One-Shot Stopping

GunfightOne of the worst myths created by movies and TV is the one-shot stop. You know how it goes: an action-adventure hero runs into a warehouse filled with bad guys. A gunfight breaks out. The hero runs through a maze of crates and equipment and takes down every bad guy he encounters until he reaches the evil mastermind, who is too skilled and devious to be taken down so easily. Cat and mouse ensues until the evildoer is either brought to justice or killed in some vengeful and Technicolorful manner.

A lot of these scenes take place with the hero using a handgun. He shoots guys on catwalks a hundred feet away (and they fall dramatically into vats of acid or molten metal or they get impaled on some sharp object). Apart from the incredible skill needed to shoot people fatally while running and using a pistol, the even greater fiction foisted on audiences through repetition is that one bullet will kill a human being.

Bad guys go down with one shot, yet the good guys often sustain multiple wounds and keep on going like Energizer bunnies. Isn’t this becoming a cliche’?

One handgun bullet can kill a human being, but at any distance other than close-up, it’s unlikely. The ultimate one-shot showstopper in movies is always the head shot. But in real life, even a head shot is not certain. Just think of Gabby Gifford, the Arizona Congresswoman who in 2011 was shot in the head at point blank range by a would-be assassin. She survived and is gaining back her normal functionality at an amazing rate.

First, using a handgun to shoot someone in a vital spot is very difficult outside of room-size distance (ten to fifteen feet). Second, even if someone is shot in a vital spot, adrenaline is pouring into that person’s body and will mask the effects of the wound for possibly several minutes; even after sustaining multiple fatal gunshot wounds, that person can remain dangerously functional. Literally, they don’t yet know they’re dead.

A vivid example of this phenomenon occurred over two decades ago when the FBI was engaged in a shootout with an armed criminal. Over a dozen FBI agents poured fire onto this guy, shooting hundreds of bullets. The guy went down. They had seen shots pound into his chest. He was covered in blood. He had to be dead

Think of the old adage: never assume. They assumed he was dead. Technically, he was. His autopsy later showed he had sustained seven fatal wounds; three bullets had pierced his heart.

Here’s the bad part. As agents approached what they thought was a dead body, the criminal opened fire again, killing three FBI agents and wounding several others. The criminal did not know he was dead…yet.

Had some of the FBI agents been influenced by the myths that we see over and over again in movies? If one-shot kills are common, then shouldn’t multiple-shot kills be a certainty? We’ll never know what they were thinking and whether movie and TV myths had created a dangerous mindset, but it’s a cautionary tale to remember.

The point is that so many movie and TV scenarios are written out of convenience: make a lot of special-effects flash and thunder, take out lots of bad guys, and get the hero into the confrontation with the evil mastermind.

Dexter is in Me ...Maybe there’s no hope for movie and TV producers where the visuals are all-important, but book writers can use real-world physical information to construct situations that are far more dramatic and thoughtful and, thus, more interesting for the reader. The running-through-a-hail-of bullets-and-making-fantastic-one-shot-kills-scenario is so hackneyed it’s boring. If a hero faces steep odds, let’s see him or her work out a different, grittier solution. The hero can still use a gun, but let’s not make it so damn easy.

Heroes are supposed to suffer.

Matthew Bayan is a writer and a firearms expert. Learn more at