When It Needs to Be One and Done: Aiming for the T-Zone in Hostage Situations (Video)

Although the phrase one shot, one kill has become something of a cliché amongst shooters, there are many deadly scenarios—take for instance the classic hostage rescue scenario—when one powerful shot to the melon is needed to cause the near instantaneous death of the attacker.  Making sure that this shot is effective takes precise shot placement and, in the case of the hostage taker, most law enforcement officers and military operators use the T-zone to make sure when they shoot, it will be once and done.

Where is the T-zone?


To determine where the T-zone is on an opponent, trace a capital letter “T” on the person from the one eye to the other eye and then from in-between the eyes down to the tip of the nose. Shooting a hostage taker in this area—around the eyes, the nose and the sinus cavity—is more likely to have a positive result, cutting through bone, cartilage and soft tissue, than a shot against the much harder forehead.

If you’re behind the attacker (realize this is a hostage scenario where someone’s life is in immediate jeopardy), try to imagine the same pattern on the back of their head—a “T” drawn across the eyes and down to the nose.  You can also use the base of the occipital lobe, the area just above where the spine connects to the skull, as your target area.  If you find yourself to the hostage taker’s side, use the center of the ear as a reference. The center of the ear lines up horizontally with the eyes and the brainstem.  All of those areas are meant to get the medulla.

Criminals Minds = Hard Heads

The human skull’s primary function is to protect the brain and the bone that corresponds with a person’s forehead, the frontal bone, with an average thickness of 6.5 mm for Caucasian men (and 7.5 mm for women) can actually present a formidable barrier for a shooter, especially when you consider bone density is around 1900 kg/m3 and the skull is a contoured, round surface full of fissures and curves that can deflect the path of the projectile.  Indeed, there have been several accounts of people getting shot directly in the head and surviving and I have personally seen it happen a couple of times.

Skull thickness.

Once, I watched as a man continue to walk around for several minutes, dazed though very much functional, after being shot in the head with a handgun.  He responded to my commands and I actually had to sit him down until emergency services could treat him.

Another time, a SWAT officer and friend of mine justifiably shot a man with a .223 caliber bullet to the forehead. The shot knocked the armed assailant to the ground and he laid there unconscious for seconds before we realized the round did not penetrate the skull.  Amazingly, the bullet made its way underneath the guy’s skin, its trajectory was deflected by the thick, rounded skull and it traveled all the way around the skull before the round exited out the back of his head.

An ER doc told me once he worked on a fully conscious man who had taken three .38 special rounds to the forehead.  Food for thought.

A Softer Target

What’s the solution?  Well, be sure that caliber matters, but shot placement is much more important and when you think about your target area, realize you are in fact aiming for the brainstem rather than the brain and even more specifically, the medulla oblongata.

medulla oblongata.

The medulla oblongata is the lower base of the brainstem.  Its chief responsibilities are involuntary functions like breathing and regulating your heart rate and blood pressure, but it also connects the higher levels of the brain—like the frontal lobe, which is protected by the skull—to the spinal cord and consequently the rest of the body.  Severing or destroying the medulla causes something known as flaccid paralysis—a rapid and complete loss of muscle strength.  It’s the closest thing to causing an instant death by firepower (being vaporized by a Daisy Cutter aside) because when the medulla is obliterated, signals cannot be carried from the brain to, say, the trigger finger of a dangerous hostage taker.

Because of this immediate neutralization of the threat, hostage situation require headshots to ensure the safety of the hostage.

Training for and Taking the Shot

Police marksman must adopt a very different philosophy than the average military sniper. Police SWAT team snipers usually take shots, when necessary, from 75 – 100 yards. Military snipers usually shoot in excess of 1,000 yards and often do so with upgraded .50 cal Barrett sniper systems, a weapon well out of the annual budget of constraints most LEO departments.

Police sniper.

Also, military snipers cannot afford to miss but police snipers really cannot afford to miss; missing a shot, or failing to kill the assailant in a hostage situation will mean someone dies. Police marksman also need to be more aware of their target, backstop and beyond—the difference between fighting in a warzone and fighting on Maple Street.

So how do train for this?  The best way is to always aim for the T-zone when you train.  For example, if you’re doing a Mozambique drill (two to the body and one to the face), the ideal spot to aim for when you go for your head shot is the T-zone or at the very least in the eye.  There is an old shooting axiom—aim small, miss small—and the more specific your target becomes, the tighter you’ll find you can control your weapon downrange.  Shooting for the eye or the T-zone rather than the just head is one way to do this.

You should practice hitting the T-zone with both pistols and rifles. In terms of actual hostage situations though, one shot with a Remington 700 in .308 or .300 Win Mag does the trick and is my pick for the best hostage mitigation gun out there. That configuration is the civilian version of the military M24 sniper rifle and is essentially the same rig the majority of police snipers use in this country.

Until next time, continue to hone your skills and keep adding to your tactical toolbox.

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