Remember Driver’s Educaiton? If your class was like mine, you learned about the dangers of tailgating. You know, following the car in front of you too closely.

If you do that, and the driver in front slams on their brakes, you might rear-end them. In fact, given the right conditions, there is a 100 percent chance you will rear-end the car in front of you, no matter how much you stomp on your brakes. While you may think you can stop fast enough to avoid a crash, you cannot, no matter how good your reflexes are.

There are a few variables at play that can make collision a certainty.

First, there’s your reaction time. How fast can your brain process a signal from your eyes that says, “Hey wake up! The guy in front of you just stepped on his brakes!” Your eyes have to see it, and then send a fax to your brain. Your brain has to think about this and retrieve from its memory banks the correct response. “Oh yeah, I need to tell right foot to move off the gas and step on the brake.” Then your brain has to send that message through your spine down to your leg. Your leg muscles have to wake up and start the process of moving to the other pedal.

Second, your brakes require distance. They’re designed to bleed off energy and turn your car’s forward motion into friction and heat, so your car will cover a certain amount of distance while this happens.

Last, the speed at which both cars are moving changes everything. The faster you’re both going, the farther away you have to be. When going fast, your car covers more distance while your brain figures out stuff and your brakes do that slowing down thing.

There’s a valuable concealed carry or self-defense lesson to be learned from the dangers of tailgating. It all boils down to the fact that action is always faster than reaction. This principle is the cornerstone of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop theory, originally developed for fighter plane dogfighting. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It describes the process I laid out above with deciding to stop your car when the dude in front slams on the brakes.

In a self-defense scenarios, when your assailant acts, there’s a certain amount of time required for your brain to observe what’s going on—that’s the first “O.” The orient stage is more complex and varies with one’s prior experiences, beliefs, and genetics. In this stage, your brain is filtering what it sees to develop context. Based on your experience, does your brain assume you’re being attacked when someone makes a certain type of move? If you fight a lot, your orient stage will be quicker for a certain stimulus. If not, your brain has to sort out what that move really means. The next stage is decision. What will the brain tell the body to do? Last, of course, it the action itself.

All of this stuff takes time, and every time your attacker makes an action, you have to go through the entire process again. In a fluid and sudden aggression, you’re in trouble because you’re constantly reacting as your assailant is starting multiple actions. You most likely keep starting your OODA loop without every finishing any.

Boyd essentially said you need to turn the tables, and by implementing your own action, you get inside your opponent’s loop and cause them to do all this response process to your actions.

Okay, enough theoretical science. What does this really mean?

If you have a gun pointed at a bad guy, they can still shoot you before you can pull the trigger, even if their gun is not pointed at you.

Don’t believe me? Consider an action/reaction study completed by Dr. J. Pete Blair, an associate Criminal Justice professor at Texas State University. At a SWAT conference, he assembled two groups of people. Twenty-four SWAT officers, with an average of 10 years experience, were the police officers in the exercise. Blair recruited 22 Criminal Justice students with an average age of 22. Most had no experience with firearms.

Blair had the police enter a building, where they would encounter a “suspect” (student volunteer) who either had their gun held at their side pointed at the ground or aimed at their own head in a suicide position. The police were instructed to command the suspects to drop the gun and do whatever necessary to protect themselves. The suspects were instructed to raise their gun and shoot at the police officer at a time of their choosing after they were commanded to drop their gun. Of course, all the guns in involved were non-lethal marking guns that leave a welt and glob of paint.

Just to be clear, in each case the officer had their gun aimed at the suspect with their finger on the trigger. The suspect, not experienced with firearms, had it hanging toward the floor or pointed at their own head.

So what do you think happened? Were the experienced SWAT officers able to shoot the suspects when they saw them starting to move? No. In most cases, the officer and suspect ended up shooting each other at approximately the same time. And when I say approximately, I mean the shots were fired within one-tenth of a second of each other.

“The miniscule edge did go to the suspects, technically,” the study reads. “Examined case by case, they shot faster than officers or precisely simultaneously in more than 60% of the encounters. Even in situations where the officer was faster, there was less than a 0.2-second difference, suggesting that the suspect would still get a shot off in most of these encounters.”

The action was measured with frame-by-frame analysis of the encounters. The suspects were able to raise their gun and fire in an average of 0.38 seconds. The officers were able to fire back in an average of 0.39 seconds.

What? You mean if I aimed my gun at someone with a gun that’s not aimed at me, they can shoot me at will, and there’s not a darned thing I can do about it? That’s exactly what I mean. Yes, you’ll end up shooting them too, but you’ll still have a brand new body orifice. It all boils down to the absolute science of action and reaction times. The suspects started the action of raising their gun to shoot, while the officers had to react to, process, and then act on that stimulus. The overhead of this process allowed enough time for the suspect to get their shot off first, although just barely.

Now there’s something to think about. This is exactly why keen awareness, at all times, is so critically important. You’re already being the eight-ball if someone attacks you, because they chose to act, putting you in a position where you have to react.

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Image by Tom McHale

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21 thoughts on “Concealed Carry Myths: Can You Shoot Fast Enough to Beat the Other Guy?

  1. The results might be slightly different if there were no requirement to notify the suspect. I find that the act of speaking distracts from ability to react to visual stimulus, the suspects gun movements. Since most civilians are not required by law to notify of actions, the results might be more favorable to the reactor. However, in principle I agree action beats reaction. Thank you for your research.

  2. Not exactly sure what this study is supposed to prove. As a gun carrier, if you are being threatened by a bad guy with a gun that you can still shoot them before they react and shoot you first? Doesn’t that prove our point, not disprove it? We aren’t required to command a threat drop his gun before we shoot it.

    1. The intent of this article is simply to put in very real terms the fact that people can’t be as fast as they think they can. I would suspect must gun owners would think they’re in a dominant position with the test scenario described in this article. The actual results consider reaction time and might just wake some folks up to the fact that they can be in more danger than they might perceive. You are correct of course, if threatened, there is no obligation to wait until the assailant starts to move.

  3. Tom,

    There is a way to act outside of the OODA loop, BUT it takes training, practice, and in depth repetition. I do not know your martial arts background so I do not know if you have ever heard of the term or practice of “mushin no shin”, it is a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. Besides pistols and rifles and empty hand/feet I fight with swords and have since I was in my late teens, I am now 62. If I had to rely on the OODA thought/reaction process I would never have succeeded in any combat sword bouts, or hand to hand fighting, thought is way too slow. I would like to see how that exercise played out against a warrior in mushin and not just a police officer. My background in the martial arts is extensive and I am also a military and a combat vet, I am 62 have been in the and trained in the Martial Arts since I was 12, I hold advanced ranking in three martial arts ( Tang Soo Do 5th DBB, Toyama Ryu Iaijutsu – Kenjutsu – Jojutsu 4th DBB, and an offshoot of Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu 4th DBB) and lower ranking in others including Arnis/Escrima, Muay Thai, Savate, Kung Fu, and Wu Tai Chi. At my age and experience I have forgotten more about hand to hand than most people know exists. Additionally I have no mistaken thoughts of my being able to keep up with youth in other than burst actions, because of that for me no response to lethal assault would last any longer than 5 seconds on the outside, an attacker will not be able to get air in or out of their lungs, they will not be able to hear, their clavicles will be broken, shoulders will be dislocated, elbows will be bent the wrong way, their spine will no longer be attached to the skull, their hips, knees or ankles will no longer work, the spine will be severely injured, if I had a stick(s) or a sword in my hands it would be no issue what so ever.

    1. I am thinking this out as I am writing, so bear with me, please. Without going into detail, I have a fair amount of martial arts experience myself, and (without addressing Spivey’s recitation of accomplishments or what he expects to achieve against a future opponent) what Spivey says about working “outside of the ooda loop” has some meat to it.

      I don’t know that it is actually “outside” of the loop; but, certainly there are martial exercises that dramatically diminish the time between action and reaction from a still/standing start. In fact, with even relatively accomplished practitioners, it is sometimes impossible to tell who moved first, even with slow motion film analysis. (Caveat: I have caught practitioners physically reacting to very subtle changes in the attacker’s body, remote to the attacking limb, that no one — including the reacting defender — actually consciously saw at the time. Such subtle variations may or may not be detected by cameras, depending on angles, lighting, etc.) I even have it on good authority that electronic analysis of muscle and nerve impulses of both parties was unable to detect ANY lag in the reactions of one very high level practitioner.

      These are generally very stark and simple exercises, though, simplified in order to focus on and reveal the action/reaction element of engagement. Any complications, such as having to discover whether the attacker’s move is aggressive or not, or where the movement is aimed, or the degree of danger the attacker’s move encompasses, slow the defender’s processing time.

      I imagine that with a flurry of action, imbedded within a furious exchange, the ooda loop becomes, at least temporarily, moot. It is either not running in the way it is explained in class, or the unconscious brain is running the loop so fast and instinctively that it is irrelevant to any conscious processes that either party could apply.

      Like Spivey said, thought is too slow.

      That does not invalidate the ooda loop, however, which remains a valid and useful training mechanism based on analysis of legitimate psychological patterns of mental processing (think “strategies: from NLP, for instance) and action/reaction.

      1. Dugo,
        You are pretty much on the mark. The OODA loop does not go away, just certain actions become more easily achieved with training. If one really thinks they are going to eliminate the loop, they in fact become easy targets!

        I have dealt with the spiveys over the years. One of the first things I learned from my instructor, whom had much, much higher degrees of training than spivey, is just how easy it is to take down a spivey or any other assailant whom is too full of himself. 🙂
        It has served me well over time.
        All “martial artist” have the same failing, it is not a dojo!! It is the real world and as such the real world is much different. There are not judges, people can be on drugs and act much differently. Some are just big and very resistant of being injured!
        Then there is the 10 second rule, something the spiveys seldom have learned.

        When some one tells me they are outside of the rules, I always ask how many life and death fights they have been in? The answer is always the same, none. 🙁
        I general inform them they are going to die in their first struggle, I do not care how well trained they think they are. If they are too live, then they need to understand what is really going on. If they think it is all going to be about their “awesome speed or training” then they will be certain to make a serious mistake, not the least of which is extreme tunnel vision!!

        Granted the training is a good start, but without the humility to understand you need to think through the situation before it starts, to see what is happening as it unfold and make the needed adjustments as it goes along, you will most likely lose!
        I beat a large number of people in competition because I was willing to let them make a mistake, instead of letting them take advantage of my mistakes. I won all of my deadly conflicts because I was lucky enough to have a great instructor on thinking through the situation and then acting on those thoughts!
        Now don’t think this is a long draw out process, at times I have needed to make the needed decisions as I am moving to protect myself or kill the target. But I always used the loop, because I never was so stupid as to not see what was happening around me first!
        Being cocky, over confident, too sure of yourself, well those are not going to work in your favor, because you will always run into that person that is faster and stronger than yourself!
        Your are on the right track, at least it seems to me you are.
        Think about this for a moment, a well executed attack in fencing will only last 1/25th of a second. This is moving from an apparently relaxed position, reach out a number of feet, strike the opponent and recover back to an apparently relaxed position. While those days are behind me, I still have the understanding and ability of how to survive the attack. But only because I have done my OODA loop. 🙂
        If the opponent is good, they will defend the attack and not let you strike them. But also only because they are using the loop first also.

    2. “I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff” is kind of a weak argument.

      “for me no response to lethal assault would last any longer than 5 seconds on the outside, an attacker will not be able to get air in or out of their lungs, they will not be able to hear, their clavicles will be broken, shoulders will be dislocated, elbows will be bent the wrong way, their spine will no longer be attached to the skull, their hips, knees or ankles will no longer work, the spine will be severely injured” — Sounds like what someone who has never been in a fight might say. All that in five seconds? Hmm.

  4. Except for the exact numbers, this was common knowledge in 1980. When I was in the police academy that year, the instructors ran us through a very similar scenario. Bad guy holding a gun on a “store clerk” when we enter the “store.” We were beginners so we all got shot. We used revolvers back then and all of the rounds were merely primed cases (no powder) with cotton wads. Hurt like hell up close, but got the lesson firmly in our minds.

  5. This must be why private citizens have so much success shooting armed robbers. They keep the gun concealed and pretend to comply until they suddenly draw and shoot, too quickly for the robber to react.

  6. Tom,
    I’m 67, like most never thought I would need to be concerned with self defense. Post 2008 culture and aging have changed my mind. After 2 years of contemplation I became a handgun owner and CW permit holder earlier this year. The CWP training was only the tip of the learning ice berg. Persons who need to defend themselves are at an enormous disadvantage in every conceivable way regardless of their mindset, weaponry and training. Your excellent article is another piece of the puzzle explaining why awareness and avoidance are the first line of defense. Thanks.

  7. In the news just a few days ago….A bad guy with a gun walks up to a guy sitting in his car. Bad guy with gun waves gun in car-sitter’s face and demands his sunglasses, Guy in car draws his gun and shoots bad guy dead.

    A few months ago at a gas station, an off-duty cop is filling up his car when 4 thugs approach him, and one points a gun at him, they demand his wallet. He says “ok ok” but instead of pulling his wallet out, he grabs his gun and starts shooting, killing at least one while the others scatter like roaches.

    You can watch u tube videos all day long of robbers with guns being shot by gun owners who are reacting. The problem with your presumption that reaction is slower than action is that bad guys don’t usually just whip out their gun and start firing shots. Normally they whip out their guns and start flapping their lips demanding wallets or compliance. In those cases they good guy who whips out his gun and immediately starts firing is the actor, and the bad guy is the reactor.

    1. Your statement proves the pint of the article. Reaction time is always slower. When the”bad”guy pulls out his gun and is pointing it is one action. The reaction is not drawing your gun and firing. The reaction is observing what is happening and deciding to take an action. Thus your drawing your weapon and firing become the action. The bad guy is placed in a position of reaction. This is why if someone had a gun pointed at you up close or shoved into your stomach it is possible to move fast enough to grab his wrist and move the gun away from your body before he can fire. Of course practice is needed to make sure you have a level of competency before doing this. Basically though it all comes down to who moves first so don’t hesitate.

  8. Tom, good article.
    While you always have people like the marshal arts “expert” claiming they are the exception to the rule, I had a true expert teach me much of what your article covers almost 4 decades ago now.
    What I learned was it did not matter how fast you thought you are, you always use the OODA loop as determined by Boyd!
    With a great deal of training, you can seriously shorten the events, but certain things will stay the same. The time between your vision and your hand is set by your biology. The training just shortens the decision process between your ears. At least for some. LOL

    What a person learns in defensive combat training, which ever kind of discipline it is, is how to hide or minimize your tells, and how to better read the other person’s tells, nothing more.
    Yes you do learn how to have better confidence, better muscular skills, etc… but you will never be able to operate outside of the OODA loop, as you will need to observe in some manner what is going on to make a decision about what to do next.
    If you have great speed and move left when you needed to move right, nothing good will come of it, simple as that! A much slower person moving the correct direction will then beat you every time!
    I hope your article helps some understand just how important the OODA loop is, even for everyday movement, to get away from the movie/TV mythology of the day.
    If you have any need of my instructors expertise or my own, I am happy to supply that.

  9. When confronted by a perp I raise my left hand pointing to the left and say cop at the same time I am drawing my gun with my right hand. you must move your left hand first which automatically makes the perp look at your left hand. You can also start mumbling words that make no sense as you move closer to the perp, never looking him in the eye, then disarm him with sudden movements. No it doesnt always work but I would rather go down fighting then let some hopped up idiot take my life with out any resistance. But that is my opinion !!!!!

  10. what the article tells me is don’t stand there thinkin if you pull your gun pull the trigger!!!! don’t wait to test your opponents reaction. and keep movin so if bad guy shoots chance of hit is less because most are not trained shooters. thanks for the article..

  11. Anyone that welds for a living knows there is, with training and repetition, a real connection between the eye and the hand that does not require thought for a proper reaction. Train it then don’t second guess it , let it do what you trained it to do.

  12. This is why our friends the criminals hate concealed carry folks [per in derpth interviews], they find us very difficult to ID and we do not have a set of protocols like the police, besides we are scared to death when we encounter them.

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