A Critical Look at Failure Drills: Part II
In Part I of this article I posited that default torso targeting, i.e. shooting for the thoracic cavity instead of directly for the cranial vault, was (in some circumstances) not the best tactical decision to make when employing deadly force to stop a threat. By shooting first for the torso (“two to the body”) and then for the cranium (“one to the head”), we are forced to accept a delayed reaction to gunfire at best. The “Mozambique” or “Failure Drill” so often taught is predicated on engaging center mass first and subsequently the head (a smaller target) if the initial engagement fails to stop the threat.
This, as you might expect, has created quite a discussion. Today in Part II I’ll finish my argument and also address the controversies and perception issue surrounding the intentional targeting of the head. Remember, in today’s litigious society, even a tactically correct decision made under justified deadly force conditions can become suspect when relayed to a jury; “Ladies and gentlemen, he intentionally aimed for and shot the man in the head. He executed him.”
There are varying degrees of controversy attached to intentionally targeting the head. Most come from those who do not carry a weapon by choice or profession (and who should probably not call audible on topics they know little about). Of course these same intellectuals and mouth breathers can and will sit in juries, are often promoted to positions of supervision and even teach firearms. You must be prepared for this if you are put in the unenviable position of killing someone in the defense of yourself or another.
Because of this perception bias and the law of averages, “center mass” shots remain the default target even at close ranges. This is reinforced by training on two-dimensional targets with little instruction regarding the actual physiology of the target, i.e. the human body. This is exacerbated by supplying convenient points of aim on these 2-D targets via scoring lines or “X” rings. The NRA’s B-27 silhouette has been in use for longer than many readers have been alive, and the “X” ring thereon is defined as “center mass.” Unfortunately if you were to superimpose the location of the heart on that target, to scale and in its approximate anatomical location on an adult, the “X” ring is too low.
2-D targets have gotten better. We see more and more use of Bowling Pin targets, vital area targets and 2-D targets that show specific critical anatomy. However we still see little instruction about that anatomy and how it responds to gunfire. We see little innovation in the arena of firearms training to correct this, as if there was some taboo against teaching someone how best to incapacitate a threat via knowledge of anatomy. If we entrust the citizen and the law enforcement officer with the right to exercise reasonable lethal force, shouldn’t we also expect them to be good at it?
The head shot remains the absolute best and most reliable method to incapacitate a threat, yet the Failure Drill teaches us to go for “center mass” first. This wastes valuable time in the typically vain hope that strikes to the thoracic cavity will instantly (reliably) stop the threat. Even with direct ballistic trauma delivered directly to the heart or the total severing of an artery like the aorta, a threat can continue to fight for 15 seconds or more.
So just to be clear, what is our argument for training and practicing the Failure Drill?
The popular explanation as many have heard or been taught is that the torso is a larger target area that provides a greater margin of error; it’s easier to hit under stress. I cannot argue hat logic for the most part. However, what does one gain by delivering rounds to a larger target area and then, upon not getting the desired result, transitioning to a smaller target area, under increased stress, to affect the desired result?
Consider the fact that in this circumstance the shooter is close enough, by their own skill estimation, to hit the head accurately with the follow-up shot. Why wouldn’t they have targeted the head in the first place? Distance equals time. Distance is the reactionary gap. The less distance between us and the threat means the less time we have to perceive the situation, formulate a decision and act on that decision.
This isn’t “fancy” shooting. We must stop equating headshots on paper to headshots in real-life. They are not the same thing. Of course hits to the head will be more difficult to achieve under stress, particularly on a target that can move in an unpredictable direction at any time. This is why I will say now that I am not advocating headshots first in any and all situations, only those that the shooter is confident of delivering — and preferably more than once.
If you have been training for Failure Drills, my advice is to alter your primary point of aim to the head at the same distances as you are already utilizing those Failure Drills. Practice this skill as you should any other. Start with a slow and methodical pace and work up to speed. Vary your round count often, not just for the head but for the whole body. Train with 3-D targets as much as you can and above all else, think critically about any drill. Consider whether that that drill translates to real life with regard to realism. Consider if that drill will produce the best possible chance for incapacitation.
If you can hit the head on your third round with a Failure Drill, you should be hitting it with all three. Train Accordingly.
Afterword: I finished this article and thought on it for a few days before sending it off to David [RECOILweb editor David Reeder] for his perusal. I hoped something else would come to me and it did.
Let me be clear and to avoid assumptions. I practice and teach the head as a primary point of aim within 5 yards. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations Law Enforcement Officer Killed and Assaulted annual report, of the 500 officers killed with firearms between 2002 and 2011, 235 were killed within 0-5 feet, 97 within 6-10 feet and 72 within 11-20 feet. Because no reliable data for citizen engagement distances exists, we must defer to this data or use no data at all for shooting distances. 5 yards is more than a reasonable distance for targeting the head under stress. If an individual is comfortable targeting the head from a distance greater than 5 yards, they should do so provided that their comfort comes from realistic training.
Train and prepare for the worst case accordingly.