Situational awareness is the foundation of most survival skills. By constantly looking, listening, and using your other senses to pay attention to your surroundings, you develop a natural early warning system for various dangers. Those dark clouds on the horizon and the sudden breeze against your skin may signify an incoming storm. An individual’s tense body language, avoidant gaze, and unusually bulky jacket may indicate they’re planning an armed robbery of the store you just walked into. And in a worst-case scenario, those pops you just heard inside your office building might have been the sound of gunfire.

Shots at an outdoor range will sound substantially different than those echoing through a building.

By paying attention to these initial cues, we can be ready to react to a threat if it presents itself. On the other hand, if you’re glued to your phone, blasting music through your earbuds, or sidetracked by any number of other distractions, you may not see a threat coming until it’s too late.

Hearing the sound of gunfire might be an immediate sign of a life-and-death situation — of course, this is heavily dependent on context. In the wilderness or near a shooting range, it isn’t unusual, but in a school, church, or office building, it certainly is. Above all, it’s important to determine if what you heard was in fact a gunshot.

For those of us who’ve been shooting frequently for years or decades, it’s easy to feel assured that we’d know gunshots if we heard them. However, it’s not necessarily that simple. The sound of a handgun at an indoor range differs greatly from the sound of a large-caliber rifle outdoors; distance and directionality are also important factors. Also consider the presence or absence of ear protection, ambient noise, and other environmental factors that might skew perception.

Experience is the most effective teacher of this skill, but there are a few other ways to become better prepared to detect the first signs of gunfire. As a police officer and shooting instructor, Greg Ellifritz has often been asked the question “what does gunfire sound like?” by less-experienced members of the community. His article on ActiveResponseTraining.net offers a few suggestions — here are some excerpts:

First, acknowledge the fact that an active shooter event can happen anywhere. If you hear loud popping noises, don’t allow denial or rationalization to convince you that they aren’t gunshots. If you hear loud popping sounds in a public location, assume that they are gunshots and immediately come up with an escape plan.

Be cautious of wearing iPod or stereo headphones in a public place that may be the site of a shooting. Many shots are difficult to hear inside a building. They are far more difficult to identify while wearing headphones.

Even if you have fired a weapon many times, you should recognize that guns fired indoors sound different than guns fired outside.

If you know what guns sound like, do your children? They need to know too. Take them to the range.

If you have control over a large building, it would be very useful to wait until the building is empty and have a friend fire some blank rounds from various locations inside. Get a feel for what the shots sound like and try to locate the shooter. It will be much more difficult than you think.

For more on this subject, check out the original article on ActiveResponseTraining.net. For most of us, the likelihood of encountering an active shooter is low, but situational awareness and the ability to identify this sound can buy you precious seconds if you ever find yourself in that scenario.


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