Now it is proven! Draw last, draw fast.

Posted by on Feb 13, 2011 in Stories of the Way

Warriors throughout history have duelled for survival. Often evenly matched with the same sword or gun, yet one survived and one died. Which was better, to draw first or last?

To get the advantage of reaching for the gun, or drawing the sword first? The “first strike” capability.  Or to stay relaxed (but alert) and only respond to the other’s aggression.

In an article for the BBC Today program, entitled The gunfighter’s dilemma, Tom Feilden reported on the latest research into this phenomena:

“In the real world, logic dictates that the gunslinger who draws first has a clear advantage. In a duel to the death, where every second counts, a head start should make all the difference. But we all know Hollywood’s answer: In the movies the hero always waits for the man in the black hat to move first, securing the moral high ground, before beating him with superior quick-fire skills.”

If only everything in life was so simple.

New research from the University of Birmingham suggests the best strategy may actually be to wait for the other guy to make his move. In a series of “laboratory gunfights” – with pistols replaced by electronic pressure pads – researchers found that participants who reacted to their opponent’s movement were on average 21 milliseconds faster to the draw.

This confirms the expectation of Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, Niels Bohr, who liked to take time off from figuring out the structure of the universe by watching westerns. Bohr noticed that the man who drew first invariably got shot, and speculated that the intentional act of drawing and shooting was slower to execute than the action in response.

Here was a hypothesis that could be tested, and with the aid of cap guns hastily purchased in a Copenhagen toyshop, duly proved it. In a series of mock gunfights with colleagues Bohr always drew second and always won.

According to Manjit Kumar, the author of Quantum, Bohr’s prowess as a gunslinger was such that his victims wrote a ditty about him.

On pistols and lead, now Bohr had to prove
The defendant is quickest to move.
Bohr accepted the challenge without a frown
He drew when we drew, and shot each one of us down.
This tale has a moral, tho’ we knew it before.
It’s foolish to question the wisdom of Bohr.”

For Japanese swordsmen this was never a matter of conjecture.