The Dangers of the 21-Foot Rule

By Dave Dolbee published on in Concealed Carry, General, Safety and Training

The word “rule” has been carelessly tossed about by law enforcement and CCW trainers for decades—perhaps it was just misunderstood. In truth, when talking about the 21-foot rule, most are referring to the “Tueller Drill.” Careless lips have led to some dangerous conclusions, especially among the civilian population. It’s a confusion that’s being cynically exploited to get headlines, and it has even reared its ugly head in the courtroom a time or two, but it needs to be addressed for safety.

Police Officer aiming a Glock pistol with a red barn in the background

Teuller’s drill is well suited to law enforcement and civilians, but the 21-Foot Rule is not.

What Is the 21-Foot Rule?

My first introduction to this topic came about 25 years ago while attending the sheriff’s academy. I remember the class and, more important, the video “Surviving Edged Weapons.” The video and instructional seminars were based on research by Salt Lake City trainer Dennis Tueller. The “21-Foot Rule” was a measure of distance that related to the time it would take an officer to recognize a threat, draw a sidearm, and fire two rounds center mass against an attacker charging with a knife or other stabbing weapon.

To be clear, this article is not intended to be the rule or guide to law enforcement. In fact, most of what this article covers will be common knowledge to today’s LEOs. However, I would hope those with experience behind the badge will chime in and challenge or correct the assertions I scribe here by supplementing it with their own experiences. The ultimate purpose is to give some real-world guidance to the nonprofessional concealed gun handlers reading The Shooter’s Log.

Examination

The first issue I have with the 21-Foot Rule is the belief that it is somehow rooted in police doctrine or a legal standard. Removing the number “21” and the word “rule” would go a long way toward dispelling the myth. Tueller’s research did not culminate in a rule; you are not suddenly safer at 22 feet than you were at 20. It is important to distinguish that Tueller developed a drill, not a standard.

Shooter behind cover

Movement and the use of cover is your best defense against any attacker. The is doubly true of an attacker with an edged weapon.

Just as many firearm enthusiasts insist the distinction between a modern sporting rifle and an assault rifle, magazine versus a clip, and a dozen other examples we could come up with off the top of our heads. I believe we need to properly identify our subject as the Tueller Drill and not the 21-Foot Rule. This is not only factually true, it goes a long way toward setting the correct mindset of the neophyte gun handler.

There were two main conclusions that can be contributed to Tueller’s research. First, an attacker with a knife could cover 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds. (This is not word for word, but it covers the general gist.) Second, a helluva lot of law enforcement would be lucky to recognize a threat, unholster their sidearm, and successfully stop the threat from being able to deliver a blow with a knife in less than 1.5 seconds. This was quite a revelation at the time and created much discussion.

Lessons

Tueller’s lesson should not indicate that anyone, even if they have a knife in hand, is a justified bullet sponge. How many of us carry a pocketknife? Every waitress or busboy in a restaurant would have a target on their chest. Not even in the context of a heated confrontation could you immediately jump to this conclusion. The lesson does not teach that we should shoot a hostile actor with a knife if they are within 21 feet. The lesson merely put a number to the test data and created a mindset for officers to rethink their response and posture to a threat or potentially sudden dynamic attack.

The mindset was fine, but the lessons that followed…not so much. Tueller’s research revealed training deficiencies of the day. As previously stated, it created a lot of discussion, which was good. Where it went wrong, in my opinion, was when they started teaching the number over the mindset. I recall this being demonstrated on the range at the academy. A large, intimidating deputy with a rubber knife rushed a student from 21 feet. The deputy did not run, just marched at a quick pace wielding the knife over his head and screaming obscenities.

Bob Campbell shooting a 1911 pistol from a retention position

Seldom in an emergency situation where you have to draw and fire quickly will you ever see the gun’s sights.

The student had to recognize the threat’s approach, unsnap his holster, and draw his weapon. He failed. In fact, the truth be told, we all failed. Some may have cleared leather and pulled the trigger, but the threat was so close he still would have struck a blow falling on you. Let’s not forget the audience here. You are likely carrying concealed, not openly in a Sam Brown.

The 21-Foot Lesson was—graphically—received. Unfortunately, at the time, we learned the number more than the correct lesson. In time, however, we learned to get off the “X” instead of being a static target. Instead of backing up in a straight line, we were taught to react by moving “off-line.” (Attackers in these scenarios may be so enraged they continue on the beeline path instead of tracking you.) More important, we were taught to read body language, situational awareness (which directions could you move off-line, soft and hard cover, etc.), reactionary gaps, and other close-quarters defensive techniques not involving a firearm.

Final Thoughts

The focus of The Shooter’s Log does not include training civilians to be cops or instruction in matters of law enforcement. However, I see far too many videos of self-professed firearm trainers, tactical weapons specialists, home defense “experts,” and even a few prior LEOs who teach like they did to officers or cadets at the academy or in the military and not to civilians. Sadly, I would say while I respect the effort, they have no business standing in front of a student. Too often, I have heard friends (after such training, watching a cop show on TV, or reading something on the Internet) throw out the term “21-Foot Rule”  and improperly state it as a threshold of safe versus justifiable homicide.

I hope, after reading this and the comments from readers with much more knowledge and experience than I have, that you dedicate some of your concealed carry training to going beyond the minimum gun-handling skills and—as important—practicing your communication skills, situational awareness, and good old-fashioned common sense.

What is your impression of the 21-Foot Rule? Have you ever heard of the Tueller Drill? Have you practiced it? Share your answers, opinions, or experiences in the comment section.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (77)

  • DaveW

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    Yep. Los Angeles. Six rounds of .357 point blank by a patrolman in a bear hug with a scrawny little PCP user finally brought him to a halt in the 1970s

    Reply

  • Frank Lategano

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    I remember as a young Special Agent in our Firearms Instructor class, we were assigned to create a video on a topic of our choice. Mine was on the reality of using an ankle holster (the SA rage in the 80’s). Though I didn’t title it as such, I used the Tueller drill to demonstrate that crouching statically while trying to draw from the ankle could get you killed, even by a rubber hatchet wielding attacker at 7 yds. walking a moderate pace. To our boar-killing Dirty Harry friend, good luck. I hope it never happens to you.

    Reply

  • RPK

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    While drills and theories are well and fine for training, one basic I have learned in over 37 years of LE and Corrections is: NO TWO SITUATIONS ARE EVER THE SAME. And, there is no drill or theory to counter this fact.

    Reply

  • Doug

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    As I read these comments it seems the important part of this drill is learning to move off-line. So maybe the next article could be about the OODA process and disrupting your attackers. A good book on this entire topic is “Left of Bang” by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley. Avail. on amazon and select bookstores.

    Reply

    • Martin

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      Very good , moving off line is very important when we did this drill in MACP it was plainly shown that at 21Ft. you could not reliably draw and fire (airsoft) without evasion and that is without the OODA decide because you knew it was coming.

      Reply

  • Bobby

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    Like anything else, the totality of the circumstances weighs in on the Rule.

    Reply

  • Jim

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    If you were taught the 21 foot rule as a Rule you were taught wrong. The 21 foot rule is a Tool to be considered with other information you combined from Situational Awareness and information gathered from your contact with the person that May pose a threat. In your overall assessment of your situation forget about any Stand Your Ground law at this time. Remember your not an assassin, your either a LEO or a private citizen protecting yourself. After you have confirmed an imminent threat, and your situational awareness determined NO better place of defense, the Stand Your Ground Law enters your decision. And this all occurs within 1.5 seconds if the threat is within 21 feet. So always keep in your mind your situational awareness, ALWAYS. Anytime your strap on a gun and when you aren’t your mind should be in overdrive assessing and reassessing your surroundings and situation, Situational awareness. If your are unable to do this or don’t want to do this, leave your gun at home. Also remember not all men are equal, some may take a little longer than 21 seconds to close the distance and some may take a little less.

    Reply

  • CrawldaBeast

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    I use this drill when teaching people to shoot under pressure. We start at 21′ and then adjust to a distance that works. The goal is to show them how different it is when pulling their weapon under pressure. We always start with dry fire and rightfully so. When someone does this for the first time, a drop cloth or fall friendly surface like grass is nice when things get fumbled.
    As someone who lives in the woods, it’s good to practice in a natural environment. The goal is to get a reality check of what it truly takes to present a weapon. In the end the distance used by the runner is a mark for improvement. Animals cover ground faster than humans, learning to draw & fire quickly and accurately is the greatest chance for survival.

    Reply

  • Bob

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    Obviously the author never saw a 200lb wild boar DROP like a stone, in his tracks, after a single shot. ONE well placed shot will take the legs out from under any assailant — IMMEDIATELY. That’s why they call it being “Stopped DEAD in his tracks.” And if the caliber is large enough, it may even knock him BACKWARDS, or cause him to lose his grip on a weapon. Whoever wrote this article FAILED to take these factors into account. What was he using a PEASHOOTER ?

    Reply

    • MarkRB

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      Obviously, you’ve never seen a 200 lb guy on PCP, or some other similar drug. Also, there’s cases where people have been dropped with a well-placed .22 shot, and cases where large calibers didn’t stop them, although I would rather have a .45 or .357 in my hand vs a .22 if I were ever in that situation.

      Reply

    • Matt

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      Not sure what you’re commenting on but regardless it’s a pretty asinine statement. When I was stationed at Camp Pendleton a female Marine was shot in her barracks room by the man she recently dumped. She was shot 6 times in the chest and abdomen with a 10mm from less than 10ft and survived. There are countless accounts of humans being shot multiple times and continuing to fight. Yes 1 well placed shot, the fatal T, will put down a person. But to imply you only need to shoot once in a defensive situation is just stupid. I don’t know many people carrying a 30.06, .308, 7mm Magnum for their defense firearm.

      Reply

    • Jim

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      Have you ever faced a charging 200 lb wild boar at 21-30 feet and had to draw and fire your weapon for self defense? i agree a well aimed shot with the proper bullet and load can drop a boar or even a grizzly dead in their tracks. But that well aimed shot takes a some time and proper breathing and trigger pull technique to make.Not the type of luxury you have in a shoot/don’t shoot situation The author, I believe was talking about average normal people either on a police force where carrying a hand cannon like you described as knocking you backwards and losing your grip implies, is not permitted. And most reasonably intelligent licensed carry citizens won’t carry one because in their environment they’re not likely to encounter wild boar. I believed the author passed in his article, taking into account his target audience and purpose.

      Reply

  • D.W. Holmes

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    I read your article with interest since I was trained by Dennis. It was in the mid 70’s and not much time was spent on “Officer Survival”. Thanks to Dennis we as a department were light years ahead of most police department in that time! I want to thank then Sgt. Dennis Tueller for the training and forward looking training, that training helped me “survive” 25 years on the street! Thanks

    Reply

  • William

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    From a train video a gunner firing on a person in the open with no close cover was recommended if possible to run 90 degrees to shooter to force the shooter to have to track the person if you run away or toward the shooter you make an easy target. Your recommendations about dealing with a blade sounds similar. Great article May God protect all LEO

    Reply

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