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Running Zigzag: Is It Actually Effective In Threat Evasion?



Featured | Female running in mountains under sunlight | Running Zigzag: Is It Actually Effective In Threat Evasion?

Running zigzag in self-defense may have been effective in some cases of threat evasion, but is it generally effective? Read on to know more!

RELATED: Active Shooter Training: How To Prepare For An Active Shooter

In this article:

  1. Running Zigzag Tested for Effectiveness in Threat Evasion
  2. Zigzag Run Test Results
  3. Conclusion

Running Zigzag: A Self-Defense and Survival Technique?

Running Zigzag Tested for Effectiveness in Threat Evasion

For my entire life – literally – since I can remember, I’ve heard countless people say when evading a threat you should run in angles and random patterns.

I just assumed this was a natural defense to make it harder for an assailant to catch you. Like a leftover evolutionary instinct to help us escape the jaws of saber tooth tigers.

And there is plenty of evidence in nature to support this theory.

If you watch a rabbit run away from you or try to evade a predator they don’t run in a straight line. They zig-zag back and forth to throw off and wear out their chaser.

This behavior can be observed among many different species of animal on probably every continent.

So it seems plausible that this is an effective way to evade capture or danger right? Well, I recently came across some interesting information from the President of Active Response Training, Greg Ellifritz.

Greg is a full-time firearms and defense training office for an Ohio police department as well and probably knows a thing or two about evading an assailant.

Recently he performed an experiment to see if running serpentine could help you escape being hit by an assailant with a gun or active shooters and the results were surprising.

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Zigzag Run Test Results

For the test, he used experienced shooters and had people run away from them in a straight line, in the crouch position, and in a zigzag pattern.

The test used simunitions, fired from a live round in real Glock 17 pistol.

What Are Simunitions? These are training ammunition used by military forces and law enforcement agencies. They are usually made of wax and it allows trainees to use the weapon they are actually carrying to do their job.

The shooter started with their back turned and the person escaping had to make a 30-yard distance and get behind cover without getting hit. Here are the results.

Zigzag run test results | Running Zigzag: Is It Actually Effective In Threat Evasion?

So what can we conclude from these results?

I think that we can conclude that running in a zigzag pattern isn’t as effective as we thought.

It may help slightly but with the advent of modern weapons, it leaves our evolutionary instincts for survival ineffective.

Here are the key takeaway points that Ellifritz concluded from his study.

  1. Speed is key. The faster you can get out of range or behind cover the safer you’ll be. Running in a zigzag pattern can take longer to get away.
  2. Running in zigzag should not be the default plan for everyone.
  3. Zigzag running may not be recommended for people with weak knees or ankles or people carrying a lot of extra weight – either from extreme obesity or heavy packs and armor.
  4. Running in a zigzag pattern tends to make hits less serious.
  5. Don’t run in a crouched position either straight or in a zigzag pattern while in the open. Only crouch when you are staying low behind cover.
  6. For those that can’t run fast, the zigzag is likely the best option.


Based on the information from his study I believe that a zigzag pattern could be more effective than running in a straight line, but only slightly.

However, if you’re a great sprinter, then running in a straight line could benefit you more.

Unfortunately for me, an ankle accident a few years back killed any aspirations I might have had at being a good sprinter.

This video from Jim Wagner will show you how running zigzag away from an active shooter could be an effective self-defense technique:

While generally ineffective as a self-defense strategy, you can still consider running zigzag as a way to escape a threat. One slightly effective self-defense plan or strategy is better than nothing at all.

So what about you, will you run away in a straight line or a zigzag pattern? Let me know why you choose your preferred method of flight from danger in the comments section below!

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on December 27, 2013, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.

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  1. GIJeff

    December 27, 2013 at 9:36 AM

    Try the test again with the intended victim attacking the aggressor. I’d be interested in those results.


  2. Tommy

    December 27, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    I think the running in a zig zag fashion myth came from a comedy movie about 20 years ago. In the movie the 2 characters are being shot at by badguys and the one guy yells at the other “Serpentine, Serpentine.” Then the guy starts zigzagging and manages to escape unharmed…

    • LookandListen

      December 28, 2013 at 12:36 PM

      Most famous story I know of a zigzag run was Cochise escaping the army regulars whom had set a trap for him and his followers at Apache Pass on February 5, 1861. When I visited the site and saw the hill he ran up to escape and the area the “68” troops had fired from; I became a fan of zigzagging. Having one person shoot at you is one thing, 68 is another story and I was very impressed with his escape. Chance/luck is also a big factor.

    • Steve invariably

      April 16, 2019 at 11:44 AM

      @ Tommy – April 16, 2019: The movie quote is from Land of the Lost 2010, but I’m willing to bet zig zag existed before that. I know because they were next to the double-wides on the shelf in the 1990’s.

  3. .M.

    December 27, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    An important criteria not mentioned is, HOW MUCH zig and zag?

    My guess is zig zagging about 2-3 get side to side is probably optimal.

    If you’re zig zagging more than that, it may be more detrimental in terms of lost time than advantageous in terms of bullet avoidance.

    • .M.

      December 27, 2013 at 10:49 AM

      * 2-3 Feet

    • HillRunner

      December 27, 2013 at 9:08 PM

      To support your point, for most people the duration in running and staying out in the open that zig-zagging adds is also time that you’re burning up cardio burst speed you’re probably not used to burning.

    • JOHNNY3H

      December 28, 2013 at 1:45 AM

      I agree. The point is to prevent the shooter from getting a steady sight picture on you, so the zig-zag rate should be timed so just as he’s committed to pulling the trigger, you reverse direction. Additionally, to prevent developing a left-right distance pattern, which the shooter can detect and react to, VARY the amount of DISTANCE to the left or right, including an occasional short burst of time on the straight-away center-line, creating three positions which also should be time as well as order varied.

      I AGREE with naysayers that this will not be difficult to overcome by a marksman who is an expert on moving targets, BUT… I firmly believe that, for the ORDINARY SHOOTER, this multi-time-varied-zig-zag pattern will offer the best chance of survival. Not guaranteed, but best chance!

      • Phil

        December 29, 2013 at 12:54 PM

        Being a 35 year veteran of jujitsu, I can tell you that if the situation presents itself that I have not got the option to run and have to close more than 6′ of distance, this is exactly how I would teach it. It only makes sense that if you are trying to put distance between yourself and an assailant, I would use the same technique just hoping I have cover in a fairly short distance. You have the concept exactly correct. You can’t be consistent with both distance and timing in your zig-zag pattern as a good shooter will actually time his rounds and lead you which will improve his odds drastically. By not allowing him to time his round pattern to your movements keeps him off balance and always guessing. I’ll take my chances on luck over a skilled shooter everyday.

    • Bart

      July 19, 2019 at 5:19 PM

      If you are being chased by an alligator, by all means zig zag. A gator can run faster than you can in a straight line

  4. Larry Shepherd

    December 27, 2013 at 12:04 PM

    It seems to me that the terrain is the key. I like you have physical limits, but I would assess my options on high and low terrain and trees and other obstacles for cover. straight line is not out but should be used with zig zag and terrain cover. My opinion. I would rather stand, sit, or lie down and fight.

  5. Don Munkacy

    December 27, 2013 at 12:33 PM

    Having had hip and knee replacement, my option would probably to use my Marine Corp and TFT training to disarm my assailant .

  6. rocquedog

    December 27, 2013 at 4:55 PM

    Screw that! Instead of running away, run at the shooter and hit him like a linebacker!! Then when he’s down shove his weapon up his azz!!!

  7. RonMar

    December 27, 2013 at 7:49 PM

    It is not clear to me in the article if the runner is armed or not. In actual combat, armed, gun fighters generally advance toward their target while shooting, taking advantage of any cover available between the adversaries.

    • Nick

      December 30, 2013 at 7:03 AM

      Hi Ron, The test was an armed assailant vs. an unarmed runner. Those results are exactly why every responsible person should be prepared with their own CCW and proper training!

      • Diane

        July 19, 2019 at 11:11 AM

        Try getting a CCW in nanny state CA! Had one years ago, but things have changed. I was going to renew it when I was blind-sided by a medical issue.

  8. jalu

    December 27, 2013 at 7:50 PM

    If I’m running from an armed assailant who is firing on me it means that I’ve either used up both mags or have lost my firearm.

    In either case I probably deserve to be running…

  9. glockgemini

    December 27, 2013 at 8:41 PM

    The only time you would want to zig or zag is if you are running in a line that is straight away from the shooter. Maintaining a angle is important to keep from presenting a stable target. Changing direction too many times is just giving the shooter more time to shoot.

  10. HillRunner

    December 27, 2013 at 9:03 PM

    Finally, somebody who approaches these topics with a numerical and probability method.

    Even though I too-much love to pick at others’ logic, I have to agree with your findings.

    Gee, we must be smart!

  11. Earl

    December 28, 2013 at 12:12 AM

    I’d do small zig zags the 1st 3rd of the distance to protection and top speed to cover with one zig zag the other 2/3rds. I’m 71 but can still sprint more than half a football field. I do it in the summer to remember how to run but the first ten steps are needed to get up to speed.

  12. dodger

    December 28, 2013 at 12:52 AM

    Good article, but the direction of flight away from the shooter is important, too. As Glockgemini says, below, running directly away in a straight line will probably get you killed. As a cop in Va, Beach, VA, a friend of mine responded to a “suspicious person” call at a gas station. Upon arrival he saw a man peeking out from behind a dumpster. As he was walking toward him, the man stepped out and fired a .22 handgun at the officer, hitting him in one leg and then running away. The officer fell, but began returning fire with his 6-shot .38 revolver (this WAS a while ago!). As they were exchanging fire, the officer was struck in the OTHER leg, but hadn’t hit the assailant, who was running in a straight line away from the officer. With his last round, the officer cocked the hammer of his .38 and took careful aim & fired, hitting the assailant the head, killing him instantly.

  13. James C

    December 28, 2013 at 8:56 PM

    Being a frequent player of first person shooters, I have found the trick is not the zig-zag, but a mixture of both going straight and side to side. If you are just going back and forth, the shooter is going to have an easy time guessing where you will be next and simply set their sight for your future location. For example as soon as I know someone is trying to shoot me I will move either right or left initially, then straight, maybe move in the same direction again before moving the other way. Occasional random short periods of stopping will throw off the shooter’s attempt to guess where you will be. Just don’t stop long enough to give the shooter time to regain sight. I still get hit doing this(usually minor hits), but when up against a player good at aiming, I find my odds of reaching cover safely unharmed go up quite a bit.

    • Nick

      December 30, 2013 at 7:06 AM

      James! Great idea. 1st person shooters against real people is a great simulation for survivability of a situation! We’ll have to test your method once the weather warms up! Maybe I can get ‘Above Average’ Joe in on it with me!!!

  14. Former SF

    December 28, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    Regarding the “study” presented by Nick Gillick – I know this is not a formal presentation, but still – for any study to have any merit far more detail is required. For example (and given the poor accuracy of these shooters I certainly hope none of them were prior military) where is the study link so that readers can see it for themselves?
    As a trained researcher details such as the age of the runners, running surface and environmental conditions, why 30 yards, why different numbers of rounds fired, are your stated percentages mean, median, or average, what was shooter accuracy for a fixed target… these details really do matter if your goal is to educate.

    Regarding the article, “Active Shooter’s Incidents,” by Luis Rivera; CONCID; Security and Terrorism Consultant, would have been far more effective if the basics of simple English skills in communication had been followed.
    Generally some form of spell check software is a good idea as it also can be used to check grammar rules. It would be advisable for someone who is consulting to apply basic communication skills as it improves the authority of the consultant.
    While the information is reasonable, it certainly does not look professional.

  15. John Brown

    December 30, 2013 at 1:27 PM

    You might survive a single shot with a .22 or .380 if it is not center mass/head, you are very unlikely to survive a .40 S&W or .45 acp at close distance. Last year we had two police officers killed by by two different criminals by .40 S&W under their vests. Basically both died from blood loss and trama to their arteries in the lower abdomen. They had almost immediate and the best medical care after being shot.

    I have seen and read about people still running and fighting after being hit by 9mm, but, the stories of that after .40/.45 acp are few and far between.

    So, condsidering what most police carry and now what most criminals are starting to carry (.40 S&W and .45 ACP) and ditching the 9mm, I think a straight line to concealment or cover is the best thing unless you are running through a forest.

    We really need to know out of the zig-zag how many hits were on the legs and buttocks on all the above. If you get hit in the lower back/spine/buttocks by a .45 you are unlikely to get up and running again. You are going to be dead shortly.

  16. Great Grey

    December 31, 2013 at 4:33 AM

    While the odds of getting hit running a zig zag may be slightly higher than a straight line the odds of getting a fatal wound seem to be significantly less zig zaging.

    • Crotch Shot

      July 19, 2019 at 8:41 AM

      This is suggested in a couple comments, but food for thought: I’m by no means arguingHead and center mass have been drilled into firearms training for a reason, it’s the best chance for a fatal shot as you point out. However, now that hollow-points are basically the standard for anyone with a gun, the expansion on impact increases the chance of hitting an artery. At the same time, I’ve seen individuals who were hit center mass or in the head and by some miracle lived.

      During qualms I had one miss that made contact in the center of his family jewels (don’t want to get my comment deleted). Think of the path that round would continue on… in an expanded form. And if it exited? If it didn’t kill you, you’d probably wish it did.

  17. TheWarriorMax

    January 3, 2014 at 9:12 PM

    There’s a scene in Generation Kill depicting exactly this scebario. Reporter zig zags away and the Marines are looking at each other going “WTF”???

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  22. chuck cochran

    July 19, 2019 at 7:18 AM

    For Zig Zagging to be an effective survival strategy requires four legs. (A trait we lost thousands of years ago). Our distant ancestors lost the ability, when they stood up. Once we began to stand our bodies became top heavy and that prevents us being able to effectively pivot without losing momentum. It becomes real noticable

  23. JB

    July 19, 2019 at 9:31 PM

    The movie was “The In-laws” with Adam Arkin and it was hilarious especially because when the other guy (Columbo) reminded him to run serpentine, he went back and started over again near the shooters.

    I’m going to run toward them “like a linebacker” like that other person wrote and knock them over so someone else can pick up the gun and get the situation under control. I might die in the process but I’m ready to meet Jesus in person. At least I would be saving other people’s lives.

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