pistol formation

Ultimate Guide For Pistol Formation Offense In Football

Offense formations play a critical role in how the team advances and scores in football. There are various offense formations. Most people are more familiar with a single back and shotgun offense formation.

A pistol formation forms from the shotgun and the single-back offense. It’s a unique offense that combines two offenses. The spread offense from the shotgun and the single back offense with two running backs at different positions in the backfield.

In a way, the offense utilizes the two offense formations leaving it looking like a pass-happy and run-heavy type of offense. It’s a unique offense for teams that often pound the ball through blocking. This can be in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage.

Generally, a pistol offense is filled with personnel that run or block. The pistol formation utilizes two traditional wide receivers to keep defenses off guard and allow for deception.

Looking to learn more about a pistol formation offense in football? Keep reading below.

History of Pistol Formation

The history of the pistol offense dates back to 1999. Surprisingly, it didn’t start with football. A pistol formation started with Michael Taylor while playing softball.

By then, the formation was called a shotgun. Taylor would later introduce the formation to his friend, a football coach at Ohio State University.

Taylor had an issue with his tall and slow quarterback. But his running back was fast. Michael needed a new way to maintain downhill runs. The formation worked perfectly, allowing the quarterback to pass with comfort.

Chris Ault, head coach of Nevada University, adopted the formation in 2005. He ran a single back alignment which would later be remanded the pistol.

Different college football teams ran the pistol formation, but the most associated with Nevada University. In the 2009 season, Nevada led with the pistol formation rushing 345 yards and coming second in the Division with 506 total offense yards.

In the same season, The Wolf pack led with three 1000-yards rushers. In September 2010, James Madison University used the pistol and beat Virginia Tech.

Soon afterward, the pistol would be seen in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskin. The San Francisco 49ers used the pistol to beat Green Bay Packers, a record 181 yards rushing for a quarterback.

Pistol formation is quite common in college and high school and steadily gaining popularity in the NFL.

Why Is It Called a Pistol Formation?

It’s called a pistol formation because the players line up on the field, with the quarterback 3 yards behind a center. A further single running back behind the quarterback creates a pistol formation.

What Are The Advantages Of Pistol Formation Offense

A pistol formation helps teams retain possession in addition to the shotgun formation advantages. The formation makes quarterbacks feel comfortable and play with ease.

quarterback catching the football

Quarterbacks can see through the line and make field readings with ease. In addition, the formation gives running backs time to build momentum. They line up further back and play under a center. 

It’s a versatile play that uses counters, draws plays, and multiple options with the 3-wide receivers.

Hand-offs in this formation occur 2-3 yards from the line of scrimmage. In the running play, the formation is quite effective. This is because linebackers and defensive ends are quick.

It’s an effective formation that works well with dual-threat quarterbacks. The quarterbacks can throw and run plays. The formation also works well when a quarterback is injured or has poor mobility.

Who Should Take Advantage Of The Pistol Formation Offense?

The pistol offense should be used by teams that run the ball a lot. Due to the heavy presence of players in the back, a running play will work perfectly. The pistol offense provides teams with a solid running play. In addition, the formation is quite effective for solid blocking.

Teams that like to change their play high up on the field can also take advantage of the pistol offense. A pistol offense works perfectly for teams with a non-traditional offense.

It starts with the offense running a Read option and then a pass on one play. In the last play-up, they would smash everything with a run play.

Pretty versatile teams should also try the pistol offense. Teams can use the offense to run the ball. However, results are much better when players are versatile and run differently. This does require a good quarterback, a solid core of blockers, and pass catchers.

Lastly, teams with a very smart quarterback can also play the pistol offense to their advantage. An excellent quarterback can easily implement the aspects of a spread offense.

However, the quarterback must read the defenders and know the right moves.

When Should The Pistol Formation Offense Not Be Used

Teams that like to keep their plays simple shouldn’t try pistol formation. The offense was not designed for youth teams. But teams that like to keep things simple can have problems with the pistol offense.

Undersized teams should also not run the pistol formation to their advantage. In the middle, where are many defenders opting for a pistol formation that can yield bad results? Such teams are not built for collision and using the pistol offense won’t work to their advantage.

Lastly, as I indicated earlier, a team with an immobile quarterback shouldn’t take advantage of the pistol offense. An immobile quarterback doesn’t have any threat to run. The pistol offense doesn’t work for such teams since it remains unpredictable.

Personnel Needed for Pistol Formation Offense

When you look at the pistol offense personnel, it looks more like the I-offense. In the backfield, there are two running backs and two wide receivers. This coupled with a quarterback makes it look more like an I-offense.

Below is the personnel needed for the pistol formation offense.


  • H-Back (H)
  • Quarterback
  • Running Back (RB)

Offensive Line

  • Center ( C)
  • Tight End (EN)
  • Two Guards (G)
  • 2 offensive tackles (OT)
football player carrying the ball while running

Wide Receivers

  • Y Wide receiver
  • X Wide Receiver

How Do You Run The Pistol Offense Formation

Looking to run a pistol offense formation. The forefront of how to run a pistol offense is how players line up before a snap.

There are several similarities to an I-offense. It also looks more like the traditional spread offense. Here are stages through which you can run a pistol offense formation.

First, you need the center line up in their normal position. 

Next, you’ll need guards on either side of the center. Have the offensive tackles on either side of the guards in their normal positions.

Have tight ends at the line of scrimmage and next to the offensive tackle.

You also need the X and Y wide receivers lining in the weak and strong sides of the field, respectively.

Set up the quarterback behind the center just like in the shotgun formation. However, he should be about 4 yards behind the center

The H-Back needs to line up about two yards deep in the backfield. Lastly, you need the running back just behind the quarterback.

Pistol Formation Offense Plays

So what are the common pistol offensive plays? First, you need to understand the pistol offense comes from the shotgun spread offense and the Pro-style offense.

Let’s look at both power runs and passing plays.

Pistol Power Weak Run

This play sees the offense load more on the right with the H-Back and the tight end. The defense is made to think they are heading to the strong side.

However, they will slide to the left at the ball’s snap. The back will then run towards gap B. 

To make this play, you need the following personnel:

  • Offensive line: You need the offensive line in their normal positions. You need the two guards blocking opposite players at the ball’s snap. A tight end, OT, and center chip block the defensive line.
  • X Wide Receiver: X wide receiver lines at the line of scrimmage on the left. He runs clear to a cornerback at the snap, sealing him from the ball carrier.
  • Z Wide Receiver: The Z receiver lines on the right side two yards from the line of scrimmage. He also runs and seals the cornerback on the strong side from pursuing the ball carrier.
  • H-Back: The H back lines between the offensive tackle and the guard on the strong side of the field. He sprints to the left on the snap serving as the lead blocker. The H-Back will pick the first defensive threat coming to the offensive line.
  • Running Back: he lines two yards behind a quarterback. RB runs to the left, taking the handoff from the quarterback.
  • Quarterback: Lines up directly behind a center in the shotgun. He takes the snap from the center and hands it over to the RB.

Pistol Strong Right Hitches

The pistol hitches heavily rely on deception by lining similarly but running a totally different play. The defense reads a running play, but the offense will run quick passing routes.

passing the football to his teammate

It’s a play that takes advantage of the spaces created when the defense reacts to a running play.

Players in the pistol strong right hitches are:

  • Offensive line: They line up in their normal position and move into pass protection mode at the snap. They take blocking to the right side of the field.
  • Tight End: They line up at the line of scrimmage, faking a block at the snap. He will then run a corner to the right and take advantage of spaces due to single coverages.
  • Z Wide Receiver: Lines on the left sideline and 5 yards deep. He takes advantage of the cornerback at the scrimmage line
  • X Wide receiver: Lines up to the right and 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. The X wide receiver runs a curl about 5 yards deep, taking advantage of a right-side cornerback.
  • Running Back: The RB lines about two yards behind a quarterback. He fakes a right run at the snap with a fake handoff. However, the QB can hand off depending on what the defense does or play along with the fake run. He will then run a wheel route to the left, avoiding the weak linebacker.
  • Quarterback: Lastly, we have a quarterback lining four yards behind a center. He takes a snap from the center, hands it to an RB, or fakes the handoff.

Pistol Formation Offense in Football FAQs

What NFL Teams Run the Pistol Offense?

Football teams that run the pistol offense are the Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Buffalo Hills, Kansas City Chiefs, and the Miami Dolphins.

Other teams are the San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers.

What Is the Shotgun in NFL?

A shotgun in the NFL is an offensive formation that combines the spread formation and short punt formation.

It gets receivers spreading widely as opposed to playing behind the interior lines.

What Is the Key Difference Between Shotgun and Pistol Formations?

The key difference between the formations is that the quarterback lines 4-5 yards behind a center in the pistol and 7 yards behind the center in the shotgun.

The running back in the pistol lines 2-3 yards behind a quarterback. In the shotgun, the running back lines on the quarterback side.


A pistol offense formation in football is becoming pretty common as teams look for plays that keep defenses off balance. It is a great hybrid between a shotgun spread offense and the pro Style offense. When lining up, the pistol offense looks more like the I-offense.

The offense formation works perfectly for teams that like to try different plays. It requires an intelligent quarterback that can read the defense and choose the right play accordingly. 

This offense formation relies on deception to help create spaces for passing routes. It’s quite unpredictable for defenses. It’s a little difficult to run and not ideal for youth teams.

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