Running to cover under fire: Which is best? Straight line, crouched, or zig-zag?

Whether you’re fleeing the shooter or trying to reposition yourself for a tactical edge, what is the best way to relocate while under fire? If you ask the average person on the street the most common answer is “don’t run in a straight line!” When asked why they gave that answer, most people cite TV, movies, and pop culture. (Remember “Serpentine! Serpentine!” when Peter Falk and Alan Arkin were running from fire in The In-Laws?)

Countless tactical “experts,” wiki-sites, and even some University Police Departments suggest running in either a crouched position or in a zig-zag. The only problem is that almost none of these “experts” have much data to support their suggestions.

Greg Ellifritz, an instructor from the Tactical Defense Institute, decided to conduct a scientific experiment comparing straight line, zig-zag, and crouched runs. For this experiment Ellifritz used military and LEO grade non-lethal training ammunition, which is basically a standard cartridge with a paintball instead of a bullet.

Keep in mind that Ellifritz had to control as many variables as possible, so his results are only representative for this particular scenario. The shooter has a Glock 17, stands 20 feet from the target, and the target must run 30 feet across flat open ground to cover. To simulate a real world environment where the shooter may not know where all of his targets are or where they will run, the shooter begins with his back to the target, and the target can run to one of two cover positions.

His results were published in an Active Response Training article back in 2013. After 34 tests with mostly male subjects aged 20-70 (average age was 40), this is what he found:

Straight Line:

# Trials- 12

# Shots Fired- 21

% Hits- 52%

% Center Mass or head hits (out of total shots fired)- 47%


# Trials- 10

# Shots Fired- 20

% Hits- 55%

% Center Mass or head hits (out of total shots fired)- 50%


# Trials- 12

# Shots Fired- 24

% Hits- 54%

% Center Mass or head hits (out of total shots fired)- 36%

Ellifritz was surprised to discover that there was only a very small difference in hit rates. While the zig-zag method did have the lowest % center Mass or head hits, it did not have any lower % hits, meaning that the hits were taken to extremities. Another important note Ellifritz made was the total shot count, which was higher for both zig-zag and crouch methods. Basically running in a straight line allowed the target to get to cover faster than either other option. In some trials the shooter could only make one shot before the target was able to reach cover.

Ellifritz also comment on the discrepancy between center of mass shots. “If I was unarmed and not wearing body armor, I would prefer an extremity hit to one in the torso. If I was armed and needed that extremity to shoot back, or if I was wearing body armor, I would prefer the torso shot.”

In this scenario Ellifritz concludes that speed appears to be the most important factor. He suggests that there is not enough evidence to suggest that a zig-zag pattern of flight is the superior option. Although the zig-zag method has some benefits in certain scenarios, particularly for anyone who cannot run quickly. He advises against using the zig-zag mehtod for anyone with bad knees or who is wearing body armor. He strongly advises against running in a crouched position across open ground.