The 21-Foot Rule: Why You Should Bring A Knife To A Gun Fight

A knife can beat a gun in less than 21-feet, here’s why

Ever heard of the age-old saying ‘never bring a knife to a gun fight’? Well, it’s not true. There are times when a blade or a sharp object can beat a holstered gun. In this post, we show you why a knife can have the advantage in a gun fight, which is also a skill many police officers learn in their training when they learn the ’21-foot rule’.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think guns are a far more superior weapon to knives in a gun fight, that’s why they are used by law enforcement, military, and anyone involved in an enforcement role. But there are instances when a knife can have the advantage, especially in close-quarter combat.

Say you’re walking to your car, your gun is holstered, and out of the dark comes an attacker with a knife. Regardless of how good your aim is, or how experienced you are, if that attacker is in close range at less than 20 feet, you’re dead. This is because the attacker can make the distance between you and him in less than 1.5 seconds, and strike you.

But there are some ways to counter this, which if you are a gun owner, could save your life.

You brought a knife to a gun fight?

There is an old expression made famous by Sean Connery in the film The Untouchables about bringing “a knife to a gun fight.” That is all well and good, but the saying does not apply to close quarters fights, the one place where a knife-attacker might perform better than a person with a gun.

In self-defense and police schools, when facing an attacker with a knife, there is a drill known as the Tueller Drill. It teaches people the risks of facing a knife attacker when you have a gun, and how easily a knife attacker can win when he “brings a knife to a gunfight”.

When a knife attacker is facing a person that has a gun with them as self-defense, you would assume the gun-wielder would win with ease. Wrong. When it comes to close combat situations, the knife-wielder has a pretty good chance at winning the confrontation. And this is specifically why they teach the Tueller Drill.

Simulating the 21-foot rule

The 21-foot rule was formed by a Salt-Lake City Police Sgt Tueller. He explained the rule using a simple drill in which he set up a simulated scenario where an attacker with an edged weapon or knife, about 21 feet away from a police officer with a holstered gun. The simulation would see whether the attacker could reach the officer, or whether the officer could draw his weapon and fire at the assailant.

According to Tueller, a person armed with a knife is able to move 21-feet and engage an officer before the officer is able to draw his gun and shoot the attacker.

It is now common for police schools to practice the Tueller Drill because if they were to shoot an attacker too early, they are accused of murder, and if it is too late, they end up seriously wounded or dead. That, and it is something they are likely to encounter while on patrol.

There are two Tueller drills that you can do with a buddy to show you just how effective a knife-attacker can be, they are:

Back-to-back drill –  Two trainees stand back-to-back, one is the simulated attacker and the other is the shooter. At the call, the attacker runs and the shooter must turn, unholster the simulated weapon and verbally say bang. If the simulated attacker has passed 21-feet (6.4m), then the officer would have been dead.

The idea of this is to train your ears to hear the attacker running, however, you can also do this the next way.

Stand 21 feet away – (This is the more traditional Teuller Drill) The attacker is to simply stand 21 feet away and at the signal, run and tap the shooter before the shooter can fire a simulated shot. If both trainees face each other at the start, it presents a confrontation you may encounter where you are about to draw their guns against a knife attacker that you have been trying to talk down, or to diffuse a situation and have failed.

Various tests have been run in different environments and settings to test the 21-foot rule. That distance of 21 feet gives a person a maximum of 1.5 seconds to pull a gun from its holster and take a shot to stop an attacker. Testing has shown that in distances any shorter than 20-feet, the knife attacker always wins.

To subdue a person with a knife, you need to take a well-aimed shot and hit the target, whereas when it comes to a knife-attack in close quarters, most knives will almost always hit the goal as they rely on being up close, rather than being far away.

From what we see in films and tv shows, if someone is assaulted they somehow have the time to pull out a gun, then fire it and immediately stop an attacker. In reality, what you’re more likely to encounter is someone moving fast and coming close quickly. This does not give you the time to fend them off with a single hand while attempting to take out your gun with a different hand. In that situation, the knife-attacker would have won.

Even if you do fire, there is no guarantee you’ll strike your opponent, leaving you defenseless as they step in for a blow with their knife. This is why it is important to learn some basic self-defense skills against knife-attackers.

Reaction times – Not only is the Tueller drill important for simulating attacker vs shooter situations, but it also tests a very crucial component of gunfighting techniques which is the reaction time. This is one of the factors that weighs into the 21-foot rule and its timespan of 1.5 seconds, which largely depends on how quick you can react to someone running towards you before you are able to consciously draw your weapon and fire.

When we are looking at the 1.5-second timeframe of the 21-foot rule, every millisecond counts and mistakes can compromise your life. There are also other variables that may come into it, such as how good you are with your equipment, namely how good you are at drawing your concealed weapon as quickly as possible. Also consider that if you are wearing thick clothing that is hanging over your holster, this might also take a fraction of your time to lift that clothing.

Alternative gunfighting moves for close quarter combat

While the Tueller Drill focuses on the gunman standing still in these cases, which for many gun license carriers, as well as most police officers, is the standard shooting position, there are some ways to combat the knife attacker’s advantage.

Two positions that work the best are either dropping to the ground on your back, where you can use the feet as fighting and pushing points while firing your weapon, or to roll to the side and fire.

Both of these points focus on changing your height so that the knife attacker would have to drop his attack point to hit you, as well as buy you time to draw your weapon and subdue the knife-attacker.

Other reasons why a knife is useful as a backup weapon

So what are some of the other arguments that show why knives are a great alternative to guns for self-defense?

1. Ammunition Not Desired

Knives don’t need loading, reloading or constant maintenance. Sure, if you want to keep your knife rust-free you might want to oil it or keep it clean, and maybe even sharpen it once in a while. But you definitely don’t have to worry about carrying ammunition for it, reloading it, or worrying about it ever jamming and not firing. A knife is ready at all times.

2. Quick Learner

Everyone knows how to use a knife one way or another. There are definitely schools out there that specialize in knife-fighting techniques, but for the most part, almost everyone will know slash, stab, and cut movements. This is one of the major benefits of using a knife, as it is fairly self-explanatory, whereas if you have never used a gun and had some sort of instruction, then you’re probably going to have a fun time trying to figure out how to load a gun, that’s after you have figured out where the safety is on the gun.

In saying this, it is important to make sure that whenever you are handling a knife, you should do it safely.

3. Best for self-defense

You need to have a very high sense of situational awareness if you are relying on a gun against an attacker. When someone comes at you with a knife you need to be aware of where they are and how far they are away from you in order to protect yourself.

Over to you

If you are trying to bring your gun out of its holster instead of creating space between you and the attacker and getting out of their line of assault, you’re almost sure to be a victim of the knife-attack or, at the very least, injured. This is why, if you do have a CCW license, it is a great idea to practice your reaction times, and make sure you are familiar with drawing your handgun out of its holster. Running through these basic drills can ensure that should you need to, you are able to defend yourself against a knife attacker.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe a gun is the best form of self-defense and if a societal collapse was to occur, I will be carrying one. But I will also carry a knife for the reasons that I pointed out in regards to close-quarter combat.

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy learning about other ways you can defend yourself against a knife attacker with Real Life Self Defense.

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