Being involved in a defensive shooting situation while in a vehicle is about as unlikely as being struck by lightning…until it isn’t. There were 444 lightning strike deaths in the United States in the years 2006 through 2021. That’s around 15 a year, yet we all know the precautions to prevent being struck by lightning during a storm. Don’t stand under a tall tree. Don’t stand on a hilltop. Don’t play golf. And it’s safe to say most of us put them into practice.
Compare that with the fact that more than 500 people in the U.S. were killed or wounded in road rage shootings in 2021 alone. And that number doesn’t include people shot while in their car in parking lots or as the result of a carjacking or robbery. Yet we’re often told that having to defend ourselves while in a vehicle is so unlikely as to be an insignificant aspect of training and preparation. Forgive me if I disagree.
While doing private security work in Iraq, I was shot at while in a vehicle and shot back from a vehicle on multiple occasions. Even more frequently, we used our vehicles as weapons. There are definite techniques and tactics for both situations. They are interesting, and given the deteriorating situation in America, they are pertinent enough that it is worth a little time and effort to understand them and learn how to use them if the necessity should arise.
I certainly can’t cover everything in this article. There are entire books written about the topic and entire training programs devoted to it. So, I am just going to hit some of the high points.
How Do Vehicle-Related Shootings Take Place?
People are most commonly assaulted in their vehicles while they are sitting still. This usually takes place in a store or apartment parking lot, a bank drive-through ATM, or a gas station. Occasionally, it takes place when stopped in traffic or after being run off the road in a road rage incident.
In the Parking Lot
Robberies and carjackings usually take place in parking lots. The bad guys watch a vehicle, often from the time it pulls in. When the victim returns to the vehicle, they rush it and take the owner by surprise. From there, they get the drop on them to rob them or get them out of the car so they can steal it. Since modern cars use electronic keys, thieves can no longer just hotwire a car to steal it.
Situational awareness is key. Always watch your surroundings, especially as you come out of the store. Pay attention to individuals or groups of people hanging around. Be ready to deploy your defensive firearm. Don’t have your strong hand filled with bags or keys. Once you’re in your car, rule #1 is don’t just sit there. Get moving. If you want to check your phone or settle something in the car, drive to a new spot and then take care of whatever you need to. A successful crime is all about timing and opportunity. Disrupt that to make the bad guys look for a new target.
In a Gas Station
Gas stations are another favorite target for criminals. Along with paying attention, there are things you can do to be a hard target. Look for a gas station that isn’t congested, preferably one that’s not in a bad area. When you get out to pump your gas, take your keys and lock all the doors except the driver’s door you’re standing next to. Position yourself in the space between your open driver’s door and the pump hose while the nozzle is in the gas-fill tube. That ensures there’s at least some kind of barrier between you and anyone approaching you. Be alert and prepared to draw your firearm if necessary. Sometimes, you have other options if you’re creative like this guy.
On The Road
We like to think that we’re safe as long as our vehicle is in motion. But there are some crazies on the road. My wife and I had a road rage episode where a guy tried to run us off the road a couple of years ago. He was in a pickup truck, and we were in an SUV. He did the usual tailgating and blowing his horn while we just drove along normally. At one point, he got next to us and tried to run us into the ditch. I avoided his attempt, and he gave up. We called 911 and gave them his license number. We were both armed and trained, so it probably wouldn’t have gone well for him if he had managed to stop us and gotten out of his truck, but there was no need to allow one fool to precipitate a situation where we would have to shoot him. Avoidance was the best defense.
That’s not always possible. A traffic jam, stop light, or choke point can be an opportunity for a bad guy. Given that most people are not professionals, there can be mistakes on both sides. See if you can spot them all in this incident.
The victim took too long to react. The bad guys had plenty of time to get the drop on her. She’s lucky they didn’t shoot her through the window, but they probably wanted the car in sellable condition. She should have been ready to back up or pull around them as soon as they blocked the road and been long gone by the time they got out of their car (which was probably stolen). Most people don’t expect trouble, so they waste time thinking, ‘This can’t be happening’ when it happens.
The bad guys weren’t pros, either. They should have gradually slowed to get her to close up behind them and then blocked the road where it was narrow, with no way around them. Instead, they picked a nice wide spot where she had plenty of room to get around them.
It turned out okay this time, but it’s a good example of a situation where you might have had to defend yourself.
Carrying an Gun While Driving
If you’re reading this article, you probably carry a gun regularly. Carrying in a vehicle presents a different set of challenges than carrying on foot.
While working private security in Iraq, I had the benefit of wearing a tactical vest with a cross-draw holster. Drawing my pistol while driving was easy. We can’t realistically do that here in the U.S., so we have to come up with other strategies.
If you leave your handgun in your EDC holster while in the car, it can be difficult to quickly draw and present, especially with a seatbelt on. If you carry at the 3 or 4 o’clock position, it’s very hard to draw. The seatbelt is in the way, and unfastening it takes time. Even after that, it can be challenging to draw and present quickly.
Appendix carry is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, the muzzle of your gun is no longer pointing at the ground like it is when you’re standing. Seated, it is pointing at critical portions of your anatomy, such as your family jewels, thigh, and femoral artery. If it goes off while drawing, it will hit something vital. It’s also difficult to draw with a seatbelt on.
A shoulder holster would work, but few citizens carry that way. An ankle holster is an option, but it limits the size of the gun. You also still have to lean down past the steering wheel to draw.
Some people stick their gun under their thigh while driving. That makes for quicker access, but there’s a risk of losing track of it under hard driving or braking. It can also be a problem if you must get out of the car quickly.
Console or Glovebox
Another option is to carry your gun in the center console or glove box. As long as the gun fits in well, both will keep it safely stored. Each has its own set of challenges for deploying the gun in a hurry, and neither are methods I use.
A holster or magnet mounted under the steering column or on the side of the console provides the quickest access in an emergency. The drawback here is twofold. First, if you use your EDC gun, you must unholster and holster it anytime you get in or out of the car, something most people don’t like to do, with good reason. The other is that you have a gun in plain sight if you get pulled over for a traffic violation. That can be a tense situation in itself.
My wife carries her gun in a shoulder bag that doesn’t leave her body. When seat belted in the car, the strap is still around her shoulder, and the bag sits on her lap where she can quickly draw if need be.
I use a magnet mount, but with a caveat. My compact carry gun stays in its holster at my 4 o’clock position. A full-size handgun rides on a magnet mount next to my right knee. That way, I never have to mess with my carry gun, and I have a gun that I can snatch off the magnet in a fraction of a second. I lock the “car” gun up whenever I park the car. I’m not saying our methods are right for everyone. I’m just telling you how we do it.
No matter how you carry in your vehicle, you must regularly practice drawing and presenting your gun while in your vehicle. Double-check that your gun is cleared, preferably with a snap cap in the chamber, then sit in your car with your seatbelt on.
Practice drawing and presenting your gun at every possible angle. Straight ahead, driver side, and passenger side. If you live in suburbia or the city, you may want to do it with your car in the garage or go to a secluded area so you don’t freak out your neighbors, but you need to do it. Practicing while sitting in a chair in your home is okay, but it doesn’t accurately replicate the space constraints in a vehicle.
Practicing is the only way you will ever know if you can realistically draw and defend yourself if the need arises. I’ve had multiple occasions to draw and present both handguns and carbines while in a vehicle, and I can tell you it’s harder than it seems when you’re just sitting and thinking about it.
Shooting from a Vehicle
There could be times when you have no choice but to shoot while sitting in your vehicle. I have been in a vehicle when either myself or someone else shot a gun inside it. In one case, it was three Kurds who opened up with AKs on full auto from the inside of a pickup truck crew cab. Not only is it loud, but there is brass bouncing around. You must be psychologically prepared for this to think clearly. If you can find any training that includes shooting from inside a car, take it.
Another factor to consider is that people shooting from inside a vehicle tend to shoot high. This is probably because you are sitting down and trying to aim, but whatever the reason, be aware of it.
As the Driver When Standing Still
The most likely situations in which you have to deploy your gun will be when your vehicle is standing still. Again, the best defense here is to pay attention and not get taken by surprise. If the bad guy is already by your window with a gun pointed at you, you will need to decide whether trying to draw is a good idea or not. No matter how fast you are, he can pull the trigger faster than you can draw and present.
A ruse like acting scared and telling him you’re going to give him your wallet might work. If your gun is in the console or on your ankle, you’ll probably never get it in time.
If you have time to draw, you will find that shooting in the enclosed space of a vehicle is difficult. Some techniques make it easier. We’ll cover shooting when seated in the driver’s seat first.
Threat on the Left at 9:00 o’clock
If your assailant is close, you don’t want to extend your gun towards him. Drawing from your right side, bring your gun around in front of you until it is just to the left of the centerline of your body. Your left hand comes up to meet your right hand in a grip. It will be difficult to get a normal grip with your left hand. Instead, it will be directly in front of your right hand and pushing against it. Your elbows will be tucked in tight to your sides, and your body will be facing slightly to the left. Lean your upper body back to the right. The barrel will be pointing just above the bottom edge of the window.
If you have more distance and time, this second technique is preferable. Drawing from the right, bring your gun around almost to eye level on your left side. Be careful not to hit the steering wheel as you bring it around. Bring your left hand up to meet it when it is about three-quarters of the way around and get a normal grip. As you get your left hand against your right, turn your upper body to the left and lean back to the right. Continue bringing your gun up until it is on your target, and you can fire.
If you don’t have time or cannot lean to the right as you turn, drop your left shoulder as you bring your gun around. This will bring your gun the rest of the way around. It will also roll your gun about 45 degrees to the left. It may seem counterintuitive, but if you can’t lean back to the right, it will be easier to shoot accurately canted like this.
Threat on the Right at 3:00 o’clock
This is a pretty straightforward technique unless you have a passenger in the right seat. We’ll talk about that shortly.
To shoot from the driver’s seat across to the right side, you simply draw and present in a typical one-handed grip. If you’ve included one-handed techniques in your practice, this should be easy. If you haven’t…why not?
Through the Windshield at 12:00 o’clock
Shooting through a windshield will affect the trajectory of the bullet. The lighter the bullet, the greater the effect. Again, your first round is likely to be high. Don’t waste time trying to compensate. Just put multiple rounds out through the same hole.
Some training approaches recommend shooting out a hole in the windshield first and then shooting through the spot to get effective hits on the threat. Don’t waste time trying to do that, just aim at your target and shoot. The hole will take care of itself.
Shooting from a Moving Vehicle
Driving a moving car is a completely different situation. The primary objective of being in a vehicle under fire or ambush is always to get the vehicle in motion to escape, evade, and maneuver. That being said, sometimes we have no choice but to engage. Shooting a gun while driving is problematic on many levels. For one, getting a hit while shooting from a moving vehicle, possibly at another moving vehicle is often as much a matter of luck as skill. If you concentrate too much on shooting, you may crash your vehicle. If you concentrate on driving, you probably won’t hit anything.
Make driving your first priority. Escape the situation if at all possible. If that fails, your vehicle is a much bigger weapon than your gun.
Shooting from a Moving Vehicle While Riding Shotgun
Most discussions on defending yourself from a vehicle seem to focus on you being the driver. But it pays to consider what you would do as a passenger.
Riding shotgun is a term that originated in the Old West. It referred to the stagecoach guards called shotgun messengers who rode on top with the driver. It means the driver drives while the passenger handles any bad guys that show up. In most cases, the passenger is in a better position to defend himself or herself and the driver. You don’t have the steering wheel to deal with, but it is still a cramped environment. There are some techniques that will help.
First and foremost, however, is to ensure that no one in the car suffers from friendly fire. That includes having a muzzle blast in their face. The second is to try to get into a stable shooting position with the minimum amount of movement possible.
Threat on the Left at 9:00 o’clock
If the threat is on the left side of the vehicle and you are in the passenger seat, any shooting you do will be in front of the driver. Not only must you effectively engage the threat, you will have to do it while keeping the driver safe. This is probably the most difficult position for a passenger to engage a threat.
Draw and present your gun while twisting your body to the left and leaning toward the driver. Press your right foot against the floor to help stabilize your body. Thrust your left arm out in front of the driver and press him back into the seat. This not only helps get the driver out of your line of fire, it lets you know exactly where his body is.
Thrust your right arm out to put the muzzle of the gun as far from the driver’s face as possible. Don’t press it against the window, as that could put it out of battery. It is going to be very difficult to get hits from this position. Your goal is more one of suppression while the driver gets the vehicle moving and out of the danger zone.
Loudly command the driver to “Drive”! That will snap them out of any fixation on the bad guys or the gun they may have.
Threat on the Right at 3:00 o’clock
While this position is still awkward, it’s much easier for a passenger to shoot out the right side than for the driver to shoot out the left. For one, you don’t have the steering wheel to contend with.
Draw and turn your body to the right and lean back against the right side of the driver’s seatback. Press your left foot against the floor to stabilize you. Bring your right foot up and tuck it under your left knee. This will take some practice to be able to do quickly, but it will stabilize you so it’s worth the effort. By leaning back against the side of the driver’s seat you give yourself room to extend your arms and get a good grip. Again, be sure you don’t push the muzzle of the gun against the side window if it’s still open.
Through the Windshield at 12:00 o’clock
Just as with the driver, shooting forward through the windshield is relatively easy, especially since you do not have the steering wheel to deal with.
Lean back into your seat while pushing your feet against the floor. This will stabilize you and help get you another inch or two back so you can extend your arms. Now shoot through the windshield.
Threat Behind at 6:00 o’clock
Shooting behind the car itself is relatively easy. It’s getting into the position to shoot that takes some practice. Ideally, if the threat is already behind you, the driver should be getting you away from it quickly. But things seldom go according to plan.
Twist to the right and cross your right leg up and onto the seat. Scissor your leg under it to stabilize you. Let your body lean into the space between the seats until your right shoulder is against the side of the driver’s seat.
Alternatively, you can rest your right arm on the top of the driver’s seat next to the headrest. However, not all car seats are built such that you can do that. If the vehicle you are in has a bench seat instead of buckets in the front, hook your elbows over the back of the seat.
You may wonder why you don’t just rotate to the left. You are certainly welcome to try that and see if it works for you. In my training and experience, twisting to the left throws your weight between the seats and forces you to recover your balance before you can get settled to shoot. It also means that you have probably flagged the driver with your muzzle as you turned around.
In any of these situations, whether you are the driver or the armed passenger, you must ensure your other passengers are safe. That includes friendly fire. You should be loudly giving the command, “Get down!” at the same time you are drawing your gun. Passengers should know to immediately take cover rather than looking around to see what’s happening.
Shooting Around Vehicles
Unless you are pretty certain you will be able to drive your car out of the situation very shortly, it’s probably better to get out of the vehicle, assuming you have time. You may also find yourself under assault before you can get into your vehicle in a parking lot or gas station.
Vehicles as Cover
Vehicles make good concealment but only mediocre cover. Vehicle doors and body panels generally will not stop even a 9mm bullet, TV and movies notwithstanding. However, those parts of the car may deflect a bullet, which can be useful in itself.
Other parts of the car body, such as the posts that support the roof, can stop a bullet under the right circumstances. The engine is the most certain component for stopping a bullet. You should keep these in mind if you are forced to take cover and maneuver around a vehicle during a gunfight.
Think outside the box. The bad guys involved in the infamous 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery shootout were wearing body armor. Much of the police fire was ineffective. The episode finally ended when Officer Donnie Anderson, realizing he couldn’t penetrate robber Emil Mătăsăreanu’s body armor, lay down and shot under the car, hitting Mătăsăreanu in his unprotected lower legs.
It’s also better to shoot around the cover instead of over it. Leaning out to shoot around the front or back of a vehicle is better than rising up to shoot over it.
Using Your Vehicle
The majority of the time, the best way to deal with a situation when you’re in your vehicle is to drive away. When stopping in traffic, stop far enough back so you can see the tires of the car in front of you. That means you have enough room to swing out around it to get away.
It’s impossible to give you the best tactics for every situation. There are just too many variables. But in general, your car is your best defense. Don’t be shy about jumping a curb or denting your fender. It’s your life that’s on the line.
If a bad guy is in front of you trying to get a shot, that is considered a lethal threat. Don’t stop, keep going. But do not pursue the bad guys to try to run them down if they are no longer a threat. Now, you have crossed the legal line. Just get out of there.
And always pay attention to what is going on around you. Avoidance is still the best defensive tactic.