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Defensive accuracy: aim small, hit small

Defensive Shooting Fundamentals Level 1, at Pickens County Sportsman's Club. Photo used with permission by Phillip Bartolacci

In the USCCA class called Defensive Shooting Fundamentals Level 1, which I took not too long ago from Alpha Defense Academy chief instructor Phillip Bartolacci, much emphasis is placed on something called "defensive accuracy". Defensive accuracy is a term developed by Rob Pincus, chief instructor of I.C.E. Firearm Training Services, who designed the curriculum and wrote the textbook for that course. It means shooting accurately enough to stop the threat, as fast as we can safely maintain that accuracy.

Quickly firing an entire magazine of bullets into the bystanders and walls around the bad guy might be very fast and look great in action movies, but it doesn't help us defensively, and will surely land us in prison if we survive the fight. Slowly taking aim to perfectly place our shots while the bad guy rapidly advances upon us and manages to stab or beat us to death won't do us any good either. We have to find the balance of speed and carefulness that enables us to stay alive, i.e. defensive accuracy.

When I'm teaching beginners their shooting fundamentals for the first time, I purposely use a jumbo silhouette target with a large X bullseye placed directly over "center mass", or the middle abdomen. While "center mass" was taught for years as the preferred aiming point in defensive shooting, we now know that the best way to stop a threat--that is, the fastest way to cause massive trauma to the organs that are keeping our attacker upright and able to harm us--is by shooting them in the upper chest. Specifically, we want to hit them in the lungs, heart, and upper spine--all of which are found in the upper half of the torso.

On the silhouette target I use for this exercise, the rings extend from the "center mass" X up and out to this preferred upper target area. The scoring number over our preferred shooting location is an outer ring with a value of 7, so I tell my students to aim for the upper 7, and not just the 7 itself, but for the tiny space inside the angled lines of the 7. I give them the smallest possible target they can see and ask them to carefully place their shots there. (I learned this technique from Brian Hill, chief instructor at The Complete Combatant, and it remains one of the most effective shooting drills in my toolbox.) We start close (3-5 yards) and slowly work our way out to farther distances as they grow more comfortable with their grip, stance, and trigger control.

Without fail, my students will place several shots directly on or very near the 7, and then express frustration after placing several more shots in the general area around the 7. The shots are usually a little high or low, perhaps an inch or two off-center, but still in a relatively tight grouping that's easily covered by my palm. This is an actual target from a private lesson I taught a few weeks ago. It was her first time on a firing range:

This student genuinely believed she wasn't shooting well at her very first lesson.

After the student has fired about 10-15 rounds and I can begin to sense the frustration at their perceived lack of accuracy, I ask them to now envision this blue silhouette as a living, breathing threat. I ask them what organs they might have hit if this were a real human torso. Naturally, the students with medical training always have highly detailed answers. But even laymen can usually agree that someone would be having a very bad day after being shot several times in the area we see on the target above.

After the student admits that the threat was almost certainly stopped by their shots, I ask them if it would be better to place the same perfect shots, bullet holes through bullet holes, into a more harmless area without the bullets striking any organs or major blood vessels. Or was their shot grouping more likely to hit multiple important areas of the body? In other words, why are we shooting this person? Is it to create one big hole for scored points, or to stop them from killing us?

I then remind them that we're learning defensive shooting today, not perfect marksmanship. In fact, a slightly spread out group may actually be more effective at stopping the threat than a series of perfect bullseyes. And to further build their confidence, I ask them to visually move their group of shots down the target and onto the X. How would they have scored if they'd been aiming at "center mass"?

On the above target, if we moved the grouping down to the center, every single hit would have scored my student a 9 or 10. (In NRA scoring, a hit that breaks the line earns the higher possible score of the two rings.) But because they were aiming at such a small target (the 7), they believed their accuracy was much worse than it was. If I'd asked them to aim for that traditional bullseye X, they would have allowed themselves much more leeway and their shots would be all over the paper, perhaps with several even off the silhouette entirely. This psychological trick isn't new but it's very effective; Mel Gibson's character in The Patriot tells his son to "aim small, miss small" during an emergency rifle marksmanship lesson. But I don't want you to miss! So aim small, hit small.

And be quick enough about it that the bad guy doesn't stand a chance. That's defensive accuracy in a fight. Strive for perfection and never stop working, but don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Good enough means you stopped the threat before he stopped you, and that's what defensive shooting is all about.

Aim small, hit small, and stay safe out there!