Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Training - Stopping the Threat


“So, why do you carry a gun??” I’m having a chat with a friend who, while certainly is not anti-gun, simply cannot imagine carrying one for personal protection. I convey my standard answer – I want to be able to defend myself, my family and any friends under my protection from any threat that might come our way.

“So you’d just shoot them until they were dead?!?!?!” They’re not completely surprised by my answer – we’ve chatted before. Still, the thought of me killing someone is simply beyond their understanding.

“Of course not, I would shoot until I felt that the threat to me, my family or my friends had stopped.” Again, a fairly stock answer from me . . . it’s an honest answer that is clear to me . . . but not to them.

“So what the heck does that mean . . . you stopped the threat?”

And I realized while clear to me, it’s very easy to tell a friend or a student they should “shoot until they stop the threat”. Let’s chat about that a bit.

First some cautions to folks out there who carry a weapon for personal defense and are not shy about sharing their thoughts and ideas in today’s electronic age. The words you type . . . like these flowing from my fingers . . . will NEVER GO AWAY . . . EVER!!! So keep that in mind. If you put on your bad-ass hat, brag about your permit and the weapon you carry and talk about how you’re going to kill anyone who messes with you, your family or your friends . . . and then you find yourself in a situation where you do exactly that . . . what you type, what your share, what you post on video will surely be found and used by your accuser.

Secondly, carrying a weapon for personal defense and having the required state paperwork does not turn you into James Bond – licensed to kill.

William . . . William Keller . . . and I like my Templeton chilled with ice . . .

Nope, not so much.

To add to the mix that is rolling around in my head on this topic is an ongoing discussion about the value and meaning of “combat effective hits” vs. accurately placed multi-shot engagements.

And the value of a “balance of speed and precision” vs. – again, accurately placed multi-shot engagements, this might get to be a wordy

I want to approach this from two different angles – first the physiological requirement for actually killing a human being. Certain things must happen for this to occur, let’s talk about them.

And, I want to approach it from the perspective of a defensive shooter whose only goal is to survive an attack from what they perceive as a mortal threat.

Finally, a whole other series of posts could be (and have been by many other authors) written on the topic of the aftermath of such an encounter – whether it be a fatal encounter or if the attacker survived. That is beyond the scope of this post – perhaps at some other date I will address my thoughts on that, but not today.

Physiology of Killing a Human

Death in a human occurs when their brain activity ceases. If connected to an electroencephalogram you would see lines representing braining active that were simply “flat lined” – no movement at all, no indication that any brain activity of any type is going on. This is not respiration, this is not heartbeat, this is not blood flow but rather a direct window into the person’s brain that indicates that it is no longer functioning at any level. This person is well and truly dead.

It takes much more to pull this off than you would think. A drowning victim, depending on the temperature of the water, can go 10s of minutes without air and escape without injury.

On the other end of the scale soldiers with massive trauma frequently survive – many continuing to fight until the engagement ends and help arrives.

When faced with severe injury the body protects the most important parts – circulatory system, pulmonary system and finally our ability to think and run our bodies – our brains. Physiologically our bodies will do whatever it takes to protect the “who we are” portion of our bodies, our brains while sucking up tremendous damage. We are not killed easily.

We also can intervene in this process by chemically altering both our biological and mental state through a broad assortment of medicines and narcotics. It’s certainly not unusual for a person to pop an aspirin or Advil or Tylenol to relieve a headache to enable them to think clearer and to reduce the pain. Those taking much stronger and many times illegal drugs can also substantially alter their response to physical damage. Ask any officer who has been attacked by an individual filled with PCP or some other narcotic whether that affected their attacker’s ability to continue their attack long after a normal person would have stopped.

Given then my preposition that humans are much more durable than we tend to see them as – how do we go about actually killing a person. Let’s evaluate it from a systems approach and talk about three primary systems that sustain life – the circulatory, pulmonary and nervous systems.


Our circulatory system is used to move nutrients and oxygen throughout our bodies to nourish our cells and then to remove the waste products from those same cells. How long can a properly fed and “cleaned” live? It depends on the cell. Blood red blood cells live around 4 months. White blood cells live around a year. Skin cells a couple weeks while some brain cells live our entire lifetime.

That said, if we damage the circulatory system enough that it cannot properly tend to our cells – we die.

The medium used by the circulatory system to do its business is our blood. A 150 pound man has about 8 pints of blood. Diminish the amount of blood in a person’s body and their ability to maintain life is reduced. Loose a third of your blood . . . your outlook becomes iffy. Loose half your blood supply, death is a near certainty. As in all things there are those that survive well beyond typical limits, but the one third is a tipping point of real trouble.

For a threat to stop being a threat strictly via blood loss – it takes minutes – not seconds, and during those seconds – provided there is no other damage to them other than produce bleeding, they remain a real threat.

Of course virtually all defensive shooting classes talk about shooting a threat “center mass” – the center of the chest. Shots aimed at this region seek to not only open wounds to deplete a threat’s blood supply but it also seeks to actually destroy the threat’s heart insuring that eventually the threat will stop – which can still be moments.

And those are the two ends of the spectrum – wounded until they bleed to death or their heart destroyed which can still grant the ability for moments of life for the threat to do real damage to you, your family or your friends.

Pulmonary System

Humans are oxygen breathers. Our lungs are the organs that take in air (and all its component parts), extract the oxygen from the air, extract the carbon dioxide taken from the cells by our blood, expels that carbon dioxide from our bodies and then re-oxygenates the blood to allow it to repeat the cycle of delivering that oxygen to our body’s cells. In standard conditions, our brain begins to die within four minutes without oxygen. Variables such as extreme cold can prolong our life without oxygen, but – in the end – if our lungs stop working properly, our death is certain.

This again is one of the reasons for “center mass” shots for a defensive shooter. Damage the lungs, prohibit them from delivering oxygen and eventually the threat dies. And, again – this can take minutes to happen providing a threat time to continue to do real damage to you, your family or your friends while you wait for their body’s cells to die.

Nervous System

Our nervous system provides the brain with the communication’s channels to control our bodies. And it controls virtually every facet of our body – from our heart beat to moving our pinky finger. Destroy the nervous system – regardless of the integrity of our circulatory system or our pulmonary system – and you inhibit the ability of a human’s body to move and respond.

Our primary “cable” that moves this data around is our spinal cord. It’s well protected inside a the flexible bone structure of our spine with multiple sharp angles that allow flexibility as well as the ability to deflect everything from clubs to bullets that might damage it.

Yet, sever the spine above the pelvis – and a threat’s legs stop. Sever a spine above the top of the chest and everything below the neck stops – including the heart and lungs. Destroy the Medulla Oblongata that sits between the spinal cord and the brain stem at the very top of the spine and you “pull the plug” on the entire body of the threat.

I’m taking a lot of words to say that we do not die easily. And as a defensive shooter, if you face a determined threat – one intent on doing you great physical harm or on killing you – you need to be just as determined to “stop the threat” and survive the engagement.

These are the physical elements of using a firearm to damage a threat. There is more involved to actually “stopping” the threat.

Threat of Force

It’s a wildly variable statistic but still thrown around frequently. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 Million times a year a firearm is used to deter a threat and no shots are fired. The range is broad enough to make it an essentially useless statistic, yet even the low end of the estimate – 500,000 times a year a defensive shooter displays a weapon and the threat changes their mind and leaves. For all parties concerned, this is probably the best outcome. The defensive shooter does not have to go through the emotional and financial issues of shooting or killing a person. And, the attacker is given one more opportunity to mend their ways.

Shoot them Center Mass

Depending on the level of training of the defensive shooter, this will be the desired target area should they be required to actually press the trigger. The reality is typically something else. In a 2008 NY Time article reviewing the NYPD entitled “11 Years of Police Gunfire” it was estimated that after reviewing 11 years of data of the NYPD the officers only had a “hit ratio” of 34%. One in three rounds found their mark. Obviously you can’t paint all police departments with the same brush but it does highlight that in the heat of a gun battle even trained shooters can have problems hitting “center mass”.

For the defensive shooter this, and similar studies, should help to emphasize that merely gaining a carry permit and putting on a defensive weapon is no guarantee that if attacked they will be able to even hit the attacker. It helps to drive home one of my primary points for my students – good instruction and personal training is simply a must.

In many instances – the statistical majority – the defensive use of a firearm happens at very close range. A defensive shooter’s ability to draw and engage the threat in such a way to do real damage is imperative. A common phrase used to describe such hits is to call them “combat effective hits”. These are typically “center mass” with the primary goal of damaging the circulatory and pulmonary systems of the body.

It is also at this point that the phrase “balance of speed and precision” comes into play. It does little good if the defensive shooter can empty a 17 round magazine in 3-4 seconds if only a few of those rounds even finds the threat. Add to that the fact that a defensive shooter “owns every round” – and you can begin to see that speed without precision has little value. You also have to define the word “precision”. On the training range does it mean “somewhere within the silhouette” or is it within the box that typically defines “center mass”.

On the other end of the spectrum is the defensive shooter that treats range time as marksmanship training striving to make a “single hole” in the center of the target. The disadvantage to this is that if they train to take their time to make the smallest possible group – that is how they will react to a mortal threat and they will make their final trip home in a ZipLoc.

Hence the idea of a “balance of speed and precision”. You need to find that blend of speed that allows you to draw and to place shots on the threat that will do real damage so that they will eventually stop attacking you. For my students I expect them to get 100% of their rounds within the silhouette and 80% of them within the center mass box. And I want them to go as fast as they can and still remain safe. This is my own personal boundary that I want them to push.

How many shots will it take? Somewhere between 1 and the contents of your defensive weapon and your backup magazine and speed loader because after that it may well be a moot point.

As a defensive shooter you are NOT a licensed killer, nor are you a murderer. You are an individual that may well be faced with a mortal threat that you must respond to or you will die. You must be able to do this quickly, you must focus your response and your rounds on your threat – and not to your threat’s “general area”. And you must be able to keep your head in the game enough so that you can determine when the threat has actually stopped being a “threat”. It takes instruction by good instructors . . . it takes focused training on the range . . . and it takes determination to win . . .

To “Stop the Threat” . . .

No one said it was easy.


  1. NO it's not, and agree, I stop when the threat stops.

  2. I loved this article. First of all, thank you, Bill for writing it. I always tell my student who come to our firearm training classes that leave anger and learn to control your emotions. There are the times when you have to take decisions in a split of a second. How, when, and where you have to pull that trigger is a crucial decision that you have to make in life.

    Best Regards,
    Firearms Safety Training MA

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