What is the Pistol Offense?

In a season where I finally had it with TV Announcers, there were two things that took me to the brink of destroying my TV (opting for the Mute button instead). The first was how many different names announcers can call the Inside Zone. You would think that when 90% of the running plays in the NFL are either Inside Zone or Outside Zone, announcers would settle on “Zone” rather than making things up. Moving on…

The other one is the unfathomable misunderstanding of what “Pistol Offense” means. Everyone who lines up with the Quarterback behind the Center and another running back behind him, is running the exact same offense? It’s just not true.

Pistol refers to nothing more than the alignment of the Quarterback. It is the same thing as saying Shotgun or Under Center. Why isn’t every team incorporating some aspect of the Under Center Offense?

The truth is, it seems like nearly everyone has put in some element of the Pistol into their Offense. But most teams are not running Pistol Option, which is a style of offense that I talked about with Anthony Pratley and James Vint in separate interviews on The Football Coaching Podcast.

They also aren’t running what is usually referred to as the Nevada Offense, Chris Ault’s original “Pistol Offense.” You can check out Chris Brown’s breakdown from a few years ago here. Ault’s offense was derived from the I Formation. He was able to use power running, coupled with great ball fakes that led to huge Play Action plays, and elements of the Option as well.

So what is the Pistol Offense really? I’m going to attack a couple of the myths of the “Pistol Offense,” and then tell you just why the Pistol is so popular today (because it definitely is worth looking at!)

1. Is the Pistol Offense really just a Formation?

Not even that. It’s an alignment by the Quarterback and Running Back. You can be in a “Spread Pistol” or a “Double Tight Pistol.”

When the Quarterback aligns behind the Center, with a Running Back aligned behind him, that is the Pistol. Period. We have established that there is a Center over the ball, planning to throw it between his legs to a Quarterback, who has a Running Behind him. That is what Pistol means.

Don’t even confuse Pistol with giving any indication of the Quarterback’s depth. I’ve seen him everywhere from 2 ½ yards (which was a disaster, seems too close to give the QB time to react) to 5 yards – normal shotgun depth. That obviously means the back’s depth can vary too. Normally the Running Back is between 6 and 8 yards deep.

2. Is the Pistol related to the Spread Offense?

In a way. You can certainly run a Spread Offense from the Pistol Formation. The term “Spread” defines a formation, in that you are using the entire field. Spread normally indicates only one running back, and usually does not use an attached Tight End.

You can certainly do that from a Pistol alignment.

3. What do most teams run from the Pistol?

In the NFL, they run Inside Zone and Outside Zone. Shockingly, they run the same plays in shotgun and under center too. The NFL is rarely about tricking people with fancy plays and misdirection, but about execution. It all boils down to blocking and tackling.

In College and High School, you will see more variety out of the Pistol. Many teams that get into the formation are doing so to run the Veer Option. As I mentioned earlier, Anthony Pratley and others use the Pistol Spread Option
style of attack is extremely popular.

We align in the Pistol to run Power and Counter.

4. So there’s nothing special about the Pistol?

There are some very special things about the Pistol. You just don’t hear anyone talk about them on TV. Because, as I eluded to at the start of this article… TV announcers suck.

The Pistol makes it very difficult for Linebackers to pick up clean reads off the Running Back. Take the NFL or NCAA for example, Your Quarterback is 6’4″ and your Running Back is 5’8″. Plus, the QB is standing almost upright and the Running Back is squatted down in his stance. A Mike Linebacker in the 4-3 Defense can’t even see his first steps because his vision is obstructed.

The Pistol also gives no indication which was the play is going. Just like in the I Offense, where the backs are directly behind the Quarterback, the Pistol allows the Running Back to go either direction. In the Shotgun this isn’t the case, and you see many teams setting their Defense away from the alignment of the Running Back. They know that if he is going to run the Inside Zone path, he’s going to have to come across the Quarterback’s body.

5. Does the Pistol offer any Passing Game benefits?

Like we mentioned from the outset when talking about Chris Ault’s Nevada teams: Great ball fakes for play action passing. It’s not all the alignment, of course. The Quarterback and Running Back have to carry out their fakes on every snap.

But when we’re in the Pistol, and the Quarterback turns around to fake his handoff, the ball – in fact the entire exchange – can be completely hidden from the defense. This is a great element of disguise. The Linebackers are going to have to make a decision on what’s happening back there. With good sell jobs by the Offense Line, they won’t have any idea.

One of the top reasons that we wanted to go to the Pistol alignment, was the get an advantage in the Play Action game. Under center, the Quarterback has to go through a lot more activity (carrying the fake to the back), before he can get his eyes back around and downfield. In the Shotgun, the entire exchange his happening 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, right in front of the Quarterback, for the whole world to see.

That doesn’t mean you won’t be effective using PAP from other alignments. But the Pistol is optimal for it.

So when you sit down in front of the TV, and the announcers start feeding you some line about the Pistol Offense, step back and enjoy the hottest Quarterback alignment in football for what it really is.

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  • coach ron

    is this type of offense something 5 to 7 year olds should be running

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  • http://joedanielfootball.com Joe Daniel

    I’m not very familiar with Oregon’s formations but I would definitely look at lining up the TE off the ball and using some motion with him out of the pistol.

    Pistol is great for running that outside zone or Jet Sweep and using the QB as a counter on the back side. I love the formation for play action too. It’s very easy to disguise ball fakes.

    I don’t know if you have to completely dump the spread in year 1, but I think that’s a personal philosophy thing. Some coaches like to go all-in when they make the change, some like to do it gradually. There’s not really a right way, but personally I’m an all-in guy, especially with a younger QB.

  • Dakota

    exactly so another thing we have a senior tight end that fits in like a reciever so we could probably use some motions out of the pistol into what i call the flex, almost like an oregon inside zone formation so could we try to start into a pistol with our base intentions being motioning to a shotgun?
    and another thing do u think it would be a good idea to run a motion outside zone read with a reciever out of the pistol package? or for that matter a play action boot roll pass out of the pistol, becuz the more i look at film of this formation really the more i fall in love with it but i dont want to just dump our spread and go to a pistol so its kind of hard to pick and choose what i want to include any advice?

  • http://joedanielfootball.com Joe Daniel

    Dakota, I don’t see any problem with putting some pistol in as long as it doesn’t change anything for the big guys up front. Can you run you base run game from pistol? More importantly, can you keep the blocking scheme the same for the line?

    The only thing that will change, then, is for the Quarterback and the Running Back. Their footwork will obviously have to change. If your QB is experienced, he should be okay with adding it in. And the Running Backs will usually remember what to do on anything when they’re getting the ball!

    I would definitely experiment with it, if nothing else. Pistol creates a more balanced look that you just can’t get out of shotgun with the offset back.

  • Dakota

    So Joe, I’m coaching my third season this year and i finally have a dual threat starter QB he is already deeply fimilar with our spread passing playbook but i kinda want to implamint some of the pistol formations into our already 80 page playbook, but there are two things, hes only a sophmore and our running back, doesnt exactly have usain bolt speed but i kinda wanna have balance and i would love to see it with the pistol but i dont know if it is a good idea, i was wondering if i could get some advice

  • http://joedanielfootball.com Joe Daniel


    Sure, the pistol gives you better downhill running angles than the shotgun. Spread formations indicate you are trying to space out the defense. Neither one is indicative of an overall offensive philosophy though. My point is that everyone who lines up in the Pistol is not running some uniform offense, any more than everyone who lines up under center or in shotgun. Pistol has its advantages, and so does lining up in the gun or under center.

    And TV announcers are terrible. It’s not that I know so much. There’s only about 5 basic plays that any offense runs in the NFL, or NCAA for that matter. I’d appreciate announcers who call football games week in and week out taking the time to learn them, not making stuff up. Announcers aren’t there to entertain coaches though, and I accept that. I also don’t have to listen to them. I probably still will, for their tremendously comical moments like Musburger’s QB Girlfriend analysis.

  • johnny

    What is even more annoying than listening to TV announcers who “analyse” football games is the bragging about how wrong TV announcers analyse football games. You are bothered when someone calls a Formation an Offense, because you know it so much better. But you yourself just did the same in your article when calling a Formation Spread Offense. I dont want to say its wrong or right to name it Pistol-Offense or Spread-Offense, but there is a reason for that. Because with the Alignment or Formation you embody certain principles of your offense philosophy. The reason why Chris Ault wanted to run out of Pistol-Alignment instead of Shotgun-Alignment was a downhill running-attack. Everybody who adds the Pistol-Alignment to his offense surely wants to add this aspect to his offense. You can say that you buy some philosophy with the Formation/Alignment. There is a principle behind the Pistol-Alignment and you will built your plays on such principles. That makes every offense with Pistol-Alignment share at least one principle, the one of the more downhill style of running. Same with the Spread-Offense. Because behind it is the philosophy of spreading out the defense and its where you build around your playbook thus calling it Spread-Offense.