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A Critical Look at Failure Drills: Part I

Editor’s note: there seems to be an undue amount of focus on the featured image here instead of the actual article contents. To be clear, it is a picture of the same target. One view (to your left) is the target as engaged from the front. The other view (to your right) is the target as seen from behind in order to view how that shot group would have place with respect to the location of the heart. My apologies for not clarifying this.  Please do not allow that to overshadow the value of the article contents when it comes to intelligent debate. David Reeder

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“Failure Drill”, “Mozambique”, “Two to the Chest – One to the Head”; the chosen terminology may differ. What we are talking about is a drill and training/practice method intended to incapacitate a threat that does not immediately respond to gunfire.  The premise for this drill is that if two rounds are delivered to the thoracic cavity and do not result in incapacitation, an additional round is fired to the cranial vault (head).  This particular drill and variations of it have been common in use of force training for decades, especially in handgun training and close quarters shooting.  The question is this; does this drill train the shooter for the best and fastest method of incapacitation?

Before we take a critical look at the drill and explore its physiological impact, let’s look at what happens when you engage a threat with accurate gunfire.

With ballistic trauma to the body, one of three things will occur:

Immediate Reaction

This is the most ideal circumstance.  Accurate gunfire causes instant central nervous system (CNS) failure or psychological incapacitation.  Of the two, only CNS failure can be reliably predicted based on round placement.  An immediate incapacitation with trauma to any region outside of the cranial vault or upper cervical spine is highly unlikely.

Delayed Reaction

With ballistic trauma delivered to the upper torso or other vital regions of the body, the threat is incapacitated after a passage of time between trauma and CNS failure due to blood loss.  This could occur, for instance, with either intentional or incidental strike to an artery. The length of time it takes for the threat to succumb to incapacitation cannot be predicted without specific knowledge of the organs or arteries suffered ballistic trauma, and even then it is not an exact science.

No Reaction

Gunfire on the threat has no visible effect. This could be due to strikes to non-critical parts of the body, insufficient blood loss needed to induce CNS failure, the threat is wearing body armor, under the influence of drugs or any combination thereof.

It should go without saying that of the three possible results, an immediate reaction to gunfire is preferred.  The only reliable means to cause an immediate reaction (i.e. instant CNS failure) is destructive trauma to the head.  Specifically, a penetrating strike to the midbrain/pons/medulla oblongata that will result in flaccid paralysis (instant and total body relaxation, cessation of life functions).  Outside of this area, trauma to the other regions of the brain has a high chance of instant incapacitation but will not as reliably do so, relatively speaking.

Unfortunately, this region of the head is a small target when compared to the rest of the body. This is one reason why the predominant area of focus for firearms training is the thoracic cavity, even at close ranges. We are trained to aim for the torso by default at any range. This is partly because trainers are often looking at the law of averages when it comes to confronting a threat. It is also because the hit:miss percentages are stacked more in the “miss” column in actual gunfights when we look at our primary source of shooting data (law enforcement).

With “torso default targeting”, we are relying on a situation of diminishing returns — either a delayed reaction to gunfire or no reaction to gunfire.  In response to a delayed or nonexistent reaction, we revert to generic failure drill training as instructed and target the head to produce an immediate incapacitation (at least at close ranges).

When you think about it like that, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense “tactically” speaking.

A Critical Look at Failure Drills: Part I photo

I have been accused of teaching “fancy” shooting  for self-defense. Yes, that specific word was used to describe my preference for close quarters headshots, as if the desired effect of instant incapacitation is some kind of optional bonus or trick shot. Because of this, I will be as clear as possible with my reasoning and justification.  I present the following hypothetical scenario based on the premise of the failure drill.

A homeowner, inside the home, is confronted with a lethal threat armed with a handgun.  The homeowner is likewise armed.  The homeowner delivers two rounds “center mass” of the thoracic cavity as fast as possible.  There is no immediate result so the homeowner shifts his point of aim up for a cranial vault shot.  The intruder is incapacitated with a successful strike to the head, but not before firing a round of his own.  Is this a feasible scenario within the realm or reasoning?  If you can agree that its possible, lets now look at what happened.

The homeowner in our hypothetical scenario orients and observes the threat, making a decision based on training to shoot “center mass.”  Two reflexive rounds are fired, producing no immediate result.  The homeowner orients and observes the failure to incapacitate, makes a conscious decision to target the head (though this could be a conditioned/drilled response), shifts his point of aim and fires an additional round.  The third round results in incapacitation, though not before the intruder is able to orient on the homeowner, observe the homeowner’s weapon, make a decision to use his handgun and act on that decision.  These events would happen in an incredibly small amount of time.

The question this situation raises is; why would it be better to target the upper torso first if the close distance allows for a hit to the cranial vault?

In part two of this article we’ll address that question as well as the various controversies and perception issues surrounding the intentional targeting of the head.