21 FOOT RULE
One of the patterns we have noticed lately is how intense the tactical community’s relationship with fads can be. The Sheepdog analogy is a useful way to help a young soldier or cop begin to understand that they have to be prepared to do violence, but in a constrained way. It tends to fall apart when taken too far, though. The Spartan legacy is useful in inspiring toughness – but that doesn’t mean you have to run around wearing a helmet and shield. In the tactical training telephone game, good ideas can morph into rules and then into obsessions, and in the process, they can lose their utility. One of the big ones is the 21-Foot Rule.
Jim has a background in military aviation, specializing in combat rescue and close air support. His opinions are his alone and do not reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense, and no references here should be interpreted as an endorsement of any product or service by any government agency.
The subtle, contextual cues that guide our instincts are often tough to put our finger on, but they are also the reason we might approach one person or situation differently than another. The last thing we want to do is leave those decisions up to someone else’s interpretation. It is difficult to teach what stress, deception, and threatening body language look like in training.
One of the key flaws in civilian tactical training is how much time and effort we put into shooting and fighting skills and how little time and effort we put into conflict resolution. If all we teach is shooting, and the one tool in your “toolbox” is carbine skills, then the whole world might tend to look like a shooting range to you. That is a dangerous habit pattern…
In July 2016 a police officer in Minnesota stopped a car and the driver informed the officer that he was armed. The driver was apparently reaching for his wallet, but the officer perceived that he was reaching for the gun. The officer gave him instructions to not reach for it, the driver said that he wasn’t, and somewhere in the mix the officer shot and killed him. The driver’s name was Philando Castile. The officer was charged with manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury. He was fired by his agency.
Over 20 years ago, a researcher in Utah ran some tests to gauge how long it would take a police officer to draw and fire on a knife-wielding attacker – and found that generally if the attacker was within 21 feet, he could lunge into the officer before the officer could mount a meaningful defense. That has become the basis of a number of shooting drills and qualifications all over the world in military, law enforcement, and civilian circles. It is a useful guideline in reminding us that the person reacting is at a disadvantage, but it isn’t an absolute and it shouldn’t be treated like a “rule.”
It is useful because it takes a couple seconds for the victim of an attack to realize there is an attack in progress, to sort out what to do about it, and bring a defense to bear. Further, 21 feet is just a little over the length of a car or residential room, it is about the distance where you can talk in a conversational voice, and where you can realistically assess threats and intentions – and therefore the vast majority of LE and civilian confrontations will happen within 21 feet.
So, there is nothing wrong with training with some deference to 21 feet, but that doesn’t mean you should shoot a guy simply because
A. He has a knife, and
B. He happens to be 19 feet away.
It also means that you need to regularly train to shoot at bad breath distance and also at football field distance.
The real value of the 21 foot rule is to remind our little ape brains that distance and reaction time are related, and that an attacker can close that gap pretty quickly.