The Force Science Research Center’s latest round of hit-probability experiments has produced these unnerving findings:
- Even “naive shooters,” untrained and unpracticed with handguns, are amazingly accurate in making head shots at close range, and tend to shoot for the head instinctively.
- Shots intended for an officer’s vested area often end up in unprotected vital parts of the body because of a suspect’s poor gun control.
- The speed with which an officer can be put behind the reactionary curve, even by assailants who have no expertise with firearms, is startling.
The study used volunteers from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s 2-year corrections and law enforcement program in Green Bay:
After a brief safety review with red guns, the participants were given functional weapons with live ammunition and, in a controlled sequence, were told to address targets especially designed by Avery for ultra precise measurement of shot placement.
Those with no experience were allowed to fire half a dozen “familiarization” rounds “to get the feel of sound and recoil” but were not told how to hold the gun, except to “grip it firmly” and to avoid touching the trigger until the muzzle was safely down range. Each shooter used his or her same assigned gun throughout the tests, either a Glock 17, a Springfield XD in 9mm (supplied by Springfield Armory), a Beretta 9mm, or a S&W J-frame short-barrel Special.
The shooters each started from a series of 4 positions, reflecting how offenders commonly have guns when confronted by LEOs:
- Hand on the gun, which was concealed at the rear waistband;
- Gun hidden at the front waistband, with a garment covering it;
- Gun in hand, hidden behind a leg;
- Gun held to a baseball hat which the subject was holding by the bill, simulating a hostage situation or an intended suicide with sudden homicidal capabilities.
Holsters were not used, consistent with the recent FBI study documenting that run-of-the-mill street punks rarely carry weapons holstered.
Each shooter presented the gun and fired from each of these starting positions at 9 different distances, ranging from 1 to 25 yards from the target. The controlled lighting was “dimmer than daylight, but not low-light,” Avery said. “They could see their targets clearly.”
The shooters were told that at the sound of a timer they should “shoot as fast as you can, as well as you can, trying to hit the target with every shot but not slowing down in an attempt to gain accuracy,” Avery said. “We wanted them to get the first round off in under 1 second and to complete 3 shots within 1.7 seconds. That’s similar to a real assailant bringing a gun out and firing as rapidly as he can.” They were not told what part of the target to try to hit, just “wherever you feel is best.”
Data from the tests are still undergoing a detailed computer analysis, but based on on-site observations and preliminary reviews, these are some of the highlights Avery and Lewinski consider significant:
POINT SHOOTING. An overwhelming majority of the test subjects used point shooting at all distances when firing rapidly, and almost all used 1-handed techniques at close ranges. At 5-7 yards and beyond, many shifted spontaneously to 2-hand stances, with an increase in hit probability noted.
Even though point shooting, the volunteers still tended to extend their arms fully and bring the gun up to eye level. “Rarely did they use a combat tuck,” Avery said. “Even at 1 yard, they tended to extend their arm to shoot.”
To Avery’s surprise, many initial rounds, especially when the gun was brought from behind the back, tended to go to the right of the target (from the shooter’s perspective). This contradicts conventional wisdom, he said, which holds that shots from a right-handed shooter often end up going to the left. If this apparent discrepancy is sustained in further testing, officers who are taught to move to their left in hopes of avoiding early rounds may, in fact, be stepping into a field of fire.
HEAD SHOTS. At close distances (1-3 yards), more than half the simulated offenders “shot at the head without being told to” and had a “very high hit probability” with at least 1 of their shots, Avery noted. “It was astounding how they could keep the pattern in the head.”
The chest (center mass) was the second most likely target.
Avery explained that people tend to shoot where their attention is directed. Unless they are trained otherwise, they are likely to look at the face, particularly in close-up encounters. “We communicate with each other nonverbally by watching facial gestures, and we look at each other’s eyes, especially at close distances.” Consequently, he speculated, the much-reported tendency of street assailants to target officers’ heads may be less a “deliberate, diabolical plot” and more related to natural instincts.
BRACKETING. Often a shooter missed a desired placement with the first round but was able to “bracket” subsequent rounds for successful hits “without slowing down,” Avery said. “They were able to coordinate their actions, process feedback on hits, and adjust their placement very rapidly, even with no previous training or practice.”
He conceded that due to research limitations this tendency may have been “a little artificial” during the experiments because hit placement was more easily detected on the paper targets than might be true with a clothed human being, especially in low-light conditions. However, even at distances where they could not see their hits, the bracketing tendency was noted.
SPEED. A strong majority of the shooters fired all 3 rounds within 1.5 seconds. That included reaction time in responding to the timer signal. Some were able to react and shoot all 3 shots within 1 second. A “very large majority” fired all 3 with about a quarter-second between shots. Some were longer, up to .35-.40.
An actual assailant who is deciding when to shoot without reacting to an auditory signal and who is likely bringing his gun out and up with his finger already on the trigger could be expected to get a first round off even faster than the volunteers, Avery said.
DISTANCE VARIABLES. At 5 to 7 yards, many of the shooters “directed fire at a bigger part of the body” than the head, Avery reported. But still, “a lot of shots hit in the head, neck, and upper chest.” He attributed this to “the guns climbing in recoil and the shooters not being able to control that at speed.” He said that “a significant number of rounds impacted above the level of a vest,” even at distances where luck became a strong factor in shot placement.
COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Shooters who missed the intended target altogether often produced “collateral hits on a side target as far as 4 feet away,” Avery observed. This has implications for officers who tend to cluster together. “They need separation to avoid getting hit by accident by shots from a barrage intended for another officer.”
MUZZLE BLAST. At 1 yard, “specks of unburned powder” from muzzle blast frequently “covered the whole head” of the target, Avery recalled. “Some targets were blown apart.” Without adequate eye protection, an officer risks being “flash-banged and flash-blinded, probably out to 3 yards,” even with near misses from a felon’s gun.
QUICK LEARNING. “Within a very short time, at least half the volunteers had a very good grasp” on the basic mechanics of shooting, Avery noted. “A lot of subconscious learning took place within the first 15 shots. For example, without being told, many learned how to set the wrist to control recoil. Some people just have a natural ability to pick up a gun and be able to control it. It was amazing how well many of these people could shoot with no training at all. Flat out amazing!”
“Natural aptitude” was most noticeable among “the more athletic types,” he said. “It was evident that weight training and higher-than-average grip strength give you a clear advantage in shooting, especially at distances beyond 3 yards. But even the smaller, weaker subjects for the most part were able to fire fast and accurately.”
He cited one small female who produced a gun from behind her leg and delivered 3 head shots from 3 yards in less than 1.5 seconds. “And she had never held a gun before,” Avery said.
“These findings,” Lewinski said, “are certain to have significant impact on officer-survival training.”