The danger of retention and contact shooting


One of the sexiest topics in shooting in the last few years is retention shooting and SEVERAL of you emailed in last week asking about the topic. There are a few different definitions for retention shooting, but basically it’s holding your gun close to your body while engaging an attacker that’s within arm’s reach in a way that they can’t take your gun.

There are a few scenarios where this is a factor.

1. An attacker is within arm’s reach, your gun is holstered, and you draw and shoot. (standing, wrestling, etc.)
2. You’re maneuvering through a crowd or a building and have the gun in a compressed position instead of extended.
3. A bad guy gets their hands on your gun and you want to be the only one to use it.

There are times when retention shooting makes sense, and times when it doesn’t.

Let’s start off with the most popular way that I’ve seen it taught, which is to go straight to your holstered gun if a threat presents itself within arm’s reach. To be clear, friends, instructors I respect and schools I respect teach this way.

I’m glad that they’ve taught and are teaching the technique. But sometimes life experiences change your perspective. Drills, tactics, and techniques that make sense against paper or a compliant training partner sometimes don’t work quite so well against a non-compliant training partner or a determined attacker. It’s my hope that instructors and shooters will tweak the way they teach, train, and practice after reading this.

The typical way this technique is taught is to have the shooter touching a paper target or 2-3 feet away, blocking or striking with their left hand, and drawing and engaging with their right…often times with the butt of the gun against their ribs so that the slide doesn’t hit their clothing and cause a malfunction.

But you’ve got to ask yourself, if you’re in a situation where your gun is holstered and a threat presents itself and your first chance to respond is when the threat is within arm’s reach, what’s your goal? Is it:

1. Use your gun to stop the threat.
2. Stop the threat as quickly as possible while taking a minimal amount of damage.

If you don’t realize that someone is a threat until they’re within arm’s reach, do you think you’d be surprised? I do. And that might affect the speed at which you can respond.

Former Army Ranger Sniper, Nick (Reaper) Irving, recently had an article on SOFREP where he talked about reaction times in relation to the Orlando shooting. He said that trained individuals on patrol expecting violence have a reaction time of .39-.58 seconds.

Having a holstered gun and not realizing that you’re facing a violent threat until it’s a couple feet away is different than being on patrol with a gun in your hands.

It’s safe to say that your reaction time will be AT LEAST as much as a trained individual on patrol…probably longer.

Next, how long does it take you to grip, unholster, rock, and press the trigger?

One-handed from concealment?

While being hands-on with an attacker with only 1 hand and divided attention?

In force on force work I’ve done, the time to get the gun into play varies from 1-4 seconds, depending on the type of concealment (if any), how compliant your training partner is, and if Mr. Murphy makes a visit during the process.

As soon as the attacker acts the part of someone who you could legitimately shoot, the technique doesn’t work anymore.

An untrained fighter can deliver 3-5 strikes per second or 1-3 “haymaker” “lights-out” strikes per second. Those strikes could be with their hands, a knife, golf club, tire iron, baseball bat, etc.

In a perfect world, you’re looking at 1-1.5 seconds to deliver the first shot from your gun…and it’s probably going to be a gut shot.

In a perfect world, that gut shot will INSTANTLY stop your attacker.

But that’s not the way it usually works.

Non-compliant attackers who are taking actions that justify you shooting them are probably going to be hitting, cutting, or shooting you during the time it takes you to get your gun into the fight.

There’s a good chance that they’ll try to go for your gun or hurt you to keep you from shooting them. And there’s a good chance that 1-2 pistol shots to the gut aren’t going to stop the fight before they do more damage to you…regardless of how lethal those shots may end up being.

Contact shooting just doesn’t work well in that context. Ask anyone who’s tried it with force on force training, and they’ll tell you the same thing: It only works with a compliant training partner.

So, what should you do?

There are a couple of approaches…

First, is to strike your attacker in the throat or eyes instead of going for your gun. Either strike will happen MUCH sooner than going for your gun, will get your attacker on the defense faster than going for your gun, and have a better chance of minimizing the damage that you’ll take.

Depending on the attacker and their level of druggedness, drunkenness, or derangement, the eye/throat strike may even stop the attack faster than a gut shot.

The best source that I know of for how to deliver strikes that have the effectiveness of a handgun is >HERE<

Second, is to do rapid-fire palm-heel strikes to the head/face until you shift your attacker’s center of mass backwards.

As soon as this shift happens, you can take a step back, draw your pistol with the use of both hands before they start advancing again, and engage that attacker or other attackers as needed. I learned this technique from working with the guys >HERE<

Both are effective. Both have strengths. And both are WAY more likely to work in a real-life situation than an all-gun-all-the-time approach.

What about other retention shooting situations?

There are absolutely reasons to practice retention shooting, including cornering, reacting and shooting from sul, being surprised by a 2nd attacker who’s got an angle on you while you are focused on engaging a primary attacker, and even in a situation where you’ve struck an attacker to the point where they give you space to effectively draw your weapon.

But, for the most part, this is 2-handed, close to the body shooting rather than having your left hand/elbow out in front of you and your muzzle, fighting off an attacker. A couple more general items on retention shooting…

First off, there are a LOT of schools and instructors (I was one of them) who teach that you should have the bottom of your magazine pressed against the side of your ribs and the gun laying horizontally so that you won’t have a malfunction from the slide hitting you or getting caught up in your clothing.

This becomes a big problem if you end up in a fight for the gun.

When you’re holding the gun like this, your palm is facing up. If someone pushes on the muzzle of the gun and you push back, the wrist will fold in.

In addition, your elbow is going to be at about a 45 degree angle. If you push towards an attacker and the attacker pushes back, the triceps are weak at this orientation and it’s likely that your arm will fold in as well. The combination of your wrist folding and your elbow folding gives you a situation where your muzzle is pointed at your head or chest. It may not be in battery by that time and may not be able to fire, but it’s going to be very distracting (best case) and easier for your attacker to take.

I shoot year-round with the summer/winter clothes that I wear all the time and I haven’t found a situation where I need to rotate my gun to keep it from getting caught in my clothing.

That’s unusual.

Many bulky/loose winter clothes will cause guns to malfunction unless you rotate your gun when doing retention shooting. If that’s the case for you, see if you can get your gun to run reliably by rotating the gun 45 degrees rather than a full 90.

Second, just assume that if you’re shooting at contact distance, your pistol is going to malfunction.

Don’t try to fix it with a malfunction drill while someone is attacking you…use the darn gun as an impact weapon.

It’s harder than the tiny bones in your hands and will focus your strikes better. As a bonus, striking your opponent with your pistol MAY take care of the malfunction.

If you’re interested in training that teaches shooters to seamlessly transition between using a pistol as a firearm and using a pistol as an impact weapon, click >HERE<

I know that most of my readers have gone through training that teaches this technique and there’s a good chance that I upset some people. I’m not interested in dogma…only what works, so if you think the points I made aren’t valid, let me know. What are your thoughts and experiences with it? If you still love it, have you tested the technique with force on force training? Have you made modifications to your technique as a result of force on force training? Please share by commenting below.

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  • JD

    Reply Reply June 17, 2018

    Just thinking out of the box here. Don’t go too aggro on me, just playing devil’s advocate.
    If someone is attacking you within arms reach and you don’t have time to draw your firearm and use it effectively, you state to fight back swinging towards the head. Hopefully pushing their momentum backwards so you can utilize your firearm.
    If the attacker is melee, and your using melee, doesn’t that spell out trouble? Especially if the attacker is armed?

    I was in judo classes for a few years and this situation made me daydream a bit.
    Now just for arguements sake. whould it be better to purposefully fall backwards onto your back, legs propped up? You would be able to put distance between you and the attacker and keep that distance with your legs while drawing for your firearm. Thoughts?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply June 18, 2018

      Hey JD,

      There are too man variables and possibilities to categorically answer, but I can give you some general answers 🙂

      1. You don’t want to swing towards “the head”. You want to strike through the neck, eyes, or ears.
      2. If your attacker is meleeing, yes…it does spell potential trouble. But you have a much better chance of getting your weapon into the fight if you aren’t simultaneously blocking, striking, and avoiding. The way that you buy yourself the space is to “hit the reset button” on your opponent to buy yourself a second or two to get to and deploy your weapon. This isn’t necessarily a matter of good vs. bad…it’s a matter of bad vs. worse.
      3. In many cases, a strike to the neck, eyes, ears will stop a fight as quickly as a gut shot with a pistol. The goal in a fight isn’t to get your gun into it…it’s to stop the threat. If you’re hands-on with an attacker, you’ll be able to react and deliver a strike to the throat in .4-.6 seconds. If you’re hands-on with an attacker, getting to a concealed pistol, drawing, and getting a first effective hit on target will take 2-5 TIMES longer.
      4. I LOVE judo, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind…first, in a real world situation, you don’t want to voluntarily go to the ground. The ground is not only an impact weapon, but when you’re on the ground under your opponent, you’re going to be fighting gravity and it’s going to be working in your opponent’s favor. As to keeping distance with your legs while drawing a firearm, I’d encourage you to try it on cement or gravel and see if it’s really something you want to do. I’ve had pistols fly out of the holster when I went to the ground. I’ve been laying on my cover garment and not been able to get to my pistol. I’ve slapped the ground (cement) as I fell and lost the ability to grip. I’ve slapped the ground and embedded debris (rock, glass, trash) in my hand and had to wipe it off before being able to grab my pistol. If you’re laying on your pistol, it’s nearly impossible to draw without adjusting. And the ground can jam your drawstroke.

      Again, I’d encourage you to try it and see if it works for you, but I’m pretty confident in saying that you’re not going to be happy with how it works out.

  • Heman

    Reply Reply July 4, 2016

    Hi, since you asked i thought ill share my two cents worth. On encountering an adverse dangerous situation one needs to access the risk to oneself, family etc in microseconds.
    If rapid response is called for then strike first with hands, elbows, knee, feet whatever to give time to draw gun, run away, call for help or whatever.
    If gun is drawn then use it as a hitting weapon first unless the threat has a weapon too. If threat has no weapon and is clobberd by your gun they may give up the fight totally and surrender ( being pistol whipped is not fun ) and shooting can be avoided. I’m not saying to risk it but to play it by ear as every scenario will be different.

  • Todd Widick

    Reply Reply July 1, 2016

    Excellent read, I too was taught that way you describe. But now teach the one handed close contact draw the way you describe. I also teach the the shooters first target of opportunity may be the feet, shins, kneecaps, thighs, groin, pelvic. Great article thank you.

  • Ken Noel

    Reply Reply July 1, 2016

    I suspect the best advice in this column is to leave the shootin’ arn in the holster and go after the eyes. That will definitely mess up your opponent’s day. If you must draw, or have drawn, put the muzzle to the miscreant’s eye and pull the trigger. This will leave him dead while still having his feet under him. They won’t stay there long.

    If you must draw you must be willing to KILL your opponent. the best way to do that is whatever way is quickest.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply July 1, 2016

      Thanks, Ken. We always suggest that people have a goal of stopping the threat rather than killing. Gunshot wounds in the US have an 85% survival rate, so programming your mind to “kill” or shoot until they’re dead can create unnecessary moral, civil, and criminal problems.

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