Myths and Misunderstandings – The Tueller Drill

Posted: October 28, 2011 in Handgun, Information, Myths and Misunderstandings

Hey guys! Been a few days since I posted anything, so I thought I would tackle a term some of you may be familiar with, and explain what it really means. People tend to misunderstand the point of the Tueller Drill, and that can have some nasty consequences if taken too far.

So what is the Tueller Drill? It’s an exercise, and an eye opener, more than anything. It shows just how dangerous someone with a knife (or other contact weapon) can be, starting at a distance. To practice the Tueller Drill, you can go one of two ways. You can have your partner start 21 feet away from you and he runs toward you from behind (you are facing downrange with your gun in the holster however you normally carry), or you can stand back to back with a partner  and he runs away from you (you are still pointed downrange). The idea here is that it generally takes someone about as long to draw and fire an aimed shot from a holster as it does for someone to run 21 feet. I’ve actually heard recently that the distance is being increased to 28 feet. Maybe people are running faster or shooting slower? No idea. The standard is 21 feet, so I’ll keep going with that. Anyway, your goal in either case is to get your shot onto the target before your partner reaches you and taps your shoulder, or before your partner gets 21 feet away from you.

What some people learn from this is that guns are slow. They think that the Tueller drill means that a blade is the superior weapon. They think that the distance you can cover with a knife in 1.5-2.5 seconds proves that at closer ranges, the knife wins. Some of them go so far as to strap on a pair of jean shorts and go after some cardboard targets in their backyard with a short sword to prove their point. It’s a bold move, to be sure.

I have to say that I disagree with the takeaway there. The point that the “knives are better” folks are missing is that the exact same guy tucked behind a tree with a handgun could shoot a bullet at the victim in far less time and with far less warning. Bullets are faster than muggers, in just about every case. If the attacker simply wants to assassinate you, there are a dozen ways for him to do so with a lot more stealth and less risk to himself. I don’t want to make you paranoid, but the best defense most of us have against assassination is not being important enough for anyone to bother. This running sword attack is an assassination, as would be someone sneaking up behind you at a urinal and garotting you, or someone shooting you with a poisoned dart while you’re at the drive through. Does that mean the garotte or the blow dart are the superior weapons? Hardly. Again, the gun can kill just as effectively at close range as at far. There’s nothing about these attacks that make the weapon being used more effective than a gun.  The thing they are all using is the element of surprise.

Something the Tueller Drill doesn’t do especially well is to capture that surprise. You know you’re in the drill. You’ve been instructed about what is going to happen and what your response needs to be. You’re on the range, wearing eye and ear pro. You’re not at the ATM, on the cell phone with your wife, asking her what she’s making for dinner. When you’re on the range, waiting for a buzzer or a tap or a shout, every nerve in your body is primed to do the action you know needs to be done. When you’re at the ATM, every nerve in your body is primed to push buttons and look at numbers. An attacker could be armed with uncooked spaghetti noodles and you’d probably still get your ass kicked.

That’s why I think the lesson to take away from the Tueller Drill has nothing to do with weapons. It has everything to do with awareness and mindset. You need to do your best to be aware of your environment. Some trainers use the Cooper Color Code and suggest that you need to be in Condition Yellow 24 hours of every day to avoid being taken by surprise. I agree with Rob Pincus on this one. None of us can possibly be at the ready all the time while still leading a full life. Do you ever watch movies? Talk on the phone? Take a shower? Sleep? Make sweet, sweet love to the consenting adult of your choice? Yeah, you’re in condition white at some point. It’s a good idea to try to be as aware as possible, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking we can be so aware as to make a surprise attack impossible. Criminals are looking for distraction, because it tends to indicate a softer target. You need to be prepared to fight when you’re already behind the 8-ball, as it were. You have to have the mindset to dig yourself out of that hole. That’s a talk for another time, though. Just know that being aware of your environment is something you want to do all the time, but you have to accept the fact that you will be distracted sometimes. Something that can help is to make sure that you don’t ignore your intuition. I highly recommend The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker to read up on that topic. Essentially, he says that you’re constantly receiving and processing signals, some of which can be danger indicators. You don’t have to be consciously scanning for threats to pick up a glint from the shadows or to notice that the vibe of the bar you’re in just changed for the worse. Be consciously aware when you can, and when you can’t, don’t ignore your subconscious signals.

Okay, so now that we’ve gotten there, what else can we learn from the Tueller Drill? Does it mean the handgun is not an effective defensive weapon? I don’t think so. You would be at just as much (or more) of a disadvantage if you got attacked while your Elven Longsword +2 vs Ogres was still in the scabbard. If your knife is in your pocket, it may take you longer to get out and into the fight than a gun in a good holster would. Heaven forbid your defense of choice is to call 911 on your cell phone and wait for the police to come save you. You’re going to have to recognize a threat coming from about a mile away for that one to work out for you. That right there is really the key, though. You need to recognize the threat before you can respond to it. The closer the target gets to you before you recognize it, the less time you have to react. Time is life in a self defense situation, as the guys from Magpul like to say. The sooner you recognize the threat, the more time you have to get yourself out of the situation. In a perfect world, you’re aware of your environment, you see the threat begin to manifest, and you just get your butt out of there before you’re even a blip on the dude’s radar screen. In the crappy world, you may get jumped at close range and barely have enough time to get your arm up to block a knife attack. Sooner is better than later. Later is better than never. Your choice of defense and your skill with it dictates how much time you need to respond.

This is also a good time to plug training and practice. You want to take the most realistic classes you can (preferably force on force), to learn these skills firsthand from a qualified instructor. Then you want to practice them in your backyard or garage or basement with a blue gun, airsoft pistol, or rubber knife and a couple of buddies. You want your draw stroke (for your gun, knife, pepper spray, Taser or whatever) to be as smooth and fast as possible. You want to practice it until it’s almost automatic. Remember than you’re going to be half as good under real, life-threatening stress as you are on your best day at home. Maybe not even that good. You want your 100% to be really awesome so your 50% is still enough to save your life.

*Edit* My friend brought up a good point in the comments, so I’m going to add a piece here just to be very clear. Your recognition of the threat, the time you have to respond and your own skills will determine your best response. Your goals (from the Shivworks AAR) are to stay on your feet and stay conscious, first and foremost. If you have the time and the skill to pull your handgun and put several rounds into the high center chest of your attacker, that may be a good way to stop the fight before he even gets a chance to cut you (be aware that handguns DO NOT have “stopping power” and the guy is likely NOT going to collapse in a heap when he gets hit). If you’re not certain that you can get the gun out and into effect before your attacker makes contact with you, your best response may be to brace yourself for impact and get your hands and arms in front of your head and neck to minimize the damage you sustain on first contact. If you have the time, the ability and the environment allows for it, your best response may be to just run as fast as you can to get away from the guy. Obviously that’s not a good response if you’re with a family member, or if you don’t think you can outrun your attacker. There are dozens of split-second decisions and calculations that need to be made to successfully navigate a self defense situation. The biggest point to all of this, though, is that pulling your gun and cracking off shots should NOT be your default response. That’s your response if you think it is the best or only way to save yourself from death or severe bodily injury AND if you believe you can get the gun out of the holster and into the fight before your attacker can reach you. That may be a narrow set of circumstances. Thinking about it and running scenarios in your head is a great way to get hypothetical dry runs on various situations before they actually arise. The time you spend preparing  may well save you time with you’re out there in the real world. Also, you should practice awareness, avoidance and deescalation as much as possible to keep actual physical confrontations from happening. Your very last resort is using lethal force to defend yourself against a lethal threat. You want to be prepared to defend yourself, but don’t think you want to get into a fight to show how badass you are. You want to go home, end of story.*End Edit*

So the lessons to take away from the Tueller drill are the following. Awareness and intuition can help guide you to threat recognition. Recognizing a threat early will help make sure you have enough time to respond. Having good training under your belt and a lot of practice will help to minimize the time you need to respond in the right way. You also need to realize just how far away someone can be and still be a threat to you with a contact weapon. That’s the thing the Tueller drill is actually intended to teach, by the way. It establishes the range at which a person showing malicious intent is close enough to do us harm. Too much farther (50 feet, say) and you can probably just run away or otherwise avoid the situation. Too much closer and almost no amount of training is going to give you the ability to respond in time. The 21 foot line is close enough that we can feel justified in defending ourselves against someone who obviously intends to do us harm, even if he is “only” armed with a contact weapon.

Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions or would like some clarification or anything. If you disagree, I’d also love to hear about that. Thanks for reading!

  1. Isaac says:

    I always thought the point of the Tueller drill was that: if someone is within 21 feet of you and they come at you (don’t taunt them with “Come at me bro!”), that maybe, just maybe, your best defense isn’t to go for your gun after all, but to instead, gain distance and deal with the knife with more dynamic and fluid items (your hands) and only transition to the gun when the knife has been dealt with. This, of course, means upping your training to include hand-to-han… err… hand-to-knife training. To which I’ll note: if your opponent is under 21 feet and has a knife, you WILL get cut, just accept it, minimize the damage and make them regret it.

    • Septimus says:

      I think that’s definitely something that the drill can help us realize, but I don’t think it’s the main point. That’s where your threat recognition, reaction speed, and the time is takes to deploy your defense come into play. Getting your hands up in front of your head and neck is going to be faster than drawing and firing a gun, for sure. If that’s all you have time to do, then that’s your best response. If you do have time to pull the gun and get a couple rounds into the high center chest before he gets to you, that may be your best option. Those are really judgement calls you have to make at the time, though. Maybe even a combination response, where you put your weak arm up to defend your head and neck and use your other hand to draw the gun to a retention position so you can put rounds into the guy when he does get to you? I don’t think any of us can say one response is always better than another, though. You are absolutely right about needing to be wary of having “pull the gun and shoot” as your default response, though. It just isn’t the appropriate reaction in a lot of cases.

  2. One thing I never see mentioned in the Tueller drill as a gun-defense is simply to run away from the knife-guy while drawing, then when the gun is out, turn and shoot A tactical retreat to maintain the separation. This will increase response time significantly. I think this also makes sense from a legal standpoint.

    In terms of blade weapon speed and how quickly someone can draw and cut, put your right hand on you left hip (imagining you have a hold of the handle of the knife in the scabbard which could sit horizontally on the belt on the left hip or slightly behind). Now strike out with a backhand to the face as fast as you can with your right hand simulating the drawing and a cut at the same time. That’s about what you can expect from a trained person with a blade. It’s fast because it’s only _one_ movement. (Don’t try this with something sharp unless you’ve spent a few years practicing first. Many mall ninjas have cut off a fingertip this way, which is quite embarrassing.)

    When it comes to hand-to-hand, a bladed weapon can be used to deny motion/moves of the other person. You can pin hands or even arms and legs with the edge, etc. The only way out of a pin is to have something to block an edge with (skin is never a good idea) or move backwards faster than the attacker.

    • Septimus says:

      Very good points. The contact weapon isn’t actually going to hurt you until the guy can touch you with it, so maintaining as much distance as possible is an excellent idea. If you have the reach advantage with a pistol, even more reason to keep him as far away as you can. It’s also a good idea to move away from the attacker in arcs rather than straight back, forcing him to re-orient on you. This can also help to keep you from running forward without looking where you’re going (tripping hazard) or trying to backpedal (bigtime tripping hazard).

      Blades can be very nasty, for sure. The whole idea of an attacker pulling a knife and running straight at you from a long way away is a bit silly on the face of it, since that gives away his intentions and the fact that he’s armed. He would be better served by keeping the blade concealed until he is very close, and then using it before you even realize what is going on. Many knife attack victims report this exact phenomenon. Quite a few don’t even realize they’ve been stabbed, because they never saw the knife. They just think they’ve been punched until they (hopefully) see the blood and get themselves to a hospital. Some never do realize they’ve been stabbed, and bleed to death without ever knowing.

      I don’t want to minimize the danger that a knife poses. They can be devastating weapons. I simply think that people confuse their effectiveness in a surprise attack with their general superiority as a weapon.

      For a counter-example, an attacker could have a small revolver in his jacket pocket, get in close and fire several shots through the jacket without you even knowing where the attack came from afterwards, much less seeing it coming in time to do anything about it. You’ll have even less luck blocking a bullet than you would a knife blade. Again, it’s the surprise that makes the attack effective, not the weapon itself. Any weapon concealed until the last possible moment will be nearly impossible to counter.

      Thanks very much for commenting!

  3. Vanniek71 says:

    I’m going to stay in awareness white, I like the sweet sweet love part.

    Seriously though, we can never be ready 100% of the time, or we wouldnt trip, bump our shins etc, we’d be prepared for everything. Be aware as you can be, minimize the damage and come out on top. Good stuff though Sept, you wordy bastitch.

  4. (the draw cut I talked about above). This would be faster with a knife because the knife is lighter (less inertia).

    Also, cuts from a trained person will be significantly worse than cuts from an amateur. As far as I understand cuts are as lethal as bullet wounds, depending on the size of the knife and the size of the bullet of course. To cut well, the knife angle must be equal to the cut angle and the knife must move in a slashing motion. Get either wrong, and the blade will glance off, get stuck without penetrating much, or simply not cut through. Bungled cuts will still make a mess but that’s very different from the alternative of losing limbs or internal organs. Of course someone who has the discipline to spend several years perfecting their blade skill is probably too disciplined to go on mugging people, so most knife attacks will be from amateurs. Also, “controlling the weapons arm” of a trained weapon fighter is very hard even for a skilled unarmed fighter. There are many demonstrations of unarmed vs blade, where the former goes in and takes the latter’s weapon or disarms him. In reality, that just ain’t gonna happen.

    • Septimus says:

      Lesson learned: Do not upset the dude with the sword.

      From what I’ve read and learned in classes, many criminal attacks are low-line stabbing attacks to the belly. It’s a piston-like pumping motion of the arm, straight in and straight out. It’s very covert, which is why you see it a lot in prisons. Since a lot of these dudes get their training in prison, it makes sense you’d see that out on the street as well. They generally don’t have any formal training, but the sheer brutality of the attack often makes up for a lack of skill. I’ve heard of more than a few muggings where the weapon was actually a sharpened screwdriver, without any sort of blade at all. It’s just an easily concealed weapon that can do a lot of damage in a short time, doesn’t cost a lot and isn’t easily traced.

      I’ve seen (and learned) a couple of super complicated knife disarm techniques that involve grabbing and locking the wrist and flipping the person around or something. What I’ve learned since (from various sources) is that you really just need to control the knife any way you can. Don’t count on being able to disarm or get wrist locks or anything. Just grab their weapon hand with both of yours and keep it from pumping the blade into you. Then try to use any other weapons you have available to put a big hurting on them as quickly as you can. It’s not going to be pretty, but it’s hopefully going to be more effective than some sort of complicated, flowing, precise nonsense.

      Suffice it to say, the day you are attacked with a blade is a bad day for you. You just need to do whatever it takes to make sure you go home at the end of everything. Taking some classes in armed and unarmed defense is a great idea. Practicing in as realistic a way as possible is also a very good idea. If you have an opportunity to take a Shivworks class, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    • Isaac says:

      “There are many demonstrations of unarmed vs blade, where the former goes in and takes the latter’s weapon or disarms him. In reality, that just ain’t gonna happen.”

      This is so true. We have knife techniques in my style and I’ve never been happy with them. Having tried stuff at full speed and full resistance (but rubber knives) will show you the error of your logic there. HOWEVER, the techniques do give you an opportunity to practice some key concepts. Just be sure to drill with resistance though, that’s key, and where you will ultimately become way more afraid of knives than guns (at close range).

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