The ‘Speed vs. Accuracy’ equation


by Peter Burlingame

One of the most difficult subjects to master in gunfighting is the balance of speed versus accuracy.

If you are fighting for your life, you need to get your shot off before the attacker can cause harm. However, it is also important that your bullet hits the intended target – not just to stop the attack, but so it doesn’t injure an innocent person.

An attacker that is two yards away is a large, close, easy to hit target. But you have less than a second to stop him before he hurts you. In this case, speed has more weight. A home invader is coming down the hallway in your house. He is 30 feet away and if you miss, your bullets might penetrate a wall injuring a family member. Here, accuracy is becoming more important, but time still is a factor.

A few months ago, a citizen saw a police officer and a criminal engaged in a gun fight. They were 100 yards away from each other, and the bad guy was 180 yards away from the citizen. The citizen took careful aim with his revolver and made 4 hits out of 6, helping the officer end the fight. While that is a very unusual case, it illustrates a situation when accuracy vastly outweighed speed.

Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

In my 25 years of teaching the subject, I find that some people have just one speed. Some can only shoot fast, and some can only shoot slowly. Whichever one it is, that speed will only be appropriate in a narrow range of situations. Learning to adapt and adjust your speed to the specific situation can be explained with this analogy:

Imagine a winding road: there are sharp 90-degree turns, longer sweeping curves, and straightaways of various lengths.  Let’s say that for the average driver, the sharpest curve can be taken safely at 20 miles per hour. Should you then drive the entire length of the road at 20 mph?

We’ve all been behind the driver that does just that. But most of us, once through the turn, speed up as we leave the curve.  We may bring it up to 55 on the straight, and then brake down to 40 for the sweeping left curve, back on the gas up to 55 again for a quarter mile until we need to brake to 30 for the tight turn that is coming up.

Instead of just going one speed, we continually adjust it to the conditions. If things are easy, we go fast, when they get harder, we slow down.  Various factors can affect the speed versus accuracy equation. If it is night time, or raining, do you adjust the speed at which you drive? What about equipment? Can you travel along that winding road at a different clip in a sports car, as opposed to an SUV?

And then there is experience and training. Will a new driver be able to safely drive the winding road as fast as someone with a couple of decades of experience? And will the experienced person be able to go as fast as the driver who has had professional training?

Environmental conditions (type of curve, rain, lighting, etc) equipment, experience, and training all of these effect the speed/accuracy equation.

Now that we understand that we need to vary our speed to meet the situation, how do we know just how fast we can go? We learn this, in a safe training environment, by pushing the envelope. Let’s go back to the 20 mile an hour curve. We’ve gone to a driving school, where we’ve learned some of the fundamentals of performance driving. With this new knowledge and skill we approach the 20 mph turn, shedding excess speed, braking down to 25, pick the proper ‘line’ and go through the turn smoothly. No drama.

Okay, let’s try it again, this time entering at 30. We hear the tires screeching a bit, and feel more of the centripetal force pulling us and the car, but still make it through the turn okay.
Next approach is at 35. We put the car into a 4 wheel drift, peg the line perfectly, smoothly unwind the wheel and apply some gas and exit at 40. We are now approaching the limits of man and machine.

One more time at the turn. Same as the last one, but we are now carrying 40 mph as we enter. This is just a bit too much and both off-side wheels drop off the pavement, onto the shoulder. We manage to pull it out, but it’s a near run thing.

Photo courtesy Peter Burlingame

This lesson applies directly to gunfighting. In both driving and gunfighting, lives maybe lost if you push too far. A moment’s inattention, going too fast, or too slow, or trying to perform above your level of ability can have grave costs.

If the attacker is close and neither of you are moving, speed is of the utmost importance. It’s like the 55mph straightaway, an easy thing to do, but it should be done quickly. As the distance increases between you and the assailant, missing becomes much easier (and remember, you are responsible for every bullet that you fire. Both where it ends up and what it passed through to get there) so we have to slow down a little. If you and the attacker are both moving, this is the 20 mph hairpin turn. You have to really pay attention, bear down on the fundamentals and shoot only as fast as you can make HITS.

We also see that experience and training make a great difference in your performance. Experience by itself can be a good teacher, but you will learn faster and better if you study under someone that not only knows what they are doing, but is capable of teaching that to others. A good instructor will also be able to critique your performance, show you your strong points, identify what you need to work on, and eliminate bad habits. Something that experience alone won’t necessarily do.

The other side of this exercise is to learn what you are capable of, to learn what YOUR limits are. John Farnam of Defense Training International teaches an ‘80% rule’, where you don’t take a shot unless you have an at least an 80% chance of hitting the target. I like that way of looking at defensive shooting. Nothing is 100% in a dynamic situation, but you should have a very high degree of confidence to making the shot.  You should know the level of your abilities and be able to decide when to pass up a shot. Once fired, you can’t call a bullet back. Can you live with all of the consequences of where it goes?

So, how fast can you go? I don’t know. You don’t know. We’ll find out. But only if you push yourself. That’s what training and practice will do for you. Start smooth. Start slowly. Then pick up the pace. As you perform more repetitions, add a little more speed.  Push until you ‘hear the wheels start to squeal’. That’s when we know we are approaching the limits. For the shooter, that means her bullet groups are spreading out to the edges of the target. Now add another 5mph.  Oops! We dropped a shot or two out of the target. That’s fine. We’re on the range, training. It’ OK to miss (you learn more from failure than success) Now that we’ve exceeded our limits, we need to back off. How much? 50%? No, just back down to where the wheels are squealing. Then start pushing the limits again.  You will soon find that you can quickly and precisely place bullets where you want, on demand.

Your training regime should reflect realism, practicing skills that you are most likely to need. If you get attacked, how far away will the bad guy be? How many assailants will there be? Will either of you be moving? What’s the longest distance at which you will need to make a shot? How much time will you have?

You are in the parking lot of your neighborhood grocery store, walking to your vehicle.  A robber jumps out from behind a car and points his gun at you. You drop your bags, back pedal to make distance and step behind a car for cover as you draw your pistol. The bad guy whips off a couple of shots that miss. He is now 20 feet away from you, and there are various cars driving by behind him. Do you have at least an 80% chance of hitting him? Can you live with the consequences of a miss?

As you walk across the parking lot, you see a man stab a woman 20 yards away, he is about to stab her again.  Could you make that shot? The only way to gauge your ability to perform these tasks is dynamic practice, under stress.  Remember that shooting is a perishable skill. If I spend a couple of months focusing on my rifle shooting and neglect practicing with my pistol, I notice that my draw time is longer and not as smooth and sure.  Once you’ve attained the level of skill that you want, you will need to have a maintenance program to stay there.

To wrap up, the speed/accuracy equation is about being able to look at a situation and determine the correct balance between those two variables, and know whether or not can make that shot with a high probability of success.

Peter Burlingame is the founder of The Self Defense Initiative, a 25 year old training school based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Peter is a contributing member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association. His articles have been published in the FBI’s National Associates’ magazine, “The Firearms Instructor” and “Survival Quarterly.” You may contact him at Videos at


About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1777 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.


  1. Pingback: Shot Timers | | The Gun Writer

  2. Pingback: Multifunction reactive targets |

  3. Pingback: Pact III Club Timer Review and Demonstration | Shepherd School

  4. Pingback: The 6 Best Shot Timers 2018 (Reviews Of Competition Shooting)

  5. Hi, I appreciate every bit of your efforts to let us know about Hunting . In fact, we’re going to study and research it as part of a half-yearly initiative supported by our websites Rangerexpert and group of partners.

Leave A Reply