The Verbal Command Imperative

| December 31, 2014
Categories: Learnin'
Tags: COWAN!

Ares Gear Chickerator BBC 300x100

Verbalization is something that doesn’t get nearly the attention it should in training. This is unfortunate, because it’s important for what we are training for.  No, important isn’t strong enough a word; it is essential.

This may come as a surprise to some, but many, many firearms classes (particularly those of the same ‘level’) follow a basic script. That script has more or less been established by generations of understanding of what is important and what constitutes a basic vs. an advanced skill.  What that means is that instructors from different backgrounds with different personalities and ideologies are covering the same techniques and skills at (sometimes) roughly the same point in any given specific course.  Exceptions are always possible of course, like one gentleman who for some reason doesn’t believe teaching reloads is important1, but aside from those you are going to receive fundamentally the same script in each class at a chosen skill level.

ll rifle

Now let me say this before I go any further; the importance of what is in the script is more or less unchangeable.  We have the Seven Fundamentals of Marksmanship (I personally believe it should be nine2), we have reloads, malfunctions and the stepping stones to more advanced techniques like the use of cover/concealment, use of light, etc.  Each instructor adds something that is unique to them; it could simply be personality, personal experiences developed into techniques or an additional focus that they consider essential.  This is what makes someone seek a class from Instructor A instead of instructor B, or just want a class from A more than B.  It’s easy for any one instructor to add to the positive structure of common sense teaching, but their personal additions don’t change the basic principles, nor add to them for all instructors.  Changing the basic script isn’t an easy thing to do.  I have been accused of trying to do so with my use of 3D targets and teaching detailed human anatomy in classes.  I say accused with the proper connotation of the word.  Even though I believe that training should be done on 3D targets as often as possible (which is near the 100% of the time range), I’m not going to change minds with those who favor 2D because that’s what they have always used.  I’m also not going to change some minds by advocating for more anatomy instruction because some people simply don’t see a value in talking about the best places to put bullets, medically speaking.

Verbalization, however, is one topic I believe and know should be part of each and every course that has a focus on self-defense shooting of any kind. In fact, there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be chiseled in stone.  It should also be a regular part of personal practice, but we’ll get to that later.

Why is verbalization important?  Because we are training and practicing to shoot people, not paper.  People aren’t set to behave at the sound of a shot timer or the script of an instructor and there are far more No Shoot situations in real life than Shoot situations. Verbalization also makes one’s intentions painfully clear. There are other reasons, as you will see.

traffic stop

Why verbal commands are important.

In training and practice we don’t want every drill to be a shoot drill.  Real life offers far more examples of the threat of violence being enough to defuse a situation in a personal self-defense encounter than the opposite.  People are not shot as often as they have guns pointed at them.  The reasoning for is (or should be) obvious and has verbalization partly to thank.  Proper training includes these drills so that draw and fire is not a conditioned response.  We want our students on the line to think as well as they are able and to act based on their perception of events.  By giving a student a choice, they are forced to display restraint and only fire if the threats behavior warrants it.  In real life it’s easy to paint the picture: man threatens you with a bat on a sidewalk, you draw your handgun and point it at him.  If he drops the bat, it’s a no-shoot.  If he advances or attempts to take a swing you are reasonably sure will hit you, it becomes a shoot situation.  Now, setting this up on a live fire range requires creativity on behalf of the instructor that goes beyond calling “Shoot/No-Shoot.”  Live fire training is not very realistic at all when you think about it, not at the basic level.  If you are shooting 2D targets or bullseyes, you are not training realistically.  It’s made more realistic by taking distance into account for the sake of reality and scripting the drills into small scenarios that force realistic behavior.  Part of realistic behavior is the use of verbals.

If I am confronted with an armed individual, be it with a knife, bat, stick, weapon of opportunity or whatever, the presence of the weapon alone will not necessarily dictate a threat to my or someone else’s personal safety.  The “totality of the circumstances” is going to determine if I go to gun or not. That is how we tell Stabby McMurderface apart from a neighbor/stranger heading out to trim his hedges.  We pick up quite a bit of our perception from body language and spatial awareness, which is to say that we make safe assumptions based on the environment and a person’s apparent intentions.  A man with a shovel isn’t necessarily a threat; a man running towards you with one is possibly a threat, a man running or even walking towards you with one with the shovel cocked into what could be described as a swinging position is even more so a possible threat – and that’s just a description of motion.  Now add in other body language like facial expression and you paint an even better picture.  Keep in mind that communications via facial expressions is older than written or spoken language and is how we communicate before we are able to do either.  The facial expression is the quickest way to understand a person’s emotional state.  We are able to tell the difference between angry/sad/happy facial expressions as young as 5-6months3.  Using that as a baseline, I think it’s safe to say we get better at it and faster in discerning at it as we age.  Everyone knows what anger looks like, though not everyone can put it into descriptive words readily.



Obviously if our possible threat uses words or sounds on his shovel-carrying approach, this adds more credence to a possible need for force.  When we are reasonably sure we are being confronted with a threat and verbalization makes sense, we should do so.  A verbal challenge or command is simple, forceful and direct.  It should also address the larger problem first.  With our shovel man example, would we command stop or drop the shovel first?  You can do both of course (and should) but the immediate concern is motion.  If they are not yet close enough to deliver a strike, a stop command will give ready evidence of a will to comply or not, especially if your weapon is already out when the command is given.  If someone has ever told you that you don’t draw your weapon unless you intend to use it, they are right, but maybe not in the foolish context they may have meant.  I have pointed guns at far more people than I have shot, but I intended to shoot every single one of them and probably multiple times in quick succession based on their behavior.  The mere presence of the firearm can quickly change a person’s behavior (gun usually trumps shovel/knife/bat/finger gun in pocket) and the sanest among us recognize that.  What I am getting at is that if a verbal command is warranted, so is the gun.  If you feel threatened, or recognize the threat to someone else and decide to intervene, nothing will underscore the penalty for non-compliance more than showing them what it may be.  If our example “shovel man” is given a stop with no ready penalty for not doing so, is his course of action likely to change?  If you are cut off in a road rage incident and a man is running towards your blocked-in car with a bat, is a verbal stop alone likely to change his behavior?  We can point guns at people and not shoot them, it happens all the time.  The bad guy makes the decision to get shot, and it’s best if it’s an informed decision. Which is why verbalization is so important.

Verbal commands should be loud, forceful and simple.  They can be peppered with expletives if you like (common, though not recommended), but get to the point quickly and be specific.

Now as to why verbalization is important; the primary reason is that it lets our bad guy know that we see him, recognize his behavior and are prepared to do something about it if he does not stop.  A second and possibly just as important reason given the litigious nature of our society is that a loud verbal command paints a far better picture for any potential witness.  If a person is attempting to mug you at knife point and you draw and fire your weapon, a witness may have only seen someone draw and shoot someone else.  Bringing the gun out with a forceful Get back! or Drop the knife! paints a better mental picture for any potential witness and can quickly change their opinion on what it is they are seeing. If other patrons of Nancy’s Squat and Gobble see you drag iron on a guy in the parking lot, even if he’s advancing on you with something in his hand, they may only be able to testify they saw you with your gun out. If however they saw you present your weapon and clearly heard you yell, “Stop! Put the knife down! Put it down!”, that will sound much better on the stand (as it should).

knife from the deck

Verbalize when you can

Using a verbal command or threat should be done with a safe grasp of reality.  In some situations, there simply won’t be time to do so.  There isn’t a formula for this; as much as the Tueller Drill is incorrectly used as a bright line distance for defending against a knife/handheld weapon attack, there simply is no set distance at which force should or shouldn’t be used. There is only a general ideal danger area that is identified by common sense and the variables of a situation. The 21 feet of the Tueller drill was a reached conclusion on how much distance an attacker could cover in 1.5 seconds (which was the also agreed upon time an experienced shooter could draw and fire two rounds).  Note that it is peroperly called the “Tueller Drill”, not the “21 foot rule”, as it has erroneously been titled. Tueller himself never used the term “21 foot rule”, nor was it in the original article that introduced the world to the drill named after him him4.  There are too many variables to consider in establishing a rule distance which is why no competent instructor would do so.  I have seen students in Simunitions courses draw from concealment and deliver rounds on a rushing threat in as little as 10 feet.  I have also seen them back pedal for distance and take as long as 3 seconds to get rounds on their threat.   For the sake of common sense and safety, get any idea of a distance rule out of your head.

Instead, consider the two different sorts of threats: those that must touch you to harm you such as a knife, club, etc. and those that can be used at distance such as a firearm.  If a threat to yourself or another is already identified, distance is only a factor in the first.  If someone is immobile but verbally threatening and armed with a hand weapon (non-firearm), the presentation of your firearm and verbal commands is prudent.  This is a common sense approach to confronting the problem and can prevent the need for actual force being used.  If that threat ignores your verbal commands and begins advancing on you or the person you are attempting to defend, at what distance should force be used?  The answer is as simple as it is complicated; at the distance in which you believe they intend harm and can easily act on that intention. Use verbal commands up until and even during your actual use of force because there is objective time to do so.  If the threat is already close enough to use force, verbal commands may be nothing more than a waste of time.  A punch or stab can be thrown as fast as .300-.500/second5.


A firearm though, changes things.

If a threat with a firearm is 5 feet or 50 feet away and has given you clear reason to believe they mean you or another harm, verbalization may be a waste of precious time.  It’s an old axiom, action is faster than reaction and it’s survived the test of time because it’s very, very true.  Action is so much faster than reaction that even if your threat was idly holding their weapon to their side, they could raise and fire that weapon on the decision to do so in as little as .59 seconds for an aimed shot6 while your reaction time to this action would include visual processing of what you were seeing, a decision being made and the trigger being pressed.  In a best case scenario, reaction times from a presented and ready weapon can vary from .888 to 1.50 shot6. Reaction times can be further complicated by not having your weapon drawn, or if the bad guy does not appear to be a present threat, say if he has his gun tucked in his waistband (which can be drawn and fired in as little .98 seconds8).  Can you beat the bad guy to the trigger press?  Certainly you can if given the right variables, most of which will be well outside your control.  Verbalization waits for compliance.  What that means is that if I say drop the gun any motion at all from my bad guy will be studied for signs of them doing exactly what I told them to do.  This lengthens reaction time and if their motion is not compliance but the beginning of them using force against me, I will be way behind the power curve.

Verbal commands against guns should be used when possible and prudent, but not at an increased risk to yourself or others.  My personal rule is that of One Warning.  If practical, the bad guy gets one warning to drop the gun, and this warning may be given during the time it takes me to draw my weapon, move to any suitable cover/concealment, or begin off-line movement to make me harder to hit.  There is always a chance they will comply, and an equal chance that they will not.  This is not me advocating that any recognized threat armed with a firearm should be shot without warning; rather it’s a common sense look at how easy it is for you to be injured even if you feel you “have the drop on them.”   Never sacrifice your personal safety or that of someone else in order to give the bad guy a chance.  If the use of force is justified, verbal commands may only increase the chance of you being injured.

Don’t depend on a show of force

In a perfect world, bad people are afraid of guns and respond accordingly when they are pointed at them.  In a perfect world, a man armed with and edged weapon or blunt object will see the wisdom in dropping that weapon when confronted with a gun.  This isn’t the case.  In reality there are a great number of people that are very comfortable with having weapons pointed at them because they have been down that road many, many times before.  While self-preservation may keep someone from advancing on a drawn firearm, it doesn’t mean they will comply with commands, either.

drop the knife

Verbalization in context

So we have looked at the reasoning and importance of verbal commands, and when it is and might not be reasonable to use them.  Now we can look at the use of verbal commands in context of what we want someone to do, and what we should do if they comply.

Keep them simple and think one step ahead.  If you order someone to “drop the knife” (or bat, club, etc.) and they comply, now what?  Do you hold them at gun point and call 911, or do you simply tell them to leave?  With their weapon removed, if they attempt to flee you cannot (in most cases) use lethal force and there’s a good chance they know that.  Even in the case of a firearm, once they comply and put it down, you have lost a great deal of latitude in what force you can use.  I break it down like this; profit crime and personal crime.  A profit crime is a situation such as a mugging, carjacking, etc.  it’s a crime of pure profit and chances are you have never seen that person or do not know them personally.  In this case, I would only advocate attempting to restrain them if they are inside your home or business.

If the crime is personal, meaning you actually know the person and may have a history with them (disgruntled co-worker, estranged family member/spouse, etc.) you need to detain them if possible and contact 911.

Ultimately the decision on what to do is going to be up to you, though in any case a police report should be filed.  Notifying LE is always a wise move, if nothing else it documents that the situation occurred and may allow LE to apprehend the person later.

Take verbalization to the range and practice it at home.  Have a rough plan for what you will say when confronting a threat and what to do if or when they comply.  Also have an idea of what situations you are willing to use verbal commands in, and which situations you aren’t.  Nothing is black and white when it comes to being confronted with a potentially lethal threat so above all, train and practice to be flexible.

road rage


About the Author:

COWAN! profile pic 1Aaron (Breach-Bang-COWAN!) is an idiot savant of the tactical variety from a little place we like to call Hotlanta (though apparently no one from down there calls it that). COWAN! is the Lead Instructor and HMFIC of program development for Sage Dynamics who believes every article should be roughly the equivalent of a doctoral thesis. To call him thorough would be to damn him with faint praise. We call him COWAN! because anything in all caps with an exclamation point after it must be awesome. A former infantryman turned PSC contractor and LEO, COWAN! has served in several SWAT and training billets. He also has an unseemly and disturbing fascination with horse head masks. Sage Dynamics is a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional. An identical twin whose brother went on to become Agent 47, COWAN! is the author of the novel Rushing Winter and the designated fluffer on the set of numerous training videos here on the Sage Dynamics YouTube page. In addition to his role as a Mad Duo minion here, COWAN! is a frequent contributor to RECOIL Magazine and Monderno, and he blogs constantly.

Sage Dynamics is on Facebook here; you can follow them on Instagram here and of course you can read his occasional informed and sagacious rumination here on Breach-Bang-Clear.

Grunts: rumination.

COWAN! profile pic 4

(1) , Claude Werner, What Skills Should we Train and Practice? 2014

(2)Aaron Cowan, Sage Dynamics Firearms Training: The Seven Fundmentals of Marksmanship…or are there nine? Predator Intelligence, July, 2013

(3) Schwartz GM, Izard CE, Ansul SE. The 5-month-old’s ability to discriminate facial expressions of emotion. Infant Behavior and Development. 1985

(4) Sgt. Dennis Tueller, How Close is Too Close? SWAT Magazine, 1983

(5) H. Nagasaki, Asymmetric velocity and acceleration profiles of human arm movements, 1989

(6) Time for aimed fire when perceiving a threat with the finger off the trigger. Time for aimed fire with the finger on the trigger 0.576 to 1.26 Tobin, E.J. and M.L. Fackler, Officer Reaction-Response Time in Firing a Handgun, Wound Ballistics Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1997) pp.6-9

(7) Thomas A. Hontz, Justifying the Deadly Force Response, Police Quarterly, 1999

(8) Force Science News, Doubts raised about certain reaction-time training exercises, 2012


  1. Claude Werner aka The Tactical Professor

    I’m fine with him disagreeing with me. The idea that instructors should not challenge each other’s material is not healthy for the training community. As we all know, there’s plenty of horse hockey floating around in this business.

    That being said, I have empirically made my case for why I de-prioritized reloading. I would certainly like to see his case for why he believes it is, in the contextual environment for which I made my case.

  2. Morgan Atwood

    A note about the “one gentleman” who does not prioritize teaching reloads:

    He was the chief instructor at The Rogers Shooting School (you may have heard of it…) for five years, and is probably the best data analyst in our industry. If you actually read his article, he explains the data he collected on actual civilian self defense, and how that lead him to his thinking. Claude likely has the best data set on civilian self defense that exists, because he’s done the work to collect it, and it shapes his approaches.

    Not that he needs me to defend him, but condescending dismissal (particularly without providing any context) of evidence based thinking by a well respected trainer is low. I stopped reading about there.


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