In this column, we address some of the most important, and least understood, aspects of using firearms for self-protection. If you have to shoot someone in self defense, where should you shoot them?
Let’s assume that the situation is clear-cut and justifiable — the assailant has a lethal weapon (a gun, knife, or club) and he is assaulting you, for real. Your gun is in your hand. You can’t leave, you can’t avoid the situation, you can’t call the cops … in short, you have to act RIGHT NOW, or die!
Where should you aim your shot(s)?
a) in the heart b) in the head c) two shots in the body and one in the head d) in the center of mass e) in the chest f) in the spine g) the gun, or the hand holding the gun h) in the pelvic region i) in the leg or foot j) somewhere else k) Don't aim, just shoot
The correct answer is: it depends. Let’s consider the possibilities in reverse order, starting near the bottom.
“Don’t aim, just shoot,” is comforting advice to people who don’t practice much with their guns, but it is bad advice for those who are serious about survival. In simulation after simulation, and incident after incident, the people who get the best hits are the people who practice using their sights. Even if, under the incredible stress of a lethal encounter, you forget to look at your front sight, you will shoot better for having watched that front sight for thousands of rounds of practice.
OK, so now that we have determined that you have to aim, the question remains: where?
“Shoot him in the leg or foot,” some people who have never shot at a moving target suggest. “After all, you don’t want to hurt the poor guy any more than necessary, so why not pick a nice, non-lethal target that will put him out of action without killing him? There are a ton of problems with this.
First of all, if he has a gun, shooting him in the lower extremity won’t necessarily put him out of action — he will very likely be able to use his gun quite effectively even if he can’t walk.
Second, what makes you think you can hit his leg or foot, particularly if he is running or even walking? Moving targets are darn hard to hit, and running feet move extremely fast.
Third, a shot to the leg isn’t guaranteed to be non-lethal; if you hit the femoral artery, he may well bleed to death before further help arrives.
If you aren’t justified in using lethal force, you have no business shooting at him at all. If you are justified, why mess around with a target area that is hard to hit and unlikely to be very effective?
The pelvic region. Notice I did not say the groin. This is not due to any particular delicacy on my part (our esteemed editor has been known to clean up the language I wrote before letting it see print). I really mean the pelvis.
If someone is moving toward you with a contact weapon such as a knife, a baseball bat, or a crowbar, shots that break the pelvis will down him faster than a shot through the heart. Why?
Because with a broken pelvis he cannot take even one step; the support structure of the entire body is broken, and he will go down, probably before he can reach you.
Even with a heart that is destroyed by a perfectly-placed shot, there is enough oxygenated blood in the body and control over the muscles that he may well take those few more steps and bring the knife or club to bear on you before he collapses.
Of course, a low caliber bullet is much less likely to break the pelvis than a .38 or larger.
The hand. People who have watched too much TV and too many movies are fond of thinking that the thing to do is just shoot the gun out of his hand, or shoot his hand if necessary. It makes for exciting TV, but is completely unrealistic. Hands move even faster than feet, and are smaller. They are hard to hit, except by accident. I mean, really, really hard.
Your marksmanship on the range may convince you that you can easily and reliably hit a hand-sized target, but what if the target is moving, and your hands are shaking, as they will be during a lethal encounter?
I can’t even think of a scenario where aiming at the hand makes sense, unless his hand is in front of his body and you are actually aiming at the body but the bullet has to go through the hand to get there.
In the spine. A shot that severs the spinal cord will prevent virtually all movement below that point, so you might take away his legs, or legs and arms. But since the spine is very narrow, and very flexible, how sure are you that you could hit such a small moving target, when you are in fear of your life?
Further, with your assailant probably facing you, the bullet has to traverse the entire depth of the body before reaching the desired area.
In the chest. Now we’re talking. In many situations, though not all, the chest is a large, available target. But a peripheral hit, near an armpit, say, may not do enough damage and to stop him very quickly.
Think of the best chest aiming area as a milkbottle-shaped area about 6 inches wide, running from neck to waist.
The center of mass. That is, roughly in the center of the body. It is the easiest target to hit, and the most forgiving, because even if the shots are many inches off, they are very likely to hit the target and do enough damage to cause him to stop.
But if you calculate the center of mass to be midway between neck and groin, and midway from side to side, you are actually aiming below many of the vital organs. A perfect shot will hit the spine, but under these conditions perfection is unlikely to be achieved, and a shot that misses the spine will hit only abdominal organs.
If, however, by the center of mass you really mean the center of the chest, then we are talking turkey. More precisely, we are talking spine, heart, and lungs, any of which can be devastating.
Two in the body, one in the head. There’s a very unfortunate jingle that some IPSC shooters like to chant, “Two in the body, one in the head, guarantees they’re really dead.” The reason it is unfortunate is that people who hear it assume that anyone who shoots in that sequence is trying to achieve a kill. In fact, even if the intention of the shooter is to STOP the assailant, not to kill him, shooting this pattern is a very reasonable thing to do.
If two shots in the body don’t stop his attack, the reason might be that he is wearing body armor, in which case further shots to the torso are going to be as ineffective as the first two. Why waste ammo? Put the third shot where it has a chance of being effective.
Even if body armor isn’t in the picture, two ineffective body shots could mean that you are firing less than optimally powered ammo (.380, say) and he is wearing heavy clothing (several layers under a leather jacket, say), in which case you should not waste more ammo in a location that, however good in theory, has proven to be ineffective in this particular case. The head is the next best target, so move on to it.
In the head. We’ve just covered some reasons why the head might be a reasonable secondary target for follow-up shots, but is it ever a good primary target? Surely not if someone is running toward you — heads bob and weave a remarkable amount.
Even if you are lucky enough to hit him, a shot that hits the upper third of the head risks glancing off the hard, curved skull instead of penetrating. I recently heard a doctor who has treated such gunshot wounds explain how a bullet can enter the skin of the forehead, flatten a bit on contact with the bone, zip around the skull from front to back, being held just under the skin, and perhaps exit at the back of the head. Yes, a person can have an entrance wound in the front of his head and an exit wound in back without ever having the bullet penetrate the skull! As you can imagine, the person being shot is probably very surprised, but not particularly incapacitated.
The head is a good target only if he is behind cover with no other body parts exposed, or if he is threatening the life of a hostage he is holding. In that case, a precisely placed shot is called for to shut off his nervous system before he can pull the trigger of his gun or drop the blade of his knife. A shot to the body or any other place might cause his hand to spasm involuntarily, killing his hostage before he goes down himself.
A well-placed brain shot can prevent this. “Well-placed” means entering the head anywhere along a line around the head roughly at ear level. Head shots are best if you have the opportunity to take very careful, slow aim.
In the heart. Do you know, absolutely precisely, where your adversary’s heart is? Probably not. The heart itself is a small target, not easy to hit. Besides, it will sound a lot better to the jury you will eventually face if you can honestly say “I aimed for his chest, because it was the largest, most reliable target that would stop him” instead of “I tried to shoot him in the heart”.
Somewhere else. Be flexible. Maybe the only part of his body you can see is his elbow. If he can really kill you from wherever he is hiding, an elbow shot is better than none.
Remember that if he is behind an interior house wall, the wall may well be thin enough that you can shoot right through it. If you are Absolutely, Positively sure that nobody else is back there with him, aim at the wall! But realize that you are responsible for the final result of any round that you fire under any circumstances.
The real answer to “Where should you aim?” is “Wherever your shots are most likely to hit and to end the threat quickly.”
This varies depending on the situation, but good guidelines are:
If he is moving toward you with a contact weapon, shoot for the pelvis. If he is about to use a gun on a hostage or other third party, shoot for the head. If the middle of the chest is available as a target, shoot for it. Otherwise, shoot for the center of the largest body part that is exposed.
You MUST be prepared to shoot more than once. If several shots seem to have no effect, pick a new target and try again!
Even if you deliver a series of lethal hits, it probably won’t kill him instantly. Most people who die of gunshot wounds die minutes, or hours, or even days after being shot. Not seconds.
If he is determined to kill you and still has the means and opportunity to do it, you will have to keep shooting and shooting and shooting until you are absolutely certain he is no longer a threat!