Reaction Time – Police Shooting Study

Is it reasonable for police officers to shoot a suicidal man holding a gun to his own head?  A new reaction time study clearly illustrates how dangerous an armed suspect is to responding officers.

The study headed by J. Pete Blair, Ph.D. examined the reaction time of police officers when confronting a subject armed with a handgun.  The results are eye opening, confirming what many of us already knew from running similar drills in our own training classes.

Essentially, Blair took experienced SWAT officers (average 10 years on the job, 5 years on a team) and ran them against criminal justice students.  In the scenarios, the SWAT officers were sent to a “man with a gun” call, and encountered one of the students at a distance of about 10 feet.

In the scenarios, the officers already had their gun pointed at the suspect.  The suspect, however, had their pistol pointed either at the ground or at their own head appearing ready to commit suicide.  The officers were instructed to shoot the suspect as soon as the suspect made a move to shoot the officer.

Study Results

The results were not good.

The suspects were able to get their first shot off at the officer in an average of just 0.38 seconds.  The highly trained officers lagged behind with an average time to first shot of 0.39 seconds.

Reaction TimeIf you believe 0.01 seconds to be an insignificant measurement, look at it this way:  the study showed the inexperienced suspects shot first or exactly tied the highly trained and experienced officers 60% of the time.  Not good.

Two things to keep in mind about this study – the conditions and suspect incapacitation.

Ideal Conditions – This reaction time study was conducted in ideal conditions for the officers.  The SWAT cops went into the scenario knowing they would encounter an armed subject, and they knew they would likely shoot the suspect.

Additionally, there were no outside distractions, the suspect was not moving and the suspect made no attempt to deceive the officer by feigning compliance.  Also, the testing was done in full light, not the low light conditions we often work in.

Lastly, none of the officers reported perceptual narrowing or other distortions associated with body alarm response.

All of these things could drastically alter officer reaction times.

Incapacitation – Even if the officers are a fraction of a second faster, how long does it take for bullets to incapacitate a suspect?  If the suspect is hit center mass, it will take a few seconds for massive blood loss to render the suspect unable to shoot you.  So an officer that is twice as fast as the suspect may not be in less danger from being shot.


This study does not give law enforcement the “go ahead” to shoot all armed suspects.  But, the study does reinforce the notion that you cannot react quick enough to beat an act.  In other words, you are behind the curve when it comes to confronting armed suspects.  “Being fast” isn’t likely to ensure survival.

Remember that distance is your friend.  If you are already aiming at a subject who suddenly points a gun at you, you may be slightly slower, but you are also likely to be more accurate.  The longer the distance, the less accurate they are and the more accurate you can be.

The suspect is also less likely to hit you if you are properly using cover.

No matter what you do, make sure your actions conform to department policy and the law.  For those just joining us, Graham v. Connor is the “touchstone” for the reasonable use of force.  But, Graham is mostly a restating of Tennessee v. Garner.

Plus, there have been dozens (hundreds?) of cases since then in the federal appellate courts that have further refined Graham v. Connor.  Read a few of them to get a better idea of how the courts look at police use of force.  Your freedom could depend on it.

Additional information:

The following two tabs change content below.


Publisher at BlueSheepdog
Richard Johnson is a gun writer, police trainer and really bad joke teller. Check out his other writing on sites like Human Events, The Firearm Blog and Police & Security News.

Latest posts by Richard (see all)

  • Bouffière

    Innovation training shooting « Progress’Tir » (French systeml) gives you the possibility to analyse with best precision the reactivity of the shooter on both neuronal reaction time and time of execution (movement) :

    Ex : Weapon in the holster
    (TR) Reaction time: 0.243 s
    (TM) Motion time: 0.722 s
    (TT) Total time (TR +TM) : 0.965 s

    Gun in the holster Average group time Shoot time
    Shoot time before training : 1.366 s
    Shoot time after training : 1.099 s
    Gun in the holster 18 % Average improvement from the group

    Gun in hand Average group time Shoot time
    Shoot time before training 0.955 s
    Shoot time after training 0.695 s
    Gun in hand 25.85 % Average improvement from the group

    Gun in hand Average group time Shoot time
    Shoot time before training : 1,449 s
    Shoot time after training : 0,763 s
    Gun in hand 43 % Average improvement for the group


    Improvements made while training can be from one tenth or on hundredth of second… It may seems tiny. But if we improve our responding time and our physical execution speed, we will as well increment survival chances.

    Statistical studies show that most of the time, Police Forces use their gun to shoot against their assailants in short distance (usually less than 10 meters /32.8084 feet)

    Therefore, if we gain 3 hundredth of seconds, the shot bullet has enough time to cover the 10 meters/32.8084 feet gap between the shooter and his assailant before this last-mentioned even had time to shoot.

    On average, with specific training, the gained response time is about :
    – 0,30 s for the special unit
    – 0,60 s for the fresh military police

    We become aware with the board that, it is necessary to train to react fast. It can allow me to save myself the life or that of my team-mates.

    Gael Boufière


    • Aaron

      Thank you Gael. This information is outstanding, and a great study to our readers!