Why Shoot Center Mass?

“Why are we trained to shoot center mass. Why not shoot someone in the arm or in the leg?”  That was the question posed to me by my friend, Brian, while we were attending the police academy together.

When I attended the Dallas Police Academy I had already served as a full-time police Special Reaction Team (SRT) team leader at a U.S. military installation. I had attended multiple civilian police and Department of Defense special operations tactical schools, including an Advanced SWAT course with the famed Los Angeles Police Department. So you can imagine my surprise when asked why we were being training to shoot center mass.

I’ve often wondered about this conversation when thinking of my friend. A few years following that conversation there in the police academy, he was gunned down in the line of duty—murdered.

Here’s how the conversation went, as best as I can recall.

During a break, in between police academy classroom lectures, he approached me directly and asked, “Why are we trained to shoot center mass. Why not shoot someone in the arm or in the leg?”

Since my friend had a good sense of humor, I laughed out loud at his comical inquiry. That is, until I realized he was deadly serious, at which point I attempted to explain the principle of center mass torso shooting to my coworker and friend.

“There are multiple reasons to shoot center mass,” I began, trying to persuade and educate my now late friend.

“No one wants to take a life, but you’ve got to understand that if you shoot someone, it does not mean he or she will die.  In fact, hospitals are constantly filled with patients who’ve been shot…especially the gang-bangers and drug dealers,” I added for colorful affect.

I explained further that I had been trained by an ER doctor who had treated multiple patients with multiple gun shot wounds.  The doctor gave several examples: for instance, a conscious and alert man with eight .45 ACP rounds in his chest, and a man with three .38 Special rounds in his forehead.  Neither man was unconscious.  In fact, the latter was still sitting upright and talking as if nothing happened. The rounds did not even penetrate his skull.

“Clearly, not everyone who gets shot dies.”

This single understanding offers great comfort, especially for the civilized person not intent on taking a life. I didn’t ask my friend whether or not he treated many gun shot wounds while working as an EMT, and he didn’t offer an explanation.

The civilized person hesitates to take the life of any human being. My friend in the police academy, who had formerly served in an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) capacity on board an ambulance—saving lives—was a decent, honorable, moral and civil man. He realized what I was telling him about hospitals and gun shot wounds, but I think he needed to hear it from another perspective, perhaps. He was now in the business of, perhaps, taking a life to save a life, if things came to that.  I hoped my words helped him.

No, he didn’t want to kill anyone if he didn’t have to. That perspective and ethos was the right one to have and I revered him for it.  However, it seemed to me Hollywood had given him some false perceptions of reality. Death is not always the result when shooting someone, even though that’s quite possible. Actually, Hollywood too often shows the hero being wounded in the upper arm or shoulder. Pshaw!

Anyway, I explained to my inexperienced friend, “If an attacker was holding a gun, and you shot him in the leg, he would still be able to move his arms just fine and shoot back at you. Do you agree?” He did, so I continued, “By the same token, by shooting a threat in the arm, he could still return fire…even if he had to switch hands to shoot.  So you see, shooting someone in the arm or leg would clearly not stop the threat.” Reading my friend’s facial expressions and seeing that he concurred, I continued on, adding another point.

“Additionally, you (meaning any of us) might be a perfect shot during practice or target shooting, but during the extraordinary stress of lethal gun fight, who knows how well you’d be able to hit a small target like an arm or a leg, especially if the guy’s moving.  Shooting center mass offers a big target. The upper torso also contains the lungs, heart, spine—things that if mutilated, severed or destroyed would help stop someone intent on killing you.”

“There’s another point,” I continued.  “When you shoot someone it’s not going to be like it is in the movies. There’s not going to be a giant blood pack on an explosive Hollywood squib. Blood isn’t going to splatter everywhere.  In fact, there might not be any blood at all. You might not even know if you hit him.”

In my youth I had met a few Hollywood stuntmen and performed a few stunts for fun, like diving head first off of tall buildings, so I knew about Hollywood tricks.  There’s an invisible pulley system that forcefully pulls stuntmen backwards after they get “shot.”

I clarified, “For sure, you won’t see a guy catapulting backwards after you shoot him. That would defy the law of physics. A small handgun round won’t do that. That is simply impossible.”

I summed up my argument as best I could: “Not everyone you shoot will die. Get that out of your mind. It will be extremely difficult to shoot accurately under stress, under low-light conditions or on the move, whether you’re moving or the suspect is.  Shoot at the largest target, the chest, center mass.  Shoot to stop the threat—and keep shooting until the threat stops.”

Finally, I can’t help but to recall that conversation when I think of my friend, my dear friend whom I think about so often.  He was out of the police academy for four years when he was shot and killed.  Ambushed from the side, he was shot in the upper torso, under the arm. The round lodged in his chest.  His partner reported that he gargled on his blood and then he was gone. Yes, not everyone who gets shot center mass dies, but unfortunately some do. Unfortunately.

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