The Pistol: Just a Formation or an Entire Offense?

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There’s been  speculation about just how much, if at all, the pistol will or should be used by the 2020 Oregon Ducks’ offense. A few have hoped that the pistol will be mothballed with the introduction of Coach Joe Moorhead as offensive coordinator. But if the few spring practices that Oregon was able to complete is any indication, Coach Mario Cristobal’s favored offensive tool is here to stay.

With the knowledge that the pistol will continue to be a part of the Ducks’ offense, we can tackle one of the more common debates surrounding the topic. Is the pistol simply a formation or a complete offensive philosophy unto itself?

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The pistol alignment within a formation.

Some would say that it is just a formation, and technically they’re right. The pistol, like the shotgun, is really an alignment (outlined in green above) between the quarterback and the running back. In the pistol, the quarterback lines up four or five yards behind the center, and the running back lines up two or three yards behind the quarterback; in the shotgun, the quarterback lines up seven yards behind he center, and the running back lines up to the side of the quarterback.

Coach Chris Ault developed the pistol at the University of Nevada in 2005. It gave him the ability to utilize the advantages of the shotgun passing game, including the quarterback’s ability to see over the line to make downfield reads, while also facilitating a downhill rushing attack by allowing the running back to build up a head of steam before taking the handoff. Designed to allow balance between the running and passing games, the pistol alignment can be used with any formation, including spread sets and heavier two tight end packages. There are even offenses with flexbone/wishbone pistol sets.

Others maintain that the pistol is a complete offensive philosophy unto itself, and they’re right too, sort of. Like the pistol being more than just a formation, it’s also not quite an entire offense. It’s more an alignment that lends itself to a specific philosophy of offense that emphasizes a physical, downhill running game.

That is not to say that the pistol is the only way to accomplish a downhill running attack. Physical downhill running games can be effectively run from the shotgun alignment, too. In fact, Coach Moorhead has historically used the shotgun within an offense built around a physical run game. But with a shotgun alignment the running back has to move laterally, rather than forward or “downhill,” to get to the mesh point (above).

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Pistol Spread Set

There is also a misconception that the pistol doesn’t mix with other philosophies, such as the spread offense. That’s actually not true. In fact, there are more teams running  pistol spread offenses than there are teams running pistol pro-style offenses. Oregon leans more towards the pistol spread, while a team like the Baltimore Ravens is more pistol pro-style.

Some programs, notably the Service Academies,  have married the pistol alignment with a variation of the flexbone/wishbone formations by aligning one running back behind the quarterback and lining up or motioning another to the quarterback’s side. Coach Bob Davie also utilized these types of sets effectively during his time with the University of New Mexico Lobos. Such a pistol-wishbone fusion allows an offense to run an old-school option offense out of a base pistol set.

The pistol can create advantages in the play-action game. Because the pistol alignment represents a run-first mentality, it makes the play-action pass that much more effective. Play-action out of the pistol also  allows the quarterback to better disguise the handoff by turning his back to the defense at the mesh-point, creating an extra moment of hesitation on the part of the defense.

There’s not really an offensive philosophy or offense that cannot be paired with the pistol alignment. Thus, while some have perceived limitations in Oregon’s pistol formation in the past, those limitations are not inherent in the pistol formation itself. The flexibility of the pistol formation will allow Coach Moorhead to seamlessly fuse the pistol with with a myriad of offensive formations.

The pistol is here to stay folks, and it’ll be awesome.

Coach Eric Boles
Newark, Ohio

Top Photo Credit: Kevin Cline

Phil Anderson, the Volunteer editor for this article, is a trial lawyer in Bend Oregon.

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