Recognizing the Sound of Gunfire

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles

  • SumoMe

Written by: Greg Ellifritz



With all the recent active shooter/active killer events happening worldwide, I’m continuing to see reports of the exact same phenomenon….people don’t recognize the sounds of gunfire when they are being shot at.   In almost every mass shooting, victims report that they heard a loud noise, but thought it was some other more innocuous sound.  In a recent school shooting,  Jordan Coates, a student at the school stated:


“My back was to the door. I heard a pop and thought it was a bag because people do that”.



He was in the same room as the shooter and heard the shots.  His first instinct was to rationalize the sounds as being from something more familiar…he thought the gunshots were actually plastic bags being popped by fellow students.


The Maryland School shooting


Jordan is not alone.  In the Oikos California college shooting last April (where 10 people were shot), victims reported thinking that the gun shots were fireworks.  The same was true when two students began shooting inside Columbine High School.  In the Beslan School massacre, people thought the initial shots were popping balloons.  Victims trapped inside the Virginia Tech classroom building during that school shooting believed they were hearing construction noises, not gunshots.



It is important to quickly be able to distinguish gunfire from other less lethal sounds.  The faster you or your children can recognize the sounds of gunfire, the better your chances for escape will be.



Gunfire inside a building doesn’t sound like gunfire at the shooting range.  I’ve participated in numerous active shooter training scenarios where I have been tasked with finding the “shooter” inside a large building.  Even when the person playing the role of the shooter is firing full power blank cartridges, it is difficult to locate him inside a school or office building.  The shots sound muffled and the direction from which they are being fired is difficult to determine.  Sometimes, you won’t be able to hear the shots at all!  I remember playing the role of the active shooter for a neighboring police agency’s training scenario.  I was firing blanks from an AR-15 rifle in a vacant multi-story office building.  The officers trying to find me did not even hear the shots from just one floor below my location!



Not only does this muffling issue affect potential victims, it also changes police response.  Many police active shooter response courses teach officers to “run to the sounds of the guns”.  That tactic doesn’t work when you don’t hear the gunfire!  If you are a police officer reading this, I strongly suggest that you abandon this approach.  Rather than relying on hearing the shots, you should be gathering intelligence on the shooter’s location by looking for blood, empty cartridge cases, and smoke.  Asking the victims or fleeing students where the shooter is will also be a vital tactic.  Don’t rely solely on your ability to hear the shots as your means to find the gunman!



So, what can you do to avoid the mis-identification of gun shots and increase your odds of escaping an active shooter event?  Here are some suggestions:



– 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.


Maybe listening to these at the office isn’t such a good idea


– I assume that most of the folks reading this page are shooters and have at least heard the sound of gunfire at some point in their lives.  If you haven’t ever heard the sounds of gunshots, please have a friend take you shooting or visit a shooting range just to hear the sounds.  Different firearms make different sounds.  A .22 rifle does not make the same sound as a 9mm handgun or a 12 gauge shotgun.  Try to hear several different types of guns.  You don’t have to learn to identify the caliber, only recognize that shots are being fired.



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



– Even if you have fired a weapon many times, you should recognize that guns fired indoors sound different than guns fired outside.  Go visit an indoor shooting range.  The muffled sounds that you can hear from outside (or from the front room outside the range) are most similar to the sounds of gunfire inside a building.  Learn to recognize them.



– 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.  This exercise can also be done inside your house.  Please be cautious not to alarm any neighbors when you try this!  You don’t want to hear the sounds of police gunfire when they think there is an active shooter inside your house or office!



Quickly recognizing the sound of gunfire is a critical skill for surviving an active shooter event.  Unfortunately, it is something most people never think about.  Don’t be caught in the web of denial and rationalization like so many past shooting victims.  Learn to identify shots being fired and have an escape plan!




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9 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Doug says:

    How timely after admittedly being startled last week by gunfire near our shop (which is not in the best area of town). Pop…pop.pop.pop… I didn’t recognize the noise with my truck window up and on the phone. What did make it real was seeing people fleeing the shooting running down the street towards our truck. We didn’t know if those fleeing were being shot at or the shooters themselves as additional gun fire rang out. Yes, we got ourselves out of the area and the possible line of fire. But for as much time as I’ve spent at the range over the years I didn’t recognize the sound and then was momentarily in disbelief and had to process what I was seeing in order to act, which caused more of a delay than I would have preferred. Thanks Greg for a good article.

  2. Brandon says:

    Do you know of any resources that put sound files together so that you can hear gunfire versus construction, fireworks, balloons popping, Etc?

  3. Rod De Leon says:

    My next door neighbor is a gunsmith who works out of his home. Because of the nature of his business, he has a bullet trap set up in his basement. I didn’t know any of this when I first moved in, however, and I had assumed the frequent, loud popping sounds were hammering from some home remodel project. Granted, he has sound deadening installed so as not to alarm the neighborhood, but I’ve been a shooter for the last 40 years, and I thought the sounds were anything but gunfire. Your article brings home the point that, for whatever reason, we are often in denial about the sound of gunfire. Thanks!

  4. Dann in Ohio says:

    A comment on the “earbuds”… I am just completely dumb founded at the masses I see willfully shutting down their ability to hear… all over the university campus I teach at… while jogging down a public street… at the gym… in the mall… while driving…

    Dann in Ohio

  5. Tierlieb says:

    A timely article indeed: I spent a day last week in a shoot house in an industrial area. A bit of construction was going on there, too, people using nailguns, I assume.

    I could not tell the difference between the two sounds and I have been doing both shooting and construction for a while. But while the /sound/ was similar, the /sound patterns/ were different: Double-taps and rapid fire are quite unique to guns. On the other hand, I assume that a single shot is rarely an indicator for an active shooter.

  6. Many years ago, after a mass shooting at a business location in the Eastern Bloc – I think Massachusetts – one of my list members told me that he’d been consulted by an employer in the area. Among the limited action that they took was to take their staff to an indoor shooting range so they could hear what gunshots sound like when muffled by one or more intervening walls.

  7. T-town says:

    I am a teacher at a high school. Last year, with no warning the electricity went out. That normally would not be a big deal but, my classroom butts up to the hallway doors. The doors are held open by electric magnets. When the power went out so did the magnets. The heavy metal doors dropped closed, one after the other. I was alone in the classroom. All I knew is that the power went out and then a few seconds later, thump, thump. I perceived it as two shots. Power cut and shots fired. yeah, I thought we were under attack. I am not as brave as I always thought I was. In the corner I huddled waiting for a gunman to enter my classroom. shameful I know, but I did learn from it.

  8. NWGlocker says:

    well said. this post is EXACTLY one of the reasons I got into shooting and training.

    thanks for these excellent write ups

  9. Daniel Gray says:

    You say, “The faster you or your children can recognize the sounds of gunfire, the better your chances for escape will be.”

    But I say,“Forget recognizing the sounds before reacting. The faster you get to safety the better. Figure it all out later.”
    Later is when the recognizing the sounds come in.
    Compare looking silly a few times to dying once!

    I consider this web site a good resource but I think the priority of safety exceeds knowledge in a crises.

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