Is There a Proper Way to Fire Two Guns at Once?

Phillip G. asks: What’s the best way to fire two guns at once?

If you’ve ever seen pretty much any action movie involving a badass spy or member of law enforcement, you know a common trope in the industry is to have the protagonist firing away at the bad guys with a gun in both hands. But is this ever actually done in real life and, if so, what’s considered the proper method for such badass looking weapon wielding?

To begin with, there are indeed many accounts of people in history wielding two guns at once as a fighting tactic despite it being decried by basically every firearms expert on the planet today. In fact, historically matchlock pistols, among others, were often built and sold in pairs with some even being specifically designed to be held in either the left or the right hand.

As you might have guessed from this, there was a time when dual wielding was an excellent tactic to use, and in more modern times there is even one group of soldiers who seem to have used it in actual combat and outline the most effective way to do it, which we’ll get into shortly.

First, going back to the early days of hand guns, these weapons could only be fired once and then needed reloaded, which was a rather time consuming process; they also often had a tendency to not fire at all. Thus, choosing to hold two of the guns at the same time allowed you to increase the odds of getting at least one shot off and, in the best case, allowed two shots without needing to take the time to draw a second weapon or reload.

Not just for firing at multiple targets, this was a much better tactic for firing at one, as these guns were also notorious for their inaccuracy, even at relatively close range. Thus, firing two inaccurate weapons at a single target, potentially at more or less the same time, actually significantly increased your chance of hitting it.

As for documented accounts of people dual wielding historically, we have many. For example, many pirates seemed to have not just resorted to dual wielding for this purpose, but also often carried many more guns on their person when attacking or being attacked allowing for potentially multiple rounds of dual wielding. For example, notorious pirate Edward Thatch, aka Blackbeard, seems to have carried as many pistols as he could comfortably put on his person during attacks, allegedly upwards of 6-12 at a time.

Moving on to the late 18th century, we have this account from a June 16, 1772 letter recounting the attack on the HMS Gaspee, “Duddingston with his two Pistols in his hands, jumped up upon deck, went forward & hailed them. They answered they wanted Him & by God they would have Him dead or alive. He ordered them to keep off on their Peril. They continued to advance & he fired his Pistols amongst them, which hurt nobody. They returned the Fire immediately, shot the Captain in the Arm, & wounded him in the Body, of which it’s thought he will die.”

Another account of dual wielding can be found in this report of the exploits of lawman Bat Masterson, as accounted by one Dr. W.S. Cockrell:

W.B. Masterson… shot seven men dead within a few minutes. While in a frontier town, news was brought to him that his brother had been killed by a squad of ruffians just across the street. Taking a revolver in each hand, for he shoots readily with both, in this manner [Dr. Cockrell demonstrated by crossing his wrists to form an X], he ran over to avenge his brother. The murderers became terror-stricken when they saw him coming, and hastily locked the door. Masterson jumped square against the door with both feet, bursting it open at the first attempt. Then he sprang inside, firing immediately right and left. Four dropped dead in a shorter time than it requires to tell it….

Perhaps the most famous case of dual wielding of all is that of gold rush prospector and army veteran Captain Jonathan Davis. On December 19, 1854, Davis and two companions, James McDonald, and Dr. Bolivar Sparks, were walking on a trail in El Dorado County, California, when they were ambushed by a large band of outlaws. Said outlaws subsequently downed the good doctor and McDonald, leaving Davis to face the eleven bandits alone. Given the number of attackers firing at him simultaneously, he pulled out both of his Colt revolvers at once, stood his ground and emptied them.  When the guns were spent on both sides, their were four remaining bandits, meaning Davis had managed to down 7 moving targets with 12 total rounds.

Three of the remaining attackers then drew their Bowie knives and one reportedly a sword. Davis, who was noted as being an extremely good fencer, drew is own Bowie knife, managing to kill the first, disarm the second, lopping off one of his fingers and the guy’s nose in the process, and then dispatched the remaining two.

When the dust settled, seven of the bandits were dead and the remaining four would later die of their wounds. McDonald was also dead, but Dr. Sparks was still alive at this point, though later died of his wounds. As for Davis, he suffered only a few holes in his clothes and some minor flesh wounds from shots that had barely missed.

If you’re thinking maybe given that Davis is the only one who survived, he may have embellished his actions, it’s noted that beyond the Doctor living for a bit after to recount what happened, a group of miners nearby witnessed the firefight and would later corroborate Davis’ story.

Of course, it should be noted that it does seem in the vast majority of cases at this point in history most people had switched to favoring single wielding of their firearms for the simple reason that they now were using relatively reliable and accurate firearms that could hold multiple rounds, and in most cases you weren’t finding yourself out in the open under the attack of far more assailants than a single pistol could handle.

Further, while there is a bit of a time penalty in drawing a second weapon later in single wielding firing, some were exceptionally fast at it. For example, consider this account of Wild Bill Hickok,

He shot six times so quick it startled me, for his 6 was in his Holster when I said “Draw” I was looking directly at him and only saw a Motion & he was firing. No use to ask how he drew. I don’t know. I only saw his arm was not straight & stiff. There was a perceptible Curve to his arm, but very slight- every shot was in the paper and two in the spot, but all of them within one inch of an up and down line like this.

And speaking of ambidextrous shooting, while Hickok apparently did not typically dual wield as it was almost never necessary at this point, he was apparently prodigiously skilled at ambidextrous shooting, with the account going on,

We put up another paper and Bill tried his left hand with the result that all were in the paper but none in the spot but all of them on the up and down line (6 inch). Each almost over the other or in the same hole. I said Not quite so good Bill- He said, “I never shot a man with my left hand Except the time when some drunken Soldiers had me down on the floor and were trampling me and then I used both hands.”

And just as a pro-tip for those wanting a big target but slightly lower chance of death than aiming higher up, especially in more modern times with antibiotics and medical facilities and expertise, in this account, Hickok also states, “Charlie I hope you never have to shoot any man, but if you do, shoot him in the guts near the navel. You may not make a fatal shot, but he will get a shock that will paralyze his brain and arm so much that the fight is all over.”

Of course, modern guns are typically exceptionally accurate and some hold an amazingly high number of bullets, further skewing firearms experts against the practice of dual wielding, especially as depicted by Hollywood of firing at multiple targets at once, which is a sure fire way for most to not hit anything, though a select few can pull it off.

Exhibit A: a man considered by many to be “the greatest shooter of all time”, competitive shooter and many world record holder Jerry Miculek, who has a video you can go watch of him firing two guns at random targets popping up from about 7 meters away. He also did the same thing with just one gun for comparison. The results?

In the single weapon test, out of 26 shots, 24 found their marks on the randomly popping out targets. In the dual wielding test, 48 of the 52 shots found their mark, meaning he maintained the same 92.3% accuracy on both tests, but with one had twice as many bullets to work with.

However, beyond of course being one of the greatest gun wielders in history, it’s noteworthy here that he was standing completely still, unlike what is often depicted in movies with the characters running, jumping, flipping and firing at the same time. Further, Miculek was only firing one weapon at a time and explicitly noted the extreme difficulty in doing it this way versus single weapon firing, even though in the end his success rate of hitting the targets was the same in both tests.

And if you’re curious, while timing wasn’t an explicit thing being measured here, with the random popping out timing particularly potentially affecting results, for what it’s worth, we measured and the single gun fire took 36 seconds, or 1.38 seconds per shot, and the dual firing took 1 minute and 16 seconds, or a rate of about 1.46 seconds per shot- actually slower. But, again, Miculek wasn’t trying for speed here and the timing of the popouts wasn’t being regulated between the two tests. Rather, each test finished when he’d emptied the guns, with, in the case of dual firing, a couple instances of him not able to focus and fire at all before a target popped out and then disappeared.

It would be interesting to see him re-run the demonstration but specifically designing a test to see if he could be faster at hitting random targets with two guns compared to one. Or if his ability to adjust targeting with one gun is actually faster than his ability to refocus back and forth between weapons, as may be the case from this demonstration.

For another example, this time with timing factored, former army special operations officer Dave Royer managed to fire at 6 targets in 2.81 seconds with dual firing. However, despite both he and the targets being stationary, this resulted in just two solid hits, one mediocre glancing hit, and he missed three of the targets completely. In contrast, when he fired using only a single gun, while it did take almost a second more to fire at all six targets (3.73 seconds in this case), all but one of the hits was right on target, and the one that wasn’t was only barely off.

While they concluded from all this that dual firing was not effective, in fact, when he dual fired with both guns pointed at a single target, he was able to maintain his accuracy with both weapons, effectively allowing for a doubling of the rate of fire, should he so choose, while also doubling the number of bullets at his disposal without reloading or drawing another weapon.

Further, even with his non-optimal technique in the video of more or less stabbing at the target with each shot, rather than stabilizing both hands together in front with his only real movement being his trigger fingers, this at least pretty clearly demonstrated dual firing can be useful in some scenarios, similar to historic examples; just not necessarily when trying to fire at multiple targets simultaneously in most cases, with exceptions such as the aforementioned account from Wild Bill Hickock when his attackers were quite literally on top of him. When the attackers are that close, it’s hard to miss and aiming at two people at once can potentially be of benefit and practical.

This all brings us to the recommended way to dual fire to try to take advantage of the benefits the technique offers, while minimizing the potential decrease in accuracy. Royer aside, firearms experts we observed doing this almost universally recommend holding both weapons close together in front, such that your hands are more or less pressed together for added stabilization and ensuring both guns are mostly locked on the same target. You then use one of the gun’s sights for targeting, and ignore the other’s.

That said, there is a slightly more sophisticated way to do this recommended by the former Soviet counterintelligence agency called SMERSH, with the end goal here to add a tiny bit more stabilization.

Founded in 1942 and disbanded in 1946, SMERSH’s official duties, beyond making people chuckle over their name, which Stalin came up with as a portmanteau of two Russian words that more or less meant “Death to Spies”, involved routing out counter revolutionaries and eventually attempting to capture Hitler. It is this group who originally found Hitler’s body after Hitler bravely, and with no regard for his own personal safety, managed to infiltrate the Führerbunker and took himself out.

Going back to firing two guns at once, SMERSH agents were trained to press their hands together out in front of them as many other dual shooters recommend, but in addition they would also wrap their thumbs around each other in sort of a looping X hook for added stability.

Noteworthy here is that it’s believed that a similar tactic was used by the Soviet NKVD, of whom SMERSH were an offshoot because their standard sidearm, the Nagant M1895, was a revolver that only held 7 rounds. Firing in this manner then allowed them to fire 14 rounds with only a minor decrease in their overall accuracy, if any.

Of course, in all of this, modern weapons with their extreme accuracy, reliability, and often high number of bullets they hold, combined with the absurdly rare cases where one would actually need to double the number of rounds in their hands at a given moment makes it so seemingly no firearm expert today recommends anyone bother with practicing dual wielding. And certainly the way it’s depicted in film with the protagonists practically doing a gymnastics routine, sometimes even firing at targets on opposite sides of them simultaneously, is a surefire way for even the world’s best shooters to hit absolutely nothing unless the targets are right next to them or the size of Mount Everest.

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One comment

  • “Duel” and “dual” are not the same. It should be “dual wielding” throughout the article.