What's the difference between 'offensive' and 'defensive' shooting?

When trained thoroughly, mentally, physically, and visually in true reactive shooting, there is no difference between 'offensive' and 'defensive' shooting

One of the discussions that seems to come up fairly frequently is “offensive” vs. “defensive” shooting.  These discussions follow a general theme that when you are “startled” or “surprised,” you are going to react or behave differently in your responses when compared to when you are “ready” and anticipating action on the part of a subject (a man-with-a-gun call, SWAT callout, etc.).

Some trainers have tried to capitalize on the “startle” response and tell us what we are going to do and then how to use the response to flow into a defensive strategy. Others have tried to justify a default response, usually point shooting, as an immediate action drill to make up for a “transition” from defense to an organized offense. Still others have voiced the opinion that there is no difference between “offensive” vs. “defensive” shooting. Shooting is shooting, period.

I get a lot of feedback about how we should always be prepared for anything and that surprise is not an option. Mental color codes, mental conditioning, situational awareness, as well as endless practice routines and training drills are all designed to make people feel better about the very real dangers we face on the street every day.

Is There a Difference?
At some point, I’m invariably asked, “What do you think, Ron? Is there a difference between offensive vs. defensive/surprise encounter shooting?”

Well, I’ll tell you what I think. I will speak from personal experiences, training experiences, conversations with colleagues, and my own research.

There can be a difference if were truly mentally surprised — you were not ready to respond when it happened — and that causes you extreme anxiety. Physically, when the mental state is not up to the task of processing — and when the subconscious mind is not well trained — it will be reflected in sub-par skills.

When trained thoroughly, mentally, physically, and visually in true reactive shooting, there is no difference between “offensive” and “defensive” shooting — IF you process the situation and task focus under duress.

Anxiety: A Primary Culprit
Anxiety is a primary causative factor in performer failure and is also a motivating factor in many seeking training or a drill or response to mitigate their anxiety. High levels of anxiety can cause people to make bad choices, flub their skills and perform subpar.

Rather than trying to come up with “training recipes” all the time so people feel better temporarily, let’s work on principle applications that create more permanent and workable solutions.

Reduction of anxiety is accomplished by commitment, acceptance, situational awareness, preparation and experience/adaptive thinking.

Commitment to Mission
There are no guarantees that you will live in any given situation. But you do have a choice on how you choose to act.

As I like to say, “Your will is what gets you through the door, your skills will hopefully get you back out again.”

Your values and beliefs — as well as the strength of the beliefs and emotional connection you have to them — are a prime mover in any situation. If you are truly committed to doing your duty and intervening in potentially dangerous situations because you truly believe that what you are doing is right, then anxiety is greatly reduced.

Said simply, you have already made your choice of what you are going to do.

That doesn’t mean there is no fear. It means that you choose to act in the face of fear and that is called courage.

Part of our beliefs and value system has to do with how you value yourself. I won’t speak for others but I will speak my mind. I don’t put myself as #1. I put others as #1. When others are in danger, I value their lives and I willingly put myself at risk for my country/society, my family and my friends.

Situational Awareness
I won’t get into this one too much as it is an obvious one. The world is a potentially dangerous place and it is our responsibility to maintain a connection with what is going on around us. When I see officers with eyes glued to their phones and texting while eating lunch, taking a poor position, and generally oblivious to what is going on around them I can only shake my head.

Living in condition OWAC (operating without a clue) is not a strategy for longevity. If you need downtime, go somewhere where you are protected from approach or can see someone coming from a long ways away.

Jeff Cooper’s Color Code is an excellent treatise on mindset, situational and operational readiness.

Mental and Operational Preparation
As has been said in the past, “Preparation is a state of mind, not an abundance of supply.”

When addressing the question of offensive vs. defensive shooting, it all comes down to mental and physical preparation. I am talking principles here, not methods or strategies.

Be Ready, Don’t ‘Get Ready’

When you expect something to happen and it does and YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO, there is very little lag time.
Expect something to happen when you walk up to a car, make a contact, go into a convenience store for a late night snack or sit down in a restaurant.  That doesn’t mean you draw your weapon. It means you are prepared for a possible encounter and have a plan for the eventuality of events that could occur. This is a mindset.
I teach my students to start with the possibility of deadly force in mind when entering any situations and look at it first from a potential deadly force perspective. What is your plan? Then let the situation show you the correct level of force required, if any.

Experiential Training and Technical Training

Experiential training is training in an environment similar to what you will encounter in the real world. It need not be exact if you have an adaptive mindset and can use your imagination properly. Acclimation is the key here to allow people to learn to process, decide and operate at the speed of real world engagements.
Technical training is training truly reactive shooting skills at the speed of the gunfight. They are truly necessary and I see a big gap between true gunfight speed training and the speed most people shoot in training. Taking training shortcuts by trying to teach quick and dirty shooting techniques will not prepare you for the totality of what you will face when you have to do it for real. I can speak from real world street experience that how you train makes a very real difference in how you perform.


Experience allows you to acclimate to situations and get used to the dangers and distractions and gain confidence through successful application of skill and judgment. Calmness under duress is built by both training and experience and knowing what to expect and how to deal with it.
Experience can be a problem when you run into something outside of your experience and have to handle it. This is where adaptive thinking comes into play. By using your experience and correct training principles, you can adapt your thinking to the requirements of the mission at hand and come up with a good strategy.

To summarize, mental and physical preparation will minimize poor responses to dangerous situations. Affirming commitment to mission, training with the correct level of intensity along with high quality information and training is the path to true preparation.

My primary sergeant, Dalton Carr, told me straight many years ago when he said, “Ron, make the first shot count, you might not get a second.” 

I never forgot it.

Offensive or defensive shooting, it all boils down that that.

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