Visual Perception Delay and In-The-Back Shootings

A horrible story is coming out of North Charleston, South Carolina this week about an officer shooting a man 8 times in the back while fleeing on foot after a traffic stop.

What I’ve seen and read so far is not good…simply by the number of shots the officer fired, but do you know why that is?

Or do you know why it’s common for civilians or law enforcement to shoot their attackers 1, 2, or even 3 times in the back before realizing that their attacker has turned?

In short, reality isn’t what you see, and you have walked around your entire life consciously SEEING a reality that happened .5-.75 seconds ago. You don’t realize it normally, but everyone has memories of times where this came into play.

  • One trick/illusion is to have someone lay a $20 on a table and put their hand 4” above it. You put your hand 4” above theirs and tell them to slap the table and trap the $20 bill as soon as they see your hand move. You (or a 6 year old) can take money from people using this trick all day long.
  • Some people get into car wrecks where they “never saw it coming.”
  • If you’ve ever tried blocking punches/strikes from someone who was within arm’s length, you have felt the effects of this visual delay. (Eventually, with the right training, you get past this by using your subconscious to identify pre-strike indicators and unconsciously react to the strike before it actually happens…we’ll get to this in a minute.)
  • If you’ve ever done quick draw contests where you react to the other person, you know how it’s almost impossible to “catch up” if you wait until you see them move.
  • With driving, the visual perception delay/reactionary gap is generally accepted to be 2 seconds instead of .5 and drivers are continually told to stay at least 2 seconds behind the car in front of them to be able to consciously identify and react to threats/dangers.

Now the South Carolina shoot appears to have been a bad shoot. It sickens me on several levels that I don’t want to get into. In fact, there’s almost no connection whatsoever between that shooting and the rest of this article…but it’s incredibly important for you to know the difference between someone who shoots an attacker 1, 2, or even 3 times in the back and someone who shoots an attacker 8 times in the back.

Keep in mind that in many cases, good people DO justifiably shoot attackers in the back after they’ve stopped attacking and started to run away.

How can this be?

Because of the fact that there’s a half to three-quarter second delay between what our eyes see and what the conscious mind is able to process.

During that ½-3/4 second delay, the attacker has plenty of time to drop their weapon, turn, and depending on the situation, start moving away…all the while, the shooter is seeing what happened earlier—which was the attacker facing them and posing a threat.

If you’re firing off shots with quarter second splits, that means that you could feasibly shoot your attacker once in the side and a time or two in the back without even realizing that they were no longer a threat.

In fact, one use-of-force expert witness who testifies several times a month told a class that I was in that he could probably defend 1 or 2 shots in the back because of visual perception delay. 3 would be questionable, but 4 would be incredibly difficult because by that time, the fact that your attacker is no longer a threat should have made it to your conscious mind.

Other than cool trivia, how can you use this information?

First off, and most applicable, be conscious of the 2 second rule when you’re driving.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered, “If the visual perception delay is only .5 seconds, why do I need to stay 2 seconds back from the car in front of me?” and it’s a great question.

The answer is that if you’re on-alert and ready for something to happen, it only takes .5 seconds for your conscious mind to process simple pre-defined stimuli like “if his brake lights go on, I’ll hit my brakes.”

But the more complex the stimulus is, the longer the delay. If you have to judge approach speed, weather conditions, or other factors like how hard to hit the brakes, the processing/reaction time increases. If you’re distracted in the micro-second where the stimulus happens, there will be a delay between when the stimulus happens and when you get fully engaged BEFORE the .5 second visual perception delay even starts.

As an example, the average person can handle 7 chunks of information at a time and process those 7 chunks 18 times per second for a total of 126 chunks per second. Listening to a human voice, like a radio, phone, or another person in the car takes 40 chunks. Processing what they’re saying and thinking of a response takes a few more chunks. Paying attention to the car(s) in front of you takes a few more. Add in the cars around you, maintaining your speed, distance, place in the lane, and navigating and you see that you’re probably only devoting a chunk or two per second to the brake lights on the car ahead of you. That means that it might take a half second or more before the half second visual perception delay clock even starts!

In short, respect the 2 second gap rule.

The other examples are going to be less likely and more “tactical.”

First off, we’ve talked about the reactionary gap before. In short, it’s the amount of time/distance that you want between you and a threat/attacker so that you can effectively respond to whatever they do. For an attacker with a knife with no obstacles between you and them, it’s generally thought of as 21 feet (but is really much more).

If you’re within that reactionary gap…say a mugger or a heated argument within a couple of feet…you MUST switch to pre-defined triggers, pre-defined responses, stay focused, avoid talking, and keep them talking.


Because even though the conscious mind is .5-.75 seconds behind reality, the unconscious mind is about .1 seconds behind reality. In addition, the conscious mind processes things sequentially, or one at a time, one after another. The unconscious mind uses parallel processing and processes several things at once…as many as 10,000 to 1 million times more chunks of information per second than the conscious mind.

But you can do a few things to switch your mind from that .5 second delay that your conscious mind has to the .1 second delay that the unconscious mind has.

First off, stay calm. The calmer you can stay, the more likely you can tap into the speed of the unconscious mind.

Second, define 1, 2, or 3 triggers that will cause you to take action…the fewer the better, but better doesn’t always mesh with reality. The triggers should be, “If he does x.”

Keep in mind that in an altercation, your attacker is either attacking, complying, trying to limit loss, or delaying (sometimes with sweet words) to create an advantage to destroy you more effectively. This concept of 4 options is a tiny part of an incredible book from Ken Murray called, “Training At The Speed Of Life.” As far as you’re concerned, if they’re not complying 100%, they’re still a threat. Words mean nothing and action means everything.

It’s better to game these triggers out in your mind ahead of time so that you aren’t trying to figure stuff out in the heat of the moment.

Third, pre-define your response. “If he does x, I’ll do y”. And the more specific “y” is, the better. As an example, “If he goes for a weapon, I’ll shoot” may not be specific enough.

I had a live fire, live ammo, force on force training a couple of months ago where I was humbled on this.

I was doing a “member shoot” with famed low-light instructor, Ed Santos, where we were doing a live fire, force on force scenario using projectors and screens that we shot into. Ed was the aggressor and was 15 feet away from me (to the side) and his image was projected in real time on the screen in front of me. Since we were only 15 feet away from each other, we were talking to each other in real time and could see each other’s movements/reactions in real time. He was looking at me and I was looking straight ahead at his image on the screen.

At one point in the scenario, Ed reached for his gun with a furtive movement (a fast movement indicating malicious intent) and aimed it at me. I had my gun drawn, was aimed at the midpoint between his armpits, and had a pre-defined trigger to shoot if he went for a weapon.

But I didn’t have a properly pre-defined action…Even though I was aimed exactly where I wanted to be, I didn’t have the “where” picked out where I was going to shoot and I didn’t have the “how many times” picked out.

So, using my subconscious, I was trying to pick out whether he had a weapon or an inert object in his hands, shot his gun (or the image of his gun on the screen in front of me) one time and stopped.

As far as the scenario went, I’d reacted incredibly fast and shot the gun almost immediately…seemingly a victory.

But I instantly knew I screwed up…and it’s bugged me for the last 2 months. I didn’t define WHERE I should shoot and I didn’t define how many shots I should fire before assessing whether or not he was still a threat. If I just would have pre-defined 3 shots to the T4 vertebrae or 2 shots to an imaginary spot midway between the armpits, or something similarly detailed, the outcome would have been different.


If you’ve got your gun drawn, pre-define your action with detail, as in, “If he goes for a weapon, I’ll step to the side, fire 2 shots midway between his armpits, step to the side, and re-asses.” It could be 1 shot, 2 shots, or 3 shots…depending on your department, prosecutor, political climate, and/or your ability to put fast, accurate rounds on target.

If someone had been trained or trained themselves to think along the lines of, “if he moves, kill him” then it might explain why they would shoot someone 8 times in the back when the person was fleeing–this shows how important it is to have your triggers and actions pre-defined correctly.

Specifically, make sure that you’re verbally and mentally training, practicing, and rehearsing shooting to stop a threat…not shooting to kill or shooting to prevent someone from stealing your stuff, but shooting to stop a threat.  If you train your mind to only shoot at a threat, you could save yourself a lot of grief.

Next, get them talking and avoid talking.

Unless you’ve practiced talking while your unconscious mind is driving the ship…normally indicated by a monotone voice and an “odd” cadence, don’t talk or stick to simple, pre-rehearsed commands. As soon as you “think” about what you’re going to say, you virtually guarantee a half to ¾ second delay in reaction time.

Similarly, keep your attacker talking. If you’re going to try to surprise him, see if you can ask him something along the lines of, “What do you want to get out of this?” or some other open ended question that forces them to come up with a multi-word answer that will increase their visual perception delay and reactionary gap.

Finally, train, practice, and practice some more. If you’ve practiced your skills to the point where they’re almost boring and you don’t have to consciously think about them, you’re much more likely to actually be able to perform at a high level under stress.

For most people, this means spending a TON of money on ammo and range fees, but the fact that you’re here means you’ve got a HUGE leg up. You’ve got resources at your fingertips that are used by US Tier I units and our allies. High speed, low cost, at-home firearms training resources like Tactical Firearms Training Secrets, Dry Fire Training Cards, The “Shoot Better Than SWAT in 30 Days” Force Recon 3010Pistol, Navy SEAL Concealed Carry Masters Course, the Insight 1-hole-group/unconscious shooting system, and more.

Could you feasibly fire 8 rounds into someone’s back without realizing it?  Yes…it’s possible.  Anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, extreme exhaustion, pain, painkillers, sheer panic, bad triggers, and bad pre-defined reactions all COULD do that.  Is it likely?  Who knows…it doesn’t really matter what’s possible theoretically.  There’s video of the officer in SC that appears to make a pretty clear case and you want to train/practice enough so that you’re never that disconnected from reality.

Questions? Comments? Sound off below.


  1. Force Science Research has done many studies on this subject. they also have videos with actors as bad guys or LE with action/reaction times for you to observe and study. they are THE go-to organization for LE force trainers to study. here is just a sample of their work;

  2. RobertinTexas says:

    Thank you again for broadening my mind and educating me on such finer points. Reading the article a couple of times and processing the part about the unconscious response times vs. conscious response times (saying things that require the brain to process.) made me wonder where adrenaline fits into the scheme. Aren’t we talking about our brain firing off messages and our body’s ability to comply with the message right? I just think a big ol’ slathering of adrenaline has got to influence that – maybe positively? If “channeled” (I hate using that word, it sounds too New Agey) correctly? To the point you made of staying calm. I mean if I have drawn my weapon, I may want to be calm but based on experience, I’m going to be pretty fired up – heart rate, etc. I hope you can share your thoughts on my question. Hopefully you haven’t already answered it!

    p.s. I’m way OCD about misspellings, I just think when someone is providing very useful information, it’s just flat our rude to bring it up. It’s like complaining about free food. My folks didn’t raise me like that!

    Thanks and God bless

    • RobertinTexas says:

      Oh one more thing I meant to mention- the dry fire cards are definitely on my wish list. I just picked up Tactical Firearms Training Secrets. (Great book by the way.)
      Any other recommendations? I had the cards on my birthday list, but apparently I have the wrong set of friends because they just got me a nice shirt. Not that I don’t need a nice shirt but… anyway. Thanks again for all you guys provide and share with “The Community”.

    • Thanks, Robert. I’ve got to put the boys to bed and can’t go into detail now, but controlling adrenaline is a key factor in how you will handle an extreme stress incident. I’m not sure if you saw this article from a month or so ago, but it *kind of* addresses what you’re asking: Let me know. If it doesn’t answer your question, I can go into more detail.

  3. Great article that covered a ton of information. Makes it worth re-reading at a later date.

    All the “time” issues are spot on and were a part of military, private security contractor and training with LE Officers. There was an incident recently where two LEOs shot and killed a disabled person with a screw driver. A could of their shots were in the back as he turned from the first shot(s) that hit him. Visually, they didn’t have time to see him turning.

    Still opens the question of why large numbers of shots are fired at a suspect. My initial training was special ops military and I don’t recall ever shooting more than two shots (maybe two to chest and/or one to chest and one to the head). After thousands of rounds I’m sure that is imprinted so well that I don’t know if I would shot more than two rounds before reassessing the situation. Training with LEO’s I was taught the “zipper”. Shooting when you or down or off hand has its challenges so…keep firing. Never had to do it but it makes sense.

    It matters a great deal what you plan to do and what the triggers are. Couldn’t be more important than when approaching an Iraqi checkpoint. You better know the triggers and what you are going to do because you can’t learn this in two seconds (when the trigger is tripped).

    Thanks again!

  4. katangro says:

    Sounds good but please remember this started as a traffic stop for a broken tail-light. The man got out of his car, the policeman confronted him, said something to him and the man turned and ran. The officer did not even have to pull his gun. The car with a license plate was right there. He could have called it in and that would have been the end of story. Fine and ticket could have been sent to the man’s home. Why did this happen?

    • Right…please remember what I said: “In fact, there’s almost no connection whatsoever between that shooting and the rest of this article…but it’s incredibly important for you to know the difference between someone who shoots an attacker 1, 2, or even 3 times in the back and someone who shoots an attacker 8 times in the back.”

      This article is about visual perception delay. I mentioned the SC incident simply to tie pop culture to a very important aspect of brain & visual function that many don’t know exists.

  5. Hi All;
    Back in high school we were confronted with a machine to measure reaction time. It was part of driver education. The machine simulated the accelerator and brake pedal in the appropriate geometric arrangement. It measured the time it took to move your foot from accelerator to brake after seeing a stimulus. The least time the machine could measure was 0.1 second. Unlike the rest, I could reliably beat .1 second every time. Another point is about involuntary reaction time. I used to grind metals without safety glasses (young and dumb). I never was hit by metal particles in the eye. My eyes would automatically close, with out conscious realization that something was coming. The particle would bounce off my closed eyelid. I did have 20/15 vision at the time, but must also have had much faster reaction time than the times mentioned in your article. My guess is that humans are quite variable in this respect.
    Cheers! Stu.

    • Hey Stu,

      I wouldn’t know simply by interacting through the written word, but here’s a couple of thoughts…

      First, I remember that machine and I had a similar experience. I beat the machine by watching the person pushing the button rather than watching the light 🙂 So, you may have consciously/unconsciously been able to see the person pushing the button, been able to accurately anticipate when the button was going to be pushed, unknowingly been able to disengage your conscious mind and fully engage your unconscious mind, or you might have exceptionally fast reflexes. Every human attribute exists on a Bell curve and there are outliers…in this case either WAY faster or WAY slower.

      Second, most of the factors are the same with the grinder but you said something that few people know…that your ability to see things at 20 feet (your 20/15 vision) doesn’t translate to your ability to shift focus, visually identify threats, or process the information.

  6. I have heard of security training where the focus was speed. Twenty shots in under five seconds. Perhaps this was a case of poor training. Once he started shooting difficult to stop.
    As you train so you do.

    • Well…there’s a couple of different angles to what you said…

      As an example, in the third video on this page: I react to a buzzer, draw a Glock 26 subcompact from a Serpa holster and put 10 rounds on an 8.5×11 sheet 15 feet away in 2.83 seconds. I do the kinds of drills that you’re talking about and so do many other people, but they’re not defensive drills…they’re proof of ability drills that QUICKLY expose problems/weaknesses/opportunities for improvement in your technique. I don’t know anyone teaching that you use 10 or 20 rounds per target in a defensive situation.

      Once you get to the point where you can run a gun like this, it pretty much has to be driven unconsciously. The conscious mind just can’t keep up. One benefit of this happened last week when I was shooting steel with some local SWAT/bomb squad guys. The drill was to draw and put 5 rounds on steel as fast as possible from 20 feet. I drew, started putting rounds on steel with about .18-.2 second splits, realized I missed my 3rd one, and put a 6th round on target with the exact same splits as the first 5 rounds. I’m in no way special, in fact, I’m incredibly average in my physical characteristics as they relate to shooting. It just shows the power of the subconscious and how quickly it can react. In this case, there was about .4 seconds between the miss on #3 and when I shot #5 and immediately began the process of shooting #6, which is faster than my mind would have been able to consciously process what happened.

      If you have a pre-defined sequence of 2-3 shots, that IS hard to stop. When people empty their gun in shooting situations (it’s common), it’s usually because they got over-amped on adrenaline and lost their ability to think clearly. Sometimes it’s just their nature to lose control, sometimes it’s a lack of stress inoculation, and sometimes it’s a freak occurance.

      My point in mentioning the officer wasn’t to pick apart what he may or may not have done…it was to use as a transition between a story that most of my readers have heard about and a mental/visual phoenomenon that you want to be aware of.

  7. Excellent information, well-presented. There is a LOT to think about, here. The processing lag (“latency” in networking terms), and the dependency on load, all make perfect sense, and I have never seen that presented at all, let alone that clearly. I imagine all processing times go up with age, and parallel processing capacity goes down, for the same reason — certainly factors of importance for me and other aging Boomers.

    One, tiny quibble, from an amateur writer: check “break” vs. “brake,” and “hear” vs. “here.”

    Thanks for sharing hard-won knowledge.


    • Thanks, Tom.

      The biggest factor in a lack of parallel processing is a lack of use of that functionality of the brain and a lot of brain exercises focus on building that skill back up.

      As to the quibble about spelling…not sure how you saw that stuff since it was fixed 9 hours earlier 🙂 but I apologize for it.

  8. Unfortunately training might be to blame. Some are training 20 shots in under 5 seconds to qualify.

  9. Makes me want to think very carefully be fore deploying a cc weapon. I can now appreciate the training any LE officer should have, as well as a ccw licensee. Officer in this incident possibly lacked recurrent training or is quite slow mentally. Let’s all hold judgment till more facts come to light.

  10. Great article Ox. It’s an unfortunate truth that too many civilians and LE personnel carry a gun, without having a good training regimen to build and maintain all of the skills that you, and others, advocate. And, all too often, even for LE personnel, it comes down to a personal commitment to skills development, because departments don’t always have a big enough budget.

    I appreciated the info on visual response delay and reaction times. I don’t think I’ve seen it laid out this clearly before. The article was a great reminder of WHY we need to continually refresh our training and work on building those pre-defined reactions. Thanks again.

    • Should the person who can’t afford regular frequent ammo supply and range time to that extent then give up on carry or keeping for protection? That’s the reason I got the dry fire training cards.

  11. Thank you for the article. I agree completely. Had the officer stopped firing after the second shot (standard defensive response) and responded in accordance with his departments SOP’s from that point on rather than dumping half a magazine, reholstering and cuffing a suspect without overwatch in place, and manipulating the crime scene by moving his Taser, I don’t think he’d be behind bars today. It’s sad that one officers lack of training and compromised judgment led to this unfortunate event.

  12. Hi – a great, informative article. Can NOT believe folks take the time to point out spelling mistakes………. scheesch. Take the info and learn ! Thanks for a great article.

    • Thanks, Penny 🙂 Other people’s spelling mistakes drive me nuts, so I get it. In fact, I’m such a stickler over spelling mistakes that it’s very embarrassing when I make them.

  13. Alpenliter says:

    Thus far, we have seen the beginning of the encounter from the dash cam, and the end; the fatal conclusions from the cell phone video. But we haven’t seen the most important part; the taser attack, the fight over the taser, the verbal commands, etc. etc. It will only fall upon the most dubious standard: the eyewitness. What bothers me the most is the “throwdown” of the taser next to the victim and the lack of first aid. Great article Ox!

  14. Great article on an extremely important subject.

    Thank You!!

    • There is always someone who can come up with many possible reasons for anything. Seconds? The officer had time to stop and think why he was even shooting at the man, why he needed to even pull out his gun and RUNNING AWAY. It doesn’t matter what the man did before that time. There was no threat to the officer when a person IS RUNNING AWAY & with no gun.

      • Jerry, I’m a little confused. There was nothing in this article that defended the officer choosing to shoot the fleeing man in the back. If there was something I said that gave that impression, please let me know so I can change it.

      • You are right! He shot the man, period. This is in response to Jerry`s comment.

  15. Good article but the multitude of spelling errors was distracting.

    • That’s not good…I saw my mistake on break/brake, but neither I nor 2 spell checks picked up any others…I’d love to know & fix the rest if you could tell me.

  16. Aaron Bjorklund says:

    Great article. Valid points. Something to truly stop and think about.

  17. Great piece very interesting. I forwarded your piece but I took the liberty of changing the word breaks to brakes, I hope you don’t mind.
    After ready your article it appears that I need more training thanks.

    • Yup…I made the change too 🙂 If you don’t mind, it’d be awesome if you forwarded the link to the article.

  18. Anthony Cole says:

    Great article! I will definitely be applying these lessons.

  19. Typo alert:
    “For most people, this means spending a TON of money on ammo and range fees, but the fact that you’re hear means you’ve got a HUGE leg up. ”

    It should be “you’re here”

  20. Great tips! Thanks for the article.

  21. PeaceSouljer says:

    Great Article – it sounds like part of it is referring to the OODA loop. Many smaller police departments, like N. Charleston, and where there is not a predominance of violent clashes between perps and the police, the training you refer to is either not mandated or unaffordable.
    My concern was how they got from the Autozone parking lot to what looked like a walking path, and why the officer was initially going to deploy his tazer. These are things the video did not show. Also, how is the officer going to get a fair trial with all the “bad” press, even from the likes of the police chief? It surely is sickening to think of these two lives ruined because of a few seconds of panic.

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