Even for the individual who is a complete novice to any sort of self-defense or tactical training, the understanding that proximity relates directly to danger is rather innate. The closer the threatening entity, the more dangerous it is to you. A bear at the top of a hill should certainly have your undivided attention, but we would all agree that it is better to spot it at the top of the hill than to have it stand up from the brush right in front of us. To harm us, most creatures with claws and teeth need to be at contact distance, and many can close that distance very quickly. There is a similar dynamic when facing a human threat as well.
For a human being to harm you with either bare hands or a contact weapon, they need to be within contact distance. This is fairly obvious. A firearm is a projectile weapon, so it can inflict damage over distance, thus making the need to be at contact distance obsolete. Still, though, distance directly correlates to the danger posed by a threat with a firearm. Especially when dealing with untrained people, and especially if armed with the most likely form of firearm, a handgun, greater distance drastically favors the self-defender, especially a self-defender who can shoot well. The closer an untrained yet ruthless thug is, the more likely they are to get lucky concerning marksmanship with a gun. Distance remains a great advantage, even when dealing with projectile weapons.
However, the entire issue of distance gets much more complicated than simply understanding that more distance is “more better.” It also gets more complicated when dealing with unarmed adversaries or those armed with contact distance weapons. Since a firearm is a projectile weapon, the justification for force to neutralize a legitimate threat armed with one is not very dependent on distance and proximity within reason. A threat with a firearm that is still on the other side of the parking lot is absolutely already a lethal threat. A threat that is not visibly armed, or armed with a contact distance weapon, may or may not be a threat yet, depending on the circumstances. Thus, it is here that the matter of managing distance gets murky.
How Much Distance is Necessary?
How much distance do you need to stay safe from a threat with only a contact weapon? The answer is: all of it. Unless you have done a lot of force-on-force training or been in a lot of fights, you probably underestimate the speed at which even an average human being can move, let alone a young, likely athletic, male, the most common violent assailant. The media has done no favors to the public in their ignorant treatment of use of force incidents, such as the quintessential accusation, “They shot him while he was only armed with a knife.” Journalists who write such things have never been threatened by someone holding a knife.
This is not to say that shooting someone who is acting threateningly with a knife is always justified, as it depends on the circumstances, but the lethality of edged weapons is dramatically underestimated among the general public and certainly among the press. The same goes for blunt-impact weapons. Even though the edged or impact weapon is only lethal at contact distance, a threat that is within close enough proximity to use it on you before you can stop them is an imminent threat. Are you necessarily able to stop a threat with a knife that is across the room any easier than you can stop the same threat within arms’ reach? It is the reaction time of the self-defender that matters, as well as the feasibility of the defender’s force to stop the threat in time, that matters.
You have likely heard of something called the “Tueller Drill.” This is a concept that is grossly misunderstood within the self-defense and shooting community. Denis Tueller, the namesake of this “drill,” never declared his findings a drill but rather illustrated a principle. Tueller found that, on average, it took a male aggressor one and a half seconds to cover twenty-one feet. Thus, if an adversary who is roughly seven yards away is armed with a knife, they can likely be on you within one and a half seconds. This principle is in no way a “twenty-one-foot rule,” as it is often proclaimed.
There is no hard and fast rule about twenty-one feet; depending on the circumstances, a threat well beyond twenty-one feet, even if only armed with a contact weapon, can be an immediate threat. If within twenty-one feet, are you confident in your draw speed to make that shot in one-and-a-half seconds? Further, relying on such is absolutely foolish, as only a bullet to the brain stem, within that one-and-a-half seconds, would guarantee a fast enough cease of hostility to keep you from getting stabbed. Realistically, a knife-wielding threat that means to close the distance and attack is too close at fifty feet. How much distance? All of it.
Unarmed and Unclear Danger
The most likely criminal tactic a civilian faces is a ruse of some type that allows the bad actor to close distance before springing the attack. The skillset of “managing unknown contacts,” best synthesized by firearms instructor Craig Douglas, deals with how to effectively manage the encroachment of a potential threat. When dealing with an unknown entity that makes your spidey senses tingle, you must maintain every bit of distance possible. Distance equals reaction time, and when handling an individual that is trying to close the distance, you need to get assertive to halt that approach before the proximity eliminates your ability to respond.
There are no hard and fast rules related to distance, but only principles and common sense. Good training goes a long way towards educating the self-defender on how fast a human adversary can be and how quickly distance can be closed. How much distance should you maintain away from a threat? All of it.