My good friend David Spaulding, gunfighting mentor to many, likes to drop his firing side elbow to his body to anchor the gun so it indexes in the same place every time. Not a bad idea.
At the risk of being repetitive, the important time here is the time the gun is not available to you to instantly index and fire. It is the time the magazine or cylinder is out of the weapon. While world class competitors practice 4 hours a day to get down to that 1 second shot-to-shot reload, just about anybody can get to the point they can have an auto-pistol down for less than one second or a revolver for two if they do it smart and practice about 10 minutes a week.
I see a hand raised in the back. What if another attacker pops up when you have started to reload?
Yes! That is “the rub” as they say. A shooting competitor who can do that one second magazine change will be in a tight spot in that instance since he dumps his magazine about the same time he reaches for a new one. You are not going to do that!
The tactician is constantly scanning and waits to dump the empty or near empty magazine until the new, full magazine is up to the gun and there is an at least apparent window in which to safely make the swap. If things don’t work and that window goes away, he simply shoots the new threat with what is left in the gun – We had two students do just that last year. Both report that had they dropped their magazine like a competitor would, before the next mag is ready, they would be dead now. We attempted to illustrate this in an accompanying video representing a new attacker appearing at an inconvenient time.
As with all of these columns there is no way I can cover all of the issues with any one aspect of a gunfight, and especially of your gunfight should fortune put you unavoidably in the middle of one. These are just a few of the things we need to think about when “time is of the essence”. I hope you take from it some food for thought.
Until next time, Happy Trails!
(Registration/Login required or use the floating button to mail with your gmail, yahoo, facebook, twitter etc.)