Can you make the shot you can't afford to miss?


Attacking a “fleeting, frustrating target:” the human head

By Dave Grossi

“Baker-16, Baker-16. Domestic in-progress. See the man at the Cost Saver on Warner Boulevard. He'll be outside … east parking lot, in a silver Ford. The suspect and vic are in a red SUV. Baker-21 assist."

You “10-4” the call. You're only two blocks away, your backup a good 10 minutes out. As you swing into the parking lot, you're flagged down by the caller, who points toward two twenty-somethings standing outside the driver's door of a red SUV. The female looks distressed, her clothes disheveled. The male looks clearly angry.

As you walk toward them, the male starts to tighten and relax his fists. “Sir, stay right there,” you tell him. He moves toward you instead. “Sir, I asked you to stay right there!” He keeps coming, jaw clenched, eyes boring into you. He's at least 10 years your junior and easily 15 pounds heavier, all in his upper body and arms. The tats on his forearms tell you he's not the first-chair violinist for the local philharmonic.

OK, it's gonna be a baton day, you're thinking as you snap out your expandable.

Before you can key your mic and ask Baker-21 to step it up, the suspect is already in your face with his hands up. Two forward baton strikes, one to his calf the other to his thigh, feel like you're hitting a side a beef, and you get the same reaction: Nothing. A blow to his forearm doesn't fully connect, and before you can strike again, he's got you in a head lock, trying to wrestle you to the ground.

You feel your baton yanked from your hand. He raises it over his head. You manage to break free and back away maybe five feet. He moves toward you. “Stop right there!” you yell as you draw your Glock 40 cal.

“Go ahead, shoot me!” The first words he's spoken since you arrived.

You sense the front bumper of your car behind you. Nowhere else to go, you think. You deliver a quick double tap to his upper torso-with the same result as your baton strikes. He doesn't even flinch. You see your third shot hit, center mass torso. Still he keeps coming, ready to strike with your baton.

You raise your gun up just a tad. Round number 4 rips into to his left temple-and down he goes.

A confirmed gangbanger with a lengthy sheet, several outstanding warrants, and, as it turns out, a BAC of 0.26, the suspect is DRT: dead right there….

This scenario is true. I'm the deadly force expert consulting on this case, which, like so many officer-involved shootings these days, has resulted in a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force. I changed a few facts: the call signs, the vehicle descriptions, the location. But the essentials are accurate. Forced into a deadly force decision by a relentless, armed, intoxicated suspect who kept coming despite three 180-grain, .40 caliber JHP rounds to the chest, this officer stopped the threat with the most decisive option there is: a head shot.

Traditional range training has always emphasized the importance of aiming for center-of-mass-the center of the largest vital area that's available to you. In most confrontations, that will probably be the upper torso. Most of the blood-bearing organs are located in that part of the body. It's a big target, so your chances of hitting it under stress and in a rapidly evolving, dynamic situation are optimal. It's a reasonable and time-tested first choice.

But, as this case shows, what's commonly considered “center mass” has its limitations, especially when the weapon you must depend on is your handgun. An FBI Wound Ballistics Workshop has stated bluntly that “reliable and reproducible instant incapacitation is not possible with any handgun bullet.” Indeed, it's well documented that because of the scary phenomenon known as “ambulation after death,” determined suspects are sometimes fully capable of continuing to function physically-and to keep on attacking-as long as seven to 15 seconds after taking “fatal” hits. And they can do a hell of a lot of damage in 7-15 seconds!

Aside from inflicting paralyzing injury to a suspect's spinal cord, your best bet for instant incapacitation is a gunshot wound to the brain. And there may be more circumstances than you imagine when that tactical option could be or should be your numero uno choice.

We know that gangbangers and other career criminals are more often wearing body armor these days. In some cases, a suspect may be behind cover so his head is the only target available, or in a life-or-death close-quarters struggle, it may be the most convenient. If he's a terrorist, his body may be rigged with explosives that would be detonated by a body mass shot. In an active-shooter or hostage-taking showdown, the fastest incapacitation possible may be mandatory. Or, like the officer I'm defending, you may be dealing with a chemically fueled or deranged attacker who simply won't go down.

The bottom line becomes: When you need to make a head shot to save lives, including your own, can you do it?

Most SWAT cops, Tact Unit and ESU troops are well-versed, properly equipped, and mentally prepared and have probably had a lot of practice doing it. But as an average “asphalt warrior” whose training in this concept probably hasn't extended much beyond the occasional “body armor drill” (two to the chest, one to the head) during in-service range training and whose weapon at the sudden moment of truth may be only your service sidearm, can you do it?

Before you're forced into that test on the street, here are some factors to contemplate:

THE CHALLENGE. While the head can make a very effective target from any position (front, back, and profile), it is what PoliceOne columnist Ron Avery calls “a fleeting, frustrating target.” It's relatively small and can move very fast. Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, has documented that an unrestrained subject can move his head sideways 6 to 10 inches in as little as 1/10 of a second-“faster than a rifle bullet can travel 200 yards.”

Trainer Tom Aveni of the Police Policy Studies Council in New Hampshire puts it this way: “The human skull is a fortified pillbox, mounted on a swivel, the neck. The head can move up and down and side-to-side freely and quickly when a threat is perceived.”

With a head shot, Avery explains, “there is a high probability of a miss under real-world conditions. This problem is compounded by officers who only train head shots from static positions or while moving slowly. The problem gets bigger with lenient scoring procedures and too big a target area. Then there's the matter of what to do if you keep missing the head and have to account for the rounds fired.”

Formidable challenges! Nonetheless, the experts agree that you can significantly improve your chances of delivering spot-on shots with practice. It takes lots of it. But the 5%er mentality, which we're all trying to nurture and cultivate, sees challenges as motivation.

EFFECTIVE PRACTICE. The key to success, as with developing any skill, is perfect practice at reasonable distances. Chief Jeff Chudwin, president of the Illinois Tactical Officers Assn., suggests this test for yourself and your fellow “street dogs:”

Using a 6-inch paper plate to simulate a head, first fire from a stationary position and then add some movement, shooting from variable distances. Strive to hit the center 4-inch portion. Chudwin says street officers on his department practice this “at distances up to 15 yards, and due to constant drilling have good success,” even with their handguns (although the results do clearly illustrate the superiority of the patrol rifle). “Take an officer not trained in this and you will see a very different result.”

New York-based firearms trainer and author Mike Rayburn, who also regularly uses paper plates, adds a twist. He cuts the plates in half and mounts them on a target lengthwise to train his students to take head shots when only half of the head is visible.

His students start at 3 yards and go back to 7 yards. (For other training options, see Ron Avery's drills described in the accompanying sidebar.)

Honing your firearms skills is only half the job. If you're not already there, start conditioning yourself mentally and psychologically for a deadly force event. Many cops, including those who've been on the job for a number of years, just aren't wired to look at themselves as soldiers. Given what law enforcement has to face today, this must change.

I'm part of a dying (or at least, retiring) breed: the Vietnam vet who became a cop straight from military active duty. Having experienced combat, I already had the mind-set from personal experience that I could take a human life without hesitation, when justified. But during my years spent as an academy instructor, I saw that same warrior mind-set displayed very infrequently by the recruits I was charged with training.

In fact, I watched one recruit wash out because he couldn't pass with a qualifying score when we switched to full-size silhouette targets during week two of firearms training. According to him, they looked “too much like human beings.” He was a great recruit-big, strong, smart, a cum laude college graduate. He was a great shot, too, as long as we were working with bulls-eye targets. But the minute we went to B-27s, he fell apart like a worn-out wash cloth.

The visual impact of a head shot may be greater than any other use of deadly force. Be ready for it.

ZONES OF VULNERABILITY. The skull-that fortified pillbox Aveni talks about-can be tough to penetrate. Stories of bullets puncturing the skin but then subcutaneously circumnavigating the head without punching through the bone to the brain are legendary. In fact, Chudwin claims that ER docs accustomed to treating GSWs have told him that in their experience handgun rounds to the head are “effective” (i.e., immediately incapacitating) only about half the time, “due to lack of penetration to the cranial vault.”

So, just as one-shot stops often prove to be a myth with center-mass shots, they're no guarantee with head shots, either. Keep firing until you're convinced you've stopped the threat. Remember, there are no absolutes in handgun firearm defense.

Some head areas, though, are clearly more vulnerable to penetrating shot placement than others. Ideally, these are your prime targets:

Front-a “T” that spans the eye sockets and goes down the nose. Try to avoid the forehead and the area between the chin and nose, where resistance from teeth and bone is much stronger.

Side-the temple, just in front of the ear or in the ear canal.

Back-the base of the skull, right at the top of the neck.

If you're within arm's reach, a near-contact shot is your best bet, directed at any of these locations or, even better, right under the chin, with your muzzle angled up toward the brain.

Remember to keep a slight separation from the skin. If you shove your pistol hard into the suspect's flesh, this may push your slide back enough that some semi-autos won't fire. Or if you can get one round off, your pistol may malfunction so your next round won't cycle.

You can guard against this by using your attacker's sternum as an index point. Just plant the butt of your gun right against his sternum before you pull the trigger. This puts your barrel at the proper angle but keeps it from making direct contact.

Be prepared: any shot this close delivers gases from the muzzle blast into the entry wound and tends to tremendously magnify the damage done, as well as the blow-back.

If upper body shots aren't working and an immediate head shot seems improbable, don't discount directing a hail of fire at the suspect's pelvic girdle. That's a fairly large target and one that can be effectively hit from 360 degrees.

If your rounds shatter his pelvis or break his hip, he's not likely to stay standing, whether he feels the pain or not. Once he falls, of course, he can still be dangerous. But the ground may stabilize his head enough that you can then stop his continuing threat with the head shot that you'd have preferred in the first place.

About the author:

Dave Grossi, a retired lieutenant of the Irondequoit (N.Y.) Police Dept. and former lead instructor with the Street Survival® Seminar, has reviewed more than 450 cases and has testified in court more than 80 times as an expert in the use of force. He serves on the national advisory board of the Force Science Research Center.

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