The below article was originally written as an appendix for “Left of Bang” that we decided to take out during the editing process. However, when looking at the dynamics that exist between the time and space that protectors try to maintain from attackers, the concepts discussed below are why we start analyzing those approaching us.

Appendix: Distance and Threats

Many Marines, police officers, and other military and security personnel overestimate their abilities and skills. Even with extensive training, Marines and others are still at risk when operating in close proximity with people. Behavior based observation provides the skills to quickly identify potential threats from a distance, and take the appropriate action against those potential threats. Often, however, observers will have to get close to those they are observing. What all military and law enforcement personnel must understand is that the closer you are to someone who could potentially do you harm, the more prepared you must be to engage the potential threat. This means being mentally and physically ready to use deadly force if necessary. In this brief section, we will cover four main principles related to distance and threats and discuss how that applies to behavioral analysis and the security postures we must take when operating.

The first principle related to distance and threats is proximity negates skill. This means that the closer you are to someone, the less your skill matters. Highly skilled boxers lose fights to less skilled opponents by getting too close and taking a wild punch. It does not take much skill on the attacker’s part to inflict harm if he is within that close proximity to us, forcing less capable opponents to remove any distance between them and us.

The second principle is that proximity reduces reaction time. This is perhaps the aspect of distance and threats that many people underestimate. That is, many people believe they can respond faster than they can in reality. The time between hostile intent and hostile act is often very short. As Sebastion Junger describes, “the distance at which you might literally be able to “dodge a bullet” is around 800 yards. You’d need a quarter second to register the tracer coming toward you – at this point the bullet has traveled 200 yards – a quarter second to instruct your muscles to react – the bullet has now traveled 400 yards – and half a second to actually move out of the way.” (Sabastian Junger, War). In the book Just 2 Seconds, Gavin de Becker and Tom Taylor analyzed hundreds of assassination attempts and conclude that in the majority of attacks against public figures, from the moment the attacker decides to act, the assassination attempt is over in less than five seconds.[i] Police officers have long operated with what is called the “Twenty-One Foot Rule.” The main point behind this rule is that a person that is twenty-one feet away from a police officer, and who has decided to do the police officer harm, can cover the distance of twenty-one feet and do harm to the police officer quicker than a police officer can recognize the threat, reach for his pistol, unholster, draw the pistol and fire two rounds to the attacker’s chest (center mass). Studies done by the Force Science Research Center have demonstrated that it takes the average police officer 1.5 seconds to draw a holstered pistol and fire two rounds center mass. The fastest officer took 1.31 seconds to accomplish the action. On the other hand, an average individual can cover twenty-one feet in between 1.5-1.7 seconds, with the fastest covering the distance in 1.27 seconds[ii]. If a police officer, or anyone for that matter, is not suspecting a threat, and does not already have his weapon ready, the attacker has the clear advantage, since even if the police officer can, under a controlled environment, draw his pistol and fire two rounds in less than 1.5 seconds, increased time must be considered for recognition of the threat and deciding to respond to the threat.

The third principle is that proximity increases options.[1] The closer someone is, the more options that person has to do harm to their victim. At one foot away potential weapons include: hand, feet, head, teeth, knife, rock, scissors, etc. The list could go on and on. At ten feet away, the number of potential weapons significantly reduces. Apart from closing the distance, the attacker is basically limited to something that can be thrown or shot. Increase the distance to 100 feet and an attacker is limited to a projectile weapon—if the attacker is good he might be able to hit his target with a pistol. At 1000 feet, an attacker is limited to some type of rifle.

The fourth principle of distance and threats is that proximity affects accuracy. The closer someone is to a target, the less accurate they need to be and the more accurate they will be. Gavin de Becker’s compendium of assassinations demonstrates this. He writes, “attackers who fired handguns at targets within 25 feet usually hit their targets. Attackers who fired handguns at targets farther than 25 feet almost never hit their targets” (Just 2 Seconds, p. 86). It takes more skill to accurately fire a weapon at long distances than it does at short distances. Furthermore, add the effects of stress to a situation and accuracy decreases further the farther one is from a target.

To wrap all of this together, the closer you are to someone who may potentially do harm to you (1) the less your skill matters, (2) the less time you have to react if they intend to harm you, (3) the more options available to them to hurt you, and (4) the less accurate they need to be and the more accurate they will be. What does this mean for trained observers? First, when at all possible have a maximum amount of distance between yourself and your target of observation. Second, if you must be in close proximity with those you are observing, ensure that you are mentally and physically ready to deal with any threats. Third, it is absolutely critical to have someone whose sole job is to provide you security.


[1] Gavin de Becker states this in a negative way: “Distance helps to limit the attack methods available.” (Just 2 Seconds, 86)

[i] (De Becker & Marquart, Just 2 Seconds, 2008, p. 5)

[ii] (Force Science Research Center, 2005)