EDITOR’S NOTE: This is Part II in a series confronting the lack of proper firearms training in modern law enforcement. In Part I we covered the importance of transitioning to targets that focus the officer’s shots into the key upper chest targeting areas of the heart and lungs of the adversary. In Part II we present the arguments for proper targeting, with an anatomical analysis to verify our reasoning.
In a deadly force engagement the threat must be stopped as quickly as possible. Firearms instructors have a duty and responsibility to train their students to win – not just survive a deadly force encounter. Winning means the officer was mentally and physically prepared, observed and identified the lethal threat, engaged and subdued the lethal threat, and was legally justified in his or her actions.
Winning encompasses surviving, but surviving on its own simply means the officer did not die from the encounter. Winning leaves the shooter mentally and physically prepared to continue with life in a healthy way.
To win a deadly force encounter requires several key components, that must be mastered by the officer. The ability to win a deadly force encounter begins well before the actual threat manifests itself. The mental and physical preparation must have begun long before deadly force is required, or the officer will not be able to process through the OODA Loop and successfully respond to the threat. These concepts are so important that I feel compelled to expand on them before I get into the arguments for upper chest targeting and anatomy.
Keys to Winning a Deadly Force Encounter
- Proper Mindset – Possess a fundamental belief system to be at peace with taking another human life when necessary
- Understanding the Law – Comprehensive knowledge of when the law allows deadly force in self-defense or the defense of others
- Firearm Familiarity – Full understanding of the manual of arms for the primary (and back-up) firearm
- Mastery of Shooting Fundamentals – Proper draw, solid shooting platform, sight alignment, target identification and beyond, trigger pull and reset, follow-up shots, evaluating shot placement and effectiveness, scanning and breathing, securing the threat after the shooting
- Knowledge of Vital Targeting Areas – Cranial vault, upper thoracic cavity (upper chest), pelvic girdle.
When a deadly threat is confronted, the officer must process the observation and orient themselves to the perceived threat. The ability to do so quickly depends upon the officer’s individual mental and physical preparation, but is also highly effected by the officer’s training.
Being mentally prepared to respond to a deadly threat starts with an officer’s belief system. Regardless of whether the belief system involves God or simply a just moral standing, the officer must be at peace with the potential they may have to take another human being’s life to save their life or the life of others.
Mental preparation also involves maintaining a serious level of observation and awareness. In the color-coding system, an officer must never allow themselves to be at Condition White, but must train themselves to remain at Condition Yellow until their senses draw them to a potential threat. Then the officer can rise to Condition Orange or Condition Red to properly address the threat. Trying to remain at the elevated levels will only fatigue the officer’s mental capability to perform the necessary tasks of daily life.
Understanding the Law
As any veteran officer can tell you – knowledge of the law is key to a successful career. As a law enforcement officer, we are charged to enforce the laws. Obviously, there are often hundreds or even thousands of Federal, State, and local laws that an officer may have need to enforce, and trying to memorize all of them is simply not realistic.
Rather, an officer should memorize the most frequently violated laws, and be intimately aware of their criminal elements. Still be familiar with the other laws, and know where to go to find the answers. As a FTO, my probationary officers were given a list of 15-20 common traffic laws and 15-20 common general crime laws to memorize. I tested them frequently, much to their distaste, but their knowledge of the law made them superior and confident decision makers in a very short time because they knew their actions were right.
In addition to Statute law, every officer must have a fundamental understanding of U.S. Constitutional law. The Constitution was not ratified until the Bill of Rights was included. These rights of a free nation must not be violated, but understanding when the Constitution allows officers to seize, search, and detain people and property is key to officer survival.
Trying to remember the boring law classes during the Academy as your source for information is a recipe for disaster. An officer must be a life-long student of the law. Recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have completely changed some of the most long-standing legal precedents. When Arizona v. Gant was decided a few years ago, it reversed a Constitutional principle that was nearly 100 years old. As technology continues to advance, the Supreme Court will continue to provide guidance of what law enforcement can and cannot legally perform. A professional officer must stay current on these guidelines.
Some officers grew up handling and firing firearms, but many do not. For an officer to succeed in a deadly force encounter they must go beyond basic knowledge of their firearms. Officers must be completely comfortable with the Manual of Arms for their firearms, and must be able to clean and maintain those weapons as well.
The Police Academy provides only a basic knowledge of firearms, and marksmanship. The officer must be committed to a lifelong pursuit of training, skill development, and muscle memory. This includes perfecting their draw, and acquiring the proper grip and shooting platform.
Mastery of Shooting Fundamentals
Far from the basics of firearm knowledge and basic marksmanship, the officer should strive for mastering the fundamentals of shooting. Though “fundamental”, it is a mastery of these basics that results in an advanced skill level. Acquiring the proper shooting platform, sight alignment (when appropriate), proper trigger squeeze, trigger reset, follow-up shots, and assessing shot placement and effectiveness takes an extensive amount of practice.
Relying on annual or semi-annual qualification courses for your firearms training is woefully inadequate. An officer must be personally committed to their own survival, and that takes personal time. Drawing the pistol from the holster to master the security features and the muscle memory to get the handgun on target. Dry-firing to eliminate jerking and other shooting errors while familiarizing yourself with the intricacies of your individual firearm’s trigger squeeze.
Malfunction drills are also critical to success. A small purchase of Snap Caps, and some empty brass, can provide the officer all they need to master these critical skills. Finally, magazine changes – including both tactical (partially full magazines) and combat (empty magazines) is a mandatory survival skill.
As the Jedi say – “this light saber is your life”. So too, is the officer’s firearm during a deadly force encounter.
Knowledge of Vital Targeting Areas
The officer can practice all of the above to a level of mastery, but if they don’t understand the human anatomy, their shots will not provide the quick stopping power necessary to win a gunfight or other deadly force encounter. Unfortunately, this is where these articles started. Too many officers are trained the improper “center mass” targeting area. Only when officers break themselves of this fallacy, can they be trained the proper “upper chest” targeting areas that will have the greatest potential for stopping their threat and winning the fight.
Head Shots and Reality
Dr. Bill Lewinski, Executive Director of the Force Science Institute, has done incredible service to the law enforcement profession, and understanding the reality of perception in deadly force encounters. As a part of that research The Force Science Institute has documented that an unrestrained subject can move his head sideways 6″ – 10″ in as little as 1/10th of a second – “faster than a rifle bullet can travel 200 yards and faster than any officer could possibly react.”
Dr. Lewinski’s research is a valuable source for any firearms training program and he is considered an expert in his field. With his research in mind law enforcement instructors must evaluate the validity of targeting the head in anything other than very close range shooting situations, or with precision rifle fire where the threat is less likely to know the round is coming and the sniper can really dial in the aiming point. Otherwise our efforts are likely to be unsuccessful. This is a VERY IMPORTANT consideration in how we train officers, and what areas get targeted first.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: There is a lot of debate in the law enforcement community (especially among snipers) about where shot placement in the head will cause the instantaneous “lights out” event that is most desired to stop the threat. For many years snipers and officers believed that the only way to accomplish this was to hit the Medulla Oblongata, or the point at where the brain intersects the top of the spinal cord. On the surface this makes perfect sense as this part of the brain stem controls the body’s involuntary movements.
The hope was to prohibit a hostage taker from “flinching” upon impact and pulling the trigger to kill a hostage. However, the Medulla Oblongata is about the size of a fingernail. Even under outstanding conditions, realistically aiming for a quarter-sized target surrounding by bone and tissue is fundamentally flawed. In a dynamic situation with moving parts, pigeon-holing ourselves to a remote spot is a recipe for failure.
Dr. Martin Fackler was a 30-year military doctor, who headed the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at Letterman Army Medical Center. He was also a Deputy Medical Examiner for District #9 in Florida, and was considered by many to be one of the most acknowledged authorities on wound ballistics. He is also credited with developing the 10% ballistic gelatin that has become the industry standard for measuring wound potential and penetration of soft tissue.
Dr. Fackler worked with the American Sniper Association to debunk the Medulla Oblongata theory. According to Dr. Fackler, rifle bullets that enter the cranial vault (into the brain) will cause significant disruption to the central nervous system preventing involuntary trigger pulls. In essence, Dr. Fackler concluded from his studies that rifle bullets into the brain stop motor function by shutting the electrical processing center down. Pistol cartridges can have this effect, but have more obstacles, and thus a lower chance of success, than a rifle round.
As such, I do not support aiming for the very small Medulla Oblongata, and instead encourage aiming for the center of the brain. To read one of Dr. Fackler’s research papers on wound ballistics click here.
Targeting the Upper Chest
Having discussed the merits and limitations of shooting the threat in the head, which is the best method of creating a “lights out” moment to stop the threat, firearm instructors must examine alternative targeting areas to accomplish the goal. Though the spinal cord is also a part of the CNS system, and can have immediate and serious impact to motor function, the officer is unlikely to have the threat’s back exposed to properly align their shots. In addition, the spinal cord is protected by some of the strongest bones in the human body – the spinal column of vertebrae.
Firing at the threat from the front, which is a highly likely scenario, leaves the threat’s clothing, ribcage, sternum, and a lot of tissue to absorb bullet energy before it “might” strike the spinal column. Trying to rely on such a small targeting area, with many obstacles, is not a viable training method for preparing officers to be successful in dynamic deadly force encounters.
That leaves us with targeting the blood flow, and oxygen intake of our threat. The human anatomy places the heart in the near center of the upper chest, with larger lungs on each side. Notice I did not say the heart and lungs were in the “center mass” of the body. What may seem to be the mincing of words, is not that at all. The upper chest is clearly above the horizontal midline of the human torso.
It is in this targeting area that law enforcement instructors have the greatest potential for positively influencing the outcome of officer involved shootings during deadly force encounters. The reason for this is multi-faceted:
- The upper chest provides a much larger targeting area than the head or spinal cord, so there is a greater potential for success by the officer
- The human torso is much harder and slower to move than the human head, providing a greater opportunity for the upper chest to remain a target
- Causing injury t0 the heart and lungs will physically slow the threat through the loss of blood, negatively impact the threat psychologically, and potentially stop them completely through an instant stopping of the heart.
When I mention the ability to “stop” the threat I am not intending to present any illusion of the “knock down power” of the handgun cartridges used by American law enforcement. I love Dirty Harry movies too, but remember what I said about the powerful misperceptions that Hollywood puts in our minds.
SHOT PLACEMENT IS THE KEY TO WINNING A GUNFIGHT!
The human body has between 5-6 liters of blood coursing through our arteries and veins at any given time. Blood is the courier of oxygen, which is the lifeline to the entire body. Without blood, and oxygen the human body cannot survive.
Shooting a person in the heart can end the fight immediately, but it is not a guarantee. Trooper Coates was struck in the heart, and his aortic valve was torn apart. I’ve attached his shooting video below, and you can clearly see that Trooper Coates was able to communicate and try to move for several gut-wrenching minutes after being shot, before the internal blood loss caused him to succumb to his injury. If that is your motivated adversary, those few minutes could mean that the gunfight is still ongoing.
However, shooting the heart is a very good targeting area for several reasons:
- Injuries to the heart are a very powerful physiological dysfunction on the human body
- Trauma to the heart will likely be very painful, which is a distraction to their OODA Loop
- The inability of the body to circulate blood efficiently will cause the body to shut down
- Sustaining a gunshot to the heart is a tremendous psychological blow.
Thankfully, transitioning from a training program that focused shot placement on “center mass” to a program that focuses shot placement in the upper chest, is not as big of a hurdle as some might think. Firearm instructors are going to change the point of aim about 6-8″ up from the previous targeting location. The targeting area will still be in the horizontal center of the threat’s body, and will be below the shoulders enough to take into account movement by the subject that could cause bullets to strike out of the intended target area.
In the F-TQ19ANT-MCSD target above, the black box over the heart in the upper center of the target is not as small as you might think. The black box is about 4″ w x 5″h. The white rectangular box is about 10″ w x 5″ h. This targeting area is more than reasonable at ranges typically engaged by pistol shots. At ranges from 1-10 yards officers should be expected to place the majority of their shots in the white rectangular box, with the aiming point of the smaller black box.
Remember the quote from the movie Patriot, “aim small, miss small”. As law enforcement firearms instructors, we owe it to our officers to hone their skills to precision shots to key stopping areas, and stop letting them just get by with a targeting area the size of a manhole.
Even at ranges out to 25 yards (a typical stopping point for handgun training), a slightly longer aiming time can usually get many of the shots into the white box, with some in the black box. Greater distances, especially with cover, creates the firearms advantage of distance = time. Taking a half second longer to pull the trigger for an accurate shot can produce impressive results with the proper training of fundamentals.
The lungs are actually #4 in the ideal targeting area for ending a gunfight as quickly as possible. Remember that the head and spinal cord are #1 and #2, and the heart comes in at #3. We’ve discussed why the heart becomes the #1 targeting area, because of the higher probability of hits and the larger targeting zone of a less moving body structure (the torso).
Though the lungs are a good place to put hot lead in a gunfight, they are by no means a game-changer! First, the human body has two lungs. One of our lungs can completely collapse and we are still able to take in fresh oxygen (though painfully and in limitations). As such, a hit to our threat’s lungs will slow them down, but cannot be expected to stop them. At least not in the critical initial moments of the deadly force encounter.
Still, the lungs are in the upper chest, and reducing the ability of the adversary to take in oxygen will take a measured toll on the threat’s ability to remain in the gunfight. Muscles burn oxygen at a much higher rate during heavy activity, and the lack of oxygen will result in the burning of lactic acid. This is only a short-term fix, and the muscles will quickly fatigue. This will inhibit the threat from moving to positions of cover, changing shooting positions, or fleeing. The heart is a muscle too, and continued lack of oxygen will begin to strain the heart’s ability to function.
However, all of these factors can take several minutes if not hours depending on the deadly force encounter. This is why the law enforcement firearms instructor should be training officers to engage threats with multiple rounds, while assessing their hits and their effectiveness.
The target above has a very large black box encompassing all of the lungs and heart. Do not be tempted to allow that box to be the targeting area, as there are areas within that box that don’t even injure the heart or lungs. In addition, allowing that box to be the targeting area encourages officers to be sloppy with shot placement, and the outer box lines are dangerously close to the edge of the silhouette. Missed shots = big payouts!
Two to the Chest and One to the Head
One of the most universal law enforcement training models in the United States today is, “Fire two shots to the chest and follow-up with one to the head”. Called the “body armor drill”, and several other catch phrases, this drill is designed to train in muscle and mental memory to the officer to engage secondary target locations if the initial shots to the chest do not appear to be effective.
I love this drill, and I think it has a LOT of merit … with a slight modification. As we’ve mentioned before, the head can be moved at incredible speed making it extremely difficult to hit properly. Though it is incredibly important to train officers to engage a threat in other body areas if the subject not show the expected effect to our upper chest shots, or have body armor on, I think moving to the head after only two upper chest shots is not the best method for success.
Again, this is not Hollywood. No officer should expect a threat that is shot to be blown backwards off their feet. In the same context, it takes time for the body to transmit information to the brain, for the brain to process that information, and for the signals from the brain to then impact bodily function. Though this can happen in a fraction of a second, multiple bullets are going to be exchanging air space during that very amount of time.
Our shots may have landed exactly where they needed to for good upper chest hits, but the threat’s computer system just hasn’t let their body know the gig is up. If those shots are in the lungs, or only grazing the heart, continued shots to the upper chest have the greatest chance of ending the gunfight, rather than transitioning to the harder-to-hit head target. We should not expect the first shots to be incapacitating.
A solution our firearms instructors have developed is to fire 2-5 shots to the chest before transitioning to the head or the alternative pelvic girdle shot. This allows the officer to place a greater amount of rounds on target in the shortest amount of time, with the greatest potential for success. Even if the threat has body armor, the repeated shots to the upper chest have a likelihood of hitting above the vest or at least creating a very powerful distraction to good return fire.
Winning vs. Surviving a Deadly Force Encounter
Winning encompasses surviving, but is so much more than just surviving. Surviving on its own simply means the officer did not die from the encounter, they survived to see another day. Winning leaves the shooter mentally and physically prepared to continue with life in a healthy way. Their actions were right and just, they succeeded in stopping the threat, and they were mentally and physically prepared to use deadly force so they can be at peace with taking an action that was necessary to protect and save life.
The Officer Leighty incident is an excellent example of winning a deadly force encounter, and not simply surviving. In his deadly force encounter Officer Leighty was alert for danger, remained calm, communicated with precision, and when the shooting started his aim was true and he moved positions to keep the adversary at bay:
Notice I did not say that winning is killing the threat. As law enforcement officers we are bound to uphold the U.S. Constitution. The law does not give officers a “license to kill”, like 007, but instead acknowledges that law enforcement officers may have to resort to deadly force to “seize” a person committing dangerous crimes or endangering others.
The use of force by a law enforcement officer is always with the intent to “seize” the person and have them brought to justice in a court of law. That is why every police officer involved shooting involves a legal review by a Prosecutor, Grand Jury, and/or Judge to weigh the facts and ensure that the force was justified in a manner of “seizure”.
Winning means the officer was mentally and physically prepared, observed and identified the lethal threat, engaged and subdued the lethal threat, and was legally justified in his or her actions. This can only be accomplished by a respectable level of skill training to become a master of firearms proficiency.
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