May 242011
A target that has had the center of it well shot out

There's no need to riddle a bad guy with as many holes as this target

If you ever find yourself deciding to use deadly force to protect yourself or your loved ones, you have a second decision to make immediately subsequently.  How many times should you shoot the bad guy?  Once?  Twice?  Five times?  Ten times?

(Note – this is assuming you are using a handgun.  If you’re using a rifle or shotgun, one shot may be enough.)

The sad part of this question is that the right answer is not just determined by ending the deadly threat you are confronted with, but also by concerns about subsequent legal action – either brought by the police, or – and perhaps more alarmingly – by the offender or his estate.

As soon as you fire a second round, no matter what happened to the first round – whether it missed the bad guy entirely, or just caused a light graze on his arm, or if it incapacitated him instantly and completely – you open yourself up to accusations of excessive use of force.  Imagine yourself in court, with a prosecutor talking to the jury ‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, whether right or wrong, maybe the defendant believed he needed to shoot at the deceased, but did the defendant need to shoot at him multiple times, and change what might have been a survivable wound into a lethal hail of bullets?  This was a …..’ – insert your term of choice here :

  • Cold blooded murder, not an act of self defense
  • Crazed shooting spree beyond what any reasonable man would do
  • Rambo rage rather than rational response
  • Gangland style murder
  • Military type assassination
  • Extreme and uncalled for use of excessive force
  • Massive overreaction that resulted in the victim dying rather than just being wounded

or any other phrase that might be called upon.

The truth of the matter – a truth which may be overlooked by a district attorney trying to score political points, and/or a truth that will definitely be completely ignored by an attorney seeking civil damages on behalf of the bad guy or his estate (if you killed him) is that a single bullet from a pistol is extremely unlikely to immediately take the bad guy out of the fight.  Even if you succeed in hitting the bad guy with your shot, who knows where on his body the round will land, and who knows what the effect will be.

Well, actually, we can be pretty sure what the effect will be.  Unlike the movies, the bad guy won’t be thrown violently backward.  Neither will he sag and collapse where he stands.  In general terms, he’ll feel no more force than you felt from the gun’s recoil.  If he is all hyped up on adrenalin – or, worse, on drugs – even a hit that may kill him over time might have no immediate effect on him.

Add to this ugly equation the fact that he was, say, only 15 ft away from you when you opened fire, and is rapidly closing the distance, and so what are you going to do?  Stop and observe prior to shooting a second and subsequent time?  Of course not!

Front Sight teach their students to fire two rapid aimed shots to the center of the thoracic cavity (something very similar to the concept of ‘center of mass’ – ie, the middle of the target), then to pause and see what effect they cause.  If the bad guy doesn’t stop, they teach to fire one more carefully aimed shot to the cranial ocular cavity (a 3″ x 5″ card sized space more or less from the eyebrows to the bridge of the nose).

That makes sense on the range, when neither you nor the target is moving.  But in a dynamic fire fight inside your house, you’ve not got the time for any of this.  You need to neutralize the threat before the threat neutralizes you, and once you’re in physical contact, you risk losing control of your weapon and having it turned on you, even if the guy is gushing blood (which could well be AIDS positive) all over you as he does so.

If you’ve a modern semi-auto with a 15+ round magazine in it, should you empty the entire magazine at the guy as quickly as you can?

Tactically, yes, that makes a great deal of sense in this type of scenario, and unofficially many police may confide in you that is exactly what they would do themselves.  But in terms of your subsequent civil and criminal liability, each extra shot shifts the balance away from ‘righteous shooting’ and towards a much more ugly situation.

In terms of ‘the perfect world’ (or what passes for a perfect world when you need to start shooting at anyone) the concept is to keep firing until the attacker ceases to be a threat.  What does that mean?  It might mean that he stops advancing on you and says ‘Stop, I surrender’ – even if you haven’t hit him at all.  As soon as he says those words, he has ceased to be a lethal threat and you can no longer justify shooting him.  Let’s just hope you hear him say that clearly over the sound of the gunfire!

It might mean that he turns and runs away.  Bullets in the back look really bad in the subsequent enquiry and take a lot of explaining.  If the bad guy turns around and starts running away, then as long as that direction isn’t taking him, say, to your spouse or children, the gunfight is over.

It might mean that he collapses in a heap and stops advancing on you.  Bullets shot down into a body while standing over it on the floor also look bad in the subsequent enquiry (and, yes, the police absolutely can work out that this is what happened), so as soon as the guy is down and incapacitated, and not reaching for a hidden weapon or doing anything still threatening, again stop shooting.

In the real world, you’re going to be squeezing off rounds fairly fast.  You’ll have shot five or more times before you even notice any impact on the bad guy – assuming you’re hitting the guy most of the time, and that’s a dubious assumption to make.

In the real world, don’t count your shots, and don’t look for where they are going.  Just get some lead downrange and observe the bad guy and the effect your rounds are having on him.  If at some stage, you’re fairly sure you’re getting good hits and nothing much is happening, then you have to wonder if he has body armor on, and change strategies to either ‘run away’ or start shooting at his head.

Head shots, while harder to make, are more likely to have immediate effect if you manage to get some rounds on target.  The only exception to this would be if you truly do have a zombie coming towards you.

One more thing about head shots – they are less politically correct.  Yes, there are good and bad ways to shoot someone, alas.  Don’t start shooting for the head until after you’ve sent some into the center of mass.

There is another source of valuable information about the ‘ideal’ – no, make that ‘acceptable’ – number of times to shoot an attacker.  And that is looking at what the police do when they engage someone and shoot him.

Start clipping newspaper reports of how many rounds your local police shoot at people, and see if the police officer(s) suffer any consequences or accusations of having shot too many times.  Generally you might find they sometimes have questions raised about the need to shoot at all, but seldom are questions raised about the number of rounds they shoot – assuming the number to be not outlandish.

The average police officer doesn’t actually get to shoot at people very much, and so they are almost as likely to panic as you are.  They probably get an hour or two of range time a couple of times a year, and maybe shot 500 rounds as part of their basic training, perhaps decades ago.

But SWAT officers – well, they are the creme de la creme, aren’t they.  They are the very best officers, and get massive amounts of training, and have greater experience at armed confrontations.  You’d expect them to set a ‘high water mark’ for what is acceptable, because when they are shooting, they can be much more certain they are hitting their target, they are not nearly as panicked, and they are doing something they have trained repeatedly to do.

In other words, if a SWAT officer fires four times, he will probably hit his target at least three of those times, and will do so in a calm calculated manner, knowing exactly when to stop.  On the other hand, a regular police officer may panic some, and fire more rounds in a less well controlled manner.  Let’s say a two to one discrepancy – if a SWAT officer shoots five rounds in a confrontation, we’d probably allow a regular police officer to fire ten, right?

You might want to next say ‘if a regular police officer fires ten rounds, I should be allowed to shoot twenty rounds’ but you’d be wrong for two reasons.  The first reason is that almost certainly, somewhere in those 20 rounds there’s going to be a ‘time out’ during which you have to change over magazines, giving you also a forced break from shooting and a chance to see what is happening around you.  You may be able to come up with an explanation for why/how you emptied all 17 rounds from your magazine into the bad guy, but it will be much harder to then go on and explain how you swapped over magazines and emptied a second magazine as well.

The second reason is that life isn’t fair.  To play it safe, if a regular police officer typically fires, say, six shots, you’d better stop at five unless there’s a hugely compelling reason to keep your gun running further.

Okay, now with all that as background, here’s an interesting story for you to keep in your file.  In a recent case in Pima County, AZ (a little north of Tucson) a team of five SWAT officers ended up choosing to shoot a person in a house they were raiding, in circumstances that have yet to be fully explained.

Now remember these are highly trained SWAT officers, not ordinary beat officers.

So how many times did they shoot the suspect?

Between the five of them, they shot at the man 71 times, hitting him 60 times.  That is 14 shots – and 12 hits – per officer; but most of all, it is 71 shots in total and 60 hits.

Print out this article and keep it somewhere safe and discreet.  If anyone should ever accuse you of using excessive force, show them this article.  71 shots and 60 hits?  Sheesh.

My guess is that every one of those five officers emptied his entire magazine into the victim.  Fourteen shots at – and twelve hits – would normally be getting close to the high end of what you could readily explain away, but 71 and 60???  From a SWAT team!!!

Don’t even get me started on the tactics that have all five officers fixated on one single target, and all emptying their magazines into one guy, in a scenario where, as they subsequently said when explaining why they let the guy bleed to death on the floor and didn’t allow paramedics into the house for an entire hour, they didn’t know who else was in the house or with what weapons (answer – apart from the guy’s wife and children hiding in the closet, in fear of their lives, no-one else at all).

If the SWAT team aren’t arrested, locked up, charged and convicted of excessive force and a whole bunch of other crimes, then any time you’re in Pima County with four of your friends, I guess you know that – at least there – it is acceptable to shoot at a guy with an unloaded gun 71 times.  Don’t forget, subsequently – like the SWAT team did – to claim that he shot at you first; and be no more embarrassed than the SWAT team was when it was subsequently discovered the weapon was unloaded, unfired, and with the safety on.

But don’t count on a similar standard applying in the rest of the United States.  And thank goodness for that.

So, how many rounds should you shoot at the bad guy when he is coming at you?  As many as it takes.  Better to be tried by twelve than carried by six.

Lastly, this is an interesting and unexpected reason to be sure you have the most powerful/lethal gun and ammo combination you can handle.  Assuming it isn’t something ridiculous, if you can use a commonly accepted but heavier caliber pistol, and with a more powerful ammo, you will probably end up needing to fire less rounds.

In other words, if you use a 38 special revolver, consider upgrading to a 357 magnum.  If you use a 9mm semi-auto, consider a .40 S&W instead.

And for your ammo, make sure you’re firing a +P grade (and make sure your pistol is rated for +P, too!) and that it is some sort of effective hollow point round.

But don’t end up with something too powerful for you to comfortably control.  Better to be landing rounds on target with a less powerful weapon than to be missing consistently with a heavier pistol.

  One Response to “How Many Times Should You Shoot Someone? A Surprising Answer from Pima AZ”

  1. […] We’ve written before, with our tongue partially in our cheek, about how many times you should shoot the bad guy when you’re forced to defend yourself. […]

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