I’m not sure where the term “aim for the center of mass” came from in the world of defensive shooting. It had already been in common use for a long time when I came along, and I’m pretty old. But however ancient the advice is, there are those of us who believe it is obsolete.

It’s generally understood that a “center of mass” (COM) hit means that you’ve landed a bullet somewhere in the trunk or torso of the humanoid threat. But where exactly is that center? And of what particular “mass?”

If you (or the person you’re teaching) should perceive center of mass to be the center of the human body standing vertically, well, we’re probably looking at a “gut shot.” Historically, these tend to be highly lethal in the long term, but death is often delayed for many days. The purpose of firing is not to kill a man with a slow-acting bullet wound — it is to make that person stop his violent attack immediately, irrespective of whether or not he dies subsequently from the injuries you inflict upon him.

Perhaps we can say, “Uh, I didn’t mean center of mass on the whole body! I meant center of torso mass! Yeah, that’s it!” Well, even though much of the lower torso extends below the beltline, a lot of people interpret “torso mass” to mean collarbone to navel. This puts the center in the upper abdomen, but still in the abdomen. The bullet may well be lethal, but not necessarily instantly so.

Talk to experts in Tactical Anatomy, such as Dr. Jim Williams, who wrote the highly acclaimed book of that title. Dr. Williams is a gunshot wound survivor himself, and as an emergency room physician, he has treated a great many gunshot wounds in others. Cross-trained in combat shooting and the use of lethal force as a sworn police officer and police surgeon, Williams also understands what it takes to deliver “surgical accuracy” from a handgun in a fast-breaking life-or-death situation where the assailant has to be stopped immediately to keep him from crippling or killing the shooter or some other innocent person. Williams is a competitive shooter who has won state championship titles shooting the service type handgun.

Williams, and other experts with his level of medical knowledge, recommend a point of aim that centers on the heart. Basically, you are aiming at the point where you would apply pressure if performing CPR. From a square-on frontal angle, this can create a wound track that damages both heart and thoracic spine, an injury likely to result in rapid incapacitation. A bullet that’s misplaced a bit high can still hit aorta or thoracic spine. A few inches off to either side still at least gets a lung hit and may cut a pulmonary artery, and low left or right can produce massive hemorrhage in liver or spleen. Low center may put the bullet through the diaphragm, robbing the opponent of his ability to breath, and may reach mid-spine to drop him in his tracks.

The cardiac point of aim therefore gives the greatest likelihood of a stopping hit, given the fact that we know marksmanship degrades under stress for several reasons. However, we all have to remember that while instant one-shot stops sometimes occur from heart shots, sometimes they don’t.

The heart shot “works” by stopping the supply of oxygenated blood to the brain, resulting in unconsciousness. However, if the brain is fully oxygenated, even if the bullet has completely shut down cardiac function, the individual can “stay up and running,” performing conscious physical action, for fourteen or fifteen seconds or so. And, there is no guarantee that a gunshot wound to the heart will result in complete cessation of heartbeat.

Trauma doctors will tell you that there are a lot of former patients walking around who have survived being shot in the heart. Many of these wounds involved small caliber bullets, but there are cases where the round was something like 9mm ball or .38 Special. I’ve not personally run across a case of a human being surviving a .45 caliber gunshot wound through the heart, but I do know of one with a .357 Mag. She – yes, she! – responded by shooting her attacker twice through the chest with her 9mm Beretta. He turned to run, still pointing the gun dangerously, and she shot him two more times, killing him. She survived to become a role model instructor. Stacy Lim, LAPD, taught us all some lasting lessons that night.

Pelvic Shot

The pelvis is the cross-section of skeletal support. You can shoot a guy in the leg and he may still stay up, but if your bullet smashes the pelvic girdle – the big ring of bone that encompasses our hips – the body can no longer stay upright or ambulate, and the man you’ve shot will probably collapse within the next step he attempts to take. If you doubt that, ask any trauma surgeon or orthopedic surgeon.

In a famous gunfight in Baton Rouge, Louisiana many years ago, a violent felon attacked two police officers and managed to gain control of one cop’s service revolver. He shot her in the heart, and she fell, dying – the first female police officer to be murdered in the line of duty in the state of Louisiana. Her male partner entered an epic struggle with the cop-killer, shooting him nine times with .38 Special bullets. Yes, he had to reload during the fight, and was seriously injured himself. An award winning competitive police combat shooter, he hit the cop-killer with every shot he fired, most of them center-mass. One of his bullets, aimed intentionally at the killer’s head, opened up his skull and exposed brain matter…and the man got up from the floor and kept fighting.

At the end, the embattled cop, Officer Steve Chaney, fired his tenth shot into the man’s pelvis, and the manic cop-killer dropped like the proverbial rock. Unable to regain his feet, he bled out and died on a carpet saturated with his life’s blood. Chaney would say later that the shot to the “hip-bone” was the only one that kept the murderer down…and ended the terrible death battle.

History shows that the pelvic shot tends to immobilize the recipient of the wound, so long as a serious fracture occurs in the pelvic girdle. That area of the body also encompasses some major blood vessels and “nerve centers.” Men hit with bullets from powerful guns in this area of the body tend to fall to the ground, often “jack-knifing” – doubling over – as they go down. Survivors of these wounds often describe excruciating, debilitating pain, and inability to stand after sustaining the injury.

In the 1960s, NYPD created the famed Stakeout Squad, a group of 30-some hand-picked marksmen who were placed in robbery-prone places of business, or locations where detectives had gotten tips that a robbery was going to go down. The duty handgun round at that time was the 158-grain solid (non-expanding) .38 Special bullet at standard pressure, which meant relatively low velocity. The Stakeout people went to famed pathologist Vincent DiMaio, Sr., then the chief medical examiner for the city of New York. (His son, Vincent DiMaio, Jr., would later become the chief ME of Bexar County, Texas, and write the authoritative forensic text titled “Gunshot Wounds.”) Dr. DiMaio, Sr. told the squad that their best chance of dropping a man in his tracks, if they could not guarantee the difficult task of a deep brain shot, was to shoot him in the pelvis.

The Stakeout cops took him seriously. Of the three Stakeout Squad members who amassed the largest number of shootings in the controversial history of the unit, one shot so many men in the pelvis that he earned the nickname “The Proctologist,” because as one member of the squad put it, “Everybody he shot in the ass hit the ground.”

Obviously, that officer was not aiming for the gluteus maximus, the muscle structure of the buttocks where children were traditionally spanked because it would hurt but wouldn’t injure; he was aiming for the pelvic girdle, which also encompassed the coccyx, the “tailbone” of the spine.

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  • daniel

    For the last several days, I have contemplated the best shot placement for quick knock down of an assailant. I am talking about using a 9mm with Lehigh Max Expansion 105gr cartridges, in a Glock 19 or a Sig P938, which penetrate deep and expand to over 3/4″. Or a Glock 42 380 with a 3″ barrel and using Buffalo Bore 100gr +P Flat Nose cartridges. I believe a first shot or two to the pelvic area, just below the navel, and to either side toward the hip joints, would be the best shots to make first. If the attacker fell to the ground, all is well, and even if he is still able to move around, so are you, and if he is trying to shoot at you, you can finish him off much easier with him on the ground. And if he is on the ground and finished fighting, all is well. If he dies from his wounds, ok, if not, that’s ok too. You have kept him from killing you. If those first shots don’t put him down, you can always move on up to his chest and head areas. That’s just the way I see it, and also, if you are holding him at gunpoint, but don’t have to shoot just then, aiming down toward his pelvis leaves it so you can see his hands, where if you are aiming at his chest or head, your own weapon and hands are blocking the view of his hands. Also, pointing your weapon at his pelvis will have a very intimidating effect on him. I would think getting shot in that area would be very painful and would put most, if not any, man on the ground.

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