When considering a potential assailant, we are most often taught the concept of reactionary gap or the least amount of space that ensures time to react when a threat is presented. However, we often deal with people in close proximity. And most assaults take place up close and personal. We need to prepare and train for the possibility of close-quarters combat.

In close quarters there is little time to react. One doesn’t need special skills to inflict serious injury or death. In many of these attacks, lethal force is not justified. And in situations where lethal force is justified, going immediately to your gun may get you killed. In many instances responding initially with an empty hand technique may be a better response. You may have to fight first before going to your gun.

Mindset is a crucial part of training. To quote the legendary W. E. Fairbairn, widely regarded as the father of modern combatives, “It will soon be found that the principal value of the training lies not so much in the actual physical holds or breaks, but in the psychological reaction which engenders and fosters the necessary attitude of mind which refuses to admit defeat and is determined to achieve victory.”[1]

Action vs. Reaction

Ballistic motion, immediate action, requires a combination of perception, cognition and muscular-skeletal movement. We learn to accomplish predictable ballistic motions by training, thereby skipping an extended feedback process. This is commonly and erroneously referred to as “muscle memory.” The motion is performed smoothly if we don’t let other stimuli interfere with the instructional sequence. Repetitive process can enhance speed and accuracy but within the limits set by neuro-physiological and biomechanical processes.

Action is always faster than reaction. Reaction time is the interval time between the presentation of a stimulus and the initiation of the muscular response to that stimulus. The number of stimuli that are presented — each stimulus requiring its own response — is a primary factor affecting response. If there’s only one possible response (simple reaction time) it will take less time to react. If there are multiple possible responses (choice reaction time) it will take longer to react.

Reaction time will increase proportionally to the number of possible responses until a point in which it maintains constant despite the increases in possible responses. This is called Hick’s Law, named after William E. Hick, who discovered it in 1952.

Fitts’ Law, named after Paul Fitts, who proposed it in a 1954 scientific paper, is a predictive model that applies to human psychomotor behavior. It’s a formal relationship that models speed/accuracy trade-offs in rapid, aimed movement. Fitts also proposed an index of human performance that combines a task’s difficulty with the movement time (in seconds) in selecting the target. Fitts’ Law has been shown to generalize a variety of physical activity and ergonomic situations where speed and accuracy play important roles.

Drills vs. the Real World

Focusing on fewer skills and skills that require less precision will help you to more effectively respond to an unexpected attack. Fewer choices and choices that require only gross motor skills will result in a faster response time.

Many readers have probably heard of the Tueller Drill. It’s a training exercise to prepare against a short-range knife attack when armed only with a holstered handgun. It has its origins with Dennis Tueller, a sergeant with the Salt Lake City police department.

Sergeant Tueller wondered how quickly an attacker with a knife could cover 21 feet. He timed volunteers to see how fast they could cover the distance to stab the target and discovered that they could do so in 1.5 seconds. The results were first published in a March 1983 S.W.A.T. magazine article titled “How Close is Too Close” and a police training video with the same title.

The Discovery Channel television program MythBusters covered the Tueller Drill in a 2012 episode titled “Dual Dilemmas.” The MythBusters team found that with attacks initiated from 20 feet it was possible to shoot a knife-wielding attacker when armed with a holstered handgun, but only just as the attacker reached the shooter. At shorter distances, the attacker was always able to stab the defender prior to being shot.

It’s important to keep in mind that in the Mythbusters scenario, the subjects were aware in advance of the knife attack and the response (simple reaction time). The reactionary gap would be significantly greater in most real-world scenarios.

Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

Although the employment of appropriate tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) cannot eliminate the reactionary gap, it can lessen it. Split seconds count. The reality is that going to your gun is going to eat up seconds and give your opponent the advantage.

Retention shooting is the ability to shoot the bad guy in extreme close quarters (bad-breath distances) while retaining possession of your gun. Although it is an essential skill for anyone who carries a firearm for personal defense, many of the commonly taught retention shooting techniques rarely work on the street. They may be great on the square range but can get you killed in the real world.

Integration of retention shooting training with empty-hand techniques is crucial. At bad-breath distances you’ll need to defend yourself from the threat before you can draw your gun. Forget the commonly taught shove and “speed rock.” At this close distance, the mantra should be fight first and shoot second. Should an assailant introduce a club or a knife into the mix, your initial response should be to block the incoming attack and protect vital areas of your body. Immediately take the fight to the assailant.

By incorporating a few basic empty-hand blocks and strikes together with some tactically sound defensive firearms techniques into your training, you will be in a much better position to deal with a potentially lethal close-quarters attack.

*The integrated combative courses offered by American Tactical Shooting Instruction/AMTAC Shooting are excellent examples of this type of training. Owner and lead instructor Bill Rapier is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who spent 20 years in the Navy. His assignments included several years at SEAL Team Three and more than 14 years at Naval Special Warfare Development Group.


AMTAC Shooting: AMTACShooting.com


[1] W. E. Fairbairn, All-In Fighting (London: Faber and Faber Limited,1942; Boulder, CO: Paladin Press, 2022), 3.