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What is the Pistol Formation Offense?

The Pistol Formation or pistol offense is an American Football formation where the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind the center, and the running back lines up 3 yards behind the quarterback. 

The Pistol Formation is a blend of traditional shotgun and single-back offense – where the shotgun requires the quarterback to stand 7 yards behind the center instead of 4. Also, a single-back offense requires one running back to line up 5 yards behind the quarterback. 

Key Takeaways

  • In a pistol formation, the quarterback lines up 4 yards behind the center while the running back is positioned at 3 yard behind the quarterback. The formation was created by Coach Michael Taylor of Mill Valley California, originally called “Shotgun I” in 1999.
  • Under the Pistol alignment, the quarterback is able to see over the defensive alignment easily due to being near the line of scrimmage. Likewise, it makes it difficult for linebackers to pick up clean reads of the running back due to the distance. 
  • Pistol offense also can be used effectively to draw plays, counters, play-action, and options using three-wide receivers formations as well as tight ends and a fullback for pass protection. 

Who Created It? 

The Pistol Formation was created by Coach Michael Taylor of Mill Valley California, originally called “Shotgun I” in 1999 while playing softball. Later, it was popularized and renamed by Chris Ault in 2005 when he was the head coach at the University of Nevada, Reno.[1]

Michael spent weeks developing and testing the new formation after a conversation with his friend. This friend was a college football coach at Division III Ohio Northern University. Michael saw that his team had a fast running back but their quarterback was slow and tall. 

They needed a new offensive scheme where one can maintain a downhill running game while allowing his quarterback to be comfortable in passing. Michael modified his Shotgun I and the plays worked. With 2 backs in the backfield including a complete run by both I back and offset back. 

Chris Auth

Chris was known for the single back alignment and in 2005, he renamed it as Pistol Formation. Although Pistol Formation has been played and used by dozens of college football such as LSU, Syracuse, Indiana, and Missouri, it is most strongly associated with Chris Auth and his team, the Nevada Wolf Pack. [2]

During the 2009 season, The Wolf Pack became the first team in college football history with three 1,000-yard rushers. 

How Do You Run A Pistol Offense?

You run the Pistol offense by placing the quarterback 4 yards behind the center and a running back 3 yards behind the quarterback. As usual, the tight end will be on the right next to the offensive tackle. There will be three wide receivers with two on the left and the remaining one on the right.[3]

Pistol formation in action

  • First, the quarterback receives the snap from the center from a distance typically 2.5 to 4 yards. 
  • The quarterback maintains a safe distance from the defenders and looks for an opportunity to execute a forward pass to one of his wide receivers. All this while having a running back and tight end to provide pass protection.
  • If a forward pass is not visible, the quarterback may either advance the ball himself or handoff to the running back for a dive. 

The tight end may also be used as a lead blocker for the quarterback to facilitate an option play right at the start. 

Teams That the Ran Pistol Formation


  • Buffalo Bills
  • Carolina Panthers
  • Detroit Lions
  • Miami Dolphins
  • Kansas City Chiefs
  • Pittsburgh Steelers
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Seattle Seahawks
  • Washington Redskins

College Football 

Tarleton State2009
Portland State2010
San Jose State2010
Texas Tech2010
Texas State2011
Georgia Tech2012
Iowa State2012
New Mexico2012
NC State2013

What is the Difference Between the Pistol and Shotgun Formation? 

The Pistol requires the quarterback to stand closer to the center at 4 yards as opposed to the 7 yards with the Shotgun Formation. The pistol has one running behind the quarterback, whereas the gunshot has two running backs standing in front of the quarterback.  

Shotgun places a stronger focus on the receiver’s play due to the large distance the quarterback has at the start of the snap. This allows him to access better forward passing routes. 

Whereas Pistol focuses on running plays partly due to the short distance between the quarterback and center. This allows the quarterback to read over the defensive line more easily to conduct option offense. Partly, the running back is close behind the quarterback, which makes it better suited for a running back dive.[4]

Find out whether or not the quarterback’s hand size matters in his football handling in this article.

Final Thoughts  

What do you think about Pistol Formation? Do you think it’s effective? Have you seen any college or NFL team using it, or playing against it? Reply in the comment section below and let us know what you think!

If you enjoyed reading this article, read more about football offensive positions and learn about the wishbone offense formation.


[1] “Pistol offense | American Football Database | Fandom.” Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.
[2] “How the Nevada Wolfpack and coach Chris Ault effectively ….” 26 Jul. 2018, Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.
[3] “Pistol offense – Wikipedia.” Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.
[4] “What Are the Shotgun and Pistol Formations in Football?.” 30 Jul. 2018, Accessed 3 Jul. 2020.

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