Imagine with me. Imagine that you are in some public place, walking on a street late at night, in your favorite convenience store at an un-busy time, or headed toward your parked car. Your legal, licensed handgun is with you. Imagine that you are accosted by a thug with a knife or a gun. Imagine that you can’t get away, and the situation escalates. Imagine the scene, in detail, all the way through the part where you have to shoot him. Imagine the immediate aftermath.

This kind of mental preparation and rehearsal is an important part of the self-training of any responsible armed citizen. Imagining yourself in a variety of situations is a kind of practice that helps you to internalize the lessons you have learned on the range, to better prepare yourself in case you are ever in the kind of life-threatening situation we all want to avoid.

Now, go back to the scene you just invented in your mind. Did you envision yourself standing in one place from the time the thug appeared to the moment you pulled that mental trigger, and for long enough afterward to be sure he was down?

If you are like most people, you learned to shoot standing in one place on the range. You go through a whole box of practice rounds without moving your feet. You will do in reality, and in imagination, what you have done in practice, and if all of your shooting has been from a single position, that is doubtless what you saw yourself doing in your imaginary encounter.

Unfortunately, that can get you killed.

Suppose your attacker has chosen a place from which you can’t retreat or escape. There may be some cover nearby. If there is, by all means, go for it at top speed!! Cover is a good thing – 95% of police officers who reach cover during a gun battle emerge unharmed.

So, should you shoot while you are moving toward cover? It is tempting to think so, but unless you have had an enormous amount of training and practice, it is more likely to be a waste of ammo than a useful tactic. Shooting a stationary target while you are on the move is not impossible, but it is a technique that is reserved for advanced classes at the best shooting academies. Your attacker, particularly if he has a knife or a tire iron or some other contact weapon, isn’t going to be standing still, and shooting a moving target while you are moving is so difficult that it should not be part of your defensive plans.

So, should you move after you fire? Most of us can easily imagine shooting first, and then running for cover, for escape, or for the police. However, remember that he was attacking you before you were justified in responding with lethal force. Most firearms schools teach “action beats reaction,” which means that if the two of you are facing one another like a Main Street showdown in “High Noon” he will be able to shoot, stab, or club you before you have time to draw your gun and fire.

So, should you move before you shoot? Yes, this is the tactic that pays off in so many situations that you want to ingrain it in your behavior, your practice, and your mental imagery.

How much movement does it take? Not much at all. We’re not talking about trying to outrun a bullet here. All you have to do is not be where you were when the assailant saw you and decided to shoot. That only takes a couple of steps.

If there is no close cover, simply move a step or two to the side as you draw your own gun. This hardly sounds like a life-saving maneuver, but it is. It takes you off the line of force, making it very likely that your assailant’s shot (or knife thrust, or club, or fist) will miss you. It gives you time to draw your weapon, and then you can either (depending on your level of skill) shoot while continuing to move, or stop after your weapon is drawn and shoot from your new position, then move again.

Skip Gochenour, the founder of the American Tactical Shooting Association, runs a study group that regularly tests various tactics in realistic situations. He says, “For several years now the ATSA Study Group has tested and retested a technique that regularly gives the same results. Antagonist and defender are placed at 4 ft. Both are placed in a confined area 7 ft by 7 ft. When the assailant produces a weapon the defender steps to a 45 degree angle as he produces his own weapon. Invariably the attacker gets off the first shot. Each time we do the test we see that 50% to 75% of the time the attacker misses his first shot. If the defender continues to step to the 45, again changing the angle of attack, the attacker regularly misses on follow-up shots. Our conclusion is that even small amounts of movement that changes the geometry of the attack can be helpful.”

Hmmm. A couple of steps to the side turns a dead certainty, if you’ll pardon the phrase, of being killed or injured into a scenario where you have at least even odds of survival, and perhaps an excellent chance of being unhurt. Sure sounds good to me!

Think of the sports you’ve played in which sudden lateral movement is key, such as tennis, basketball, or soccer. In a place where you have plenty of room to move safely, try a couple of steps to the side as if you were playing that game, and with empty hands pantomime drawing your gun as you do so. Practice until you can smoothly and reliably end up in a stable shooting position.

Also practice moving after you shoot as well as before. If your rhythm is “Move! Shoot! Move!” with the barest of pauses just long enough for you to get off a few well-aimed rounds, you will make yourself an incredibly hard target, while still being able to unleash a devastating counterattack.

The next time you are at an outdoor range to practice, start getting in the habit of taking a step to one side or the other before you shoot, and afterward, if that is allowed by the range rules. (Many indoor ranges will prohibit such movement, particularly on an angle.) If you can’t move when you live-fire, at least make it part of your dry-fire practice. It will take a while to break the “stand and shoot” habit, but you will know you have succeeded when, in all your mental imaging of potential shooting situations, you picture yourself moving before you shoot.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns magazine, Nov-Dec 2000, Copyright © 2000, Lyn Bates