Was That the Worst Marksmanship in Movie and TV History?

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Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 9 2013 4:11 PM

Was That the Worst Marksmanship in Movie and TV History?

Just how terrible was the gunmanship on Sunday night's Breaking Bad?

Photo byFrank Ockenfels / AMC

Spoilers for this week's Breaking Bad ahead.

In the style of a classic spaghetti Western—creator Vince Gilligan has admitted that one of the biggest influences on the show is Sergio Leone—Sunday night’s Breaking Bad ended with an agonizing showdown and then a storm of gunfire. After an interminable minute during which Hank and Gomez and Jack’s gang each carefully lined each other up in their sights, both sides opened fire and unleashed a barrage of bullets.

However, the bullets seemed to be somewhat more ineffective than usual. Though there were eight gunmen and dozens if not hundreds of bullets fired, not a single person seemed to be wounded in the initial showdown. (Of course, we’ll find out next week whether anyone is killed in the ensuing gunfight.) I couldn’t help but be taken a little aback: Was this the least deadly standoff in movie and TV history?

The movies have certainly taught us to expect a little more bloodshed. In the climax of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for example—one of those spaghetti Westerns Gilligan is so fond of—the three main characters show down in a three-way duel, and (spoiler) one is killed while another discovers he’s out of bullets.

In Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone upped the ante. Four gunmen draw, and all four are shot.


Perhaps no one did more to popularize the so-called “Mexican standoff” than John Woo. In Face/Off, six gunmen find themselves locked in a stalemate, and when it's broken at least three are shot in the initial gunfire.

And in recent years, Quentin Tarantino has made John Woo-style showdowns central to his own films. Tarantino ends his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, with a three-way standoff of his own. Almost instantly, all three gunmen are pumped with lead.

So the showdown at To’hajiilee was, at the very least, highly unusual for the fact that everyone appeared to miss.

But If Breaking Bad wasn’t following Hollywood’s conventions, was it true to life? Perhaps more than you might think. No matter how accurate they might be at the shooting range, studies have shown that when firing on actual people, police miss most of the time. The NYPD, for example, hit what they’re shooting only about one-third of the time, and this is not unusual for a major police department. On the other coast, the LAPD hit their targets 27 percent of the time in 2006, and 29 percent of the time in 2007. When engaged in gunfights in which they are fired upon, police accuracy rates fall even lower: In one study that tracked gunfights between 1998 and 2006, the NYPD’s hit rate was as low as 18 percent. (Gomez might also blame his weapon—shotguns are often ineffective at longer distances—and he and Hank, at least, could point out that their targets were partially protected by car doors.)

Of course, even if only 18 percent of their bullets were landing, we still could have expected to see someone get hit, and the To’hajiilee shooters also had some advantages. While they were firing from a longer distance than many shooters, they were shooting during the day, which should boost their accuracy. (Some cities have found that their officers are as much as 20 percent less accurate when firing at night.) Perhaps most significantly, they had plenty of time to line up their sights, which is a luxury most police officers cannot afford.

So perhaps nothing could explain why all of these marksmen showed such poor aim, but fans can find some reassurance: The scene was more accurate than many Hollywood movies would have us expect.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 


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