As I continue my little series of posts about American football formations in an attempt to help fans of the NFL grow their knowledge, I come to my favourite offensive formation – the Pistol.

As the NFL continues to be a more pass oriented league than it ever has been before, this formation continues to grow in popularity. I say that because of the fact that it has only one running back in the backfield to allow, usually, for another wide receiver.

American football Pistol Formation

Read Option

In the recent past, this formation has been somewhat of a gimmick formation (for want of a better description) where teams have run a play known as the ‘Read Option’. I’ll cover this play in more detail later in the NFL Fan School series but for now, it’s a play where the QB receives the snap and quickly decides whether to hand the ball off to the running back (HB) or keep it himself to run or pass it downfield. His decision depends on his reading of the way the defense has lined up pre-snap and how they are reacting post-snap. To have been successful at this kind of an offense, teams have had to have an athletic QB who can both run with and pass the ball well. Teams such as the Washington Redskins with Robert Griffin III, the Carolina Panthers with Cam Newton and the San Francisco 49ers with Colin Kaepernick have all run this kind of an offense.

The Read Option isn’t really used that much now and was only really around for a short time. This is because defenses got wise to it and learnt how to deal with it, meaning the success of teams using it diminished. It could also take its toll on a teams most expensive investment – it’s quarterback – by putting him in the line of fire more often if he decides to run with the ball a lot. Just look at Robert Griffin III and his career. One of the reasons Colin Kaepernick is finding it hard to find a new team is because he is a very good read option QB but nothing else. Obviously, there’s all the other political stuff about him that is causing teams to avoid him but I think people need to also look at his playstyle as a reason. Whether you agree or disagree, let us know in the comments below.

Running Game Strengths

With such an athletic QB in the backfield along with the running back, you aren’t really missing out on having the second running back (usually a blocking fullback) in there as the QB is doubling up his role. Instead of having a blocking fullback and speedy halfback you now have two speedy runners who can run to either side of the formation.

A strength of this formation is the fact that the QB and HB are lined up in a line, as per the I-formation. This balances the formation allowing them to run to either side with equal success. This means the defense has a harder time of predicting where the play is going. The HB is also lined up close to the QB allowing for a quick handoff or more concealed fake handoff, again meaning that the defense has to be alert.

Another reason the formation is good for running plays is because you can add in an extra blocking TE or FB (fullback), if you want, at the expense of one of the WR’s. This doesn’t take away from the passing game that much, either, as you still have the two WR’s in the lineup. Yet another positive point about this formation, in my opinion, as it throws another ‘look’ into the mix for the defense to try to figure out whilst remaining strong in both the run and passing game.

The Pistol formation with second TE added.

Passing Game Strengths

So far I’ve just mentioned that this is a well-balanced formation for running the ball due to its balanced setup, quick handoffs and read option ability, but it’s also good in the passing game. This, as I already said, is because you have more receivers on the field usually.

The fact that the QB is closer to the line of scrimmage than he is in the Shotgun formation means he is in the ideal position to fire off quick passes to quick receivers running short to medium routes. It also helps the QB if he is a bit slower (mobility-wise, not brain-wise) as he is already is a position to read the play developing and release the ball quickly without having to move much. Some teams have been known to go into this formation when their QB has received an injury in a game that is restricting his ability to move as he normally would.

I love to see a team using this formation with receivers hitting the defensive zones all over the place with a good, quick-firing QB at the helm.

With the evolution of the TE position, it’s common to see a team use the Pistol with 1HB, 2WR’s and 2TE’s a lot. This is because the TE’s are no longer seen as just extra blockers for the running game but, instead, are now big athletic players who can catch the ball and create mismatches in the defensive secondary as well as still being able to block in the running game – more receivers for your QB to target in the passing game whilst still being able to run the ball well from a very balanced looking formation. What’s not to love?

Can you imagine having two WR’s out wide running fast, deeper routes whilst the third WR + TE or two TE’s (depending on which variation is being run) are running shorter, quicker routes across the middle or out into the flats along with a HB and QB who can run and catch or run and pass all in the offence at the same time lined up in a balanced way that means plays can go to either side? Awesome!


So, that’s about it for the Pistol formation. It’s kind of a cross between the Shotgun and I-formation with great variations that can be used and is very balanced. It allows for quick handoffs, a strong running game as well as remaining a great passing formation.