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Best Shot Placement for Self Defense

A handgun round isn't going to do much to halt an attack if it's not hitting something vital. The choice of what to target depends on a number of factors.

Best Shot Placement for Self Defense

Where you shoot the bad guy matters more than caliber.

When it comes to the defensive use of a handgun, caliber is far less important than most people think. Sure, all things being equal, a .45 ACP has a better chance of stopping an assailant than a .32 ACP, but a hit with a .32 beats a miss with the .45 any day of the week.

When your life is on the line, not only is it important to hit your target, it’s important to hit him well enough to abruptly halt his deadly behavior. Unless the rounds you fire strike vital targets, such as the thoracic cavity or the eye/nose region, they are unlikely to result in a rapid stoppage—regardless of caliber.

When I became a police officer in the late 1990s, we were taught to shoot center of mass—essentially the abdomen or slightly higher. However, in recent years, the term “upper center mass” has gained steam. The latter suggests shooters target higher on an attacker’s torso.

The chest or thoracic cavity houses such vital organs as the heart and lungs. Shooting these organs can dramatically diminish the attacker’s breathing and circulation, essentially taking him out of the fight. The thoracic cavity presents a rather large target, and it doesn’t necessarily require prolonged aiming to hit.

The head is a smaller, more mobile target and requires more precise aiming and is therefore slower to engage, but before dismissing the head as a viable target, consider that a shot to certain portions of the head can bring an instantaneous end to a deadly attack. This is why it’s the preferred target of police snipers engaging a hostage taker.

No single target is the best option in every situation. One popular shooting drill, the Failure Drill, calls for the shooter to deliver two shots to the torso followed by a single shot to the head. The premise of the drill is that the two initial rounds failed to stop the threat due to body armor, drug influence or any number of factors, so the third round is directed at the head in hopes of immediately incapacitating the attacker.

The Failure Drill reinforces that the size of the thoracic cavity makes it an ideal primary target. From typical defensive shooting distances of between five and 15 yards, the thoracic cavity can be shot with relative speed, and the area is rather forgiving when it comes to accuracy.

That forgiveness goes only so far, though. In a real-life situation you are accountable for every round you fire, and a miss not only fails to neutralize the attacker, it potentially endangers innocent people.

Although hitting the thoracic cavity shouldn’t be expected to turn off the attacker like a light switch the way a properly placed head shot can, shots here are likely to have a telling effect on the outcome of the encounter. Even if the attacker is wearing body armor or no vital organs are hit, bullet strikes to the chest should halt the attack—at least momentarily. This gives you the opportunity to slow down and, if the situation warrants, take careful aim and deliver a head shot.

When targeting the head, focus on the eyes and nose. Rounds impacting this area will have a tremendous effect on the assailant, whereas rounds that hit elsewhere may be deflected by the skull or pass through an area that doesn’t immediately produce an incapacitating wound.

To visualize the proper target area, consider a “T” with the horizontal line covering the eyes and the vertical line extending from the eyes to the nose. Many defense targets have this area highlighted.

And then there’s the pelvic girdle, a ring-like bone structure located just below the waistline. Rounds striking this area are rumored to result in an inability to bear weight and therefore a mobility kill. Maybe.


A trauma surgeon who has treated hundreds of gunshot victims told me a bullet merely passing through the pelvic girdle can’t be expected to drop an assailant. For a mobility kill, the round would have to break the girdle, and handgun rounds aren’t as likely to break this structure the way a rifle round would.

Distance plays a significant factor in targeting. At a distance of five yards or so, targeting the head makes a lot of sense because that is likely to cause the most damage to the attacker. As the distance increases, so does the difficulty of making a head shot. Being too close can make a head shot problematic as well. Within arm’s reach, holding the gun up to eye level and extending it toward the attacker could leave you vulnerable to being disarmed.

When you’re chest to chest with an attacker, drawing your gun to a retention shooting position, where it’s indexed to your pectoral muscle with the muzzle oriented downward toward the pelvic girdle, makes sense because it minimizes the chance of being disarmed or having your off hand in front of the muzzle while fighting off the attacker.

Next time you’re at the range, don’t just mindlessly plink away at the X-ring. Visualize the need to target various anatomical targets and put yourself on the shot timer to see how long it takes to hit the different targets from various distances. As a defensive handgunner, you can’t afford to be one-dimensional.

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