In August 2012, officers engaged a homicide suspect who had just shot a man outside the Empire State Building. As the officers approached the suspect, he pulled out a gun, and the officers responded by shooting at the suspect. In that incident, nine other people were wounded by the resulting gunfire.
In the now-famous video you can see the officers reacting as they have probably been trained — they stand, draw their weapons and fire. I would dare to say that the majority of officers reading this have been trained the same way.
In this particular situation there are a multitude of people in the area walking and driving by.
In the surrounding buildings there are thousands more. A total of sixteen rounds were fired by the officers. The rounds were fired at the suspect parallel to the ground at about chest level — the angle most likely to strike anyone walking or driving by.
Changing Angles of Fire
As I mentioned earlier, the officers probably reacted as they were trained to. In situations like this you may want to consider changing your angle of fire by dropping to a knee or even going prone to lessen the likelihood of hitting anyone with a miss or a bullet that over-penetrates.
With clear 20/20 hindsight it would appear that the large planter shown in the video would have provided an opportunity to drop down low and angle a shot up — an angle that would take the bullets’ path over the bystanders in the area.
As the old saying goes, “What goes up must come down.” In this case you need to pick the lesser of two evils. A bullet going up and into a building or even an office window is potentially less likely to cause serious injuries than a parallel shot down the crowded street.
One of the main problems in our training is we are limited by our training facilities. Most ranges don’t allow for steeply angled shots up or down. Any shots not parallel to the floor end up striking the floor, the ceiling or going over the berm on an outdoor range. Any range that you go to will require that you safely place your rounds into the approved safe backstop — as a result, we inadvertently ingrain the concept that level shots are safe and angled shots are dangerous.
As we all know, if you never practice doing something, don’t expect to be able to do it under stress in the middle of any fight, let alone a gunfight.
5 Key Considerations
There is a time and place where the tactic of using a steeply angled shot should be considered. Here are a few hints to prepare for those situations:
1. Practice. Your firearms range probably doesn’t allow live fire practice at these angles, so use a training pistol, or better yet an FX marking training pistol, Airsoft, or BB gun. Paper targets are OK, but a 3D target is better, and a live target is best — using the proper training and safety equipment protocols — depending on what your target is.
2. As the angle changes, the point of aim changes. A shot that might strike the heart coming straight in might go over the top of it from a shot from a low angle.
3. The target may change. If you have taken a lower position to insure that your shot misses your partner or any bystanders, you may want to aim higher on the chest or at the head to insure that your rounds’ trajectory clears any innocent parties in the area.
4. Understand anatomy. During practice, take a look at an anatomical chart and plot the proper aim points and bullet trajectory from different angles and heights to give you the best chance of good bullet placement.
5. Work the angles. Try standing, crouching, squatting, kneeling, prone and everything in between to get the angle you need. Practice up close and at distance because you won’t decide on the distance that a gunfight takes place at.
Prepare for the real 360-degree world. Range practice is essential, but the range isn’t the real world, and you are limited in the directions and angles you can fire based on the range construction. Make your training “real” by imagining situations that would require you to use angled fire and mentally rehearsing the steps you would need to take to make a tactically sound and safe(r) shot, combined with blue/red gun practice with a training partner.
Cap it off with actually firing either an FX pistol or Airsoft at your living, breathing, moving, training threat if you have access to that kind of equipment.
About the author
In February 2014, Duane Wolfe retired from his career as a Minnesota Peace Officer after more than 25 years of service (beginning in 1988). During his career he served as patrolman, sergeant, S.R.T., Use of Force and Firearms Instructor, and is currently employed by the Parkers Prairie Police Department. He is also a full time instructor in the Law Enforcement Program at Alexandria Technical College, Alexandria, Minnesota. Duane has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice from Bemidji State University, and a Masters Degree in Education from Southwest State University. Duance has previously published articles on Calibre Press and IALEFI and served on the Advisory Board for Lt. Col. Dave Grossmans book, On Combat. Contact Duane Wolfe