Survival Skills in an Active Killer Scenario

Since John and I went live with the blog in May of 2015, there have been many mass shootings in the United States.  The mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the Dallas, Texas police shooter, the Las Vegas shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting in Florida, and the recent shootings on a Brooklyn subway train, at a Buffalo grocery store, Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the shooting at the Greenwood Park Mall in Indiana all shock our collective consciousness.  I am not sure if there truly are more happening today than in years past (changing the definition of what exactly constitutes a “mass shooting” does not help), but suffice is to say that they are much too frequent for my liking. 

Of course, I recognize that the chances of being caught up in one of these events is even less likely than some sort of “street-crime”.  Nevertheless, given the near decade I have now spent on a personal quest to increase my chances for survival in violent encounters, and give my particular interest in these mass casualty events (I’ve been kind of obsessed ever since a man announced to his wife “I’m going to hunt humans”, drove to a San Ysidro McDonalds with a shotgun, Uzi carbine, and 9mm pistol, and killed over a twenty patrons in 1984), I thought it might be useful for our readers to consider skills and training that might prove useful should they find themselves in the midst of such carnage. 

Other than the first of these skills/attributes, they are presented in no particular order. In addition, the following list should be considered a primer rather than exhaustive. The goal here is to provide frames of reference and perhaps chart a training path forward for our readers.

Physical Conditioning

As noted above, while I am not presenting the rest of this list in any particular order, I feel like this has to be number one, possibly for all aspects of self-defense, and it is a topic I have covered before

My first goal is survival.  In a mass-shooting, getting away—depending on circumstances—should probably be our priority.  Being more fit allows for this.  Running fast, far, or simply to cover; climbing steps; scaling a fence; breaching a door or even a wall in order to escape, would all be made easier with better fitness.  One must also keep in mind that a number of mass shootings have ended when people went “hands-on” with the assailant.  Being fit in a physical confrontation can pay big dividends. Finally, it may be necessary to change positions in order to engage the active killer with fire. Flanking the assailant or moving so as to avoid hitting innocents, while involving other skills outlined below, may require some quick physical exertion. Be fit.

Long-range Accuracy

As we saw with the recent shooting at Greenwood Park Mall in suburban Indianapolis, being able to engage a threat with a handgun at atypical distances (that is, beyond the “3 shots at 3 yards in 3 seconds” mantra) could be of huge importance.  Indeed, I have written before about the benefits of training at distance

Elisjsha Dicken was not alone in his ability to make such hits. In 1994, Andy Brown, a military policeman at the time, ended a mass-shooting by an AK-wielding madman at Fairchild Air Force Base with two 9mm rounds fired from his issue Beretta M9. He got his two hits at a distance of 70 yards. Indeed, the second shot was a headshot that killed the gunman. This after first peddling at maximum speed on his patrol bicycle about three-tenths of a mile (see “Physical Conditioning” above) in order to get to where the gunman was located (this is outlined in Brown’s own excellent book “Warnings Unheeded: Twin Tragedies at Fairchild Air Force Base”).

Andy Brown

While “Dicken Drills” have begun to appear all over the net, my training group tried our own version.  We set up IDPA targets at 40 yards.  We then did 30 seconds of body weight squats.  On the beep, we had 15 seconds to get as many solid hits as possible, standing, unsupported.  My first time through the drill, I got off three rounds:

We taped the targets and tried again.  My second time, I got off five rounds:

Would these have done the trick?  Most of those are decent hits. These shots were all made with my carry Glock 19 (set up as per this article) firing Federal 124 grain FMJ.

Shooting From Unconventional Positions

Dicken was apparently smart and engaged from a crouched or kneeling position using either a trash can or a support pillar as a combination of support and cover/concealment.  Standing up in your best USPSA stance may not be the best way to take on an active shooter.  I believe the aforementioned Andy Brown fired from a kneeling position to steady his aim and reduce his silhouette.  Keep in mind that, depending on venue, you might have to engage from the seated position; from prone; from over, under, or alongside cover; or from any of a myriad of other positions. As noted above, shooting from such unorthodox positions may be done in order to shoot from cover/concealment or to prevent the hitting of innocents (e.g. kneeling down so as to take an upward trajectory shot in case of a shoot-through).

I could perhaps include under this heading some sort of CQB/Fighting in Structures training.  Though obviously not all of these events occur indoors (the recent Highland Park, Illinois, Independence Day parade shooting being an outlier here), most seem to.  Regardless, learning about angles and movement would certainly not hurt your efforts.

Cover vs. Concealment

Knowing the difference between cover and concealment—as well as how to use either or both—could prove critical in these scenarios.  During a recent trip to our local mall (I don’t frequent malls, but my daughter is now of “that age”, so I was the escort), I took my time in checking out some of the structures and other items in common areas of the mall.  Many things that LOOK like cover (by definition:  something that stops bullets) are not.  Some structures in the mall that look like heavy support beams and columns are more ornamental, perhaps with a central piece of steel but surrounded by the equivalent of drywall.  Large planters may or may not provide cover (some have fake plants and so do not require real soil within the planter). 

Pay particular attention to areas you frequent and can take the time to investigate, such as your workplace.  In addition, having taken several vehicle tactics classes, I now have a much better idea of what is and is not “cover” when using a vehicle as a shield. 

Trauma Medicine

Chances are, people are going to be shot or otherwise injured in such an event.  Whether you neutralized the subject or someone else did, it may be quite some time before professional medical personnel arrive on the scene.  As always, you are your own first responder (has Uvalde not confirmed this for everyone already?).  Having the knowledge and the tools on hand to self-treat, treat loved ones in your care, and treat other innocents injured by the assailant can mean the difference between life and death. 

Weapon Disarms

As noted above, a number of these active-shooter events over the years were ended not by return fire, but by people going “hands-on” with the assailant.  Learning and practicing disarms (practice on long guns and on handguns) can be yet another tool in the proverbial tool-box.

Weapon Malfunctions

Piggybacking on weapon disarms, learning all about firearms malfunctions could also be handy.  In MANY of these active-killer events (the Aurora, Colorado “Batman Movie Killer” comes immediately to mind), the attacker’s weapon had a malfunction.  Recognizing these issues for what they are could provide a great opportunity to either get away or to execute a disarm.  On the chance that there is more than one attacker (such as something more like a terrorist attack), you are otherwise unarmed, etc., and need to use the firearm you just “acquired”, knowing how to then reduce a malfunction yourself could be of great utility.  Indeed, many instructors who teach physically disarming someone advocate for an immediate action drill (such as a “tap-rack” with a handgun), as the weapon may have incurred a malfunction during the disarm. 

Basic Combatives Skills

A final piggyback on this sub-topic, knowing a bit about striking, grappling, etc., especially as part of a disarm as outlined above, could be key.  If you get a grip on an assailant’s firearm, he is likely to try to make getting that gun back under his control the priority.  This could provide a great opportunity for elbows, knees, face-smashes, head-butts, etc., which could then provide a great chance to complete the disarm.


It could be that you are not in a great position to fight back against the assailant, but are also not in a great situation to be able to flee.  For example, at my school, we are taught (see my article here on training we have done) that fleeing is often the best option.  However, if I have a student in my classroom who has mobility issues (such as in a wheelchair), fleeing may not be feasible.  Accordingly, knowing how to barricade a position—be it with purpose-built items or improvised—might save your life.  Also, I hate to belabor the point, but having the physical strength to move heavy objects to block a door would also be most welcome when the chips are down.

Improvised Weapons

I work in a school where I cannot carry a firearm or a knife.  However, no one has ever said anything to me about keeping a few tools in my desk to “repair desks and other items in the classroom”.  Look around where you are.  What could be used as a weapon RIGHT NOW?  Chances are, these would end up being contact weapons of some sort, but knowing how to use one, where to use one (a firefighter’s axe in the close confines of a small bathroom, for example, may not be the best tool compared with something like a hammer).  Pre-planning for areas you frequent is ideal, but as you move through unfamiliar terrain, keep alert for items that could be used as weapons.

Moving With Others

In our training group the other day, we practiced this (being small, I got to play the role of everyone’s child!).  Knowing how to firmly get hold of someone and move with them, or even to shield them while drawing/firing with one hand, could be another useful skill to have.  Even better if you are often with certain people and can practice some of this beforehand.  I am lucky in that my training group includes a number of people who currently or used to work in protective details, but there are some classes that cover some of this material (John took one such class here).


You may be at a location with others when one of these events kicks off.  Again, if you are often with the same people, some of this can be practiced ahead of time.  Communication needs to be direct and succinct.  One thing I do with my family members when we go places such as malls, sports venues, museums, the zoo, etc., is designate rally points.  It might be the car, the security office, or some other relatively easy-to-find location for meet up if we get separated.  My kids both have phones now, which also helps with communication.  On a side note, ever since my children were toddlers, whenever I take them anywhere, upon arrival at the venue, I snap a head-to-toe photo of them.  Besides a keepsake of the day of the event, it also gives me a current photo of them (including clothing, footwear, hairstyle, etc.) that I can immediately share with security/police should they go missing.

Interaction With First Responders

Unfortunately, we have seen in at least a couple of these incidents civilians who rose to the occasion only to be cut down by first responders (John Hurley in Arvada, Colorado comes immediately to mind).  While it seems everyone wants to be the hero and neutralize the bad guy, doing so only to be mistakenly shot by law enforcement because YOU were the one holding a gun when they arrive is a net FAIL.  I am not exactly sure where one goes to learn the best way to interact with law enforcement, but at the very least, if you do draw your pistol, do the work that needs to be done and get it put away as quickly as you can.

Side note:  while I advocate the use of a pseudo-long-gun concealed in a bag for some very niche circumstances specific to me, I do not advocate just strolling through Americana with some sort of concealed long gun that you will deploy in one of these instances to save the day.  Fellow civilians or first responders are almost definitely going to see a person with any type of long gun as a bad guy.  If you feel you need a long gun to get the job done, I would refer you to my first two topics above:  either use your physical conditioning to get away, or learn to make longer range shots with your pistol.  If that means equipping your pistol with an optic, go for it. Likewise, forget about keeping an “active shooter kit” in your car. If the balloon goes up, you will fight and survive with what is on or near you. So unless the event kicks off in the lot where your car is parked, just forget about this idea.

I had a short discussion with John on this topic.  While a number of quality instructors out there offer civilian response to active shooter classes, we both find it hard to imagine being able to cover all of this material in a two-day or even week-long class.  Not to knock any of those instructors, some of whom I admire greatly, but this might be a situation in which a la carte classes covering these different topics in greater depth would be the way to go.  Indeed, as I look over my training history, which is now eclipsing 800 hours, it is almost as if everything—or nearly everything—I have taken coursework in has led me to this place.

Having said that, no doubt some of our readers are currently thinking:  “But Elisjsha Dicken did what he did with apparently NO formal training.”  And, based on the current information, people thinking that would be right.  Dicken certainly rose to the occasion.  But I would rather not rely on “rising to the occasion” or on luck.  I would rather fall back on my training. Indeed, Andy Brown mentioned above practiced his handgun skills diligently. Not having enough money to buy his own Beretta, he purchased a similar Taurus PT-92, practiced with it regularly on his own time, and ultimately made his own luck.

But hey, there’s good news here.  Knowledge or skill in the areas outlined is useful in many more situations than just active-killer events.  Most of these are useful for “regular” street-crime, for a variety of medical emergencies, and for good general health.  So, while we always advocate getting more training and improving ourselves, the training we get should be applicable to as many situations as possible.

Again, the above is not meant to be exhaustive, but hopefully provides our readers with some food for thought.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below, as we always welcome civil discourse. One note: at least one link in the article above will take you to our Amazon Affiliate page. This is a great way to support this FREE blog at no cost to you. Thanks to all of you who have supported us over the years.

4 thoughts on “Survival Skills in an Active Killer Scenario

  1. re: atypical distance private armed citizen DGUs

    Another great post.

    I don’t know what it is but folks seem to forget lessons learned across the decades when it comes to defensive pistolcraft and/or fixate on very specific memes of the day. The flavor of the day has gone from sub second draw at 3 yards to a 40 yard 10 round engagement on man sized silhouette. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Another longer distance engagement was the Vic Stacy/Peach House RV Park shooting about 10 years ago. I think the AAR on that one was ~ 50 yards from barricade with a 6” barrel revolver.


    1. Tam,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree on all counts. In the space of a single day, raw speed at close range was supplanted by the “Dicken Drill” which, based on current reports, isn’t even based on what actually happened in the event. Nevertheless, I am happy people seem to be expanding their horizons a bit.

      I believe the incident you referenced was one that I too referred to in my linked “The Importance of Training at Distance” article. At least I THINK it’s in there….if not, I referenced other incidents where similar problems arose.

      Thanks again!



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