Knowing Your Reactionary Gap Might Just Save Your Life

Photo of Thug with Tire Iron for Personal Defense Connection's reactionary gap post

If there was just one practical personal safety concept that I could teach everyone, it would be the Reactionary Gap.

What is a reactionary gap? It is simply the distance needed between you and an attacker so you will have the time to defensively react to an aggressive attack. How far is the reactionary gap?

Some have described a comfortable reactionary gap as two arm lengths or about 6 feet. I believe those descriptions are given to make it easier for the instructor and not necessarily accurate.

If the attacker starts his attack at the edge of or outside your reactionary gap, you have time to do something to protect yourself before you get hit. If he is inside your reactionary gap, well…simply put, you don’t have enough time to do what you've (hopefully) been trained to do. OUCH!

There are variables that influence your Reactionary Gap

Situational Awareness

In the personal defense world, situational awareness is a common theme. It stems from the idea that you can’t defend against what you don’t know is coming. So pay attention to your surroundings so you can more quickly recognize that there is a potential threat.

Basically, awareness can shorten your reactionary gap (giving you more time to defend yourself) while being unaware makes your reactionary much longer (or even nonexistent).

Related Post: "Awareness: The Cornerstone of Self Defense"

Action vs. reaction

Reaction (defense) is always slower than action (attack). Unless you can read minds, you won’t know if/when an attack is coming. You will always start your movement (defense) after an attacker makes his move. The attacker will always have the jump-start and that gives him a big advantage.

The further away you are from the attacker; the more time you will have to react. But how far away from the attacker do you have to be to counteract the action vs. reaction phenomenon? Stay tuned for the answer.


Since time to be able to defend yourself is what we’re after, and moving in balance is faster than moving off-balance, a balanced posture/position is a critical factor in applying your reactionary gap to your situation. Simply keep your feet under your center of gravity (pelvic bowl) and keep your head and shoulders above your pelvic bowl (don’t bend at the hips).


Force the attacker to move around a barrier. Move behind an object (chair, car, tree, etc.). When you do that, it will take just a little longer for the attacker to get to you. The idea is for you to move in a straight line (fast) and make the attacker move in a curved line (slow).

Physical condition

I’d like to believe that I’m still as fast and strong as I was in my 20’s. But let’s be honest. I’m not, and that means my reactionary gap needs to be bigger than it used to be.

Physical conditioning, no matter what your age, will enhance your reactionary gap. When you are in shape and agile, you can move faster and move in balance.

Keep in mind, though, that if the attacker is also in good physical condition, you may still need to extend your reactionary gap.

So, what distance is Your Reactionary Gap?

Here’s how to find out what distance your reactionary gap should be from an attacker.

  • Have a training partner stand in front of you and quickly reach out and tap your shoulder.

  • You attempt to block the “attack.”

  • Start at 3 feet apart and move back a foot each time you attempt to block, until you can consistently block the “attack.”

  • Your partner will eventually need to take a step in order to tap your shoulder.

Once you determine that reactionary gap:

  • Have your training partner stand to your side (90 degree angle) while you check your phone for Facebook updates ;-) (or whatever).

  • Have your partner start at the reactionary gap distance that you just determined in the previous steps.

  • Repeat the above process, moving a foot farther away each time until you can again consistently block the “attack.”

  • Measure the distance.

Now you know your Reactionary Gap

Life doesn't allow you to keep your reactionary gap all the time. 

Subways, buses, standing in line at the store, etc., make it difficult to maintain your distance. (In those cases, look around you and be as aware as possible for any signs of threats. Put your phone away. Stop reading the magazine headlines in the store line.)  Think about it as you go through your day. And you’ll find plenty of opportunities where you can increase your safety by maintaining your reactionary gap.

Now that you know your reactionary gap, you still need to know what to do during the time that it gives you.  Now is the time to learn defensive principles, techniques and tactics so that you can defend yourself effectively during the time the reactionary gap offers you.

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Stay Safe...

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