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Shooting From Retention

Using a defensive handgun in close quarters for personal protection requires a special skillset could save your life.

Shooting From Retention

(Photo courtesy of author)

It’s well documented that the deadliest distance for police officers is between zero and 5 feet. This should come as no surprise since the role of a police officer is largely reactionary. In other words, the bad guy usually gets to make the first move. Within 5 feet, there is little time to perceive, much less react to a deadly threat. 

According to Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) statistics, during the 10-year period between 2011-2020, 258 of the 503 officers killed by gunfire were within 10 feet of the offender when shot and 171 officers were within 5 feet, where handgun retention becomes significant. In fact, during that same period, 16 officers were disarmed and murdered with their own guns. 

Unfortunately, this isn’t an anomaly. It’s a pattern and one that’s not only significant to police officers. For the defensive handgunner, thriving in close quarters means developing a retention shooting skillset. 

Shooting from retention 04
Defensive shootings often take place at arms reach, keeping ahold of your gun is a critical consideration. (Photo courtesy of author)

Why Retention Shooting Matters 

As a 25-year police officer, I can’t recall investigating any robberies where the suspect demanded the victim’s wallet from across the street. Criminals close distance to minimize the likelihood of being caught, to get the drop on their intended victim and, finally, for the purpose of intimidation. But if you’re like most people, you probably have a lot more experience shooting from 15 yards than 5 feet. 

Should you find yourself the target of an armed criminal, you will be reacting to their action, meaning you’ll be starting from behind the eight ball. I don’t know of statistics citing the distance from which armed citizens have been shot and killed, but it stands to reason that the data would similarly skew toward close-quarter encounters. 

With an aggressive and determined opponent within 10 feet, extending your gun fully to get behind the sights may be ill-advised. There’s a high likelihood the assailant will avert the muzzle and attack, possibly even disarm you. That’s why developing a retention shooting skillset is so important. Bringing your gun closer to your body makes it harder for the assailant to reach, and affords you the leverage advantage should they manage to grab it. 

I teach two retention shooting positions, one-handed and two-handed. Each is a natural component of a proper combat drawstroke, where the gun is drawn up before being extended out. 

One-Handed Retention Position 

Shooting from retention 03
Use your arm and elbow to protect your head and provide a barrier as you prepare to fire from retention. (Photo courtesy of author)

As you draw your pistol from the holster, raise your elbow as high as possible, without having to contort your body. By raising the elbow as high as you can, you ensure consistency, which is of critical importance because it is your body alignment and physical reference points that allow you to aim the pistol when the sights are well below eye level. Speaking of reference points, the heel of your shooting hand should index against your chest, with your thumb flagged, as though you were trying to hitch a ride. 

Flagging your thumb provides sufficient stand-off so the slide of your pistol won’t snag on your clothing and possibly lead to a malfunction. (This accomplishes the same thing as rotating the gun outboard, as is commonly taught, except the latter leaves you more vulnerable to being disarmed since your gun is further from your body with your wrist at a compromised angle). 

With your wrist locked, as it should be, your muzzle will point downward at an approximate 45° angle, directing fired rounds into the pelvic girdle. This is by design. Remember, the premise is that you’re being attacked at extremely close range. As such, your off-hand must be involved in the fight. Typically, that means striking the attacker’s head or protecting your own head. In either case, your off-hand is relatively high. 

Keeping your muzzle oriented downward greatly reduces the possibility of shooting your off-hand. Due to the muzzle orientation, the one-handed retention shooting position is only valid in extreme close quarters. Beyond a few feet, rounds fired from this position would impact the ground. 

Two-Handed Retention Position 

Shooting from retention 02
The two-handed retention position requires you to aim via body alignment and physical reference points. (Photo courtesy of author)

Going back to the drawstroke sequence, consider the next component after the one-handed retention position. As you lower your elbow and add the second hand to your grip, you can now deliver rounds along a horizontal plane, without risk of shooting your off-hand and without extending your gun toward your adversary. This makes the two-handed retention shooting position applicable out to several feet. Again, since the gun is below eye level, you will be aiming with your body as opposed to the sights on your gun. 


When you are square to the threat and you index the inside of your forearms against your torso, you can get predictably accurate hits at close range. Just be sure your gun is extended far enough from your chest that the slide doesn’t hit you. I’m not worried about you getting hurt, the bigger concern is inducing a malfunction when you need your gun to work. When you’re able to create space, you could fire from retention all the way through extension by simply driving the gun to the target. Achieving a sighted fire position is always advantageous when there’s no threat of having your gun knocked away or being disarmed. 

Shooting from retention 05
From the two-handed retention position you can drive the gun to the target and acquire your sights once you’ve created sufficient space. (Photo courtesy of author)

In Sum

The one-handed retention position enables you to safeguard your gun and deliver combat effective rounds even when clenched with an assailant.  It frees up your off-hand to fight or fend, as will assuredly be required in an arm’s length gunfight. Just be sure your off-hand is not in front of the muzzle. 

As the name implies, the two-handed retention position allows you to have both hands on your gun for a more secure grip. The downside is you don’t have a free hand with which to fight. Since your muzzle is relatively parallel to the ground, the two-handed retention position enables you to fire accurately from a further distance than the one-handed version. 

Adding retention shooting to your training regimen is a potential lifesaver. Don’t assume an armed encounter will be a mere press of the trigger. You may have to fight for an opportunity to draw your gun and you may have to physically fight an assailant even after you’ve shot him. 

A handgun round, regardless of caliber, isn’t likely to immediately incapacitate. You must be prepared to retain your gun and continue to fire until the threat is stopped. That’s where retention shooting comes into play. 

As a point of caution, it’s highly recommended that you familiarize yourself with these positions with an inert handgun before attempting live fire. When you begin to live fire from these positions, start slowly and ensure your round will impact a safe area and that no part of your body is in front of the muzzle. You may find a SIRT (Shot Indicating Resetting Trigger) Training Pistol beneficial. Although non-firing, it projects a laser that would clearly show where a live round would have impacted.

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