Aim for Center Mass: Guns for Beginners

When you’re shooting at someone to eliminate an imminent, credible threat of death or grievous bodily harm, do what the police do: aim center mass. Never mind movies or antis who suggest you should “shoot to wound.” Aim at the threat’s body to stop the threat. Specifically . . .


That bit in the middle.

The thinking is simple enough: the bigger the target the better your chance of hitting it. At the same time, all of the perp’s vital organs are conveniently located in the middle of his or her body. You’re far more likely to stop a threat if you hit the bad guy’s oxygen and circulation engines (lungs and heart). Gut shots smart too.

Which is all well and good if the bad guy is facing you head on. What if he’s sideways to you?


Same thing. Aim for the middle. In fact, you are well-advised to get yourself some of these “side-on” targets; gun ranges generally don’t stock them.

Some gun gurus recommend aiming for the pelvic girdle (that bit below center mass in the orange illustration above). They usually add the caveat that you should do so when the bad guy is right on top of you. At which point shooting any part of their body is a capital idea.

Back in the day, before the widespread adoption of semi-automatic pistols, instructors used to talk about shooting a revolver to “zip up” the bad guy. It’s got nothing to do with hoodies. They advised armed self-defenders to start shooting at the BG’s pelvis and keep firing. As the gun’s muzzle rises follow-up shots will rise too, moving from pelvis to center mass.

Yeah, no. Aim for center mass.

As Sheriff Newell Normand points out in the video above, shooting a bad guy isn’t easy. You’re moving — you ARE moving, right? — the bad guy’s moving and adrenaline’s flowing like Niagra Falls.

While cops tend to get a mulligan or 100 when rounds go astray, you don’t. Every bullet you fire comes with a lawyer attached (as they say). You need every round to hit the bad guy, and none not to. 

So move, shoot, aim at the bad guy’s center mass and hope for the best. Remember: people don’t fall over and die when you shoot them. Keep shooting — center mass — until the threat stops. And don’t miss.

That said, if your foe’s wearing body armor or you really, really want to stop them dead in their tracks, go for a head shot. Realizing that the only way to raise the odds of that working is to get close. Gruesome as it sounds, gruesome as it will be, a contact shot is best.


  1. avatar Clear Thru says:

    No argument here…

  2. avatar Paul says:

    Agree with everything but the “get close” part. Distance is your friend to be sure. If anything, you should be increasing, not decreasing, the distance from your threat if at all possible.

    1. avatar Mikial says:

      Agree in most circumstances. It sometimes depends on what you and the opponent are armed with. if he has a rifle and you have a pistol, distance is his friend, not yours.

  3. avatar Clear Thru says:

    That said, I will be aiming for the groin in the event of body armor.
    Bigger target than the cranium.
    Shots to the pelvis cause lotsa bleeding and can immobilize if they catch the sacrum or hip joints.
    Plus, one or two hits there causes that involuntary flinch and flexion of the neck… enough time to re-aim upstairs then…

    1. avatar Derek says:

      If you have a rifle that may work, but the hospital data has shown over and over that handgun rounds are incapable of shattering the pelvis. The projectile is simply too slow. If there is no other target presented that is viable then go for it but the head is almost the same size and will stop an attacker much quicker than hoping to hit a major blood pipeline in the leg and praying the attacker passes out from blood loss before they terminate you.

      1. avatar Curtis in IL says:

        Another thing to consider:

        If the thug’s head is at or above yours, a miss means that bullet goes a long way. Possibly hitting an innocent. But if you aim at the pelvis and miss, it will hit the ground behind him, or at worst it may hit someone in the leg.

        This all assumes you’re both standing, but… food for thought.

        1. avatar Derek says:

          Distance is another important factor, so is movement. Depending on those I will likely default to a high thoracic if presented with the option. Up really close or if high thoracic is unavailable, head it is.

  4. avatar James in AZ says:

    Um… Can we start calling it High Chest?

    “Center mass” here means neither center nor mass.

    And, if your priority is the aorta, the aiming point on the first target is kinda low. It should be above the nipples. If your target is the heart, which is bigger but bleeds slower, well then go for it.

  5. avatar Calvin says:

    Nyet, AK is aimed for belt line at all ranges.

  6. avatar Derek says:

    not attempting to be snarky or obnoxious, but im certain the following will be percieved that way by some. oh well here it goes
    “Center mass” is defined as the center of the target presented or selected, and as such it will vary depending on which part of the threat we are selecting. The definition of “center mass” used in this article is A. incomplete as the selection part was omitted and B. assumes that the threat will present an entire torso unobstructed. If the goal is to incapacitate the threat (which it should be) then we need to select an area critical to life function. While certainly painful, rounds delivered to the liver are not immediatly medically incapacitating. The white portion on the orange target needs to be brought up another few inches to reach the heart, vena cava and aorta. All of those are infinitely faster at producing incapacitation then the liver. The natural human tendency is to miss left and right which at the articles suggested spot would likely still be a liver shot, when we move the target area up, we still have the same margin left and right but a miss of the heart will lead to a lung shot which is also infinitely superior to hitting the liver. As for the side shot we also have to grasp human anatomy enough to realize the location of the heart within the three dimentional body, the fact that it sits forward in the chest and is smaller than the head means that if presented with a complete and direct side profile the best target to select is the head, center mass being the midbrain. Anatomy matters and words have meaning.
    Stay safe out there and God bless

    1. avatar Cliff H says:

      On a side-on shot, while the heart rests closer to the front of the body, the major blood vessels run closer to the spine which is to the rear. I would suggest that given the natural deviation from an actual “center mass” hit, either left or right, aiming center mass at a side-on target would automatically result in a hit forward – the heart, or a hit to the rear, major blood vessels or the spine. Either way, center mass is going to do severe damage to at least one lung.

      1. avatar Derek says:

        I did neglect to make the qualifying statment about distance. Depending upon shooter skill, movement, and distance, a side shot may be a better option. if at a distance where we can confidently score a heart shot we can also score a midbrain shot. The former starts a timer and the latter is instantaneous.

  7. avatar Karl says:

    8 1/2 x 11 blank piece of printer paper at all ranges and all speeds. Aim at the middle. Hits good. Misses bad. Hits in the middle better. Front sight is the key to it all.

    I try to keep it simple and relevantly accurate. Only thing missing is being scared shitless and the real cost of failure. So…simple is good.

    1. avatar OneOfTheGoodGuys says:

      Karl, you seem to be one of the few that “gets it.” The whole article is about making hits and avoiding misses during a high stress gun fight that will (on average) last about 3 seconds, and all of this takes place while moving. Everyone who is commenting on aiming for areas where you’re more likely to hit this organ or that vital area missed the whole point. You’re not at the range making precision shots … the odds are you’re not going to hit where you’re aiming, so hitting “close” to where you’re aiming is going to have to do. Karl is exactly right … “hit, good …miss, bad…” To acheive hits and avoid misses, the best strategy is to aim for the center of the biggest area. Don’t delude yourself into imagining you’ll have the time or composure to make heart shots or any other such thing.

      1. avatar Derek says:

        Just as we study our laws and chl rules until they are second nature we should study the human body until we know where the vital organs are located without so much as a thought. Just as we practice marksmanship fundamentals we should practice hitting critical organs and systems under stress. certainly we cannot readily introduce the actual stress of a gunfight in our training (unless we utilize simunitions) but with the knowlege that our groups will open up a little we should ensure that they stay well within our critical hit areas (high thoracic and head) so that they will not likely go astray during an actual self-defense incident. If we have done our part in training, getting hits on areas critical to life function will take no more time and no more thought than any other ‘hit’. A hit is a hit to be sure, but if it doesnt stop the threat does it really count? By saying that any hit will do and by settling for that in training, you are assuming that a potential attacker will be stopped psychologically. Making such a huge gamble seems entirely unnecessary when additional training and studying for achieving reliable medical incapacitation would ensure a much better ability to stop an attacker no matter his level of determination.

        1. avatar Karl says:

          If someone is trying to put a bullet in me, everything I have is “vital.”

        2. avatar Karl says:

          So…right lung in the corner pocket?

    2. avatar Derek says:

      Thats certainly a position that you can take. I too think it is of the unmost importance to remain gunshot wound free. Stubbornly insisting that any hit is vital on an assailant in a self-defense situation however is medically inaccurate and reckless. It does no good to misinform new shooters, in fact it could cause them harm if they believe they only need to hit an attacker once anywhere and their threat is for sure over. It also perpetuates the idea that gun owners are factually illiterate, as anyone who has any medical background or has done any studying will be able to easily refute the straight out of hollywood ideas on terminal ballistics applied to the human body.

      1. avatar Karl says:

        I am a decent defensive pistol shot and a good medic. That is why I arrived at my 8 1/2 x 11 personal standard. It is also why I don’t feel the need to give anatomy lessons. Most people know where to aim.

        And knowing all of this guarantees nothing. Fight hard but fight smart. But better not to fight.

        1. avatar Derek says:

          I would think being a medic would make you of all people be more insistent on teaching anatomy. Three dimentional shooting and awareness are key. I totally agree that avoiding the fight is best but it is not always an option. When the best option goes away the second best is stopping the threat as fast as humanly possible.

      2. avatar OneOfTheGoodGuys says:

        You miss the point altogether. It doesn’t matter if you have a PhD in anatomy. It also doesn’t matter how proficient as a marksman you are. In the real world, you’d better be moving while shooting or you’re dead. Furthermore, your attacker is likely moving while you’re shooting at him. You are being unrealistic if you think your knowledge of anatomy and your training is going to allow you to make heart and head shots on a consistent basis. You’re either going to be shot yourself because you’re standing still as you attempt your pretty heart shot, or you miss the guy altogether because while you and he are both moving you missed the head shot. It’s the same head shot you were making every time at the range with the static target. Aiming for “center mass” gives you the highest chance of putting hits on target. Do I want heart and lung shots? Hell yeah! That’s why I aim for center mass. When your adrenalin is pumping and the whole situation is in motion you’re lucky to make hits in a 12 inch ring. I’ll take that all day long. This is what new shooters need to hear; they don’t need to train for perfect world scenarios.

        1. avatar Derek says:

          I think the majority of that would be true, if all I ever did was static shoot at static targets on a static range. The reality is that I am moving and the shoot/no shoot 3d targets that I train on are sometimes moving or multiples are used to simulate moving. Those factors combined with the stress of the drills being gunfire or verbally initiated and working cars/other barriers for cover provides a fairly realistic environment. Depending on the distance and movement of the threat targets I will often go for high thoracic hits as there is reasonable margin of error, but when the oportunity and my capabilities align, the headshot is preferred. I really do not see why a reasoned and scientific approach to shot selection is such a problem. I both know and push my limits. I suggest everyone from brand new shooter to seasoned pro to do the same while keeping the true goal in mind: delivering medically incapacitating gunfire to the threat as quickly and effieciently as possible.

      3. avatar OneOfTheGoodGuys says:

        By the way, we both agree that one center mass shot may not stop the threat. Shoot until the threat is stopped or until he looses his will to fight (i.e. he retreats).

        1. avatar Derek says:

          No doubt, I feel as though this conversation were it to be conducted in person would contain a little less confusion and more clarity. Ah the struggles of communicating ideas and conveying human emotion through internet comments.

  8. avatar Brucee says:

    Another advantage of center mass over head shots is that the skull is reasonably hard with a lot of angles, which can mean bullets deflecting off if not at a direct enough angle.

    That said, Officer Wilson first hit Mike Brown in the hand and arm. That didn’t stop him, so his next rounds went into his torso. That didn’t work. But the two head shots that followed did. (And then Furguson was burned down, but that is a different issue). I do wonder if the reason that center of mass shots didn’t work for Wilson was that Brown was so friggen big.

  9. avatar Mikial says:

    A side shot might actually be better if he is wearing body armor. I wore it for several years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sides are not covered by the plates in most body armor. yes, there are some exceptions like defender armor, but for the most part, a civie wearing body armor will have plates to the front and rear, but not on the sides.

    For frontal shots, remember the mantra . . ‘Two to the chest, then one to the head.’

  10. avatar Priest of the center mass says:

    Ankle to forehead.
    Whatever presents it’s self to you.
    Take the shot.
    I’m in favor of the zipper technique.
    I include it in all drills, it will stop the legs from moving in on you.
    Then rapid follow ups to center mass.
    I always would assume body armor,
    Shoot and move ….luck favors the brave so I’ve been told.
    But realistically….take whatever shot that presents itself….the center mass of any exposed part of the bad guy.
    Shoot like a surgeon so you won’t need one……..Amen.

  11. avatar Clear Thru says:

    We had to go this deep into comments before finally popping, “spray n pray” ?!


    (The spray is me is pissing myself when somebody else is sling’n lead AT me!)
    ((I will however be returning the favor of sending back my own projectiles…))

  12. avatar Michael Acuna says:

    I actually had a guy argue with me that police should only be trained to shoot to disable and Sterling would be still alive if they would have shot him in his hands lol when he was on the ground pin his arm and shoot his hand, but that is how most lame people think or something like shoot the gun out of their hands. I wish more people would at least understand basic firearm training

  13. avatar Bob363 says:

    Might also mention that intentionally shooting someone in the leg or arm tends to suggest to a jury that you really did not fear for your life. If you honestly fear for your life and death is truly imminent, you should be fighting with everything you got.

  14. avatar Docduracoat says:

    It is extremely difficult to practice moving and shooting
    I know of no ranges that allow it
    You have to have a plinking spot in the country in order to practice that

    1. avatar Derek says:

      You do have to find a range that allows such things, and it is likely to be in the middle of nowhere. That said, as long as I have any money left after my most essential bills the next essential goal is honing the skills I count on to keep my family safe. Well worth the drive, the ammo and the class costs.

  15. avatar doesky2 says:

    Every bullet you fire comes with a lawyer attached (as they say).

    Any record of a good guy going to slammer or large civil penalty for errant shot in a truly defensive shooting?

  16. avatar Anon says:

    I do IPSCC (sp?) and IDPA.

    So with my chronograph in front about 15 feet, testing reloads on rifle, I decide to act as if I’m in a gunfight. Draw quickly as I’m taking my stance and fire three quickly at target. What could go wrong?

    Wife asks why am I buying another chronograph.

    ANY hit in a gunfight is good

    1. avatar Curtis in IL says:

      Competition Electronics will send you a new one for half price.

      Because they know… stuff happens.

    2. avatar Curtis in IL says:

      Don’t ask me how I know that.

  17. avatar Joe R. says:

    Aim for center mass of what’s showing. Aiming is different if someone is wearing body armor or behind glass (barrier.)

  18. avatar Owen says:

    I wonder how long until we hear “aim for the neck”? With all the body armor and helmets that’s getting to be one of the few remaining “weak” spots.

  19. avatar Jim says:

    In addition to body armor, suicide vests pose an additional threat to center mass shots. If the US army is mindful enough to train for head shots against suspected suicide bombers, local police and civilians should as well.

  20. avatar jimmy james says:

    Center of mass and keep pulling the trigger until the threat is neutralized. I have to unlearn 20 years of USPSA double taps.

  21. avatar mark s. says:

    I have several reasons to disagree with the center mass theory but two each their own . What ever works I guess , but my theory is that it does not always work . There is so much more mass in center mass , bones can send bullets in every direction , people usually have more clothing over this area and a good portion of peoples ammo is hollow point which can lose a lot of it’s functionality passing through multiple garments and your perpetrator may be wearing body armor , the upper torso is also more likely to be swaying from defensive maneuvers and lastly there are fewer pain centers in this area , ask a surgeon . The best advise I think is the zipper , as was discussed in the post . The guts are the most undefended vital area and will create faster bleed out , more pain and greater potential for death from poisoning and blood loss . In my opinion . Head , neck and guts are your best option for incapacitation if you are carrying anything less than a 45 caliber .

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