We all undoubtedly remember Mel Gibson’s advice to his young son in the blockbuster hit The Patriot; “aim small, miss small.” While it was a catchy phrase well placed in the film, it does encapsulate the general premise that finer accuracy requires more precise and deliberate aiming. When we apply this to the use of the defensive handgun under the realistic chaos and relatively close range as encountered in defensive shooting, precise aim rarely plays a significant factor. Rather, we take only the sight picture we need to make the hit at the greatest possible speed. The defensive handgun is hardly a precision or long-range weapon. However, the ability to make accurate shots, or make them at further distances, is a skill that seems to be emerging as a greater and greater concern with the changing paradigm of violence.
Precision may be needed for engaging a threat at greater than conventional handgun distances, or precision may be needed to make a shot on a target surrounded by innocent people. A greater focus on accuracy has also emerged as the defensive shooting community has become more aware of the nature of ballistics on the human body. As we have seen repeatedly, determined threats do not stop unless sustaining an immediately incapacitating wound. The regions of the body that will yield immediate incapacitation from a handgun round are quite small. The only hits that can be relied on for incapacitation are brain or spinal column shots. Even threats who have had their heart destroyed by gunfire have proven to be able to continue violent action for over twelve seconds, a reaction that the FBI teaches their agents to expect.
As armed citizens, we often become lax on this consideration since criminals most often break off and flee at the first sign of armed resistance. This, however, is not always the case, and stopping a determined human threat quickly is no small feat with a handgun. Putting rounds into the relatively small regions of the body that provide a true off switch is difficult, at best. As any medical professional will tell you, the human organism is very easy to kill, but it is difficult to stop quickly. As citizens interested in self-defense we are only interested in being able to quickly neutralize a violent threat so as to stop an attack, killing is an unfortunate potential by-product of this, but not at all the goal. We need to stop threats quickly, and accurate shooting is the best way to stop determined adversaries.
Guys who have been there and done that will generally agree that the region of the chest that will actually induce a fast stop is about the size of a grapefruit, a comparatively small area. Concerning headshots, the target area that will facilitate immediate incapacitation is not simply “the head.” There have been many instances in which bullets have glanced off the skull of criminals in gunfights. The ocular cavity is the target of choice as this provides a more vulnerable bone structure than does the forehead, and it also houses the brain stem, the true off switch.
The newer version of the well-known IDPA target, which actually provides only a four inch “down zero” scoring circle in the head, is more on point with reality than the previous version of the target that simply required a hit to the head region. As the emerging reality has become manifest, even some of the shooting games have embraced more demanding accuracy.
With the undeniable fact that we need to shoot accurately to stop a determined individual well established, how should we adjust training and prepare our approach to defensive shooting?
Verify Your Zero
We don’t often think of zeroing our pistol in terms of sighting it in. A fixed-sighted defensive handgun is hardly a rifle with a variable powered scope. However, what you will find with a pistol is that different bullet weights, loads, and even bullet designs, will hit to different points of impact from any given handgun. Even two of the same exact model of handgun may prefer different loads. While we may not see a substantial difference in point of impact within a few yards, you will certainly see the differences when you stretch out in distance.
You may find that you need to select your defensive load based on the preferences of your gun. Most rear sights can be drifted for windage (side-to-side point of impact) but if you have significant trouble finding a load that does not shoot too high or low, a change in sights could be in order. Most often, selecting the right load will do the trick. I suggest shooting your defensive ammo to gain a good understanding of where your gun hits at 25 yards, and certainly test it at 50 yards as well. We live in an era where engagements at longer distances have been seen more than once, and the need to shoot at such distance is rare but possible.
Train for Small Target First Shots from the Holster
The majority of shooters spend most time training for fast shots out of the holster at the larger center mass areas of a humanoid target. This is important, but the changing nature of the threat also calls for the possible demand to hit small targets from the outset. Spend some of your range time practicing a fast draw to an initial shot to the small ocular cavity of the head. As we witness more criminals wearing body armor, explosive vests, or any number of different reasons, a need for headshots becomes more apparent. It will be necessary to slow down compared to a shot to the larger chest area, but training for as fast a headshot as possible, from the holster, is a good skill to work on.
Transition from Center Mass to the Smaller Targets of Incapacitation
There have been many incidents in which an inordinate number of rounds have failed to swiftly neutralize a determined attacker, even when some of these shots to the high-thoracic cavity have been lethal, thus leaving a dead man walking. A shot that will kill a threat two minutes later does the self-defender no good. Immediate neutralization is needed to stop determined individuals. And the only way to guarantee this is to make shots to the ocular cavity of the head. Training for repeated shots to the high-center chest, as is the traditional dogma, is becoming somewhat questionable.
The high-center chest presents the most opportune target that can be engaged quickly. But training to transition to the head after an initial several rounds to the chest area is perhaps a more sound tactic to develop. The typical “failure drill” of two to the body, one to the head, is in itself somewhat stagnant. More training should focus on going for repeat shots to the head after an initial volley is fired to the chest area. This will help condition the shooter to move quickly to an attack that will provide a fast neutralization.
In conclusion, I encourage all concealed carriers to take into account the changing nature of the threat that defines the new criminal paradigm. Change your training approach to reflect this reality so that you are ready for the worst-case scenario.