Saturday, January 25, 2014

Training – Head Shots


At the outset let me just say that this is one of those posts that got a bit out of hand. You would think the topic would be simple – threat attacks, I draw gun, shoot threat in head . . . the “threat is stopped”. Yup, you’d think it’s that simple – not so much.

Next level is the “knowledgeable” fellow who says something like . . . “Why just put a round through his Mudella Oblongata and he’ll drop like a rock!!” True enough but, as with all things there’s more to it than that.

“Just shoot him between the eyes!! That’ll stop the threat!!” Again, not so much. So rather that beat around the bush, spout “group thought” or just sling a bit of my own BS . . . let’s do what it takes to understand “Head Shots”, fill in the blanks and do it “right” . . . all IMNSHO, of course.

A couple of stories first to set the stage a bit.

The morning of December 24th, 2003 a Staff Sargent was part of a squad clearing a building. He heard movement around a corner and as he turned a corner he was shot point blank in the face by terrorist using a 9mm pistol. He stumbled back a bit but did not fall. The terrorist, out a fear of shooting an American soldier at point blank range in the face and seeing that he simply kept coming, dropped the weapon and surrendered on the spot. When the Sargent arrived at the hospital it turned out the energy exchange between the bullet striking the top of his tooth and the amount needed to eject the tooth was “equal” . . . the bullet simply took the place of the tooth with little extra damage.

Something you might want to keep in mind when you are oh so confident the 9mm on your hip will stop a determined attacker when you simply shoot him in the face.

Shooting someone in the face can kill . . . but it might be your friend.

This past December in San Francisco four young toughs decided to rob a man of his cell phone and other items. Not satisfied to just take the loot and run, one of them decided to just shoot the man in the face anyway. He did . . . and the bullet ricocheted off the man’s face and stuck and killed one of the other attackers – 16 year old Clifton Chatman. The victim survived, karma seems to have taken care of Clifton and at least one other has been captured.

This shooting was also covered by Greg Ellifritz of Active Response Training and Grant Cunningham, a well-known trainer, writer and contributor to Personal Defense Network. Both do a great job rehashing this particular shooting and sharing their own thoughts and concerns about “The Head Shot”. Take a few moments and read the linked articles, they are well worth your time.

My purpose is to broaden this topic a bit, put some effort into studying the brain, its purpose and individual components, to view its “packaging”, to define how it is protected and then to elaborate on its weaknesses, how they can be accessed and then to consider the differences between shooting someone in the head (and the possible outcomes of such an event) and truly hitting their “off switch”.

The ancients used to view our heart as our soul. Cut out your enemy’s heart – you destroy their soul. Modern man, while still learning the meaning of the word “soul”, has come to understand that “who” we are, how we think, how we react, our ability to speak and learn and understand, to love and to hate, to appreciate music, the written word and the beauty of a sunset . . . is all contained in the soft, delicate grey matter contained within our skull. This 3 pound mass, 75% of which is simply water, is “us”. And, given its importance, it is very well protected and not nearly as susceptible damage as one would think.

A high school friend of mine also married his childhood sweetheart. The typical life followed for my particular generation – a tour in Vietnam, marriage, hard work in a local lumber yard and a family. I don’t remember the exact age any more honestly, but my recollection is that around 10 years old his daughter began to have grand mal seizures. Over time they progressively got worst, to a point where they became life threatening. Their final solution required a trust in God I’m not sure I would ever be able to find . . . they removed half of her brain – again, I do not remember which half. Yet the result was an end to the seizures and, over time, a near normal life for their daughter.

50% damage . . . normal life . . . think about that the next time someone quickly declares a head shot to be the way to stop the threat.

Let’s spend a little time breaking down the brain first. Here is a quick tour:

Brain Composite

The brain, like most of our body, is somewhat redundant. It has two hemispheres, each of which is focused on primary tasks, yet as can be seen in my classmate’s daughter, there is an ability to “cross train”. The majority of our body has redundancy – eyes, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, lungs, kidneys, large parts of our digestive system. The single component without a “spare” so to speak, is our heart and for women, we need to add the uterus.

Let’s talk about the “focus” of each hemisphere, and then we will sort through the various lobes of our brain.

Our Left Hemisphere lives in the “real world”. It deals analyzing, logic, language, thought, mathematics – the “geek” side of our lives.

Our Right Hemisphere is where the artist in us lives (honestly, the right half of my brain must be the size of a walnut!). It’s where we “think”, it holds our creativity, intuition, our enjoyment of art and music. It’s our “heartsy” site.

Both halves, work together to make us “whole” – yet when you look at an individual as a mortal threat, they may well be just as dangerous to you with one hemisphere completely shattered by your bullet.

The brain also consists of a number of lobes, each have which have developed their own specialties.

Frontal Lobe: This portion of the brain resides at the front of each hemisphere. Its areas of focus are our behavior, intelligence, memory and movement. With respect to the title of this post, while it’s tempting to think that a headshot to this primary region for movement would stop a shooter and would prevent their pressing the trigger – the exact opposite might occur and by disrupting the activities of the frontal lobe we might actually set off a firestorm of brain activity that may well include pressing the trigger.

Parietal Lobe: The “central” portion of the brain is the Parietal Lobe. It also deals with intelligence, language, our ability to read and our physical sensations. Other than some blood loss via a bullet’s damage, nothing here to stop a threat.

Occipital Lobe: These lobes reside at the very back of the brain. Their purpose is to convert all the signals generated by the optic nerve to enable us to “see”. Damage to this region of the brain could easily bring about blindness but nothing here to stop a trigger press.

Temporal Lobe: Located on the left and right side of the brain, the Temporal Lobe contributes to our vision, our behavior, hearing, memory and speech. Again, no critical component that would stop a trigger press.

Cerebellum: Buried just below the rear of the brain the Cerebellum deals with our balance and coordination. This region approaches some of the most fundamental control system for our body. Damage here could severely impede our ability to move in any determined fashion.

Brain Stem: This is the most primitive part of our brain. It deals with most of our basic autonomic functions – breathing, our heart beat, blood pressure, our ability to remain conscious and our ability to swallow. Damage here could stop our heart, stop our breathing but still allow a command for a trigger press to reach its final destination.

Mudella Oblongata: Below the brain stem and just prior to reaching the spinal cord sets the Mudella Oblongata. If I put on my computer engineer hat, this would be very roughly equivalent to a network hub with multiple cables plugged into it. They feed the signals from the brain into the spinal cord and out to feet, legs, arms, hands and fingers. Destroy this little component and the ability to press the trigger is instantly terminated just as unplugging a network hub kills a computer network. This is the ultimate “off switch”. When trained snipers go for a “head shot” – this is the x-ring. And, in many cases, it’s a must hit. Miss it, and the bad guy’s finger could easily press their trigger making it a very bad day all the way round.

This spot – in addition to being the size of something less than a half dollar, is also very well protected, as is the rest of the brain.

The container for the brain is built as tough as you would expect it to be given its importance. An adult brain is surrounded by a hardened skull that averages about a quarter inch thick. You can set a ton of weight on it before it begins to deform. Below that is a water cushion to help protect our brain from random blows. Though damage is certain possible from a strike to the head – there is also the very real possibility the blow will simply glance off.

The skull provides a surface that is has a continual curve to it. So while you may well think your bullet or your blow is striking “straight on” – it is, instead treated like a vector that has a mass, velocity and a direction. Once it encounters a surface, this “vector” is essentially broken into it individual directional components (in the horizontal and vertical) based on the angle it hits the skull at. I know, I know – sounds like a physics problem. Well it is.

Picture yourself in front of a steel plate and your send a round into that plate. If it is straight on, the entire energy of the bullet it applied to the steel plate.

Now, picture yourself in front of the same steel plate, but this time it is turned at a 45-degree angle to you. While you hit the plate in the same spot, this time only half of the energy from the bullet is transferred to the plate, the rest continues on with bullet as it glances off the steel plate.

Our skull can act exactly as the steel plate, allowing the bullet to glance off as in the story of the 16 year old killed by a ricochet from the man’s face detailed in the story above.

Nature takes its job of protecting us seriously, and our brain is well protected, let alone a miniscule chunk of tissue buried at the back of our brain and just below the brain stem.

That said, it is vulnerable to a couple different shots. The images below show the location of the Mudella Oblongata in a variety of ways – from the rear, from the right side and from the front.

Your “shot” from the front is just below the tip of the nose. This is a region where the bone is thin and, provided you have a straight on shot, the Mudella Oblongata is directly behind the tip of the nose with virtually nothing to protect it.

Composite - Front View - 3

If you envision a number of training targets, many have a small triangle in the head region. It represents this area of your threat’s face. There is no room for error. As can be seen from the images, there is thick, angular bone all around this spot. A miss may well mean the end of your threat, but it will not instantly stop their ability to press the trigger.

From the right side you are looking at a spot slightly behind the jaw and below the ear lobe. This is a riskier shot because there is more bone available from the skull that should you hit it, it will easily deflect your bullet. Again, the goal of this particular shot is an “instant off” to protect a loved one.

Right View Composite 3

Finally, when seen from the rear, you are looking for a spot in the middle of the neck, approximately even with the bottoms of both ears. Here too, there is significant bone to deal with, including the spine. A bit off the mark may put the threat down, but may easily let the trigger press command through first.

Composite - Back View - 3

I took a lot of words and pictures to essentially say, head shots are a bitch. In a defensive situation, with you moving, your threat moving and rounds headed your way, the possibility of hitting a half-dollar sized opening behind the tip of your threat’s nose and that round going absolutely straight back to their “off switch” – it’s a difficult shot to say the very least.

Do I practice it? Yep, every range trip. My scenario is virtually always a hostage situation. Someone has my wife or granddaughter or friend at gun point or knife point and things are going sideways in a hurry. It’s shoot or watch them die. I intend to take that shot if there are no alternatives.

Setting that specific scenario aside – are there more “productive” areas or options available? Yep, there are . . . but that’s a topic for another post.

Head shots, they’re a bitch . . . but if you need to take one, you better know all the details that go into a decisive shot.

A few reference links used in this post:


  1. Extraordinarily clear and useful pictures and a great write-up. Is there any chance you can put a vertical hash mark on the fully fleshed side view?

  2. Thank you, it was a pretty interesting post to put together. Had not thought of the hash marks on the fully fleshed image. The aim point is essentially just behind the earlobe. As long as you get behind the mandible and tuck just below the skull, you're good to go.

  3. Having shot a boar with a 30-30 from less than 30 feet and had the bullet bounce off and just piss him off, you post is dead on the money... Odds are NOT in the shooter's favor here... Just sayin...