Man holding a pistol

Mike Boyle

How important is a reasonably fast draw stroke?

Although modern officer involved shootings bear little semblance to the imaginary gun duels of the Old West, having the ability to quickly bring the gun to bear on a threat remains an essential skill. Danger is unpredictable. What may appear to be everyday citizen contact can erupt into a life-threatening situation in the blink of an eye. In a perfect world, we could instantly evaluate each and every situation, never be surprised and take the appropriate measures. But, reality has a nasty way of kicking us in the teeth and, sometimes, ugly situations unfold before us with little or no warning.

An extensive study of police involved shootings by the NYPD illustrated that, in 70% of the cases reviewed, the officer had prior knowledge of the danger they were about to face. In incidents such as a felony in progress or shots fired, it’s probably wise to respond with the gun in hand. But, can you count on such forewarning? This dynamic is probably somewhat different once you get away from the big city out to suburbia or more rural areas. Situations considered routine, such as motor vehicle stops, can quickly degenerate into gun play. This video of a recent incident which occurred in St. Paul, MN, serves as an exemplary example:      

I wish I could report that law enforcement officers receive extensive training on drawing the handgun from the holster. Sadly, this isn’t always the case. All too often, officers merely get some cursory instructions on holster function, along with the opportunity of a few practice draws and are then considered good to go. Deficiency in technique is rarely corrected and the all too generous time frames of the qualification course allow officers with the most awkward draw stroke to get in under the wire. It’s hardly unusual to see three or even four seconds elapse between the start signal and break of the first shot.

Speed of the draw stroke is further complicated by the use of security holsters for duty use. Make no mistake about it, security holsters are a great idea and have saved cops’ lives, but they do require more training and frequent practice.

Contemporary duty holsters often feature multiple levels of security which must be deactivated before the gun can be removed from the holster. With proper instruction and procedure, even the draw from a Level III security holster can be reasonably fast, but many departments and individual officers simply don’t make the commitment.

Officers working in plainclothes have some very different concerns as the gun is concealed under some sort of covering garment. Range time should include the drawing of the handgun from the holster and the type of clothing actually worn on duty. Yet again, I’ve seen detectives and administrators working out from a duty rig they haven’t worn in years or with the gun not covered at all. 

Steps of the Draw

Efficiently drawing the pistol from the holster remains an essential skill. To cut right to the chase, you can’t fight if your gun is still in the holster. Bad guys don’t play fair and it’s very likely that you’ll be entering the fray from far behind on the power curve.  The faster you can get the gun out and into action, the greater the chance for survival.

For instructional purposes, I’ve been teaching the draw strokes in various steps so as to not overload students with too much information. I explain that, as they progress to a level of unconscious competence, the steps will melt away much like snow on a sunny day. Other instructors and institutions might have a slightly different spin, but the following is the breakdown I use in getting students up to speed on the draw stroke.

Step One – The shooter begins with the body in a slightly bladed position, hands at the side and feet roughly shoulder width apart. On the stimulus, both hands are in motion. The strong hand moves to the holstered pistol and takes a firm and final shooting grip. When drawing from concealment, the covering garment must be swept away prior to gripping the handgun. As the hand comes in contact with the gun, all security measures are released simultaneously. The support hand moves to the body midline at roughly chest level. It is extremely important that both hands are in motion at the same time.

Step Two – The strong hand lifts the gun clear of the holster, but there is little or no forward movement. The wrist of the strong hand should be straight. By now, the support hand has arrived at the body midline at chest level.

Step Three – The strong side elbow is brought to the rear and the gun is lifted to chest height. The support hand now comes in contact with the pistol to complete the shooting grip. At this point, the muzzle is directed forward and the gun is positioned at the high chest, slightly offset toward the shooter’s strong side. The trigger finger enters the trigger guard, although no rearward pressure on the trigger is applied.

Step Four – Extend the arms and drive the gun toward the target. Obtain a reliable index to make a hit. The trigger finger now applies rearward pressure. The set time from arms at full extension to shot break will vary on how far the target is from the shooter.

This formula has served me well for over 30 years. Note that, out in the harsh, real world, you can’t always pick your spot and you may have to draw from a compromised stance or fire with just one hand. But, the steps offered here represent a starting point.

How fast can you go? With just a little practice, I can get new shooters on the gun and establish a shooting grip in under a half second. That includes deactivating the retention measures on their security holster. I can expect both hands on the gun (Step Three) in about 3/4 of a second and gun at eye level in one second or so. They may not nail it every time, but, with a little work, they are looking pretty sharp.

Once shooters have established a degree of proficiency, new dimensions to the draw stroke can be introduced. For starters, I like to mix in a one-hand response and taking a lateral step while drawing. Consider that we spend a good part of the workday in a sitting position. Examples include sitting behind the wheel of the patrol vehicle, at a desk or behind a table on a meal break. Be sure to include a draw from the seated position into your practice regimen. Also consider working a weak hand draw in the event of an injury. With many security holsters, this isn’t easy, but it is possible. It is especially important that practicing the draw stroke should be initially done with an empty gun.  Check it twice!

Recovery to the Holster

There are a number of pitfalls associated with returning the handgun to the holster, but they all can be eliminated with proper training. On the range, get in the habit of scanning 360 degrees before reholstering the handgun. Granted, in the sterile environment of the range, it’s unlikely there are other “threats” in close proximity, but that’s not always the case out on the street. Get in the habit of thinking “plus one.” Just because you took care of one problem, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential threats lurking nearby.

 On the range, holster reluctantly. There are no prizes, ribbons or trophies for the shooter who reholsters the quickest. In a real-world situation, you may not reholster until the cavalry arrives. If the threat is down, it doesn’t necessarily mean he is out. Maintain your vigilance.

I remain a stickler for a one-hand return to the holster and this is true with both duty and concealment rigs. Time and time again, I’ve watched unschooled individuals use the support hand to sweep clothing out of the way or assist in holster return. Inevitably, they sweep the muzzle over the hand or wrist, creating a dangerous situation. Quite frankly, if you need two hands to secure your pistol, it’s time to reconsider your technique or gear.

Recognize that, in a threat management situation, you may need that support hand to push a subject back or access a less-lethal weapon. Having both hands tied up, even for just a few seconds, can be a recipe for disaster.

Other trainers may not agree with this next point, but I feel a squared away shooter should be able to reholster without looking at the gun. I do allow new shooters to take a quick peek, but once we get beyond that basic level, holster return shall be by feel. To the best of my knowledge, no officer has ever been attacked by a B-27 target on the range, but should you take your eyes off a real-life threat, he may see that as an opportunity.

When law enforcement made the big switch from revolvers to pistols, there was a serious spike in incidents when officers shot themselves while reholstering. On the whole, we seem to have turned the corner on that and most everyone understands that the trigger finger must be off the trigger and outside the trigger guard before attempting to reholster. Short trigger action guns are very unforgiving in this regard and I make it a point in all my classes that the finger should be well clear of the trigger when reholstering.

Plainclothes Concerns

Investigators and off-duty cops dressed in plainclothes have an additional hurdle or two to negotiate. Clearly, a gun buried under a layer or two of clothing is going to complicate the process.

 As indicated earlier, range time will be far more productive if you work out with the gun and holster you actually utilize, concealed from view. Anything less would represent only part of the picture.

 Covering garments fall into one of two categories: open front or closed front. To draw from an open front garment, such as a suit jacket, the gun hand sweeps the clothing clear of the gun. Be sure to make a strong, rearward sweep or you’ll likely end up with a handful of fabric instead of your pistol.

 Closed front garments, such as sweatshirts or sweaters, present a different challenge. One popular technique is to reach down with the support hand and pull the edge of the garment up high while the strong hand goes for the gun. That technique will work just fine in many situations, but it comes up short should your adversary be inside of your personal space. Up close and personal, you may need the support side hand and arm to block and parry. If the support arm is down, your head, neck and upper chest are open to attack.

The alternative technique is to have the support side arm available to block while the strong side hand lifts the garment and quickly goes down to draw the gun. It is a tad slower, but it may be the better solution when an opponent is arm’s length away. By all means, practice both techniques.

Holsters Make a Difference

The current crop of holsters for both uniformed duty and plainclothes applications is better than ever. One can choose between various materials, styles and levels of retention to achieve an optimum balance between performance and comfort. However, I would caution that there is no perfect holster which suits everyone and factors such as body type, gender and mission at hand all come into play. In short, ill-fitting holsters can be uncomfortable and make for a very inefficient draw.

 Let’s consider duty holsters first. For years, duty holsters have been available in different ride heights and rakes. A mid-ride holster is often the best choice for male officers as it positions the gun on the duty belt for an efficient draw. That same type of holster on a female officer may be the proverbial train wreck because the butt of the gun is too high on the torso, compromising both comfort and draw efficiency.

 Many cops won’t hesitate to pay top dollar for a handgun used for concealed carry, but will cut corners on purchasing a holster for the same. Your plainclothes holster should be comfortable, relatively secure, durable, allow for an efficient draw stroke, and conceal the gun under the type of clothing worn. By all means, avoid the cheap chicken skin clip-ons which collapse when the gun is drawn, making a one-hand return impossible.

I find myself in the minority when it comes to concealment holsters in that I do not prefer the FBI-style rake where the gun butt is angled forward and the muzzle is to the rear. Instead, my choice runs to either a neutral rake with the gun straight up and down, or a forward rake with the muzzle angled slightly forward. Yes, it does make the gun a little more difficult to conceal, but I find I can draw much faster.

Female officers often have to put up with plainclothes holsters which are totally unsuitable. Fortunately, there are a few manufacturers turning out quality holsters ideally suited for the female form. Performance and comfort are significantly better than most of the off-the-rack holsters.

Holsters do indeed make a big difference. If we devoted just a fraction of the time we spend selecting our guns to choosing holsters, we will be far better off.

Get Busy

One does not need to go to the range to practice holster skills. Draw practice can be accomplished just about anywhere, including in your own home. Find a quiet spot free of distractions and make sure there is no live ammunition in the immediate area. Before commencing with practice, be absolutely sure your handgun is empty (check it twice). Even though you have double-checked your gun, consider the background where you will be pointing your handgun. If by chance you are interrupted, check your gun again before resuming practice.

At first, strive for a picture-perfect draw with no extra movements. At best, we are moving at halt speed so we can do some self-assessment on form. When you are confident all is well, go a little bit faster and continue checking your form to make sure no superfluous movements have entered into the mix. Finally, push the gas pedal all the way to the floor and add a trigger press. Check your surroundings, take a deep breath and recover to the holster.

I remain convinced that short, frequent sessions of no more than a few minutes are better than an occasional marathon. Strive for smooth rather than fast and speed will come with time. As you get more comfortable, you can add in a lateral step as you draw. As with all psychomotor skills, practice continues to favor the prepared individual.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.