Improving the Odds

For some reason, most officers have a vision of a gunfight as being one shooter against another. The reality of such incidents is much different and even deadlier. An alarming number of police gunfights involve more than one bad guy against a single cop.

Mike Rayburn Headshot

Perhaps it's because of the enduring movie icon of the Old West shootout, perhaps it's because we tend to think of all fights as a one-on-one battle, but for some reason, most officers have a vision of a gunfight as being one shooter against another. The reality of such incidents is much different and even deadlier. An alarming number of police gunfights involve more than one bad guy against a single cop.

It's hard to imagine a worse predicament than being outnumbered and outgunned in a street fight. But there are things you can do and maneuvers that you can practice that will increase the chances of your survival.

Take Cover

In any gunfight, your first priority is to find cover. Statistics show that 95 percent of officers who reach cover during an officer-involved shooting survive the fight. This is even more critical when you're outnumbered. If you have good, solid cover and your attackers don't, you've evened the odds a bit.

Unfortunately, we don't think about cover until we desperately need it and, by then, it's probably too late to find it. This is especially true when you consider that real gunfights are short-lived-as often are their participants.

The average gunfight lasts seven seconds or less. That's not a lot of time to find cover, and it's even less when you consider that the actual exchange of rounds lasts for approximately 2.5 to 3.5 seconds. How much cover can you move to in 2.5 seconds? Unless you're within one or two steps of that cover, it's going to be difficult for you to locate and move to it under stress. Still, you must make the effort. It's your best bet for survival.

Of course, cover won't always be available. Studies show that cover is rarely available in officer-involved shootings. The reason is simple: 95 percent of street gun battles between police and bad guys take place at distances of less than 21 feet. That's close but most are even closer, with 75 percent at 10 feet or less and well over 50 percent at five feet or less.

In such close quarter combat, moving to cover may not be an option. But movement is still critical to your survival. So the issue becomes how to move.

Going for Your Gun

The FBI and a number of other organizations have done a lot of research into what actually happens during an officer involved gunfight. One common factor is that a lot of officers (and suspects) are shot in their gun hands, gun arms, and gun sides ("strong sides") of their bodies.

This is not much of a surprise. The first tendency of anyone faced with a threat is to focus in on the source of the threat. In a gunfight, the source of the threat is the opponent's gun. And because the combatants are looking at each other's guns, it's only natural that they tend to shoot each other in the gun hand or gun side.

Since officers involved in gunfights are commonly shot on their gun sides, it only makes sense that you should try to protect that side of your body so that you can fight back.

You do this by moving laterally to your gun side. If you are a right-handed shooter, move to your right. If you are a left-handed shooter, move to your left. By doing this you are able to somewhat protect your gun side by using your body as a shield for your shooting hand and gun side so that it will be protected and you are able to shoot back. Of course, using your body as a shield is only a good idea if you are wearing body armor and your opponents are armed with handguns or shotguns.

Protecting your gun hand is critical to your survival. Yes, you've been trained to shoot with your off hand. But look at this realistically. You're probably a much better shot with your strong hand and, if you're in a short, sharp firefight with a group of thugs, your survival is going to depend on your shooting skills. The longer you can keep your weapon in your gun hand, the better.

Moving Target

Remember to move as you return fire. By moving laterally you accomplish several things.

First, you decrease the lag time caused by the action vs. reaction phenomenon. For the most part we have to react to a suspect's action and this puts us at a disadvantage. The suspect(s) goes for a weapon and we react by drawing our weapon. We are caught at a disadvantage because we are playing catch up to the suspect's action. We turn this around by creating some action of our own forcing the suspect(s) to play catch up to us.

One advantage that we can use against the bad guys is movement. A moving target is harder to hit, and most criminals don't practice their marksmanship against moving targets.

The FBI interviewed cop killers and discovered that 54 percent of them had practiced with their weapons at least once a month. Yet 74 percent of the offenders interviewed stated their firearms practice was informal and at various locations. What this means is that very few offenders have had any formal firearms training. Even fewer have had any formal training that involved shooting at a moving target.

Cross Fire

By moving you become harder to hit. You also can create temporary cover even when there is no cover available.

When facing multiple assailants, it is highly unlikely that they will be standing abreast of one another in a straight line like a line of targets. Two or three assailants will more than likely be standing apart from each other in a staggered configuration.

By moving laterally you use the suspects' positions against them and place them in each other's lines of fire. This provides you with some temporary cover because the suspects behind the one closest to you will be forced to hold their fire until they can get a shot at you or they will shoot their accomplice in the back. Either way it works to your benefit.

Target Selection

Now that we've looked at cover and movement, it's time to discuss who to shoot first and how to do it.

You want to shoot the assailant closest to you first. That person poses the greatest threat to you because he or she is the closest. Someone who is 5 feet away from you obviously poses more of a threat than someone who is 15 feet away. Remember the FBI statistics on distances? Shoot the closest one to you first and move out of the kill zone.

Once you have fired on the closest threat, then you need to move on to the closest threat to your gun side so you can protect your ability to fight back and keep yourself in this gun battle.

By shooting the person closest to your strong side, you not only take out the closest attacker, you also gain added protection for your gun. If you are a right-handed shooter facing three assailants and you start shooting from left to right, you leave the gun side of your body exposed for too long of a period of time to the assailant on the right. The longer your gun side is exposed, the higher the probability of you receiving a disabling injury to your shooting side.

Fire one round into each adversary and then move on to the next. Although firing multiple rounds into your adversaries is the best way to quickly incapacitate them, you are outnumbered and outgunned, and you can't concentrate too much attention on any one target. You have to "put a hurting" on these guys as quickly as you can. If you need to, you can quickly return and place additional shots into any adversary who continues to remain a threat.


As with anything we do you need to practice survival tactics for multiple assailant assaults.

First, get your hands on some replica guns and get two or three of your fellow officers to act as bad guys. Set up a scenario and play it out from all angles. As you move, study the role players' actions and see how they react to your movements as you put them into a cross fire.

Next, head out to the range and place targets at varying distances from you and from each other. As you move to protect your gun side, see what angles you can shoot from and still place an effective shot into the target.

We need to prepare ourselves and plan for a possible attack by multiple assailants. Gang members travel in a group; that's why they call it a "gang." Train hard and practice for the day when you may be forced to face multiple assailants.

What to Do If You Are Outnumbered

No action will guarantee your survival if you end up facing multiple assailants in a gunfight. But these moves and accurate shooting might make the difference.

  • Move to Cover
  • Shield Your Gun Hand
  • Make Lateral Moves
  • Tangle the Bad Guys in Cross fire
  • Shoot the Closest Thug First
  • Shoot the Attackers on Your Gun Side Next
  • Shoot Each Adversary Once and Move to the Next
  • Go Back and Shoot Them Again if Necessary

Michael T. Rayburn is a 25-year veteran of law enforcement and a senior patrolman with the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) Police Department. He is the author of "Advanced Vehicle Stop Tactics" and "Advanced Patrol Tactics," both available from Looseleaf Law Publications,

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