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Training to shoot from and through vehicles

How bullets work against various parts of a vehicle is critical information for cops

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Vehicle pillars can stop most handgun and .223 rifle rounds and even shotgun slugs to an extent. Notice the lack of bullet strikes on the driver’s side interior.

Photo/Warren Wilson

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Depending on which study you read, 50% to 60% of officer-involved shootings happen in or around vehicles, with these encounters lasting about two to three times as long as the average law enforcement gun battle. This makes how bullets work against various parts of a vehicle critical information for cops, so it only makes sense to include this topic in your department’s firearms training program.

I attended a class on my own time and own dime from Centrifuge Training called Vehicle Close Quarters Battle. The course covered the specifics of armed confrontation in and around vehicles.

Even after a few decades in law enforcement, I got quite a bit of new information out of the class. I suggest anyone charged with teaching cops to defend themselves with a firearm seek out similar training.

Using vehicles as cover

What’s scary about using vehicles as cover is that most common handgun rounds can easily penetrate through doors, panels and glass.

In my experience after shooting vehicles whenever the opportunity has arisen, even the puniest centerfire handgun round will easily penetrate not only a car door but two car doors and still have some gusto left over for whatever is downrange.

It’s been commonly taught to law enforcement officers that the only reliable areas of cover on a vehicle are the engine block and wheels. Though not entirely true, let’s explore that idea a little further. Of course, a vehicle engine block will stop everything short of artillery, but how do we effectively use it for protection? Keep in mind there are several inches all the way around the engine that is not reliable cover and “bullet skip” over the hood is a very real concern (more on that later). Wheels and tires make a pretty decent cover, but few of us can get small enough to get full ballistic protection from them. The specific way we use vehicles as cover makes all the difference.


If you’re unfamiliar with the phenomenon, bullets and shotgun pellets that are fired on a shallow angle at a hard surface like asphalt or brick don’t necessarily ricochet away at 90 degrees. Most often, they run parallel to the street or wall until coming to their end. The same is true of vehicle hoods.

If given the opportunity to safely experiment with this principle, you’ll find it difficult to bury a round into the surface of the hood without it skipping into whatever is behind it.

With this in mind, does it seem wise to “prairie dog” up from behind an engine compartment to return fire?


Vehicle pillars are some of the strongest structural components of a vehicle. They are intended to support the weight of a vehicle in the event of a rollover and, not coincidentally, are quite bullet resistant. Granted, vehicle pillars don’t offer a lot of east/west geography to hide behind, but I’ve seen them stop all common handgun rounds, .223 caliber rifle rounds and even a shotgun slug. This part of the vehicle can be very protective if used correctly.

Pillars are labeled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from front to rear as A through C or D depending on the type of vehicle. Windshields are terrible at stopping bullets but do offer some limited protection from the sides. Bullets fired from the side tend to either burrow into the glass and/or deflect off of it. The A pillar combined with the curvature of the windshield offers several inches of ballistic protection and may be a better option than poking your melon up like a Whack-a-Mole.


The most important element of a successful armed confrontation is being where the bullets ain’t. This means properly positioning behind cover. As stated above, crouching behind the engine block and wheel well can offer protection, but what then? Prairie dogging over the top of the hood isn’t a great option. Working around the corner of the vehicle might be a solution, but it exposes the feet and legs under the vehicle for an extended period. An alternative might be to bend down or lie down to use the combination of the tire/wheel and undercarriage of the vehicle. None of these techniques are ideal in every situation, of course.


Training on vehicle cover techniques must emphasize exposing the smallest amount of the body possible.

Photo/Warren Wilson


We know when windshields are fired at perpendicularly that bullets tend to be deflected, but not stopped or even slowed all that much. Knowing that, it’s obvious that being in the front seat of your patrol vehicle during an armed altercation is not great. Moving to a more advantageous location is desirable, but may not always be an option. You may just have to fight from where you are, which may mean firing through the windshield.

In order to do so with any effectiveness, you must first make a “port.” Porting is a SWAT term for making a hole. In my experience, it may take three or four rounds fired before the port becomes big enough to accurately fire through. This is a technique for only the most desperate of situations. If you’ve never shot through a windshield, you don’t want the first time to be when it really counts. Live-fire training with this and the other techniques covered here is invaluable.


Stacking a vehicle’s “A” pillars in conjunction with the windshield offers an officer a reasonable amount of cover during an engagement.

Photo/Warren Wilson

PPE and Safety

As with all live-fire training, quality eye and ear protection are mandatory. I would add earplugs to the standard earmuff hearing protection for shooting inside a vehicle. I would also add masks or shemaghs for shooting inside the vehicle to protect the student from inhaling glass particles. It is advisable to forego any time limits and scoring during live-fire vehicle exercises. Drawing a firing while seated in a cramped area is more dangerous than doing so on the old familiar firing line for obvious reasons and should be done slowly and methodically.


Correct body positioning maximizes the vehicle’s use as cover.

Photo/Warren Wilson

Do the Work

It may seem challenging to conduct training like this, but all it takes is a vehicle and some windshields. One of our local wrecker services brings us as many junk vehicles as we want and even picks them up when we’re done. Most cop shops work closely with wreckers in their area and it will likely just cost a phone call. The most important element of this training, however, is knowing how to safely and effectively conduct this training.

If this resource isn’t available in your area, I suggest you seek out quality training on the topic yourself. There’s about a 50/50 chance that an officer’s next encounter will be in or around a vehicle. This is a topic that is difficult to teach but must be covered.

Warren Wilson is a captain, training commander and rangemaster with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.