THE RESEARCH - Citizen's Guide to Armed Defense (2015)

Citizen's Guide to Armed Defense (2015)


According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Owl Books, 2004), as part of our nervous system we have the voluntary and the autonomic nervous system. The voluntary system allows to us walk on our own and do any variety of voluntary movements. The autonomic nervous system (think automatic) controls such things as sweating of which we have limited to no control.

The parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, controls low levels of automatic responses and works in conjunction with the sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, controls high-level arousal such as the Four Fs: fight, flight, fear and reproduction.

The SNS is triggered in response to fear or stress. According to Dr. Sapolsky, “When something stressful happens or you think a stressful thought, the hypothalamus secretes an array of releasing hormones into the hypothalamic-pituitary circulatory system that gets the ball rolling. The principal such releaser is called CRH (corticotropin releasing hormone)…” There is then a cascading effect of other hormones released including epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenalin) and norepinephrine.

The SNS changes the way we see, hear and think, and impacts our eye-hand coordination.

Optimum performance is an SNS response. In other words, fight or flight helps prepare us for battle, and if we are not overwhelmed with the SNS response, our performance improves.

Another fall-out of the SNS is how it impacts performance under stress. Why does a big, strong police officer well-versed in his suspect control skills grab and pull an offender to his center and “power him” or “wrestle him” to the ground instead of employing a more sophisticated technique? Why does an officer who is a very accomplished marksman on the range fire an entire magazine at an offender and not hit him once in an actual street encounter?

Seldom does an officer “rise to the occasion” in a serious use of non-deadly force encounter. It is even more rare in an officer-involved shooting. They may perform as they have trained but, because of reduced cognitive abilities and skill degradation under stress, will oftentimes be unable to engage in sophisticated thinking and movement. As an example of what this may look like, let’s take a look at how shooting and thinking deteriorates in the stress of law enforcement agency firearms qualification. As a firearms instructor I frequently see officers on the range who react under this small amount of stress. Their hands shake. They get tunnel vision, focusing just on the target directly in front. They fumble an otherwise simple pistol reload. They are so focused on their shooting they don’t hear the range commands, and more.

Even at the firearms range under mild stress, performance can deteriorate.

Relatively simple actions can be fumbled under SNS.

The fact is that decision-making under stress slows overall response time (reaction time plus movement time). The other part of the SNS response (fight or flight) not often talked about is “freezing,” known scientifically as “hyper-vigilance.” When subjects are so overwhelmed with life-threatening stimuli, they can lock down and do nothing (sensory overload). Ever have another motorist pull in front of the car you’re driving? All you could do was slam on the brakes. Sophisticated movements like pumping the brakes didn’t happen. The wrists, elbows and shoulders locked down on the steering wheel as your foot tried to put the brake pedal through the floor. This is why ABS (Anti-Lock Braking Systems) brakes on vehicles work. The computer within the system automatically pulses the brakes so they don’t lock up, traction is increased and you have the ability to steer during the process.

The human equivalent of ABS is training. The more realistic the training program, the more control of the SNS response a subject may have. Of course even the best of us can be blindsided, caught off guard, sucker punched, ambushed or otherwise attacked by an unseen or unknown opponent. We teach and encourage armed citizens to maintain mental awareness and constantly survey their environment for threats, but experience (and non-activity) has a way of lulling even the best of us into a false sense of security or non-awareness.

We must endeavor to train as realistically as possible. Here a student practices extreme close quarters shooting using Airsoft on an armed partner.

As Bruce Siddle from Human Factors Research has pointed out (PPCT Violent Passenger Management Training, 2001), an SNS response may be triggered by:

· Objective “threat” perceptions

· Objective “fear” perceptions

· ATP depletion (exhaustion)

· Deadly force startle response

Objective threat perceptions include:

· The threat is within close proximity

· The time needed to control the threat is minimal

· The subject is not confident in his/her abilities

· The threat is a new experience

Objective fear perceptions include:

· Fear of death

· Fear of injury

· Fear of killing

· Fear of making an incorrect decision

· Fear of failure

· Fear of fear

Physical exhaustion: ATP/PC (adenosine triphosphate/creatine phosphate) is the first energy system the body uses, but it only lasts around 10 to 15 seconds. Once the ATP/PC system is exhausted, performance drops 45% within 30 seconds. Next up is the lactic acid system, which is active from 10 seconds to two minutes. The final energy system is the aerobic system, which is dependent on conditioning.

When I was first exposed to this science it explained why I felt I felt a sudden drop in energy levels about 10 to 15 seconds into a use-of-force or resisting arrest encounter. It also explained why I experienced a corresponding drop in performance (45% according to the research). Most violent encounter incidents are anaerobic affairs lasting less than two minutes. They are more like a sprint than a marathon, with armed citizens dropping in their performance 70% within 90 seconds.

In a deadly force startle response:

· Threat is spontaneous

· Threat is unexpected

· Threat is within close proximity

· Unexpected loud noise (such as gunfire)

· Unexpected impact or touch (such as a sucker-punch)

Energy stores are quickly depleted in a fight. Here a law enforcement officer student practices controlling a violent resistor wearing a padded FIST suit. Lesson: Be effective right from the start, don’t engage in long drawn out battles.


We know that the SNS response changes the way we think, move, see, hear and remember. In an instant, heart rate and blood pressure increase, the SNS changes the blood flow in the body, wicking away the blood from the extremities, fueling the major organs for fight or flight. The body dumps powerful chemicals (epinephrine, norepinephrine, Glucocorticoids, glucagon, endorphins and enkephalins) into the system for pain tolerance and continued energy output.

Additional effects of the Sympathetic Nervous System on Performance SNS Effects on Vision

- Binocular dominant - both eyes wide open

- Loss of night vision - reduced ability to see in low or subdued lighting

- Loss of depth perception

- Loss of peripheral vision - visual field shrinking to tunnel vision

- Loss of near vision - inability to see pistol sights

- Involuntary tracking of threat - the eyes tend to focus on the threat

SNS Effects on Cognitive Processing

- Increased reaction time - increased time to mentally process

- Loss of cortex accessing - higher cognitive thinking not accessible

- Auditory Exclusion - tunnel hearing

- Hypervigilance - overwhelming sensory input; the “freezing” part of the SNS

SNS Physiological Effects

- Increased adrenal activity - preparing the body for the fight

- Immediate increase in heart rate - increasing above 120 to 150 bpm

- Immediate increase in respiration - chest breathing

- Vascular flow redirects away from extremities - powering internal organs and large muscle masses

- Pupil dilation

- Contour of the eye lens changes

~Bruce Siddle,
Violent Passenger Management Training, 2001

In his book On Combat (PPCT Research Publications, 2004), author Col. Dave Grossman writes, “…then suddenly someone tries to kill you. Your body’s response is total SNS arousal. PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) processes like digestion shut down: We don’t need no stinking digestion. You guys blow the ballast and get down to the legs where I need you,” which explains incidents of soldiers and lawman in high-stress situations voiding their bladders and bowels during combat.

The SNS response does a lot to explain why subjects get stuck in “performance loops” wherein they repeat the same, often ineffective, technique over and over. Higher cognitive processing is required to shoot and then “stop and assess” before proceeding. This is one of the flaws of the outdated method of the “double-tap” when shooting. The thought was that we should fire two rounds, stop and assess before continuing to shoot, possibly even transitioning to the head for follow-up shots. What we find now is that this level of performance under stress is virtually unheard of, with most subjects shooting after they perceive a deadly threat and then continuing to shoot until they perceive there is no longer a threat (the suspect is down, dropped his gun, etc.). During this period of response time to start and response time to stop, a fairly large number of shots can be fired. Dr. Bill Lewinski has done significant research with his Force Science Institute ( in this area.

Although we hope and pray for high performance based on realistic and relevant training, we understand that suboptimal physical performance as well as poor decision-making can occur under an SNS response.


It is simply not possible for you to wait until an armed attacker raises his pistol to fire before you draw your handgun and fire. It is also not possible for you to wait until an attacker, armed with a knife or club and within ten feet, lunges toward you in attack before you raise and fire your handgun from low ready. Human response times prevent this from being a worthwhile proposition. To do so means that at the very best, you achieve a tie, or what Filipino Martial Artists (primarily a blade based art) call a “mutual slay.” Let’s examine this process from scientific study and current research.

We will quote here from Motor Learning & Performance (1991, Richard A. Schmidt, Human Kinetics Books). What we normally think of as reaction time is actually response time.

We want to avoid the “mutual slay” - attacker and intended victim both killed.

According to Schmidt, “Reaction Time (RT) is the interval of time from a suddenly presented, unanticipated stimulus unto the beginning of the response.” In other words, reaction time is a mental process. MT or Movement Time is defined as the time between the beginning and end of the movement, such as the time you start to draw your pistol until the first shot is fired. Response time is the combination of the two.

Here a role player is holding a plastic training rifle. But if the lights were lowered or you were under an SNS response, could you tell?

Research has shown us how fast a subject can fire and raise a fire. Armed subjects are deadly threats.

If this subject fired and then turned away, our rounds would probably impact him in the back.

Seldom does range training and firearms targets prepare you for this.

Research has shown how perceptual distortions under SNS can cause tunnel vision.

It might later turn out to be an Airsoft rifle, but in low or subdued lighting while experiencing fight or flight, can you afford to wait to be absolutely sure?

Let’s give an example on how reaction, movement and the total response time work.

It is zero-dark-thirty and you are walking to your car in the parking deck after a late-night shift at work. As you approach your car, out of the shadows you see a subject in a dark hooded sweatshirt move toward you. The male subject increases his gait in a line to intercept you before you make it to the safety of your car. You shift your direction so that a parked car is in between you and him as you set your briefcase on the pavement, place your hand on your holstered pistol and give a verbal warning, “Stop! Don’t come any closer!” The attacker doesn’t utter a word as he produces a knife, blade glinting in the light, twenty feet away on the other side of the parked car. Seeing the blade in his hand, you draw your pistol out and up on target and order him again, “Stop! Drop the knife! Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot!” The attacker now sees your pistol aimed at his chest, drops his blade and runs away into the darkness. You take a couple of deep breaths; scan the area for any additional attackers and possible witnesses. Finding none, you reholster your pistol and with shaking hands call 911 to report the encounter to the police and give a suspect description, then wait for officers to report the crime.

In this case, there are two response times involved. The first is based on the attacker brandishing his knife. This is the period of time from the perception of a threat (stimulus of the attacker presenting his knife), the mental reaction time from that threat stimulus until you start your draw, and then the movement time from the beginning of the draw-stroke until you are up on target.

The second response time involves the perception that the threat no longer exists and the attacker has dropped his knife, the mental reaction to the immediate threat no longer being immediate, and the physical movement of lowering the pistol.

There are some important elements here to consider. Optimum response time (performance) is based on the following: immediate perception and recognition of the threat, clear mental decision making, a well-trained motor program (draw-stroke in this case, what layman refer to as “muscle memory”) and control of the sympathetic nervous system.

Imagine, if you will, a brand new skier competing in an Olympic downhill race. Poised at the gates, he is waiting for the start signal but is mentally distracted by thoughts of something else and is totally overwhelmed with the adrenaline coursing through his bloodstream. His visual field is narrowed, his hands shake and he feels the need to urinate. As the buzzer sounds and the light flashes, he is brought back to reality but trying now to play catch-up.

He pushes off and attempts to accelerate but he struggles with the basic motions and movements to gain speed and ski. He has never skied in these conditions and under this pressure before, only learning on beginner hills with all the time in the world and under the direct tutelage of his instructor.

The outlook for our neophyte racer is not good. We can only hope that he is not seriously hurt in the process. And this is not even with bullets flying and his life on the line.

But with time and training our skier could have done better. In a deadly force encounter, we need not be an Olympian to win. But if we based our preparation and training on the science of skill development and include dynamic confrontation simulation we can improve our responses to deadly threats.

Put simply, repetition of motor skills develops training competence, competence = confidence, and confidence helps control the SNS.


In order to reduce our reaction and subsequent response time, we must match our motor skill response to a stimulus (perceived threat). Too often in defensive firearms training we practice our draw-stroke, presentation from low or high ready, and firing of the gun to an audio or visual signal, i.e. “when the whistle blows, draw from the holster and fire two shots.”

A police student learns while using airsoft to respond to a deadly threat by moving, while drawing his pistol, then placing accurate fire on target.

Fortunately modern advances allow us to do this today. Training tools such as the SIRT (Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger) pistol, which is a non-firing replica with dual indicating laser beams, and Airsoft pistols that use propane to fire plastic 0.2 gram BBs can be used. These relatively low-cost training devices ($100 to $200 per pistol) with proper safety gear (the biggest safety gear is eye protection but a relatively inexpensive paintball mask is encouraged for Airsoft training) can help you match your response (draw-stroke and firing) to a realistic threat perception (role-player drawing or attempting to draw a handgun or knife).

We cover these specific training modalities in the chapter on training.

What we are attempting to do with stimulus/response training is to improve overall response time and match the motor program to a specific threat or suspect action.


Over my 32+ year law enforcement career there have been many times when I responded to a perceived threat without conscious thought. In other words, I subconsciously perceived some type of threat and drew my pistol without any conscious thought to the action. This response was based on many different factors: nature of the call I was on, i.e. armed robbery, narcotics dealer, man with a gun; perception of threat - a suspect found in a home on a burglary, a suspect with “hidden hands;” the body language of the suspect or verbal threats. It was if “magic” happened - here I was, perception of threat and Tada! pistol is in my hand pointed.

To get there, and have control over the SNS response with gun in hand, that’s what we train and strive for.

As a historical footnote, wax and cotton bullet projectiles powered only by a primer have been used for years in this type of training. During training of Office of Strategic Services (precursor of today’s C.I.A.) operatives, Colonel Rex Applegate used wax bullets to help train spies and agents prior to and during WWII. The late Bill Jordan, famed Border Patrol patrolman and amazing quick draw artist, used wax bullets to train with as well. With wax or paraffin bullets a pistol casing is loaded with a primer and the casing is pushed through a sheet of paraffin. The resulted projectile can be fired fairly accurately for a short distance.

During my early law enforcement training, circa 1982, we used cotton bullets to train in confrontation simulation scenarios. Once again a large pistol primer was loaded into an empty casing. A cotton ball was then stuffed into the casing. The resultant cotton projectile is good for short range.

Both can cause injury and, as the recipient of cotton bullets as a bad guy role-player, you can experience powder burns at close proximity and serious eye injury can occur if safety glasses are not worn. Please don’t attempt wax or cotton ball training except under the direction of a qualified instructor.


Distance equals time, and in a confrontation you cannot afford to give the attacker too much time to act, formulate a strategy, respond or the time to assault.

Joe Ferrera is an accomplished law enforcement trainer and a friend. Several years ago Ferrera did research on the ability of officers to defend themselves at certain distances. In law enforcement this distance is referred to as the “reactionary gap.” What Joe found was that if an officer allowed a suspect to get within touching distance, the suspect could assault the officer before the officer could react and respond.

Joe Ferrara’s research showed:

· Average time to assault an officer at touching distance = .319 Seconds

· Average time to assault officer at 6 Feet = 1.042 Seconds

What Ferrera found was that if officers increased distance from suspects to the edge of the “reactionary gap” at six feet, they increased the time available to react and respond by a factor of more than three. Also, by having your hands up in some version of a high guard (hands above the waist, palms out, forearms outstretched, elbows in), a defender was better able to protect their head and body from attack by a punch, than having your arms down at the side. You are essentially reducing movement time and putting something between their fists and your face.

This is an important part of maximizing physical response to attack: your platform or stance (we hesitate to use the term stance as it equates to a fixed position, and in armed confrontations standing still is not a good thing when projectiles are coming in your direction).

In law enforcement we refer to officers who confront suspects with feet positioned close together and their weight on their heels as standing in a “bowling pin” stance. In other words, they are getting ready to get knocked on their a**.

Author presses forward toward student. Author is armed with the ShockKnife which emits a shock to skin. Student has to block, evade and respond.

Now it is imperative that you understand that distraction or inattentiveness increases response time dramatically as do multiple response options. Just a relaxed state of alertness, as Colonel Jeff Cooper recommended, improves response time tremendously.

In the March 1983 issue of SWAT magazine, author/police officer Dennis Tueller wrote, “How Close is Too Close?” Tueller had been asked by one of his students at which distance a suspect armed with an impact weapon (knife or club) was a deadly threat. Tueller went to the range and found that “an average healthy adult male can cover the traditional seven yard distance in a time of...about one and one-half seconds.” Tueller had come to the conclusion that at one and one half seconds was the average time for a trained and prepared shooter to draw and fire two shots.

Trained and alert is a central theme of Tueller’s article and often forgotten. He wrote, “First, develop and maintain a healthy level of tactical alertness. If you spot the danger signs early enough, you can probably avoid the confrontation altogether. A tactical withdrawal (I hesitate to use the word “retreat”) may be your best bet…” Here we are reminded once again of the importance of awareness and alertness.

Keep in mind that Tueller was talking about “Those of us who have learned and practiced proper pistolcraft techniques…” A new or fairly inexperienced armed citizen may take more time.

Dennis Tueller and his associates used stop watches to conduct their research. In 1996 Ray Rheingans and the late Tom Hontz from the Scottsdale Arizona Police Department conducted more scientific studies using high-speed video cameras as they had officers from their agency complete various “suspect” actions.

Published in Police Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4, December 1999, “Justifying The Deadly Force Response,” Tom Hontz reported:

Average time for attackers to complete various movements (in seconds):

Run 15 feet


Run 20 feet


Run 25 feet


Run 30 feet


Hontz then wrote about the realities of one shot not reliably stopping an attacker. More shooting requires more time and allows the attacker to travel further or complete other assaultive behavior.


A man with a gun in his hand is a serious threat because he will always be able to raise and fire before you can react and respond. Hontz and Rheingans also video recorded officers from their agency performing various “suspect” shooting actions, including raising a handgun from a position beside the leg, drawing from the rear inside the pants with hand on the handgun to start, and draw and fire with pistol inside the pants at the front belly position hands at the side. The time concluded at the end of one fired shot from the pistol. Using the tape with time generator only “movement time” (time from the beginning to the end of the movement) was recorded.

An attacker can run the distance of thirty feet in about two seconds.

Fifteen feet away, an attacker can reach you in less than a second and a half.

You do not have to wait until he is within arm’s reach.

Average times as recorded in seconds:

Front draw


Rear draw


Raise and fire


In addition, average times were recorded for officers to respond - the process of reacting and moving (firing) in response to a visual cue (light signal) above range target(s):

One Large Target


Two Large Targets


One Small Target


Two Small Targets


One Large Target, Draw From Holster


Based on this research of suspect movement and draw times for officers Hontz wrote, “The results of this study show that 21 feet is too conservative a distance. This means if an officer has her weapon out at the ready position and aims for body mass (large target), the officer should be able to get one round off before the suspect can cover 15 feet. However, if the officer attempts a precise shot (small target) the suspect will be able to cover 20 feet. If the officer’s gun is in the holster and she draws and fired to body mass, the suspect will be able to cover almost 30 feet. Again, it is important to emphasize that these are probably best-case times by the officers. If the weapon is not apparent, the officer is unclear in her mind if the suspect is really a threat, or if the officer is surprised by the attack, the response times will probably be longer.”


At the 2014 International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association conference in Lombard, Illinois, Joe Ferrera presented a special program titled “Gunman in the Lobby,” which was a debriefing of a shooting that took place at his police station in 2012. In November of that year a 64-year-old suspect entered the Southfield (MI) Police Department lobby, approached the desk area and pointed a handgun at the officer who was sitting behind bullet resistant glass working the desk. The officer responded by ducking down below the counter area of the desk and hitting the panic alarm as well as announcing,“Man with a gun!” Two sergeants working in the back part of the building circled around, entered the lobby and confronted the man with their pistols drawn. Loud verbal orders to “Put the gun down!” are met by a slight movement by the suspect as he appeared to be lowering the gun to the floor. With a quick movement of his wrist, the gunman pivoted the pistol toward one of the sergeants and fired, hitting the officer in the shoulder. Both uniformed supervisors returned fire with multiple rounds, incapacitating the suspect. The suspect died from his wounds. The sergeant recovered from his injuries.

As Hontz and Rheingans proved and with later research by Dr. Bill Lewinski of Force Science confirming, attackers can raise guns and fire, pivot while standing or seated, even move from a prone position and fire the gun in their hand before officers can react and fire in response.

This has serious implications when confronted by armed attackers and will drive our tactics in response.