Science of gun duels

In the gun duels of Hollywood Westerns, the one who draws first (usually the bad guy) always tends to lose. Why? Decades ago, Nobel laureate Niels Bohr claimed that would likely be the case in a real duel too because the cowboy who draws second would have a reactive advantage -- the person reacting "without thinking" moves quicker than the person who consciously draws first. Indeed, new research on the matter by University of Birmingham psychologist Andrew Welchman suggests that the brain's wiring evolved such that reactive movements are faster than voluntary ones. However, Welchman says that this doesn't mean the Hollywood cliche is based in reality. In experiments he ran where players competed by hitting a series of buttons rather than firing on one another, the reaction time -- the delay between a stimulus and execution of a response -- negated the reactive advantage. From New Scientist:
 Local--Files Gun-Fight Gun-Fight There was a "reaction time"... delay of 200 milliseconds before the players started to respond to their opponent's actions. So although they moved faster, they never won.

The only way the last guy to draw could win is if the reactive part of the brain makes him move so fast that the time it takes him to draw, plus his reaction time, is less than the time it takes the first guy just to draw.

"It would be hard to get fast enough to recover the time it takes to react to your opponent," says Welchman. He thinks fast reactions evolved for avoiding unexpected danger, or for confrontations in which animals are in a face-off, and the second to move needs speed.

Indeed, Welchman's "reactive" players hit the buttons less accurately than the "intentional" players, another reason fast reactions may not win gunfights.

"Draw! The neuroscience behind Hollywood shoot-outs"


  1. There’s a lot said in martial arts about hitting without thinking, certainly without overthinking. Great zen koan by Yogi Berra: “How can you think and hit at the same time?” I would guess the more complicated the move, the more important it may be to rely on reactive reflex vs. deliberate prompted movement.

  2. Accuracy of the shot isn’t mentioned which is a shame.

    In my mind, the tactics of a gunfight are to maximise your accuracy while minimising the number of accurate shots your opponent makes.

    If you rush into your first shot you’ll probably miss, giving your opponent time to take an accurate shot and hit you. So you either wait for him to make that mistake, or learn how to accurately + quickly shoot from the hip so that the first shot can hit him. If you can shoot first without him reacting fast enough maybe you can get two accurate shots off and increase your chances.

    Lastly, your tactics will have to change based on distance and your ability relative to your opponant. Accuracy matters more when you’re far away and closely matched.

    I’m interested in the rules of wild west gun duels. If it’s a matter of honour I can understand why the men stand still and shoot from the hip. But Hollywood has portrayed them happening when honour is not at stake.

      1. Hollywood duels also happen between theiving outlaws and justice seeking marshalls. Surely some outlaws are less interested in honour than getting away alive to continue outlawin’?

  3. TYT – Take *Your* Time

    (William Burroughs’ admonition to draw and fire as quickly as you can do so accurately, but no faster.)

    1. “draw and fire as quickly as you can do so accurately, but no faster”

      That’s just a platitude. Obviously you shoot accurately, the question is how accurately. If you take more time aiming than necessary you’re just as dead as someone who missed.

      Does anyone have access to the methodology the experimenter used, other than what’s in the article? Did he just assume that the person who shoots second is ‘reacting’ unthinkingly?

    2. Easy for Burroughs to say. The only person he ever shot was his baby momma in a game of William Tell.

  4. I would think it has more to do with the amount of practice and level of skill of the participants. I.e. if you’re just looking at this button sequence for the first time and you’re expected to react, then sure you’re going to lose to the person hitting it first. But if you’re done it hundreds of times then it’s more likely that you’d do better.

    But my main problem with it is that hitting a button sequence is so different from aiming and firing a gun that I just don’t think you can apply the results to a hypothetical gun battle. It’s a data point, to be sure, but not a very strong one.

  5. I would think they could of conducted this experiment with paint ball guns instead of a computer simulation.

  6. Have there ever been any documented cases of that kind of a duel, with quickdrawing six shooters like that?

  7. I’ve always wanted to make a set of dueling paintball pistols. Single shot revolvers with a nice wood and velvet case.

  8. I don’t follow. It has been known for a long time that reaction, or “reflex” as it’s commonly known, is much faster than thinking. It’s even been studied that the neural signals that causes reflexive action don’t even go all the way to the thinking part of the brain before the body responds.

    And yeah, obviously this makes sense. And the concept of it has been used to train for everything athletic for as long as people have trained for athletics. If you had to think for every action, well, humans would not have survived in the animal world.

  9. There would nt be much to do in the olkd west so I imagine those cowboys would have naught much to do but sit around the campsite practicing drawing their guns and doing trick shots. It would have to be second nature to them so its not a stretch to assume they all have a broadly similar aiming time and they all hit their target more often than not. Its who reacts quickest from the get go. This would be a test of speed not skill.

  10. I think the Hollywood stereotype is designed to show how superhumanly (if a hero) or inhumanly (if a villain) fast the second shooter is. In other words, that even though the other guy drew first, the second shooter is so superior that he fires first anyway. Despite drawing second, not because of it.

    1. Also true heroes can’t shoot first because then they’d be the aggressor. It’s the wild west version of action villians always falling to their death.

  11. There’s another dynamic of gun duels, though, that has been missed in the article and this discussion, if what I learned from watching Wyatt Earp in the 1950s is true: the one who draws second is acting in self defense, and if he survives, he wins, no matter what. The one who draws first, loses if he loses, but if he “wins” he loses, also, because after that he gets hung as a murderer. That’s why they didn’t just draw as quickly as possible, trying to be first one to draw and fire. I don’t think any sense of fair play came into it.

    That’s what I learned from TV, anyway.

    1. My understanding, drawn from similar sources, is that if both men have their guns out, it’s not murder. Hence gunslingers always goading each other to “draw”. Or as Rooster Cogburn put it, “Fill your hands, you sonofabitch!”

      Also, West of the Pecos, shooting someone was sometimes justifiable if that person just plain needed killin’. (The Low-down Scum-bellied Critter clause.)

  12. I remember reading something somewhere about Wyatt Earp not being particularly fast on the draw. Mostly he was unflappable under fire and accurate when he got his shot off. So while he didn’t necessarily shoot first he usually hit his target. Though I’m not sure if this is truth or legend since I can’t remember the source.

  13. There a several other considerations gunfighters had, many involving “Do I shoot at all?”
    1) How fast is the other guy? Unlike just pushing a button, drawing, aiming, and shooting is a complex action. Some people are faster than others.
    2) How good a shot is the other guy?
    3) How good is his gun?
    4) Is this worth the trouble? Dead men have no need for honor, money, or anything else.
    5) Which way to I run? If shots go wild, it’s time to duck and cover, but don’t.
    6) Can I frighten the other guy into thinking I’m faster or better or it’s not worth it.
    7) Anybody else with a gun pointed at me?

    And remember, these guys were continually winnowing the slow and incompetent out. Those that were unusually good at this game lasted longer, making all of gun fighting all the more intense.

  14. Surely this has more to do with the Fight or Flight response. I’m sure the person drawing second has a higher adrenaline release out of self preservation

  15. As a couple others have pointed out, the logistics of gun duels in TV and movies has more to do with storytelling than physics. The hero kills in self-defense, not as the aggressor, and he is so fast or so steely that he doesn’t need to draw first to win.
    You see a similar thing in samurai movies: the hero often refuses to draw his sword, trying to prevent loss of life until the villain attacks and forces his hand, but then prevails with his superior speed and skill anyway.

    1. It gets down to fisticufs, same principle. The hero will, depending on what the director is aiming for, either take a hit voluntarily, block the hit or evade the hit. Only then will he hit *back*.

  16. “Let us now apply D.E. to a simple test: the old Western quick-draw gunfight. Only one gun fighter ever really grasped the concept of DE and that was Wyatt Earp. Nobody ever beat him. Wyatt Earp said: It’s not the first shot that counts. It’s the first shot that hits. Point is to draw aim and fire and deliver the slug an inch above the belt buckle

    That’s DE. How fast can you do it and get it done?

    It is related that a young boy once incurred the wrath of Two Gun McGee. McGee has sworn to kill him and is even now preparing himself in a series of saloons. The boy has never been in a gunfight and Wyatt Earp advises him to leave town while McGee is still two saloons away. The boy refuses to leave.

    “All right” Earp tells him “You can hit a circle four inches square at six feet can’t you? all right take your time and hit it.” Wyatt flattens himself against a wall calling out once more “Take your time, kid.”

    (How fast can you take your time, kid?)

    At this moment McGee bursts through the door a .45 in each hand spittin lead all over the town. A drummer from St. Louis is a bit slow hitting the floor and catches a slug in the forehead. A boy peacefully eating chop suey in the Chinese restaurant next door stops a slug with his thigh.

    Now the kid draws his gun steadies it in both hands aims and fires at six feet hitting Two Gun McGee squarely in the stomach. The heavy slug knocks him back against the wall. He manages to get off one last shot and bring down the chandelier. The boy fires again and sends a bullet ripping through McGee’s liver and another through his chest.”

    – William S Burroughs from “The Discipline of D.E. (Do Easy)”

  17. There are two related phenomena I’m personally very familiar with:

    – catching something being tossed to me when I’m not expecting it and am not looking in that direction until the last split second when the movement catches my eye.

    – catching something that’s about to fall off a table or counter, with the similar condition that I’m not looking in that direction until the movement catches my eye.

    I’ve assumed that the most significant feature to these occurrences is that there’s something unusually effective about response time and accuracy when I’m not looking directly at a moving object. Which suggests to me that peripheral vision has some unique characteristics. If I were a psychologist I’d research that.

    The most I’ve done is to try out a strategy while driving around the city of Winnipeg. Whenever I’m stopped at a red light, I wait for the light to change while looking away from the light, far enough at least that peripheral vision kicks in. I always pull away first ;-)

  18. I think that the way Hollywood westerns depicted gun duels was based on other considerations. First, the good guy has to win. Second, if the good guy shoots someone who hasn’t made an aggressive move, he isn’t a good guy. Solution: the bad guy always draws first, but because the good guy is awesome, he instantaneously reacts and kills his opponent in justifiable self-defense.

  19. I still say the best way to prevail in a gunfight is to make sure you’re standing behind your opponent.

  20. Memory is hazy, could be completely wrong, but I think Musashi wrote that the one who commits to the strike first has lost.

  21. Little Bill Daggett: You see, the night that Corky walked into the Blue Bottle, and before he knows what’s happening, Bob here takes a shot at him! And he misses, ’cause he’s so damn drunk. Now that bullet whizzing by panicked old Corky, and he did the wrong thing. He went for his gun in such a hurry that he shot his own damn toe off. Meantime Bob here, he’s aiming real good, and he squeezes off another, but he misses, because he’s still so damn drunk, and he hits this thousand-dollar mirror up over the bar. And now, the Duck of Death is as good as dead. Because Corky does it right. He aims real careful, no hurry, and… BAM! That Walker Colt blew up in his hand, which was a failing common to that model. You see, if old Corky had had two guns instead of just a big dick, he’d would have been there right to the end to defend himself.

  22. Bushwhackers draw first and shoot first, before the opponent even realizes that he’s being attacked. It’s called tactics. Not honorable, just practical.

  23. pacifism makes you a better fighter. no question. actively calming yourself clears your mind. it’s really the only way.

    1. The point of “clearing the mind”, aka “reacting without thinking” is that there are trained, practised reactions that fill the gap instead of overthinking.

      As I understand it, this is what military training and martial arts training is all about: continuous, longterm repetition, to get muscle memory that means you can react to attacks without needing to take the time to puzzle out the correct reaction.

      Pacifism and calmness doesn’t help in creating those “combat reflexes”. A lack of panic probably helps to bring them to the fore, but not calmness: an excited, adrenaline-fueled lack of panic would allow for faster reflexes. A thing that calmly lets you attack it is more commonly known as a punchbag.

      [Full disclosure: I myself am a committed pacifist, probably because I’m a wuss: I have no combat reflexes, but I do have social reflexes. When mugged, I have relied on my social skills to get out unharmed, no poorer, and with both myself and the mugger smiling. So far, it’s worked.]

  24. i once showed up to a hoedown with my six-shooter because i read the flyer wrong. boy was MY face red!

  25. I don’t think this test actually resolves the issue, because it doesn’t pit the two people against one another the way a gunfight does. In a fight situation, the second person is not responding just to the first one drawing a gun, but also to the various clues that they’re going to draw the gun. Also, the way the second person reacts can often put the first one off their game — something that I doubt comes into play with button pushing.

    I haven’t done this with guns, but I have done it a lot with wooden swords, and I guarantee you I can respond faster than someone attacks. And I’m not particularly fast. It’s not speed of move, it’s knowing when to move, moving efficiently, and catching the attacker slightly off guard.

    Level of skill matters, obviously. I can also attack and win, too, depending on who I’m training with.

    I suggest they redo the test using shinai (bamboo practice swords that won’t kill you if they hit you on the head) and trained martial artists of varying levels of skill, and see what happens. The human factor matters.

    (Hollywood, I’m sure, does it solely for dramatic effect and never thought about whether it really worked or not.)

  26. Often the setup in a western is the first to draw brings the pistol up in a full extension to fire while the second reacts by shooting from the hip. The first is a slower but more accurate method. Generally, in the context of the movie the second to draw has unexpectedly far more skill. The classic situation is more one of psychologically besting your overconfident opponent than of any specific advantage to shooting second. Plus, it makes for a better story. Now Han and Greedo… not even George Lucas can make up his mind who shot first.

  27. The one thing that hasn’t been discussed is how easy is it for the first shooter to change his aim quickly once he’s committed to the draw.

    You’d think that as he is reacting, the second shooter would move and end up not being where the first shooter intends to shoot. I am assuming it is easier to hit a stationary target from the move than hitting one that moves suddenly.

    The first shooter might also be slower to move, being anxious to leverage his advantige and make his shot, while the second shooter might prioritize not getting shot over hitting the first shooter.

    After that, if neither is hit, it would be a matter of nerves as well as accuracy. Can you face the fire and make your shot count?


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