Shoot or Not To Shoot: The 21 Foot Rule

Shoot or Not


As a long-time police academy instructor and instructor trainer for defensive tactics, officer survival, and weapons retention and disarmament, I feel more than qualified to answer a question I’ve seen popping up on a few expert loops in the recent days. The original question was, “What kind of martial arts technique is best to disarm a knife-wielding suspect who is on the attack.? The answer is quite simple. There is no foolproof technique. The suspect has initiated deadly force and that force must be responded to with the amount of force that’s necessary to stop the threat to the officer’s safety. The officer must defend himself with deadly force, if possible.

There is a long-standing, proven rule that an officer cannot draw, point, and fire his/her weapon if the attacker starts the assault from a distance of 21 away from from the officer (not 25 feet, and not 30 feet), such as in the photo above. We measured this distance to be exactly 21 feet from the attacher’s front foot to the officer’ front foot.

However, if the officer already has his weapon drawn, in the ready position, he’ll be able to effectively fire a round to stop the threat. Remember, officers are taught to shoot center mass, not shoot to kill, or to shoot a weapon from the attacker’s hand. That stuff is for TV. In the photo above, the officer’s weapon is still in his holster and he should be contemplating other means of survival, such as running for cover, or preparing to go into a defensive tactics mode – hand-hand combat, with the almost certainty of being cut. I have nasty scars on all five fingers on my right hand, and my head, as proof of this tactic.

In the two photos above the officer would easily be able to stop the threat by firing a round or two.

As my former mentor, a salty old sheriff’s captain, once told me, “Never bring a knife to a gun fight, son. You’re bound to lose a perfectly good knife.”

9 replies
  1. minichno
    minichno says:

    I’d definitely like to see a blog about knives carried by/used by officers.

    Camille/Margaret Grace
    (Minichno as I’m known here!)

  2. Amy Wallace
    Amy Wallace says:

    Thanks so much, Lee! I was thrilled to see from your post that I did remember correctly about the distance issue. Tacking on to the original question, what if there are two officers and the one not being charged has his weapon aimed~ can he shoot? I know he can shoot, but I’m curious if this would be the way an officer would respond.

  3. Carla F
    Carla F says:

    As I heard it, when they were setting up that scimitar fight scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, Indy’s weapon of choice was supposed to be his whip, but Harrison Ford had come down with a nasty case of dysentery and as they started filming, he decided “I don’t have time for this” and he pulled out the gun, shot the bad guys, and went to find a latrine. Spielberg liked it so much, they kept the scene. (Hope you all weren’t eating dinner just now.)

    Lee, you sound like you’re getting back on your feet, as it were. Keep the faith! We’re still keeping good thoughts out there for you! Thanks for posting through it all. I suspect nothing short of a runaway freight train is going to slow you down. 🙂

  4. Jonathan Hayes
    Jonathan Hayes says:

    I think the principles Lee’s outlining here are beautifully illustrated in the first INDIANA JONES movie, where a huge brute brandishing a scimitar corners Indy. He does some flashy scimitar moves, showing Indy how he’s going to hack him up, then Indy pulls out a revolver and shoots him. Perfect, and hilarious.

    God, I get so upset when people say “WHy didn’t they just shoot the knife out of the guy’s hands?”!!!

  5. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    Terry – You’re lucky to have an in-house expert as well-versed as your daughter.

    Donnell – There is no text book answer to your question. Obviously, you don’t want to harm the hostage, but sometimes you just have to use common sense and a lot of back up.

    Joyce – But we’re speaking from a police officer’s point of view. Shoot!

    Minichno – Yes, there are lots of varieties of knives carried by officers. Might be a good blog topic. Interested? There are advanced classes in knife and stick fighting available , too. I was an instructor for those as well. Very, very intensive training.

    By the way, again, I thank all of you for your support during my down time. Your friendship means more than you’ll ever know.

  6. minichno
    minichno says:

    Do any police officers carry knives? If not, why not?

    And let me also express thanks for staying with us through your ordeal, Lee.

  7. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    I used to like practicing knife defense back when I took taekwondo, but we only used plastic knives. Not quite the same as the real thing!

    One thing I still remember from those classes was to always block with the back of your arm/hand–never with your palm and wrist. You don’t want the knife slicing your wrist.

  8. Donnell B.
    Donnell B. says:

    Lee, this is excellent. Thanks. Love your closing line. You’re going to lose a perfectly good knife. I have a question about shooting center mass. What would the officer do if the attacker was facing away from him and a victim was in front of him. I have a scene like this and I worry that if the cop aims for center mass, the back, the projectile ?? could go through attacker’s body and strike the victim. Could you clarify, please. Thanks… as well as correct any of my errors. Thanks for crawling out of your sick bed to post this.

  9. Terry
    Terry says:

    Thanks for posting this — I had to write a scene (well, of course being the author, I had choices) where the bad guy has a knife, and my hero is unarmed. Blood was shed, but hero prevailed. My ju-jitsu daughter was a big help in doing some of the choreography for me.

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