How to Defend Yourself in a Large Crowd

Terror can strike anywhere that people gather. If you’ve taken a look at the news recently, you’ll hear several stories of dangerous people in the middle of a crowd committing deplorable acts of violence. From the truck attack in Nice, France, to the shootings in San Bernadino, this horror seems destined to aim for crowds of people. In addition to these glorified “mass shootings” we hear about in the news there are thousands of small scale incidents that happen every day in crowded places. A mugging in the subway, a car jacking in a crowded intersection, or a pick pocket in a shopping mall.

But what are you to do if you are in a situation that calls for response, in order to keep yourself or others safe, if there are innocents surrounding you on all sides? In this article we are going to take a look at some methods for how to handle a situation in a crowd that will make sure that you remain safe. We’ll also take a look at what to do once you are in safety, and how to pacify the situation in the best way possible so as to not cause more collateral damage.

Why Big Crowds Are Dangerous

With terrorists and unhinged narcissists looking for a way to get onto the news, because of their violent actions, the more you are in crowded places like malls, stores, churches, restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums, schools, concerts, etc; the more chance you can become a target for these madmen.

When you combine modern day narcissism with violent tendencies or anger, you have the foundation for many of these mass shooters. The man, whom I will not give the satisfaction of naming, behind the Virginia Terrorist and mass shootings concealed carryTech Massacre, murdered 32 people. He had a deep anger for his world and decided to take his rage out in one of the worst shootings in U.S. history. This man knew that if he did what he did, and sent a message along with doing it, he had a much better chance at being heard and getting his name out there. That’s why, on the day of the shooting, he mailed both a video and a 23 page manifesto to NBC News, in hopes that he would be heard. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. NBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, and CNN all took the bait, exactly as he wanted.

That’s why these situations are more commonly occurring. Why crowds are becoming targets. These are people with strong violent and sociopath tendencies who only see a crowd of people as a number and will not back down before unleashing their violent message.

In addition to the crazed mass shooters, large crowds are also soft targets for various common criminals. Their ability to escape, blend into a crowd, and work as a team lends to places with bigger crowds like subways, busy streets, and shopping malls.

Your Ideas Of How To Respond Might Be Misguided

Responding to threats in a crowd

Most of us have imagined these situations. Either a mass shooter like so many we have heard about or even just something as simple as a pick pocket / thief on a crowded street who becomes a little too violent when confronted. Sadly, many of us may have misguided ideas of how to properly respond in those situations. 

Common FALSE Assumptions About Responding:

  • I will be able to quickly identify the target
  • I will have line of sight to fire without any innocent people between me and the target
  • I won't have to worry about over penetration beyond the target
  • I won't have to worry about missing the target altogether
  • If a Law Enforcement Officer is near or chooses to respond he will be able to identify me as the victim

When there are dozens or hundreds of people in a crowd and any sort of incident begins the natural human instinct is to scream and run. In that environment it is unlikely that any of the above assumptions will prove true … and even less likely that ALL of them will prove true.

How Should You Respond To Any Incident In A Crowded Place

1: Assess The Threat

There are different situations that can occur in a crowd that call for different responses. This is going to take some quick and calm thinking though.

There's an immense difference between a person wanting to steal your wallet and someone who is planning on killing a number of people. The latter calls for a much larger response than the former. Always assess the threat and find a protective solution that will use both minimal effort and cause minimal panic.

2: Go On Defense

If your threat is a shooter; GET OUT of the firing line. Seek cover or seek distance between you and your threat.

3: If Necessary Become Offensive

If your threat is still active or if you feel there is still a threat to others and you have the means and the opportunity to stop that threat, proceed carefully.

The Gun Is NOT Your Friend In These Situations

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Now comes an incredibly important part. If you feel that you have a shot at taking out the aggressor Don’t become an action hero and begin discharging your firearm. Once you have a safe place, and only if you get a 100% chance to take out a target without hurting anyone else should you take it. Patience and keeping calm are the keys to your survival as well as saving the lives of others.

Even well trained police officers and soldiers have had their share of unfortunate crossfire incidents. Take this story from Fox News. Even with time and proper setup, innocent people were harmed by the police.

The idea of firing upon someone should be a last resort, because if you are unable to stop the aggressor or hit someone else in the process, you will be just another person causing chaos. Real life is not a Schwarzenegger film. These are real lives that are in the balance, and you have to take a long and hard look at if you are prepared to not only kill the gunman, but what could happen if you were to hit a civilian. Could you handle the emotional and legal stresses of accidentally adding to a kill count of a massacre or knowing you took the life of someone's son or daughter?

Your Hands Are Your Greatest Response Tools

There are alternatives to firing a gun into a crowd, or even pulling your firearm in the first place. But these tactics take training. Though, if you are fully prepared for a situation like this, or others that call for self-defense, your chances of survival and pacification increase immensely. Being in a big crowd is one of several situations where you shouldn't respond with a firearm.

This is why we have partnered with the most effective, credible, and highest regarded trainer we could find of basic hand to hand defensive combat.

The idea here isn't to train at a Karate Studio twice a week for 10 years. The objective is to learn a system for you that will:

  1. Be Easy to Learn
  2. Have a SUPER high probability of stopping any attacker of any size
  3. Work to your own physical situation no matter what it is

Let me recommend two different programs for you to look at:

INSTA-D-FENSE: Learn 9 Effective Moves to Disable Any Attacker no matter how out of shape, small, or unpracticed you are.

STREET FIGHTING MATRIX: The most comprehensive fighting course ever. Learn basic techniques to deal with knives, guns, clubs, etc from any position with any number of attackers. Developed for the government and available to you.

So as with any situation, you need to know how best to handle it. But in this case it’s not just for your safety, it’s for the safety of others. Situations in crowds can test every decision making choice you have in your arsenal. So in order to find better answers to these choices, you need to grow your mental arsenal and prepare for anything.

About Riley Bowman

Riley Bowman is the Director of Training at and the Host of the Concealed Carry Podcast. He came up in this world initially through his 8-year experience with a state-level law enforcement agency in Colorado. Riley has trained extensively under instructors such as: Rob Leatham, Mike Seeklander, Tim Herron, Scott Jedlinski, Matt Little, Kyle Lamb, Dave Spaulding, Jeff Gonzales, Bill Blowers, Chuck Pressburg, and others, amassing many hundreds of hours of formal shooting and tactics training. He is an NRA Pistol Instructor, a Colorado P.O.S.T. Handgun and Patrol Rifle Instructor, a graduate of Trident Concepts Concealed Carry Instructor course, and a Modern Samurai Project Endorsed Instructor. He also competes in USPSA and 3-gun competitions including numerous top-10 finishes at major matches and championships. He is the current USPSA Carry Optics Colorado State Champion and most recently won 3rd place in Master Class at the 2022 USPSA Carry Optics National Championship.


  1. Ryan Mcgonigal on September 1, 2016 at 9:58 am

    This is an article that I have been waiting for someone to write for a while. I many people that think because they have a firearm they can use it in defense no matter how many people are around. Having a firearm is great but knowing how to defend yourself with your hands is also just as great.

  2. Leonard Roberts on September 8, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Thank you for a great and informative article, as previously mentioned I to have been waiting for this type of article. I try to play out different scenarios when I am in different situations, being in a large crowd has been the most difficult scenarios to prepare for. Thankfully I have also been taking hand- to – hand defense training.

  3. David T. Maestas on September 9, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Absolutely correct, the first thing you need to do is stay calm. Pulling your weapon in a crowd only makes you the target for police officers and any other person in the crowd with a fire arm with little or no training of identifying the correct shooter.

  4. Archie Moore on September 10, 2016 at 5:45 am

    It has occurred to me that the terrorist counts on hysteria and people attempting to flee. They don’t expect anyone to charge at them or resist them in any way. Is it suicide to do so?

    • Jacob Paulsen on September 12, 2016 at 1:45 pm

      Archie, in my opinion, we each have to first make a decision about what our own priorities are. Charging an active shooter or threat in a crowd is very noble and may very well be the most effective way to counter the threat on behalf of the people at large but it’s also likely a poor personal survival strategy.

  5. BillyBob Texas on July 18, 2017 at 4:03 pm

    At 69 yrs old – and a competitive shooter who ALWAYS is packin’, I do not feel learning judo and personally getting THAT close to an active shooter would be good for my health. YES! overshooting/missing/becoming a target for another shooter (friendly of foe) is not good, either. But THAT is what I am trained for – and will be stuck with doing.

  6. Greg Haines on July 26, 2017 at 2:04 pm

    How does a person who is handicapped and carries`his pistol in his basket on his scooter respond. J carry my pistol with me almost every place I go and do have concelled license.

    • Jacob Paulsen on July 26, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      I don’t think there are any really easy answers to your question but you might consider less lethal force options like a taser or pepper spray. Also really bright flashlights or loud sirens can be disabling to an attacker sufficient enough to give you some time or to clear the crowd to make the firearm use a little safer.

  7. BC on November 25, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    The biggest mistake anyone can make is to overreact in any situation. Panic shooting is always a mistake! Playing hero is great script in the movies, but in real life it usually has a tragic ending. Your gun should be a means of insuring an escape for yourself and others. If cornered with lethal force, use lethal force only as needed. Think your way through the situation and shot. If your shot is a through and through, who will get hit in addition? Only you know your best shot, wait until it presents itself . . . if possible. Keep the odds in your favor! But most important, protect yourself!

  8. Doug on October 23, 2018 at 11:17 am

    I disagree slightly, Riley. Your brain is your best weapon/tool. That aside, all the parts of your body, hands, feet, knees, elbows are second but vitally important when used as weapons. So is knowing the vulnerable points and structures in the human body that can be targeted for the greatest and fastest effect like eyes, throat, groin, knees, ears. You are sure to have both brain and body with you at all times. Whereas, other tools like a gun, knife, chemical sprays, etc., may be prohibited by law. Any comprehensive defensive plan should account for armed and unarmed defense.

  9. David Schlewitz on October 26, 2018 at 6:50 am

    Thanks for the article. Thanks to USCCA. I’ve been a member for years.

  10. John on July 4, 2019 at 1:23 pm

    If the first thing you learned in CCW class wasn’t When and Why Not To Shoot, take another class! My church builds their safety team from “buddies”. Scary! At one time, churches were the top 5 places shootings occurred but little media coverage.

    I wish states had civilian training for church situations.

  11. Brian on June 10, 2020 at 4:22 pm

    As someone who has good experience with defensive (tactical) handguns and martial arts, my opinion is as follows:
    If you’re truly proficient with your tactical handgun craft, relying on it even up close is much better than close quarter hand combat. Mass shooters aren’t generally running and shooting. They prefer to move slowly to shoot at targets of opportunity. They don’t hide behind cover, instead out in the open standing tall to look for targets.

    My choice as a mid-high level experienced tactical handgunner, I’d take my chances up to 15 yards and closer with my EDC Glock 9mm or 40SW loaded with Federal HST HPs if I’m already concealed and/or behind solid cover, but threat is approaching. I would spend my time and training (get professional help) with handguns as the priority with the commitment to carry wherever and whenever I can.

    Try your hand at local-club IDPA or USPSA weekly handgun matches, but use only your EDC handgun. Don’t keep switching types; stay with one type, like only Glocks or 1911s. You’re not there to win big matches, but to learn from the really good shooters there and to practice what you learn. You will be amazed at your improvement to handle and shoot your handgun within a relatively short period. And proper, safe Dry-Fire practice is just as important as range time to develop the correct muscle-memory!

    …but of course, if you’re not armed with your firearm, you don’t have much of an option if it comes down to up close and personal proximity. Otherwise, hope you’ve spent the time and strenuous effort of real hand combat training if you hope to have a reasonable chance of disabling a mass shooter … Good luck!

  12. pgerlach on September 8, 2020 at 5:23 pm

    Newbie here so be nice.

    Help me understand how to react in this ever more common scenario. Based of tv clips I can expect to be verbally/physically assaulted while eating dinner with my wife in a diner by make your choice…BLM, ANTIFA, or some other political group. Typically, one of the group will confront me, at less than arms length, with a megaphone and pushing. At this point I have to deal with the protestor and my very scared wife. My firearm is the last choice, I normally carry a baton and pepper spray. Typically, if I take action against the leader, the crowd will move to protect him/her.

    Any insight and/or advice will be much welcome.


    • Jacob Paulsen on September 9, 2020 at 3:32 pm

      Your thoughts are valid and good. The situation you are describing is complex and doesn’t present a simple solution. I think the key here is to attempt to do all possible to deescalate and create distance. Effectively try to remove yourself and at the same time give the aggressor the opportunity to withdraw. If they don’t withdraw and you are unable to retreat then you have just crossed off two of the checkboxes necessary for a moral and legal use of force in self-defense. This podcast episode may be valuable:

  13. pgerlach on September 9, 2020 at 6:13 pm

    Good advice….
    My experience has been the aggressor will not back off. They are in your face and they push push push to get a reaction from me. Any physical response from me brings in the group following the leader.

    A thought I had was the use of a “fog horn” to the aggressor’s face or ear. It’s loud enough to cause physical pain with out touching the aggressor. Not sure how the police would react but there would be no physical contact. Chemical sprays still raise the issue of physical contact.

    Paul Gerlach

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