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Chris Ault's "pistol" formation

The pistol offense is an American football formation and strategy developed by Michael Taylor and Tom Kaczkowski, and popularized by Chris Ault in 2005 while he was head coach at the University of Nevada. It is a hybrid of the traditional shotgun and single back offenses.[1] In the pistol offense, also commonly referred to as the "pistol formation", the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center, which is much closer than the seven-yard setback in a traditional shotgun formation. The running back then lines up three yards directly behind the quarterback, which is in contrast to the shotgun, where they are beside each other. It is argued that the position of the quarterback in the pistol formation strikes an advantageous compromise: the quarterback is close enough to the line of scrimmage to be able to read the defense, as with run situation sets such as the I Formation, but far enough back to give him extra time and a better vision of the field for passing plays, as in the shotgun.[2] The pistol formation is thus very versatile, particularly if the quarterback himself is a threat to run the ball, which makes it difficult for the defense to correctly anticipate the play.[3] This flexibility is enhanced by the Read Option, where the quarterback reacts to the response of the defensive players to the snap, and makes a rapid decision whether to hand off the ball to the running back, keep it and complete a pass to a downfield receiver, or keep it and run himself.[4][5]


Tom Kaczkowski and Michael Taylor developed the Pistol Offense (called the "Shotgun I" at that time) in 1999-2000 while Tom Kaczkowski coaching at Division III Ohio Northern University, as a way of adding a greater running dimension to his passing game. University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault popularized the formation (and renamed it the "Pistol") in 2005.[6][7] While the pistol offense has been experimented with by dozens of college football teams such as LSU, Syracuse, Indiana, and Missouri, Ault's Nevada Wolf Pack is most strongly associated with the formation.

Using the Pistol Offense, during the 2009 season, Nevada led the nation in rushing at 345 yards a game and were second in total offense at 506 yards. The Wolf Pack also became the first team in college football history with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season: quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Luke Lippincott and Vai Taua.[8]

Football Championship Subdivision team James Madison University used "The Pistol" to help beat #13 ranked Virginia Tech on September 11, 2010. The pistol has also made the transition to the NFL, mainly being used by the Carolina Panthers with Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins, as well as the aforementioned Kaepnernick with the San Francisco 49ers, who in the NFL Playoffs versus the Green Bay Packers set the all-time single game rushing record for a quarterback with 181 yards. Along with the wildcat, the pistol has added more of a college "playmaker" aspect to the professional game.

On December 5, 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers utilized the Pistol offense so quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could play with a bad foot.[9]


The pistol formation can be used in a variety of ways, because the quarterback is closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional shotgun formation. This allows him to see more easily over the line and make downfield reads. He will also get the ball snapped to him faster, which can alter timing patterns greatly for a preparing defense. The pistol offense can effectively use draw plays, counters, and options using three-wide receiver formations or multiple tight ends combined with a fullback for pass protection. In a pistol formation, hand-offs occur 2-3 yards closer to the line of scrimmage than in the shotgun. In the traditional shotgun, run plays are most effectively run to the side opposite the running back, without a cutback to the other side. In the pistol, run's can effectively be executed to both sides of the QB, opening up more options for the offense. This can make for a more effective running game, but may limit pass efficiency due to quicker recognition of play-action by linebackers and defensive backs. This formation works well with dual threat quarterbacks who can both throw and run and is also used when quarterback's mobility has been limited by injury.


The Kansas City Chiefs (right) line up in a pistol formation against the New Orleans Saints (left)

The following American college football teams have used some aspect of the pistol offense:

The following NFL teams have used some aspect of the pistol offense:


  1. Charean Williams (February 1, 2013). "Read Option". Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  3. Old Timer (February 2, 2013). "My Two Cents: Terelle Pryor and Darren McFadden". Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  4. Tony Lee (February 3, 2013). "Pistol Here To Stay". Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  5. Tom Silverstein (February 3, 2013). "Out on video: defending the ‘pistol’ offense". Retrieved February 3, 2013.
  6. Javier Morales (December 14, 2012). "Friday Fix: Some Arizona defenders faced UCLA’s Pistol offense that shot blanks in 2011". Retrieved December 23, 2012.
  7. Pete Thamel (October 10, 2010). "Nevada’s Runaway Offense". The New York Times. Retrieved December 23, 2012.
  8. Associated Press (August 4, 2010). "Hall of Fame to honor Nevada trio". Retrieved October 16, 2010.

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