The 21-Foot “Rule” Doesn’t Exist

February 16, 2016

The word “rule” has been bandied about will-nilly by some in law enforcement over the last 30 years when referring to what should be known as the “Tueller Drill.” And that’s led to some dangerous confusion, especially among the civilian population. It’s a confusion that’s being cynically exploited to get headlines at the moment, and I need to address it head-on.

As the owner of Calibre Press since 2012 (and an instructor since 2002),  I concede that in one section of our venerable Street Survival Seminar we once had a single slide that read “21-foot Rule.” This particular slide was a prompt for subsequent instruction that made clear that this was in no way a “rule.” Nonetheless, perhaps it led to some confusion (for those who didn’t pay attention to what followed). But that was years ago …

Unfortunately, some have sought to conjoin the “21-foot Rule” and Calibre Press. In fact in numerous publications, PERF (the Police Executive Research Forum) has suggested as much. More importantly PERF is giving the impression to people outside of law enforcement, especially those in the media, that the “21-foot Rule,” as allegedly promulgated by Calibre Press, is part of accepted practices in law enforcement nationwide.

This is both disingenuous and wrong.

Some Background

The “21-foot rule” is a bastardized misappropriation of what should be known as the “Tueller Drill.”

In 1983, Dennis Tueller, a trainer and Sergeant for the Salt Lake City PD, wanted to know how quickly a knife-wielding attacker could cover distance. Working from the “7-yard line,” or 21 feet, he timed volunteers as they ran towards police officers who had holstered guns. The result of these drills was enlightening. Tueller demonstrated two distinct realities regarding reaction vs. action.

  1. On average, the knife wielders could cover that 21 feet in a surprisingly quick 1.5 seconds.
  2. For those officers to unholster their weapons, pull their guns, raise their firearms, point/aim and shoot—that took longer than the 1.5 seconds.

The point? Under certain circumstances, a committed attacker can close distances very quickly—quicker than a cop standing still and pulling his/her gun, aiming and shooting. This was revolutionary at the time.

What we learned from the drill wasn’t that we need to shoot anyone who has a knife that’s within that 21 foot range. (If that were true we’d be shooting every waiter and busboy we encounter.) No, what we learned was that we need to rethink our responses to sudden, intense and dynamic attacks.

Although the circumstances of Tueller’s drill were ideal for the “attacker”—flat, even, unobstructed asphalt, and with no real cover options for the officer—the drill exposed fatal flaws in police training of the time. As a result we started teaching specifically that distance and cover are an officer’s best defenses against an edged weapon. Moving “off-line” was emphasized, instead of instinctively backing up.

Bottom line: The takeaway from Tueller’s Drill was about movement and reading body language. It was about the reactionary gap and situational awareness. It was not about shooting per se.   

The Tueller Drill was popularized by an article he wrote for SWAT Magazine entitled “How Close is Too Close?” It became a police training video of the same title shortly thereafter. In 1988, Calibre Press produced a film called “Surviving Edged Weapons” that demonstrated Tueller’s concept. Like many watershed ideas, the concept has been widely misinterpreted in the years that followed.

(Note: According to the 2014 FBI LEOKA report—the most recent with solid numbers, and which certainly under-represents the number of attacks—of the nearly 50,000 officers who reported being assaulted, 951 were attacked with knives.)

Communications Training

There is a huge movement by many organizations in this country right now—PERF, state academies, the ACLU, and so on—that are discouraging any type of “Warrior” training. I’ve been interviewed several times by news organizations who ask, tellingly, whether police officers train too much for combat and not enough in dealing with human beings.

My answer: Yes and no.

Here’s my point: We don’t train enough in either area and when we do, too often we train the wrong way.  On the range we do the minimum to prove we are qualified and when it comes to communication training we are reactive and address interaction skills very narrowly.

I wrote a book entitled Arresting Communication, and we teach a well-received and popular course by the same name. Why it’s popular with the officers who don’t want to attend a “communications course” is because it’s realistic and immediately applicable. It’s not, as a Denver cop recently told me, “hug-a-thug nonsense.” But empathy is at the heart of it.

We address how to develop rapport, the incredible importance of treating people with dignity and respect, calming the irrational, and understanding human beings under crisis and stress. But we also examine body language, statement analysis, pre-attack indicators and detecting deception.

This is the yin and the yang of police work: You can’t have one without the other and consider yourself fit for duty. You just can’t!


And this is what PERF and the other reformer-critics don’t seem to understand. Yes, we need our officers to understand that most people they encounter—the vast, vast majority—have no intention of harming them. And I think we do a pretty good job of this, but we can always do better.

But we also need to train our officers to keep a step ahead of the bad guys: how to communicate, how to move, how to read body movement, and, yes, how to fight. Anything less is a dereliction of our responsibilities as both trainers and guardians of the communities we serve. Sgt. Dennis Tueller made cops safer with his drill. In so doing he made the public safer.

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