High performance shooting: The head shot

By Ron Avery - President, Director of Training
The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc.

In any discussion of lethal force shooting, the subject of head shots is one that needs to be addressed thoroughly. I would like to offer some concepts and drills to share with officers and other personnel that are interested in this important topic.

We know that hits to the central nervous system (CNS) result in more or less instant incapacitation of subjects. The problem with a head shot is that it can be a fleeting, frustrating target There is a high probability of a miss when doing it under real world conditions. This problem is compounded by officers who only train head shots from static positions or moving slowly. This problem gets bigger with lenient scoring procedures or too big a target area. Then there is the matter of what to do if you keep missing the head and have to account for the rounds fired.

Other problems are not training to take the shot with the first double action pull for autos that are set up that way. This raises the question of whether we should be training folks to rapidly thumb cock the hammer if the need for a fast, precise head shot at distance is to be taken. Heavy trigger pulls and precision shots at speed do not go together well. This would be a good case for lightening the trigger pulls to allow proper isolation of the finger at speed.

Lastly, there is usually no time pressure when the shot has to be taken. I am glad to see that some individuals are shooting head shots in 1.5 seconds at 7 and 10 yards in training. My only question is: What is the start position for the drill? Weapon on target or a ready position?

First let's examine the situations that the officer will most likely have to take a head shot.

Close quarter assaults - within 5-7 yards, perhaps as far as 10 yards. These may or may not be preceded by body shots.

The only target available is the subject's head; i.e.; he is shooting from some form of cover or is in a crowd situation.

Where a rapid incapacitation is called for: i.e. hostage type situations or suicide bombers.

Now let's look at some dynamics in these situations.

Lighting conditions - Great, Good, lower light? Twilight? Need for artificial illumination?

Is the subject moving or still?

How far away are they?

How well do you have your gun sighted in?

How fat is your front sight? Does it pretty much cover the head at 15 yards?

What kind of position are you shooting from? Standing, Kneeling? Prone? Barricade? Awkward position leaning around a vehicle?

What kind of time pressure is there to fire? Is the target going to disappear or does he only present a fleeting target as they are moving in and through cover or crowds?

What kind of backstop is there in the event that you miss?

Are you moving or stationary when you are taking the shot?

There are other questions to be asked but these will suffice for now. The main point is, do you really train head shots under realistic conditions or just do "rubber stamp" training to satisfy the brass?

Understand, I am not picking on anyone here. Not ever. I want to help people make better choices by being well informed of the dynamics of lethal force situations that involve high speed, precision shooting so that the training can be realistic and meaningful and they can be prepared when their time comes.

Let's address ways of conducting meaningful training.

First: Let's address the weapon: Most front sight posts are way too big when they come from the factory. A front sight of around .090 to .100 will give you a much better picture on the head out to 15 yards. Richard Heinie makes a nice one on his "straight eight" sights. You can replace existing sights quite readily and I am amazed at the number of officers who think that putting on a different sight somehow changes the weapon from factory specs and makes them subject to a lawsuit.

Trigger pull - If the pull is too heavy, it is difficult to isolate the trigger finger at speed. If the officer cannot reach the trigger to get enough leverage, the first shot will get dumped in order to go to single action mode. Shooting precise, first shots double action in short time intervals requires much work in order to master it. This may make a good case for getting the lighter 3.5 connectors for the Glocks or authorizing the 1911 style single action autos.

If that is not allowed, consider teaching rapid thumb cocking of the double action to get a better quality shot.

Sight the gun in to hit spot or very slightly high at 15 yards or so. Shoot it from standing and kneeling, not just from a bench.

Second: Lets address the drills.

The following are some of the drills I recommend and use in training students.

Target: Standard IPSC target, put a 3 or 4 inch circle of paper inside the head of the target. This is your aiming point.

You must use an electronic timer for the following drills. Stop watches or turning targets will not suffice.

Drill #1

3 yards: From an imminent threat position, shoot one round in the center of the head in 1.5 seconds.
Drop down to 1 second.

3 yards: From a low ready position, shoot one round in the center of the head in two seconds.
Drop down to 1.5 seconds and then go down to 1 second.

3 yards: Repeat the drill, from the holster. Use different hand start positions so you don't just practice with hands in one position. Work down to 1.5 seconds.

3 yards: Repeat the drills, this time firing two shots in head. Work down to 1.5 seconds.

5 yards: Repeat the above exercises

7 yard: Repeat the above - exercises

Drill # 2

5 yards: From a low ready position, drop to a kneeling or squat position and shoot one round in the center of the head in two seconds. Drop down to 1.5 seconds

7 yards: Repeat the drill

7 yards: Put no shoot target next to head to increase the stress load. Have two setups, one on right side of no shoot and one on left side of no shoot.

10 yards: From a low ready position, fire one head shot in 2 seconds. Then reduce time to 1.5 seconds.

10 yards: Repeat drill from holster, hands in different starting positions.

10 yards: Repeat the drills using the no shoot target setups.

10 yards: Repeat drills above, firing two shots. Start with 2.5 seconds, work down to 2.0 seconds.

10 yards: From low ready position, Drop to kneeling or squat and fire the shot in 2 seconds.

15 yards: From a low ready position, fire one round in 2.5 seconds. Drop the time to 2 seconds and then 1.5 seconds.

15 yards: From a low ready position, drop to kneeling and fire one shot in 2.5 seconds. Then drop time to 2.0 seconds.

15 yards: Repeat drills, from holster.

15 yards: Repeat drills, firing two shots. Work down to 2.5 then 2.0 standing. Working down to 3.0 and then 2.5 from kneeling.

This should get you warmed up. Now let's start putting together some more dynamic drills.

Next phase:

The fact that you can hit the head on a head sized target out to fifteen yards is a good start. Now, get a good swinger target (Contact Jim Carroll at (970) 240-8600 for a top notch swinger target) that induces movement from side to side. Have it gently swing while you place head shots on it. Try doing the drills that you did before. This is much harder to do. Hence the reason that I stress two shots on heads if time allows.

Now, starting at 15 yards, move rapidly to a shooting box placed at 10 yards and then place two shots on head target. Time limits will vary but make it snappy.

Next, Move from 10 to 7 yards in the same manner.

Now, with gun up in imminent threat position, move from 7 to 5, firing two shots in the head while moving.

Move laterally at 5 yards, first to the right, firing two shots in the head.

Repeat drill, moving laterally to the left, firing two shots.

Move backward from 3 yards to 5 yards. firing two good shots while moving.

Repeat this last drill, moving from 5 to 7 yards, firing two controlled head shots.

Lastly, set up a group of no shoot targets clustered around a shoot target. Have officers rapidly move to a good angle and take a head shot without hitting anyone else.

Score these movement drills by dividing the points scored by the time taken to complete the exercise. This will result in a decimal fraction which we call a comstock factor. Divide each officer's score by the highest factor in your department or area. This will give each officer a percentage of the best score shot. Minimum of two shots on head of target in appropriate target area.

Lastly, consider these points when you conduct training for head shots.

Head shots are generally "finishing shots" They are difficult to hit at speed and the chance of a miss is relatively high for the average officer who doesn't practice on a very regular basis. Go for the sure hits first unless the head shot is your only option.

Mickey mouse style training yields poor results. Be realistic in your training. Tight time limits, realistic scoring zones, miss penalties, different lighting conditions, shooting from stationary and moving platforms, shooting from realistic cover and awkward positions, using artificial light or not.

If the distance is too great, lighting poor etc. and you have no other choice, consider using pelvic girdle shots to break the subject down and then applying the head shot. This is particularly applicable for a rapidly moving subject, ala suicide bomber who is trying to get close to a crowd to detonate himself.

I have heard that some bombs are impact sensitive and can detonate and have read about incidents where this has occurred. I have also been to some dynamite shoots where they detonate them with gunshots etc. as well.

I don't think there is a good answer but rather the lesser of two evils defense going on.

Is it better not to shoot at all or risk a head shot and keep missing and have the subject make it into a crowd and then detonate or take a chance on hitting the hip/pelvic area and bring them down?

If we keep missing the head shot, chances are he will either get away or get into a more densely packed crowd, increasing the casualties.

If we hit him and he does detonate, perhaps we will minimize casualties.

If we hit bone and knock him down and he doesn't detonate, that allows us a brief span to target his head while he is relatively stationary.

It is dicey for anyone but a high level expert to hit a moving head shot that is out past 10 yards or so with a pistol. Compound this with sub par lighting conditions and it can be problematic whether we hit them at all if we keep trying to take head shots.

I think it should be in the options bag. My responsibility in training officers and agents is to look at all the options, examine the pros and cons and make a real world assessment of the hit probabilities.

One of the drills we do work on is running into a crowd and taking a fast head shot at close ranges without hitting bystanders. This falls under the counter assault team/protective detail type of training.

If you can anchor the subject before they can make it into a crowd, then you can minimize casualties even if they manage to detonate themselves. If the bullet happens to detonate the bomb he is wearing, then that is the lesser of two evils. The point being how many more casualties would he inflict if allowed to get into a crowd with the device?

Lastly, lets work on implementing sensible trigger and sight policies in departments that allow better trigger and sight options that work under high speed, precision shooting events.

Stay safe all!

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