When Citizens Fight Back

Are We Training Wrong?

If you’ve let it get to this point, you weren’t aware of your surroundings. Most defensive shootings for citizens
occur between 9 and 21' according to Tom’s data from his students’ shootings.

The holy grail of firearms trainers and students has been to know what really happens in an armed citizen gunfight. Not in a law enforcement gunfight nor a military encounter, but in legal defensive gun uses by CCW holders. For decades we’ve bemoaned the fact while there are excellent data sources for the distances, times, conditions, shots fired, etc. on law enforcement and military gunfights, there is not a similar database for civilian encounters. After all, if there were such a repository we’d know what to train for and, by extension, largely how to train for it.

I’m not a professional statistician, nor do I have a database of thousands of incidents. I have, however, been training people professionally for over 35 years and doing so full-time for the past 18 years. I have trained tens of thousands of students and most of them are in Memphis, one of the most violent metropolitan areas in the United States. To give you some idea, the violent crime rate here per capita is about double that of Los Angeles.

To date, I have had 64 private citizen students — I am aware of — who have been involved in using a handgun in self-defense. Although not a huge number of data points, we clearly see the same things occurring over and over again in these incidents. A policeman would call this a clue. I believe this is the kind of data we ought to be basing our civilian training on. Generally, what works in a military battle overseas, or what works for police officers stateside — won’t work for Sam and Suzi Homemaker.

Here, one of Tom’s students works on fast hits at close range. Note the gun in two hands,
at eye level and two pieces of brass right above the gun. The ability to hit fast and accurately is critical.


As the global war on terror winds down, a lot of former soldiers are getting into the training business. The military paradigm, however, is vastly different from self-defense in America. The military typically fights with shoulder guns, with handguns relegated to a backup role. In a military operation the planners have to factor in projected losses of friendly personnel. In our world the level of acceptable friendly losses is zero. Military operations have an acceptable level of collateral damage. We don’t.

Military engagements are often offensive in nature while ours are defensive. This is not to say military veterans, particularly special operations personnel, cannot teach you how to shoot extremely well under adverse conditions. One needs to be careful, however, not to confuse their conflict environment and rules of engagement with those of the private citizen. We also have to remember while the citizen generally fights alone, military units fight as a team, and that experience can influence what someone teaches.

Law Enforcement

Except for a SWAT team, most officer involved shootings can be traced to one of three activities: traffic stops, alcohol-related/influenced contacts (at bars, fights, etc.) and domestic violence complaints. These situations put police officers in different situations and proximities relative to their attackers than street violence does with a CCW holder.

Cops have to get close to people to interact with, interview, restrain and handcuff them. Police engagements tend to be very close in affairs, a fact reflected in the now well-known statistic 75 percent of police fatalities occur at 10′ or less. Citizens, by contrast, have none of these responsibilities, and their job is to move away from trouble, not close in on it.

The cop has a sworn duty to seek out, confront and arrest a person who has broken the law, to chase him if he flees, to fight him if he resists and to press forward in the face of armed resistance. The private citizen, on the other hand, should be doing none of these things and should disengage at the earliest opportunity.

A lot of trainers make the mistake of using data like the FBI’s law enforcement officers killed and assaulted summary as the statistical basis for their firearms training for private citizens. The above analysis should cause us to question the appropriateness of using law enforcement data as the basis for training civilians. And indeed, my civilian gunfight data shows it is not appropriate.

The Armed Citizen

At the time I write this, I’ve had 64 students involved in defensive gunplay. These were ordinary citizens, mostly white-collar and professionals, and only about seven percent “blue-collar” workers. The majority of our students are in sales, management, IT work, the medical field or other professional activity.

The majority of these incidents involved an armed robbery, which I believe is probably the most likely scenario for armed self-defense by private citizen. We’re talking about business stickups, parking lot robberies at gunpoint, carjackings and home invasions — all crimes likely to get you killed. The reason the bad guy uses a weapon is to create standoff and to terrorize the victim into compliance, before closing in to take the wallet, purse, car keys, etc.

The thug will, however, need to be close enough to his victim to communicate his desires and to easily close the distance and take the goods when the time comes. Thus the typical armed robbery occurs at anywhere from two or three steps, to roughly the length of a car — between the robber and his victim. That is, then, about three to seven yards typically, or say nine to 21′ or so. This is the distance at which most of my students have had to use their guns.

I believe we should do the bulk of our training and practice at these “most likely” distances.

An armed robber initiates a hold-up from three steps away against one of Tom’s graduates.


Only two of my students’ shootings occurred at contact distance. In one of those cases the physical contact was purely accidental. In the other case physical contact was intentional, but the victim missed a large number of cues before he was struck with a club.

At the other end of the spectrum we have had three students who have had to engage at 15, 17 and 22 yards. The other 92 percent of our student-involved incidents took place at a distance of 3 to 7 yards, with the majority occurring between 3 and 5 yards. The rule of thumb then is most civilian shootings occur within the length of a car.

Only about 10 percent of our student-involved incidents occurred in or around the home, while 90 percent occurred in places like convenience stores, parking lots and shopping malls. The majority of the incidents began as armed robberies or carjackings, with a few violent break-ins involved.

The success/failure tally among the incidents involving my students is 62 wins, zero losses and two forfeits. Every one of our students who were armed won their confrontation. Only three of those were injured, and those three recovered. To the best of my knowledge, two people have gone through training with us and subsequently were murdered in separate street robberies — but neither was armed. This is why we put a great deal of emphasis in our training on the necessity of routinely carrying your gun.

The student responds by moving to the left as she brings her gun to eye level in both hands and fires.
Notice the similarity to the training photo of fast shooting at close range. Tom said every one of his students
who were armed during a violent attack won the fight, and most fired 2-handed.

Training Implications

Based on this data, we believe the following are key skills the private citizen should concentrate on in their training:

Quick, safe, efficient presentation of the handgun from concealed carry.

Delivery of several well-placed shots at distances from 3 to 7 yards.

Keeping the gun running, including reloading and fixing malfunctions.

Two-handed firing. We train our students to use two hands if at all possible and most have done so in their fights.
Bring the gun to eye level. This is the fastest way to achieve accurate gun alignment. All but two of our students brought the gun to eye level, and as a result got good hits. Two had to shoot from below eye level due to unusual circumstances.

Some effort expended on the contact distance problem, including empty hand skills and weapon retention skills. However, these are secondary skills for the private citizen.

Some effort dedicated to longer shots in the 15- to 25-yard range.


One of the things we stress in our training is the likelihood of your needing a gun in self-defense is not a one in one million chance. The possibility of you encountering a deadly force incident is much higher. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, part of the US Justice Department, there are over 5 million violent crimes a year in the United States. For statistical purposes violent crime consists of murder, aggravated assault, forcible rape and robbery. These are the very crimes one would carry a handgun to defend against.

Also, the police will very likely not be there when you are chosen to be the victim of one of those serious crimes. You are actually the first responder. Accepting the fact violent crime does not only happen to other people, and making carrying your handgun part of your daily routine can go a long way toward making you and your family safer.