human target zone center mass thorax
By Mikael Häggström - All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, Link
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human target zone center mass thorax
By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, Link

Long ago, in the aftermath of the Ferguson situation, TTAG posted an article on a question posed to a guest by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer:

“On Thursday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked guest [lawyer] Jeffrey Toobin why police weren’t instructed to “shoot to injure,” instead of kill,” reports. “Blitzer’s questions arose during a discussion on the unfurling conflict in Ferguson, Missouri over the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.

“They often shoot to kill,” Blitzer said of police. “Why do they have to shoot to kill? Why can’t they shoot a warning shot in the air, scare someone off if they think they’re in danger. Why can’t they shoot to, injure, shall we say? Why do they have to shoot to kill?”

Blitzer’s question is, sadly, all too common.

Americans are treated to a steady stream of good guys purposely and casually wounding bad guys, usually in the shoulder. On TV and in the movies, such beyond-Olympic-level shooting always disarms and incapacitates the bad guy, and when the good guy is similarly wounded, they are barely inconvenienced and heal with amazing speed.

Not only is this sort of shooting incredibly dangerous to good guys and innocent bystanders, it’s almost always legally disastrous. In addition, any survivable gunshot wound may have life-long health implications.

As regular readers may remember from an earlier article, a defender shoots to stop an attacker, to immediately– as far as possible — cause them to cease the hostile actions that made the use of deadly force legally permissible.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll assume that all legal burdens have been met. The good guy, under the laws in force when and where he has to shoot, is legally in the right when he pulls the trigger.

But how is he going to accomplish his purpose: stopping the bad guy?

There are three primary means of stopping a human being:

  1. Neural damage
  2. Breaking the skeleton
  3. Exsanguination

There are, however, many other considerations.

Neural Damage: causing trauma to the brain usually causes immediate cessation of hostile action. In fact, SWAT marksmen try for a brain stem shot whenever possible. They try to hit a hostage-taker exactly where the brain and brain stem meet, at the base of the rear of the skull.

If properly placed, a bullet to this spot will cause the potential killer to drop as though a light switch had been thrown. Even if they have their finger on the trigger of a gun, they will not be able to pull it.

Unfortunately, this area is a very small target. In fact, relatively speaking, the human head is also a small target, particularly if it’s moving at all. Notice too that I’m talking about a highly trained marksman making the shot with a scoped, highly accurate rifle, almost always with the benefit of a spotter and from a supported position.

Accurately shooting a handgun at the same target, even at close range, is much more demanding.

In addition, the target will seldom present the back of his skull to the shooter and stand still long enough for a perfect shot to be made.  Marksmen commonly have to estimate where that tiny spot is while shooting from the front, side, above or below, or various angles of the same.

Breaking the skeleton: while breaking a femur or the pelvis, for example, will cause most people to drop to the ground, they may very well still be capable of pulling a trigger. And if so, have merely been rendered less mobile, not stopped.

Making such shots with any degree of reliability with a handgun is exceedingly difficult, not only because such targets are small, but also because people move more or less constantly and the precise location of a major, load-bearing bone in a given person’s leg may be difficult, at best, to determine. It’s also particularly difficult because, compared with rifle ammunition, most handgun ammunition lacks the power to reliably break large bones.

Exsanguination: someone shot in an artery, or even the heart, may have up to three minutes of useful consciousness if they are truly determined to kill you regardless of the damage they suffer in the attempt. However, once sufficient blood is lost, the resulting drop in blood pressure will inevitably lead to unconsciousness and ultimately death.

Of course, a combination of these three primary effects may be more effective and faster in stopping hostile action.

Fortunately, such matters are not only physical, but psychological. Many people, upon receiving even an easily survivable gunshot wound, immediately drop and cease hostile action due to the “OMG! I’ve been shot!” response.

Others — thankfully relatively few — may absorb ridiculous numbers of bullets which might slow, but not stop them, as they try to continue their deadly attacks. This is frequently assisted by drugs present in their system.

Such people eventually succumb to one or more of these effects, but “eventually” is not helpful or comforting if they are attacking you.

The best course of action is to aim for “center mass” or the part of the torso at or around the sternum, and fire enough rounds to force the attacker to stop. It’s the cumulative affect of blood vessel damage, neural shock, and psychological shock that will have the greatest effect, therefore more than one round may be necessary.

Keep in mind that it is always a good idea, even if you cannot avoid or escape a potential deadly force situation, to do your best to avoid pulling the trigger. Always remember that when the justification to shoot ends, the shooting immediately ends, too.

You should never think about “shooting to wound,” let alone try to do it. The law doesn’t require it, and it will be highly likely to backfire for several significant reasons.

Obtaining the desired stopping effect with a shot that inflicts only a non-mortal wound is highly unlikely and could conceivably enrage an attacker who will then press an attack he might have otherwise abandoned. The necessary physical damage and psychological effect is simply not there, and making such a shot accurately is highly unlikely.

In fight-or-flight situations, among the first abilities human beings lose — which accompany time distortion, tunneling and hearing loss — is fine muscle control. This makes it very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to formulate the intention to shoot someone effectively in a small portion of the body so as to immediately disable them. To say nothing of actually carrying out that intention.

For most people, it’s simply physically impossible.

There are many documented incidents of police officers, people supposedly highly trained in marksmanship and the use of deadly force, emptying their handguns at criminals doing the same from ridiculously close range. When the gunsmoke cleared, neither was touched; every round missed.

Hitting center mass will be more than hard enough in a high stress situation, but with proper training and practice, attainable.

An additional concern is that in the heat of battle, many people suffer serious wounds, but are unaware of it until the danger has passed. Despite suffering multiple gunshot wounds that might eventually kill them, they didn’t so much as feel the bullets hit them.

Some people may be so high on drugs they’re incapable of feeing anything. Shooting an arm or leg will likely do nothing more than make a dangerous felon who’s intent on killing you somewhat less mobile, but no less deadly.

Hitting center mass will maximize the probability of quickly stopping a dangerous attacker, whether they feel it or not.

Also, substantial legal liability may attach. If you were so cool and detached that you could shoot someone in the knee, did you really have sufficient reason to shoot them in the first place? If you really thought that you were in mortal danger, why did you take the time to shoot them someplace that any reasonable person should know wouldn’t reliably stop them?

Yes, stopping them will likely result in their death, but you didn’t intend to cause their death. You intended only to stop them from causing yours. That they subsequently died is regrettable, but they made that choice and forced it upon you. You aren’t the attacker, but an innocent victim who will be affected for the rest of your life by the action they brutally forced on you.

In all cases, if you shoot at all, you shoot to stop. You accomplish this by delivering a sufficient volume of accurate fire to that part of the body most likely to cause them to stop. When the threat has stopped, you immediately stop.

At this point, you may find yourself experiencing some degree of revulsion. If so, good for you. You have a conscience. I can’t say often enough that no moral, rational human being wants to harm or kill another.

Violence is cruel, nasty, hateful and bloody, but the choice is simple and stark: do you prefer to be alive and unharmed, or bleeding, perhaps dying on the ground, at the mercy of someone cruel and inhuman enough to attack you? Which alternative would you prefer for those you love? Which of these outcomes is morally superior?

Deadly force encounters in real life aren’t scripted scenes in movies. They’re as deadly serious as any human interaction can be, and the loser frequently winds up assuming ambient temperature.

Leave shooting to wound to the movies. An action hero’s job is to sell popcorn, and they don’t have to aim and shoot under pressure. They can afford the luxury of shooting to wound. You can’t, regardless of what Wolf Blitzer thinks.


This article was originally published in 2014.

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  1. Got a great idea to capitalize off of all these new left wing gun owners.

    Inverse targets. Where the bullseye(s) are located on the “safest” parts of the body to shoot.

    On ecologically sourced, cruelty free, gender neutral paper of course.

    Anybody got Mark Cubans number? I need to pitch this before somebody beats me to it.

  2. Sounds like Wolf Blitzer has all the brains of a German tourist.

    If you haven’t seen a German tourist, and believe Germans are smart, shut up.

    • Many years ago, we hosted an exchange student from Germany in our home. Egad, that was a mistake. Issues of intelligence aside, let’s just say that the Teutons don’t abide by the same codes of social conduct that we Americans do. Never again.

      • Not much of a story, truth be told. During a short timeframe, we hosted young adults from Japan, Britain, Africa, Germany, etc. for about 10 days average per stay. The Japanese were all extremely polite, but reserved. The Ugandan was super-social and talkative, and perhaps the most gregarious of them all. The two Brits were polite, but more or less regarded our home as a hostel, nothing more, and didn’t wish to learn anything from us about American culture.

        The German, however, was a real piece of work. Made it very clear that he considered his home country superior to ours, and he didn’t seem fazed to express it to his hosts. The dude would literally take a block of cheese, cut one-quarter of it off, put that one-quarter back into the fridge, take the larger three-quarter block – along with a raw potato – and sit on the living room couch in only shorts (no shirt) to consume them both with ketchup. And while commandeering the TV. On one day, I took him on a bike ride for a few miles up the road. When we reached the bingo point where we were to turn around, he refused and kept going, leaving me to shrug my shoulders and pretty much hope he got himself kidnapped to relieve our family of his attitude. A few hours later (after sundown), he returned to our house angry over the fact that he became lost and had to wave someone down to give him a lift.

        He never tried to purposefully be a jerk, but he was inherently arrogant. So uber-arrogant. We made the decision to never host another exchange student again after he left.

        • Had it even occurred to you that he was just trying to fit in? Cheese fries, television, and arrogance have been our major exports for awhile now.
          Just kidding… sort of.

        • Haz,

          Thank you for posting that. Kudos for your generosity in hosting so many exchange students!! Even so, due to that one student, the defect rate seems to have been pretty high.

        • I had a German roommate once. He was always complaining of how cramped the apartment was, and it made my other roommate, who was Polish, quite nervous.

  3. The challenge to Wolf and people who think like this. Play a game of “Operation” while someone is coming at you with a knife, bat, gun or their bare hands. That’s what you’re trying to do.

    • The article also glazes over the point that if you shoot to wound you open yourself to a civil suit being brought against you by the animal that tried to kill you.

      A situation we can safely attribute to bleeding heart liberals who place the value of a criminal’s life over that of law abiding citizens.

  4. “Hitting center mass will maximize the probability of quickly stopping a dangerous attacker, whether they feel it or not.”

    Hitting a moving target under stress ain’t exactly easy. This also goes for the head shot. If there are people behind the target, you’re taking a big risk by going for the head.

    How long does it take for some nut case with a knife to close the distance?

    “KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Authorities say a North Carolina truck driver was shot and killed by a Knox County deputy after fatally stabbing three women and hospitalizing a fourth at a Pilot Travel Center near an Interstate-40 exit on Tuesday.

    The truck drivers was identified by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as Idris Abdus-Salaam, 33, of Durham, North Carolina.”

    • Disclaimer: The name, Idris Abdus-Salaam, does not in any way indicate that he is in any way affiliated with nor does he represent the religion of peace. Or something like that…. nothing to see here….

  5. Some of the supposed shoot to wound areas are more lethal than center mass. Severing the femoral artery is more lethal than a shot in the chest or abdomen. The brachial artery isn’t much better.

  6. The only revulsion, that I have experienced after self-defense was at the criminal trying to harm me, not because they got hurt. I would not render aid to a down threat either as they made their choice, and can wait for the societal janitors to come for them, as well as their blood could be a threat. Harming an evil person, who tried to prey on another, and being okay with that, is what makes a person moral.
    When We buy our first sidearm to carry, We armed Citizens make the conscience decison that We are carrying a gun to harm or kill another person, who is trying to cause another or ourselves harm.

    The Bible tells us Christians to trade our robes for swords, for the exact purpose of harming or killing an evil person, that is trying to harm us. My buddy’s wife could never pull the trigger on another person, so he put a fire extinguisher gusher on her side of the bed, so there is at least an option. I’m glad my wife prefers a 9mm and 10/22 to protect our kids.

    • I’m with you. If someone attacked me or mine and I had to shoot them I wouldn’t be torn up about it. I might be elated that I survived the situation. And hungry. And I might need a nap. Adrenaline wears you out.

      Additionally, if a person like Wolf Blitzer asked me that question , I’d begin by saying, Let me inform your ignorance …” If I could keep myself from laughing.

  7. Did the author attend one of my CCW classes? Taken almost verbatim from my lecture. Head shots. I took a couple of Bill Rodgers classes. On a Rodger’s range. Talk about tough. He taught nothing but head shots. On 8″ steel plates. Pneumaticly powered. Laptop program controlled. He gave you a break on the first plate because you were drawing from leather. 1-1 1/4 seconds. Once weapon in hand 1/2 second per plate before it disappeared. No feel good trophy for everyone. At the end of each day he posted the results. You’re in first. You’re last. Do better!

      • Dear wr:

        That’s in large part because human nature, and the law regarding the use of force, tend not to change. Articles of this kind are written not for those well-versed in the topic, but for those not.

  8. My conversation with the police.

    Me: Officer I shot him to stop his threat against me and my family.
    Officer: But he’s dead. I counted 7 bullets in him. You wanted to kill him correct?
    Me: No sir. After I shot him several times. Then he finally stopped his attract. So I called you first. But you took 30 minutes to get here.
    Officer: Yes I know. When seconds count the Police are only minutes away.

    • I miss the edit button.
      Me: “Then he finally stopped his attack. So I called you first. I wanted you to call the ambulance. But you took 30 minutes to get here.”
      Officer: “Yes I know. When seconds count the Police are only minutes away”.

      • Before posting your comment , check the box next to “Save my name, email . . .” That will get you 5 minutes to edit. (I’d prefer 20 or 30.)

        • It’s never worked for me, in any browser (Explorer, Edge, Firefox, Chrome). Never worked once.

    • Chris,

      Thank you for posting that.

      The ER doc, with no knowledge of what had happened, blamed the cop.

      That cop has guts like some of us wish we had.

      • You’re welcome sir. I post it every now and then because many folks don’t know about this horrific gun fight. It’s why everyone needs to train. Do what you can afford. But do it.

    • Yeah, I remember reading that cop’s story a couple of years ago. Problem is…147 rounds is almost 9 full cap G17 mags. That’s like a military/Batman level loadout, and a lot of weight.

      I have a compact 10-rd mag for my G26 EDC, and a 17-rd backup mag. I read somewhere that the average confrontation is over within seconds and involves about 7 rounds. If I ever find myself in a situation where 27 shots won’t get the job done, I’m in a rare SHTF situation indeed. Statistically, the mere presentation of my gun will end the incident, and the first mag will stop an attack. I have a second mag for the unlikely event that the balloon has truly gone up while I’m not home and I need to keep my head on a swivel as the people around me start to panic.

        • I Haz A Question. Depends…..In mine it would almost instant termination if you deviated from the issued ammo or the amount carried. They only issue x amount and you better have that amount during inventory and inspections. Though if he have approval for the equipment then it is normally ok. Not saying if its right or wrong but typically if you ask for permission it is better than being caught later.

      • The Donut Operator (a x cop who is a full time youtuber) has a video on that guy. A good portion of those magazines are the 33 rounders from what I recall but it is 0300 and I could be wrong.

        • I just checked , he switched from a 45 to a 9mm. 3, duty magazines plus one in the gun and 2 33 rounders in his vest.

        • Just a thought…being a LEO, it can be successfully argued that he needs adequate ammo on his person in the course of his duties. But if his department assumedly trains for one standard mag in the gun, plus two on the belt (which allows room for cuffs/ties, radio, baton, OC spray, taser, light), would loading up with triple that amount plus an exterior tac vest leave him vulnerable to the accusation (perhaps from a deceased perp’s family?) that he was patrolling with an aggressive mindset?

          I’ve interacted with many uniformed LEOs over my lifetime, and the only one who was fully loaded out was a younger LASD who stuck out like a sore thumb among his colleagues and looked like he was definitely welcoming the opportunity to “prove” himself in a firefight. He did NOT like how I stopped him at my front gate and refused to allow him entrance to my property, and asked why he was decked out in web gear and a loaded Level IIIA vest for a simple knock-and-talk. That was an awkward conversation I don’t wish to repeat.

        • I’m sorry Mr.Ihazquestions… but you seen like a real prick….. just an observation…. MOVE ALONG!!!!!!

  9. Maybe the author isn’t watching the right movies? Copycat (1995) features a cop played by Holly Hunter getting her cop partner (Dermot Mulroney) killed because she believes she can shoot to wound the perp.

  10. Cops these days are expected to talk down the mentally ill the health system won’t treat, correct the children that parents won’t discipline, and on top of that you want them to be able to sling high-velocity lead in a reliably non-lethal way?

    • Just stop…. please…..
      You obviously don’t have children…. or at least children you give a fk about…..js

  11. With respect to Wolf Blitzer:

    After the warning shot into the air comes down and kills an innocent person, include him as a defendant in the lawsuit for wrongful death due to criminal negligence.

    Some instructor should offer to run him through a force on force class at no charge.

    • Exactly. None of these people has even the slightest gun knowledge, as far as I can see.

      My sister is totally clueless about guns, and I suggested a couple of articles explaining the many problems with “shoot to wound”, and others to teach her a little bit about gun basics so she wouldn’t send me the dopey articles she does constantly. What seems to bother her the most is that anyone “needs” more than one gun. At this point I’m much more of a collector than a shooter, and collecting guns seems to totally blow her mind, even though she collects several different things since she was a pre teen, a LONG time ago, as she’s almost 70 years old. “My stuff hasn’t killed anyone!”. Neither have mine! They sit in the safe, or in cases, and once in a while are oiled up and the rest of the time, do nothing to anyone. As smart as she is, it’s like guns are the one subject she can’t seem to understand. We don’t even disagree all that much politically, never have, but the gun ignorance is bewildering to me

  12. Until The Chinese Virus hit. I was attending a Citizens Police Academy. The last week We went through Force on Force and Active Shooter Response Drills. While doing a room clearing exercise. We were instructed to use force as necessary. While maintaining safety. While clearing a room. I entered and observed a suspect. Paper target drawing a firearm. I promptly placed 2 rounds from the Glock style 9mm pistol that shot rubber balls. In the forehead of the perp. During the after action portion of the exercise. I was asked why I didn’t attempt to deescalate the situation before shooting. My response to the question elicited a startled response from fellow classmates and a wry grin from the Police Officer Instructor. I simply told him. I’m not a police officer. Hence I don’t have to play by their rules of engagement. Be Safe Maintain OP SEC and as always Keep Your Powder Dry.

  13. Once upon a time I got robbed. Stole my money stash, TV, records and gunms. I kinda knew who did it and figured they’d be back to get the rest. I pull out a ree bar and told the investigating detective,”When he dies come back I’m going to bust his knees with this ” The detective says ,” I wouldn’t do that, you’ll be paying for his injuries the rest of your life, go up to the pawn shop and get you a shotgunm and shootzings him dead, that way there’s only one story told in court.” The super pisser was the guy belonged to a gang and they was robbing people with my gunms. Well a possum can’t have that, , long story but I got my gunms back.

    • I for one would love for you to regale us with the tale of how you liberated your gunms from the gang’s clutches, and if you did so by following the detective’s advice to “get you a shotgunm and shootzings [them] dead”. Always up for a good story, especially if it involves a marsupial going all Charles Bronson. 🙂

    • When I was taking my CCW class this issue came up and the instructor said don’t even think about it. If you have to shoot, shoot and don’t worry about the outcome, just stop the threat. If he lives, he lives, if he dies, he dies. So be it.

      And then, as kind of a footnote, he added… there is great advantage to being the only one who has a story to tell. And he just kind of left it at that.

      • I agree UPINARMS. I’d probably go John Wick on a deadly threat. I just watched a video of John Lovell (Warrior Poet Society toutube) go thru multiple scenarios in a simulator and the only time he didn’t fire multiple rounds for each threat was when he shot one threat in the head.

  14. Good article, even as a repost. Pelvic shots are much more effective than given credit for but are situational, so that’s probably why center-mass is the gold standard. But if someone’s coming at you with a melee weapon, shooting in the pelvis is arguably better than the chest.

    If you shoot someone enough to render their heart inoperable they’ll drop pretty damn fast but it’s tough to be sure that you’re doing that with a handgun. Shotguns have their positive aspects.


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