Shoot first?
September 3, 2009 10:59 AM   Subscribe

In a 1 on 1 standoff with guns pointed at each other's head point blank, the hollywood convention seems to be that neither party wants to risk shooting because there seems to be an assumption that although the person has just taken a bullet between the eyes, they would magically squeeze off a shot back at the other person and kill them also. Any real-life accounts or science of what would really happen if one person just took the shot?

It seems to me that it is entirely possible that if I just took a bullet in the head at point blank range that my trigger finger would twitch enough for my gun to go off also and blow the other guy's head off, but on the other hand it's just as possible that this would never happen 99 times out of 100.
Even in a standoff at a few paces distance I still think if I just got shot I would be too shocked and wounded to be able to get off a shot back at the guy, especially considering that the first shot would likely be followed in rapid succession with as many bullets as possible until it was sure that I was dead.
posted by dino terror to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
TVTropes: Instant Death Bullet, Mexican Standoff.
posted by zamboni at 11:13 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think the fear for each member of the standoff is that their opponent will react to the minute physical changes that result from the physical motions required to fire the weapon, and squeeze the trigger in response.

I don't really think the fear is that the other gunfighter will shoot them after taking one to the face.
posted by joelhunt at 11:14 AM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Fortunately, I've never been in the situation, but I imagine if you were, your eyes would be trained on the other person's trigger finger. Given you'd see that move momentarily before the gun went off, I would imagine it would be possible to send enough of a neural impulse to your own finger to ensure your trigger is pulled too - even if you're dead by then. Human reaction time to a visual stimulus is c. 220 ish milliseconds, maybe faster if you're running on the adrenaline you certainly would be.

I always find it credible that in these movie scenarios, neither participant does shoot. Human brains are wired to value potential losses higher than possible gains: few losses are bigger than death itself, whereas surviving if you shoot first is very uncertain (ergo your question). Moreover, there's been some interesting study of micro-expressions and mirror neurons that would suggest both gunman are subconsciously aware of how the other is moving / not moving their finger. I find it quite credible that in this scenario, a sort of not-shooting feedback loop develops that effectively paralyses both participants. I know I would be...
posted by momentofmagnus at 11:25 AM on September 3, 2009

You'd be surprised how often people survive and retain their abilities after a gunshot to the head, even if only for a few moments before bleeding out. The only way to guarantee instant incapacitation is to hit the brainstem. But I doubt movie audiences are aware of this, and the plot device probably relies on all the other assumed reasons posted here.

The real Hollywood cliche is gunshot wound = dropping dead (unless expository speech required). It takes many shots or one very precise shot to kill the average person quickly.
posted by randomstriker at 12:19 PM on September 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh and I base my comments on the assumed use of handguns which shoot small, low-energy bullets. Once high-power firearms capable of producing hydrostatic shock in the target enter the equation, all bets are off.
posted by randomstriker at 12:24 PM on September 3, 2009

What if you miss?
posted by dsword at 12:36 PM on September 3, 2009

"What if you miss?"

At point blank range? I'd imagine someone in this situation has at least some experience shooting. You might not hit the brainstem, but I doubt you'd completely miss the entire person. And as the OP says, you'd fire more than once too.
posted by zachlipton at 12:47 PM on September 3, 2009

@zachlipton: You'd be surprised how easy it is to miss something as small as a human brain from say, 10 feet. Hand guns are notoriously hard to use under duress, which is why it's probably a good idea to RUN THE HELL AWAY from an attacker with a pistol if they're more than a couple feet off.

FWIW, shots to the torso are ludicrously far from "stop them instantly" things. Back when my wife was an EMT, she transported a guy with nine 9mm rounds in his back. He was walking around just fine and bleeding very little when they arrived on the scene a few minutes later. He might've died at the hospital, but was OK at the time.
posted by paanta at 12:55 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One thing that occurs to me is looking back at the old pistol duels, or even Wild West showdowns. In those cases I wonder how often the guy who shoots and hits first actually gets shot in return. My money is still on shooting first. Although I realize that the person won't be instantly dead in most cases, if I know my aim is good enough to hit them in the head I would take that headshot with a fair amount of confidence they aren't going to hit me back after that.
posted by dino terror at 2:04 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Considering however that I believe a pistol duel is over as soon as someone is hit, instead I remember reading about statistical analysis of police shootouts and I believe that it was saying the first guy to get hit is the least likely to survive. Not positive, but I might have read that on MeFi.
posted by dino terror at 2:13 PM on September 3, 2009

Unlike what the movies would have people believe, most gunshots are not instant kills (I believe this is true even with headshots that don't separate the brain stem). In the exceedingly improbable event of an actual Hollywood styled standoff shootouts, I'd imagine that everyone would end up able to shoot one another, and then they'd lay on the ground slowly bleeding out.
posted by quin at 2:24 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

To echo what others saying about bullets to head not being necessarily fatal, I'd like to paraphrase a particular head and neck surgeon who, when teaching us about head trauma, showed us a picture of an attempted suicide by gun-to-the-head whom he successfully operated on and said, "Now, I hate cases like this. Through the mouth, people, through the mouth!"
posted by greatgefilte at 4:05 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't have a cite (was in a book on domestic terrorism I read a long time ago), and the circumstances are a little different, but someone once asked why, in a hostage situation where the perpetrator has a gun to the victim's head and negotiations fail, a SWAT sniper just doesn't take the guy out with a headshot.

The answer was that (accuracy issues aside) when the bullet hits the perpetrator's head, there is the fear that it may hit a nerve and trigger the reflex that causes the perpetrator to pull the trigger on his victim as well. If the sniper is given the green light to shoot to kill, they won't do it while the perpetrator's gun is pointed at the victim's head-- they will wait for him to point the gun elsewhere before taking the shot.

I would think the same physics apply in your duel scenario.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 4:18 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

If there are no hostages, MI6 are trained to headshot twice in rapid succession to ensure an insta-kill w/o retaliation. This shock will stop them cold.

In a John Woo situation, they're pointing small pistols at each other single-handed (poor aim). Given the above reasons, and if no one gives up, both will die with they're close to each other. One dead, the other badly wounded as in more realistic cop shows.
posted by jayne at 5:47 PM on September 3, 2009

To back up my above point, here's a news article that suggests the takedown isn't performed until the perpetrator starts pointing the gun away from the hostage:
Instead, Jackson, 59, was alternating putting the gun to his head and the hostage's head. That was when one of the containment officers -- a 16-year veteran with three years' SWAT experience -- alerted his commanders he had a shot from about 25 yards away. Permission to take the shot, while not required, was granted, and the officer shot Jackson with an M4 rifle.
But to go even further on the phenomenon described, here's a citation from a book different from what I read although it describes the same dilemma:

Sniper by Peter Brookesmith. "Instant Effect" in particular.
The one occasion when an instant kill is absolutely necessary occurs when a hostage is being held at gunpoint. In that case the shot not only has to be lethal-- it has to drop the perpetrator before he has a chance to react, even through an involuntary reflex action to being hit, and kill the hostage. There is a way to prevent even reflex action-- and that is to sever all the neurological connections between the brain and the muscles.

This can be done-- by putting a bullet through the medulla oblongata, or 'brain stem,' which links the brain itself to the spinal cord. Through it pass all the nervous impulses (tiny electrical charges, in fact) from the brain to the body. Cutting it should prevent both the feared conscious reaction by the target--killing the hostage-- or a convulsive reflex response that has the same result.
So there you go. The reason they don't shoot is because it's mutually assured destruction unless they miraculously sever their opponent's brain from their spine. Which is not likely when you consider jayne's variables above.
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 2:48 PM on September 4, 2009

I had always associated this with the idea of a "hair trigger." You shoot and kill a person but the trigger pull is so light that any movement at all risks firing.
posted by M Edward at 6:52 PM on September 5, 2009

(disclaimer : I have never owned a gun, and don't know anything about real situations where guns are involved)

I would guess that if two people are pointing guns at each other, neither person really wants to shoot the other. If they wanted to shoot, they would just shoot, and the first person who shot accurately would have a better chance of living. If someone is threatening with a gun as opposed to killing with a gun, I would guess that they have a reason (if only in the very immediate sense) for not shooting, and this has nothing to do with the fear of a "death twitch" in the other person's trigger finger.

Having said that, they probably just use it in movies because it's a cheap way to build tension.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:18 PM on September 5, 2009

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