The “Shot Placement” Myth
Every time the discussion or question of “What Caliber Is Best For A Defensive/CCW Gun?”, the inevitable topic of “shot placement is more important than caliber” comes up time and time again. Now in theory, I don’t necessarily disagree with this and we should always train to aim and shoot center/upper torso (sternum), as this gives us the best chance of hitting vital areas that will incapacitate a threat quickly. We should also include physical and mental stressors into our training regimen so that we are used to operating, making decisions (like shoot and no shoot targets), and shooting under stress. I have seen people that can shoot through the same hole all day while doing some slow aimed fire drills at paper targets, but you put so much as a shot timer on them or any other type of stress, and they can barely draw their pistol safely.
When deciding what gun we are going to carry, what caliber, and how we are going to train, we must first look at what happens during real gun fights and then make decisions based on that information. This unfortunately is the opposite of what most people do. They pick a gun, holster, and bullet caliber based on what they like and then imagine threat scenarios around their choices. Or their choices are based on their performance at the range shooting stationary, perfectly broadside targets. The problem with that is what happens in real world defensive shooting situations, and what we experience during a normal day at the shooting range, is a vastly different reality.
If you do the research, read articles, and watch videos of gun fights you’ll see there are two basic gun fight scenarios. One scenario is where the defensive shooter is alerted to a threat and is able to draw his/her gun and is ready for action. The other is when there is no pre-threat indicator, and a threat like someone shooting at the defensive shooter presents itself before a pistol is able to be drawn. For the sake of simplicity I will categorize these as Prepared Encounters and Unprepared Encounters.
Most of the gun fights that are caught on video and readily available are from police body or dash cams. During a Prepared Encounter where an officer is alerted to a possible threat, is able to draw his/her weapon and is then presented with a threat, you usually see what you would expect from a trained individual. The defensive shooter has both hands on the weapon and it does appear that the weapon’s sights are being utilized. The Unprepared Encounter scenario is quite another situation all together.
Now I admit I could not find any statistics that indicate how many defensive shootings are Unprepared Encounters but many if not most of the LE videos I could find and almost all the civilian encounters I came across would fall into this category. This makes sense when imagining scenarios or looking at case studies where the average CCW carrier would need to draw a firearm. These are scenarios such as a mugger pulling a gun on you, a store attendant being held up, a drive by shooting, someone ambushing a person, or an active shooter event. So hopefully we can at least agree that an Unprepared Encounter is possible if not the most likely scenario for the average armed citizen, and we should consider this when deciding what gun we carry, its caliber, type of holster, holsters access/position, and how we train.
What I observed taking place in almost every Unprepared Encounter scenario was quite interesting. Almost every scenario where the aggressor started shooting or even presented a weapon before the defensive shooter was able to draw his/her weapon, the defensive shooter can be seen rapidly shooting one handed at the aggressor (in the military this would be classified as suppressive fire) , clearly not using sights, and retreating or instinctively moving toward the nearest cover. With these observations of real world reactions, we can start to draw some conclusions when it comes to weapon, caliber, and bullet type choices, as well as training considerations. Before we get to that, there are few other facts that we need to understand when dealing with life or death scenarios regarding our physical and mental performance under those conditions.
There are clinical studies that clearly show what happens to a person’s physical and cognitive abilities under the stress of a life threatening event. When under this type of stress, tunnel vision and fixation on the threat occurs (which is why sights are almost never used in a gun fight), adrenaline floods our system and all but gross motor function is lost. You can find many videos on the internet where this is obvious. People that could normally draw and shoot one round at or under a second suddenly have lost the ability to even extract their firearm from the holster. I have personally witnessed a person that was getting shot at whose rifle went dry, and in the stress of the moment he was not be able to overcome the thumb drive on his level 2 retention holster.
This was a Special Operations guy that has had more training and endured more stress than most people can even imagine. I also just watched a video where a police officer was getting shot at and when he drew his weapon, he hit the magazine release before he got a shot off. You can also see in many videos online where the person getting shot at just falls backward under the stress of the moment and then is a stationary target on the ground fumbling for a weapon. This is obviously the last thing you want to do.
Once we go into a panic, we have the hardest time doing the simplest of tasks, now we include the fact that we will likely be moving and our target is moving and twisting around (not likely presenting that nice wide frontal silhouette we’re so used to shooting at the range). Never mind considering low light conditions or an environment that is full of obstacles we could trip over or impede our movement (like a restaurant or store)… Under these conditions do you think we can expect perfect shot placement?
With the information above, here are MY takeaways in no particular order:
I need to choose a gun that I can shoot one handed accurately.
I need to be able to shoot my gun rapidly and accurately. (1. and 2. would rule out a high recoil gun for me)
An external safety on my defensive/CCW weapon is a bad idea given I will not likely have the time, dexterity, or the cognitive function to defeat it.
I should choose a caliber that I feel confident it will do significant damage even if I don’t hit center mass
I don’t want a gun that will over penetrate as I will likely miss and I want stray rounds to stop as soon as possible
I need to use hollow points or frangible rounds for the same reasons pointed out in 4. and 5.
I want a gun with a high ammo capacity (the more the better) also for the same reasons discussed in 4. And 5.
I need to regularly train under physical and emotional stress and see how my equipment choices and I perform under those conditions that closely simulate a real world hostile encounter.
I need to include one handed shooting regularly in my training.
I need to practice shooting one handed and two handed while moving.
I MUST train myself to instinctively start moving laterally in relation to any threat while accurately engaging the target and seeking cover. This gives the defensive shooter the best chances of survival. I know that sounds like a lot but it comes down to training properly. You can get very good at this very quickly and anyone who has ever attended our courses has experienced this. This is a skill that must be learned and maintained. If you do most of your shooting static, that's exactly what you will do under stress. Standing still while engaging a threat that is shooting at you greatly increases your chances of being hit and decreases your chances of survival.
I need to train with reduced profile targets that simulate a threat utilizing cover or presenting any other way than the standard range day paper broadside target.
I need to train with “no shoot” targets near and around my threat target. This will allow me to gain experience analyzing my environment under stress and learn to move and create a safe shooting lane that allows me to engage my threat target without hitting bystanders, all while I am seeking cover.
I need to ensure I practice drawing to the point it is instinctive and I don’t fumble or get my weapon caught up in clothing.
My holster needs to be placed on my body in a location that is rapidly accessible.
My holster must be positioned so that it is very unlikely that I could shoot myself when drawing under stress.
Now these are simply my conclusions and I don’t expect everyone to come to the same ones or even agree with me. All we can ever do is make decisions based on our experience and the most current information that we have. You must also take into consideration real world scenarios and almost all the little shooting scenarios that most people do on the range are quite simply pretend. The average range day scenario always puts the defensive shooter in a known scenario that gives them the advantage. That's just not how it plays out in reality.
During our training and courses we put clients in blind scenarios that they don't get a chance to "game". It's interesting to watch the reaction of even high level shooters when they're put into realistic shooting scenarios. Suddenly target discrimination goes out the window, seeking cover goes out the window, shooting on the move after we had been training on that all day... all gone. All that without even actually taking fire. Those reactions are a snapshot of how they, at their current level of training and mindset, would react in a real world encounter. It's often quite ugly and many clients see just how unprepared they really are. This also helps identify the areas in which their training is insufficient.
I do hope this article provides information and insight most people don’t think about or at least provokes some thought about gear and training.I train often, train others regularly, have been in several fire fights and my training has enabled me to respond and perform well under stress. I think part of that is because I honestly fear not being prepared and not performing well far worse than death.
Like many reading this, I don’t believe I would panic and fumble around if surprised by a threat, but I also realize it COULD happen, so I train for the worst case scenario and do my best to extend this training to Paramount clients. I also know training and gear selection can be complicated and overwhelming. That is something we at Paramount Tactical Solutions have the experience and expertise to assist you with and would love the opportunity. So come train with us, you’ll be glad you did.
Stay Armed, Stay Ready!
-Survival IS Paramount-
Gary Melton is a former U.S. Army Special Forces Weapons Sergeant and Sniper Team Leader with 4 combat tours. He has worked full time for the last 4 years as a Senior Special Tactics Instructor for a federal agency and is the CEO and Lead Instructor for Paramount Tactical Solutions.