As you reach out to retrieve your receipt from the ATM, the evening air makes you shiver. It’s been a long, hard day, and you’re glad it’s almost over. Just one more stop at the all-night grocery store. …
“All right, scumbag! Give me your money and your keys!”
Startled, you turn at the sound of the voice, the content of the man’s words not yet registering in your brain. He’s about 20, unshaven and dirty. He smells bad and looks like he’s on drugs. Your eyes survey his body, and your surprise turns to shock as you detect the gun in his trembling, tattooed hand.
Moment of Truth
That type of scenario has played out countless times, with both accomplished martial artists and armed off-duty police officers in the role of the victim. The situation carries with it some dynamics that cannot be answered with a speedy fast-draw or a spinning back kick. To survive such an encounter, you must understand several things about the realities of human conflict at close quarters.
Primarily, you must have your “warrior mind” in place. Winning a real fight requires controlled violence. You must be able to call up your “dragon” and become a fierce, feral creature instead of the domesticated human being you were raised to be. If you’re not emotionally and psychologically prepared to rip your adversary’s heart out of his chest and barbecue it in front of his fading eyes, don’t try anything. Give him what he wants and hope for the best.
Even if you would never choose to stand up to a gun, there are scenarios in which you might be compelled to do so. For such situations, it's beneficial to know how you might solve this problem.
First, I’m not claiming that any secret skills, ancient art or trendy technique can withstand a bullet. Any martial artist who thinks otherwise has been smoking too much rice paper. But I am claiming that if you understand your adversary’s motivation, you have a better chance of defeating him if you’re forced to fight.
If the criminal wanted to kill you, he would just walk up to you and shoot you without warning. Regardless of how many years of training you have or how many arts you know, you will never be able to defend against that. If it’s your day to die, there’s not much you can do except go out with style.
The hoodlum in the story — like most people who will point a gun at you, as opposed to simply shooting you — does so for reasons of intimidation. His objective is to place you in a position of tactical disadvantage and “bargain” with you for something he wants. The bargain is typically that if you do as he says, he won’t kill you. His intent provides you with the opening you need.
Let’s look at the two men in the story in a simplified way: The hoodlum has the pistol pointed at the hero. The hero is surprised. The hoodlum makes his demands, then waits for the expected response. In essence, the hoodlum is in “pause,” waiting for the “return” of the hero. The hero can go either way at this point: comply or fight. If he understands the dynamics of human reaction time, he has a better chance of prevailing.
Every conflict, whether between countries or individuals, is a cycle in which each party observes the other, orients himself according to those observations, decides on a course of action and finally puts that decision into action. Called the OODA loop, it’s the theory of conflict professed by the late Col. John Boyd.
Boyd was responsible for creating many of the aerial-combat tactics now employed throughout the free world. His findings resulted from projects and studies he conducted on the success American pilots had over their North Korean adversaries in the Asian unpleasantness of the 1950s. Boyd theorized that although the North Koreans had certain technical advantages with their airplanes, American pilots could generally see their adversaries first because of their planes’ cockpit design.
They could immediately recognize them as enemies and decide what to do more quickly because of their recognition training, as well as their flight training. And the controls on the American airplanes allowed them to put those decisions into play more rapidly than the North Koreans.
This allowed them to complete a decision-action cycle more efficiently than their adversaries. Boyd then theorized that in any conflict — whether between nations or individuals — the party that can go through the observation-orientation-decision-action loop more quickly enjoyed a remarkable advantage over the competition.
That aerial-combat concept also applies to personal combat. Studies have determined that even for a prepared individual, each phase of the OODA cycle takes at least 1/4th of a second. That means you may have up to one full second to act before the other fellow even realizes what you’re doing. And then he has to select a viable response to your actions and employ it.
Studies involving students at Suarez International, the training establishment I founded, support this concept. Armed with “marking cartridge” firearms, two operators of comparable skill level faced each other at arm’s length. Operator No. 1 (the aggressor) was told to command his opponent to put his hands up, as the thug in the story might do. Operator No. 2 (the defender) was told that as soon as he thought he could do it, he should quickly move into the first portion of a disarm. The aggressor was told that when he saw the other man move, he should fire.
In the experiments, the aggressor had every advantage. He had the pistol already pointed at the defender, his finger was on the trigger and the hammer was cocked. Furthermore, he was familiar with the technique the defender would use, and he knew that the defender would not comply. The odds were obviously in his favor. The results were revealing and supportive of Boyd’s concepts. Out of 10 tries, the defender was able to deflect the muzzle of the pistol and trap it in a single move before the aggressor could fire every time.
Lesson learned: All things being equal, action beats reaction.
If you understand how to take advantage of the dynamics of human reaction time, you can implement your responses and countermeasures before your adversary has even realized what you’re doing. This doesn’t require you to be particularly fast or technically proficient. All you need is a tactically correct, preconditioned move that’s simple to use, violent in nature and technically correct for the situation.
Story by Gabriel Suarez. He holds black-belt rank in kyokushinkai karate, chung mu kwan taekwondo and hapkido. He’s also studied kali, ship pal ki and jeet kune do.
* Black Belt does not recommend resisting an armed attacker when the only thing that person wants is a physical possession that can be replaced.