Monday, March 1, 2010

Letter from Rick Davis: Surviving gun fights

Saludos: It is always nice to find an article worth sharing.

I would add to this very experienced author's excellent overview that ...
 1. 16 rounds is better than 6, making semi autos the preferred platform over revolvers, as stated in your previous threads
 2. start shooting as you are bringing the weapon up into battery position... the guy shooting at you is guaranteed to get very nervous if bullets are whizzing past his face.
 3. I was taught the double tap... one in the 10-ring (center mass) and one in the face/head aiming for the "lights out" instant kill zone. Depending upon your energy at impact data, number of threats vs number of bullets, etc you may want 3-4 in the center mass prior to putting one in the lights out zone... although, the proliferation of body armor in the general population may make this less desirable.
 4. the best plans depend upon 3 factors for success... practice, practice, practice. Engage swinging/moving targets while you yourself are moving at an angle to the attack line with paint-ball (rifle), bb gun (auto) or wax bullets powered by mag primers (revolver) until muscle memory is programmed.

Please read the comments, and be sure to watch the video... the url is:


The "Center Mass" Myth and Ending a Gunfight

By Jim Higginbotham
Surviving a gunfight isn't what you think it is. Don’t let conventional wisdom get you killed.  A well place round to "center mass" in your attacker may not take him out of the fight. Lots of people stay in the fight after "center mass" hits, and some even win it.  If you expect to win your gunfight, you have to make sure that you have effectively ended the threat of your attacker.  One, two or even several well placed "center mass" shots may not do what you think it will, and learning to recognize this before you gunfight may save your life.

There is a self styled self defense “expert” under every rock, and perhaps two behind every bush, these days. If you have a pet theory on what might work on the street then you can probably find a champion for that idea who actually charges people to teach them that skill. But few of the experts out there have ever been in gunfights, and even fewer have studied real gunfights to see how things really work out when the bullets really fly for blood.

There are more misconceptions out there than I can cover in one article but the one that probably gets to me the most, even over all the caliber wars that rage interminably in the print and cyber media, is the nearly universal acceptance that shooting a miscreant “center mass” with ________(fill in your favorite make, model and caliber) shooting _________ (fill in your favorite ammunition) hyper speed truck killer is practically guaranteed to get the job done.
Having studied in this field from a number of decades, I have run into plenty of cases where bullets did not do what folks would have assumed. And I have now collected enough of these that I think that rather than being anomalies, they are actually closer to the norm. Center mass hits in a gunfight do not in most cases end the fight. Erroneous assumptions can get you killed!

There is a well known video in training circles in which a Highway Patrol officer shoots an armed subject 5 times “center mass” (this is not my assessment but the statement of his immediate supervisors which are interviewed on the full version of the hour long tape) with his 4” .357 Magnum revolver firing hollow point ammunition. All 5 hits failed to do the job and the subject was able to fire one round which struck the officer in the armpit. That round wondered around in the chest cavity and found his heart. The officer unfortunately died at the scene and his attacker is alive today.

In a class I conduct under the title "Fire For Effect" I start out by showing a video of standoff in which a hostage taker is fired on by police with .223 rifles and .40 caliber handguns. Throughout the whole disturbing sequence, which lasts about 10 seconds, the bad guy is hit multiple times in the torso with both rifle and pistol rounds. You can see him place his non-firing hand to his chest, clearly a lung is hit. However he is able to shoot his hostage 3 times, not rapidly. The hostage, a trim female, is active throughout the scene but later died from her wounds. In this case both the attacker and the victim had “center mass” hits that had no immediate effect.
I have accumulated confirmed incidents in which people have been shot “center mass” up to 55 times with 9mm JHP ammunition (the subject was hit 106 times, but 55 of those hits were ruled by the coroner to be each lethal in and of themselves) before he went down. During training at the FBI Academy we were told of a case in which agents shot a bank robber 65 times with 9mm, .223 and 00 buckshot – he survived! These are not rare cases. The happen quite often.

If a gunfight ever comes your way, your attacker may fall to a hit to the liver and he may not. He may fall to two or three hits to the kidneys, intestines or spleen, but he may not. He will certainly be in bad health. He likely will not survive, but what he does for the next several seconds to a few minutes is not guaranteed because you hit him "center mass."

Heart and lung hits don't statistically fare much better. I have three students and three other acquaintances who were all shot in a lung at the outset of gunfights. The students came to me after their fights to learn how to keep from getting shot again. Last time I checked all of those people were still alive and the people who shot them are still dead. Every one of them was able to respond effectively after being shot “center mass”, one might even say they were shot in the “A-zone”. And they were shot with .38 Special (three of them), 9mm, .357 Magnum and 8mm Mauser, so it's not all about caliber. One of those was a Chicom 12.7 mm round! He lived next door to me for many years.

So, what’s a person to do? First off, realize that one shot, even a fairly well placed shot may not do the job so don’t set there and admire your handiwork or wait for it to take effect. But even two hits may not get the job done!
After years of trying to get a grasp on this I have come to look at the results of shooting a living breathing target – be it a human attacker or a game animal – as falling into 3 or 4 categories. They are :
  1. Instant Collapse – this takes place 1 to 2 seconds from the shot being fired
  2. Rapid Collapse – this can take from 3 to 15 seconds and is quite common.
  3. Marginal Effect – this can even be a lethal hit but it takes from 15 to 300 (yes 300!) or even more seconds.
  4. The 4th is simply unacceptable and is a total failure.
The last category we don’t like to discuss but happens too often . We saw it recently in Washington with a Center Mass hit from an officer’s pistol and the subject was still walking around the next day.
What is “effective” shooting? Sad to say, it is demanding. It is also, I think, variable depending on the conditions. For example, the robber armed with a scattergun who is standing 10 feet away must be stopped “right now!” If you do not bring about Instant Collapse someone may very well die…that someone may be you!
On the other hand, if there is a gang banger launching bullets in your general direction using un-aimed fire about 20 yards away then a hit that brings about Rapid Collapse might do the job.

I cannot imagine a Marginally Effective result being very desirable in any case, but it does buy you some time in some cases.
How does this relate to hits? In order to achieve Instant Collapse you must scramble the “circuitry” that keeps the bad guy on the attack. That means the brain or spinal cord.
The head is not only a fairly difficult target to hit in the real world – because it moves a lot – but it is also difficult to penetrate and get a pistol bullet into the place it must be to be effective. For normal purposes we might write off the head, keeping it in reserve for very special circumstances.

The spine is not that easy to hit either. It isn't large, and to be effective the hit needs to be in the upper 1/3 of the spine or at a point about level with the tip of the sternum. I think that is around T11. But of course the huge problem is that it is hidden by the rest of the body. We are the good guys, we don’t go around shooting people in the back. So the exact location is something that can only be learned through lots of practice on 3D targets. Your point of aim on the surface changes with the angle at which the target is facing.
The bottom of the spine isn't much use. I know of several people shot in the pelvis. It did not break them down as many theorize. I am not saying it doesn’t happen but in the only case I know of in which it did the person who was “anchored” with a .357 magnum to the pelvis killed the person that shot him – you can shoot just fine from prone.

A shot, or preferably multiple shots to the heart and major arteries above the heart (not below!) may achieve Rapid Collapse, but not always. Officer Stacy Lim was shot in the heart at contact distance with a .357 Magnum and is still alive and her attacker is still dead! Score one for the good guys…or in this case gals!

So now what constitutes Marginal Effectiveness? A hit to the lungs! Even multiple hits to the lungs. Unfortunately though, most often lung hits are effective in ending the fight because the subject decides to quit the fight, not because he MUST. A famous Colonel Louis LeGarde once wrote what is considered "the" book on gunshot wounds. 65% of his patients shot through the lungs – with rifles! – survived with the predominant treatment being only bed rest!

Effective Practice and "Dynamic Response"

The goal of practice, one would think, is to make correct, effective shooting techniques a matter of reflex, so that you don't have to think about what you are doing in a gunfight.

Most people will perform under stress at about 50 to 60% as well as they do on the range…and that is if they practice a lot! If they only go to the range once every other month that performance level decreases dramatically. Shooting and weapons handling are very perishable skills. Also folks tend to practice the wrong stuff inadvertently. I put this in the classification of “practicing getting killed” but that too is a topic for another day.
Movement and Variation doesen't mean
innacurate shooting. In a real gunfight you and
your adversary will most likely
be moving. Click here if you can't see the video. 
Let’s talks about a basic response, what I call "Dynamic Response." Situations vary and this is not meant to be a universal answer, just one that will work for about 80% of scenarios.

It is pointless to stand still on the range and shoot a stationary target, unless you simply want to polish up some marksmanship fundamentals. That is a necessary part of learning to shoot. But if you are practicing for a fight, then fight!
Some rules.

  1. Don’t go to the range without a covering garment – unless of course you always carry your gun exposed (no comment).
  2. Don’t practice drawing your gun fast – ever! – while standing still.
Part of the Dynamic Response is to step off the line of attack (or on rare occasions that are dependent on circumstances backwards or forwards) and present the weapon with as much alacrity as you can muster and engage the target with overwhelming and accurate fire! By the way, never assume a fight is completely over just because you canceled one threat. Don’t practice “standing down” too quickly. We have a video attached which will hopefully give you the right idea.

I wish there was a formula of how to stand and how to hold you gun but there really isn't. We don’t do “Weaver vs. Isosceles vs. Modern Iso vs. whatever”. We don’t do “Thumbs Crossed vs. Thumbs Forward vs. Thumb Up…never mind.” Those are things for you to work out on your own. You use what makes YOU effective not what works for a guy who practices 50,000 rounds the week before a big match (that is not an exaggeration). Competitive shooters will throw out advice on what works for them. It may not work for you.

There is also not “one true gun”. Your skill is far more important that what you carry, within reason. We are not really talking about “stopping power”, whatever that is, here but rather effectiveness.
I can find no real measure – referred to by some as a mathematical model – of stopping power or effectiveness. And I have looked for 44 years now! Generally speaking I do see that bigger holes (in the right place) are more effective than smaller holes but the easy answer to that is just to shoot your smaller gun more – “a big shot is just a little shot that kept shooting”. True, I carry a .45 but that is because I am lazy and want to shoot less. A good bullet in 9mm in the right place (the spine!) will get the job done. If you hit the heart, 3 or 4 expanded 9mms will do about what a .45 expanding bullet will do or one might equal .45 ball….IF (note the big if) it penetrates. That is not based on any formula, it is based on what I have found to happen – sometimes real life does not make sense.
Practicing Dynamic Response means practicing with an open mind. Circumstances in a real gunfight are unpredictable and the more unpredictability you mix up into your practice the more your brain will be preparing itself for a possible real gunfight.

In real life, your gunfight may be dark, cold, rainy, etc. The subject may be anorexic (a lot of bad guys are not very healthy) or he may be obese (effective penetration and stopping power of your weapon). There are dozens of modifiers which change the circumstance, most not under your control. My only advice on this is what I learned from an old tanker: “Shoot until the target changes shape or catches fire!” Vertical to horizontal is a shape change, and putting that one more round into his chest at point blank range may catch his clothes on fire, even without using black powder.
We tell our military folks to be prepared to hit an enemy fighter from 3-7 times with 5.56 ball, traveling at over 3,000 feet per second. This approach sometimes worked, but I know of several cases where it has not, even "center mass."

With handguns, and with expanding bullets, it is even more unpredictable, but through years of study I have developed a general formula, subject to the above mentioned unpredictable circumstances.

  • 2-3 hits with a .45
  • 4-6 with a .40
  • 5-8 with a 9mm
With a revolver, the rounds are not necessarily more effective but I would practice shooting 3 in a .38 or .357 merely because I want 3 left for other threats. Not that those next three won’t follow quickly if the target hasn’t changed shape around my front sight blade. A .41, .44 or .45 Colt I would probably drop to two. Once again, they are not that much more effective than a .45 Auto but I don’t have the bullets to waste.

In any case, I want to stress the part that it is more about how you shoot than what you shoot, within reason. It is also more about the mindset and condition of the subject you are shooting which is not under your control. Take control – buy good bullets and put them where they count the most! And remember “anyone worth shooting once is worth shooting a whole lot!” (but please stop when the threat is cancelled, we don’t advocate “finishing shots”).

Gunfights are ugly things. I don't like to talk about the blood and guts aspects of defending life any more than the next guy. But it is our lives we are talking about here. By researching how gunfights are fought, and more importantly, how gunfights are won, it may give both of us the edge if a gunfight ever comes our way. I hope to cover many of the points I have learned and learned to train others in over the coming months. It isn't as easy to write about it as it is to teach it in person, but you can only succeed if you are willing to try.
I hope you enjoy the ride.
Press on!

I hope the article is helpful. Suerte -CapnRick

Hi Rick, thanks for the email.
A couple observations:
Some of the situations related are pretty unlikely. They happened, I'm just saying that 5 shots of good 357 magnum ammo to the chest, its very unlikely to leave you standing. May happen, but the odds sure as small.
I wouldn't say center of mass is a myth by any means. Other than the body armor concern you mention and rightfully so. Solid center of mass hits performed with preium 9mm ammo or better means you're shooting either the heart or spine. So a real center of mass hit will certainly be effective. Problem is, COM shots come in many forms and a "somewhat" center of mass shot may just be a wound in some random torso area. May stop the attacker... or not. Rest assured that a fist sized group in the center of the attackers chest will put anyone down, the trick is being as accurate as you can be with those COM hits.

As Rick said, practice practice practice. Carry good ammo in a 9mm or better caliber and you're good to go. If it comes to shooting, shoot until the attacker is down AND no longer a threat, if the first 2 or 3 center mass shots didn't do it start stiching up, neck or head will work much better. As the article says, dont expect an instant incapacitation with just one shot. May happen, may not. Plan for the worst.

"Gun Parts" in Av. Independencia: One of the owners shoots would-be bad guy on the street. Hits the shoulder of Mr. Bad Guy with a .45 slug. "That wont get the job done!" Wrong. The guy goes down, stays down, is unable to fire back and ends up losing that arm. Why? Simpe. In spite of what some of "these brain or central nervous system is teh only way to stop somoene " guys have to say, apparently getting your shoulder bone socket(and its nerve) blown to pieces hurts like hell.
Still in "Gun Parts" gunstore: Rulo, and employee that works there, is cleaning up a Ballester Molina (45 ACP) Bang! He accidentally shoots himself in the stomach. Touches his back and feels the "hot chocolate" pouring. He missed the spine by a couple centimiters. Calls an ambulance, sits down and waits for them. Loses some pieces of intestine but survives, he never lost conciousness.
You just never know guys. 



Will England said...

Center of mass may not just be about stopping the fight - it's about hitting them, period. 16 misses doesn't do much good. Training for center of mass shots is training for an instinctive 'hit' shot.

Trying to get fancy and do called shots (arm, leg, knee, gun, headshot) results in misses. I'm sure if anyone cares they can search for typical hit percentages in real world close range defensive situations.

EN said...

It's simple. Shoot until you gain compliance. I would not put any boundaries on what works or doesn't work. I shoot until the fight is over, check both sides of my six and then if it's clear, and only then, do I reload.

It's rare that we dual with an attacker one on one. Most opponents (Meant in the multiple since wolves travel in packs) will seek cover. I understand Will's point. However, attackers might start from cover, and we better practice shooting at small exposed areas. It's very unlikely we will see center of mass. An exposed right shoulder and 1/4 (or less) of a head will be fairly normal. I never practice center of mass shots. If you can hit a shoulder at 7 meters you can certainly hit the chest.

As for moving off center line, about 90 percent of my draw and shoot is done with movement. I practice a lot in my house with an unloaded gun because there's no where to go once the ball starts rolling in your own house. I'm not going outside, that's for sure.

Moving left makes us more accurate as he says, but this would also apply to bad guys. Almost all my live fire is done with my first step to the right. I understand he's worried about adrenaline degradation of fine motor skills, which makes moving left easier to get hits (unfortunately that includes the good and the bad guys), but that's why I practice. People move better to their dominant side, which would be the right in my case, and I'm not interested in tripping, which is not unusual in gun fights. Another reason to move right is that most shooters (right handers) will look for dominate (gun) side cover and by moving to the right you will make them move and expose themselves. There's a lot more, but I'd need my own blog and days to cover it.

Bones said...

The sad fact is the result of getting hit with a bullet is extremely unpredictable. People have survived hits by .50 cal! The so called "One shot stop" percentages are BS because you never know how the dice will roll.

Will is dead on correct.

Shoot for the center of mass because that's what's most likely to score a hit. Keep shooting until the threat STOPS. Keep it simple. Train that way because that's what you'll do when trouble starts.

Don Williams said...

1) While I like the 45 (9 mm holes seem to be so small as to be self-sealing), I think it's important to note that the 45 ACP is one of the easiest rounds to stop with body armor --whereas the rounds that can defeat level II armor (some even defeat level III) are 9mm or 357 SIG.

2) This is important because if an enemy is wearing level II armor, it is concealable and you will waste a lot of rounds (and time) on it if you fire 45. Whereas 9mm hardball may penetrate it or at least cause sufficient blunt trauma to crack the ribs/sternum and slow the enemy down.

3) If the enemy wears level III to defeat the 9mm, then it will be bulky enough that you will know to use head shots -- in which case, a 16 shot 9mm magazine is better than a 7 round 45.

4) IT is useful to compare rounds on the basis of penetration ability -- which I roughly define as Momentum divided by cross sectional area. I.e., mass(grains) time velocity divided by diameter squared.

(This is not totally correct once the bullet is inside the body --where penetration also depends greatly on whether a bullet tumbles end over end or bores straight through. Semiwadcutters are stable (i.e, don't tumble) and are good for penetration for this reason. Obviously also, I'm talking about full metal jacket bullets in all cases --not hollow points or special armor-piercing materials.)

Anonymous said...

Yeah alot of that article misses the point that LEO's have a hit rate of 17% and they are trained to shoot standing. So really it's kind of wishful thinking that you have a choice of making 'effective' COM shots. Apart from moving from the X, which isn't taught in police schools everything in the article is kind of irrelevant. Even for 'gunfighters' and SWAT dudes, its not relevant since they can actually hit things when they shoot at them unlike 99% of cops and civilians.

The truth is you have little chance of hitting anything, and even less if your moving. So the real hit rate for a person would 10% and that is rather generous.

Unless of course we are dealing with less than 3 meters of separation in which case, there are no rules either. I doubt anyone would be able to pull of a headshot even at that distance (I would personally run up and grab their gun, pull mine and shoot them in the head, rather 'unorthodox' but a lot of advice presumes so many things)

Oh yeah and if the person shooting at you is smart enough to be wearing body armor, I would jump out the window, your kind of guaranteed to run out of bullets or get shot to death. That or kamikaze run at him and get a point blank head shot. It's all wishful thinking otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Even baby can surivie "center mass" shoot. Take look at

Anonymous said...

re: hurting like hell...a few years ago I broke my femur in half, and for about 30 minutes it didn't hurt a bit. I felt a solid hit when it happened, and after that a conviction that I'd better not move, but no pain at all. I was even able to lift my butt off the ground so the medics could slide a blanket under me, still without pain. Later I screamed whenever they moved me half an inch, despite heavy painkillers.

Human body does amazing things in emergencies.

Johnny Abacus said...

I'm just saying that 5 shots of good 357 magnum ammo to the chest, its very unlikely to leave you standing. May happen, but the odds sure as small.

This is the "trooper coates" incident. The assailant was very obese (around 300 pounds if my memory serves me) and was lying on his back, feet towards the trooper. Penetration wise, this is one of the most difficult shots to make. If the bullets were hollow points, particularly the earlier ones that tended to open up too much, this is not too surprising.

This is one of the key reasons to use bullets that pass the FBI tests - when facing an opponent squarely, 12-18 inches of penetration may be overkill, but there are lots of situations (shooting through an arm, for example) where it becomes necessary to be effective.

Kicking Carbs said...

Actually, the brain and spine may be hard to hit, but the solar plexus (nerve bundle) is a great target. The solar plexus is traditionally a martial arts target. I accidentally nailed my husband there with my elbow and he had to lie down for 20 minutes to recover. Imagine the compound effect of a bullet.

There are other nerve bundles in the body beyond the brain and spine. We would do well to learn about targets like the solar plexus.