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The gunfighter's dilemma

By Tom Feilden
Today programme

Clint Eastwood in A Fist Full of Dollars

Imagine the scene - you're standing in the deserted street of a ramshackle wild west town, Colt 45 strapped to your thigh, the music of Ennio Morricone floating on the air.

Somewhere off to the right a shutter bangs in the wind. Tumbleweed skitters by. Up ahead a grim-faced man dressed all in black (if it's a poncho you're in real trouble) stands ready to draw his six-shooter.

What happens next will decide whether you live or die. Should you go for your gun, or wait for him to make the first move?

Dr Andrew Welchman explains the laboratory gunfight

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.

But 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.

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.

Professor Andrew Welchman, who lead the research, puts this down to the "quick and dirty" nature of instinctive responses.

Reacting to your opponent's movement turns out to be significantly faster than the conscious decision-making process involved in choosing to draw your gun.

"In our everyday lives some of the movements we make come about because we decide to make them, while others are forced upon us by reacting to events," he says.

As a general strategy for survival, these reactive responses seem pretty useful, he says. "It could mean the difference between life and death when you are trying to avoid an oncoming bus."

Twelve Bohr

But the Birmingham team, whose research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society 'B', are not the first to make this journey.

Danish physicist and Nobel Laureate Niels Henrik David Bohr
Physicist Niels Bohr - not a man to take on in a gunfight

It turns out that the celebrated Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, Niels Bohr, 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.

In developing his theory of the shootout Bohr went on to suggest that the logical conclusion was a negotiated settlement.

Since neither protagonist would want to draw first, there was nothing to do but talk.

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