Triggernometry: The "Center Mass" Myth and Ending a Gunfight

Triggernometry: The "Center Mass" Myth and Ending a Gunfight

This is a discussion on Triggernometry: The "Center Mass" Myth and Ending a Gunfight within the Defensive Carry & Tactical Training forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; From the new GUNS AMERICA magazine GunsAmerica Magazine By Jim Higginbotham Surviving a gunfight isn't what you think it is. Don’t let conventional wisdom get ...

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    Triggernometry: The "Center Mass" Myth and Ending a Gunfight

    From the new GUNS AMERICA magazine
    GunsAmerica Magazine

    By Jim Higginbotham

    Surviving a gunfight isn't what you think it is. Don’t let conventional wisdom get you killed. A well place round to "center mass" in your attacker may not take him out of the fight. Lots of people stay in the fight after "center mass" hits, and some even win it. If you expect to win your gunfight, you have to make sure that you have effectively ended the threat of your attacker. One, two or even several well placed "center mass" shots may not do what you think it will, and learning to recognize this before you gunfight may save your life.

    There is a self styled self defense “expert” under every rock, and perhaps two behind every bush, these days. If you have a pet theory on what might work on the street then you can probably find a champion for that idea who actually charges people to teach them that skill. But few of the experts out there have ever been in gunfights, and even fewer have studied real gunfights to see how things really work out when the bullets really fly for blood.

    There are more misconceptions out there than I can cover in one article but the one that probably gets to me the most, even over all the caliber wars that rage interminably in the print and cyber media, is the nearly universal acceptance that shooting a miscreant “center mass” with ________(fill in your favorite make, model and caliber) shooting _________ (fill in your favorite ammunition) hyper speed truck killer is practically guaranteed to get the job done.

    Having studied in this field from a number of decades, I have run into plenty of cases where bullets did not do what folks would have assumed. And I have now collected enough of these that I think that rather than being anomalies, they are actually closer to the norm. Center mass hits in a gunfight do not in most cases end the fight. Erroneous assumptions can get you killed!

    There is a well known video in training circles in which a Highway Patrol officer shoots an armed subject 5 times “center mass” (this is not my assessment but the statement of his immediate supervisors which are interviewed on the full version of the hour long tape) with his 4” .357 Magnum revolver firing hollow point ammunition. All 5 hits failed to do the job and the subject was able to fire one round which struck the officer in the armpit. That round wondered around in the chest cavity and found his heart. The officer unfortunately died at the scene and his attacker is alive today.

    In a class I conduct under the title "Fire For Effect" I start out by showing a video of standoff in which a hostage taker is fired on by police with .223 rifles and .40 caliber handguns. Throughout the whole disturbing sequence, which lasts about 10 seconds, the bad guy is hit multiple times in the torso with both rifle and pistol rounds. You can see him place his non-firing hand to his chest, clearly a lung is hit. However he is able to shoot his hostage 3 times, not rapidly. The hostage, a trim female, is active throughout the scene but later died from her wounds. In this case both the attacker and the victim had “center mass” hits that had no immediate effect.

    I have accumulated confirmed incidents in which people have been shot “center mass” up to 55 times with 9mm JHP ammunition (the subject was hit 106 times, but 55 of those hits were ruled by the coroner to be each lethal in and of themselves) before he went down. During training at the FBI Academy we were told of a case in which agents shot a bank robber 65 times with 9mm, .223 and 00 buckshot – he survived! These are not rare cases. The happen quite often.

    If a gunfight ever comes your way, your attacker may fall to a hit to the liver and he may not. He may fall to two or three hits to the kidneys, intestines or spleen, but he may not. He will certainly be in bad health. He likely will not survive, but what he does for the next several seconds to a few minutes is not guaranteed because you hit him "center mass."

    Heart and lung hits don't statistically fare much better. I have three students and three other acquaintances who were all shot in a lung at the outset of gunfights. The students came to me after their fights to learn how to keep from getting shot again. Last time I checked all of those people were still alive and the people who shot them are still dead. Every one of them was able to respond effectively after being shot “center mass”, one might even say they were shot in the “A-zone”. And they were shot with .38 Special (three of them), 9mm, .357 Magnum and 8mm Mauser, so it's not all about caliber. One of those was a Chicom 12.7 mm round! He lived next door to me for many years.

    So, what’s a person to do? First off, realize that one shot, even a fairly well placed shot may not do the job so don’t set there and admire your handiwork or wait for it to take effect. But even two hits may not get the job done!

    After years of trying to get a grasp on this I have come to look at the results of shooting a living breathing target – be it a human attacker or a game animal – as falling into 3 or 4 categories. They are :

    Instant Collapse – this takes place 1 to 2 seconds from the shot being fired
    Rapid Collapse – this can take from 3 to 15 seconds and is quite common.

    Marginal Effect – this can even be a lethal hit but it takes from 15 to 300 (yes 300!) or even more seconds.
    The 4th is simply unacceptable and is a total failure.
    The last category we don’t like to discuss but happens too often . We saw it recently in Washington with a Center Mass hit from an officer’s pistol and the subject was still walking around the next day.

    What is “effective” shooting? Sad to say, it is demanding. It is also, I think, variable depending on the conditions. For example, the robber armed with a scattergun who is standing 10 feet away must be stopped “right now!” If you do not bring about Instant Collapse someone may very well die…that someone may be you!

    On the other hand, if there is a gang banger launching bullets in your general direction using un-aimed fire about 20 yards away then a hit that brings about Rapid Collapse might do the job.

    I cannot imagine a Marginally Effective result being very desirable in any case, but it does buy you some time in some cases.

    How does this relate to hits? In order to achieve Instant Collapse you must scramble the “circuitry” that keeps the bad guy on the attack. That means the brain or spinal cord.

    The head is not only a fairly difficult target to hit in the real world – because it moves a lot – but it is also difficult to penetrate and get a pistol bullet into the place it must be to be effective. For normal purposes we might write off the head, keeping it in reserve for very special circumstances.

    The spine is not that easy to hit either. It isn't large, and to be effective the hit needs to be in the upper 1/3 of the spine or at a point about level with the tip of the sternum. I think that is around T11. But of course the huge problem is that it is hidden by the rest of the body. We are the good guys, we don’t go around shooting people in the back. So the exact location is something that can only be learned through lots of practice on 3D targets. Your point of aim on the surface changes with the angle at which the target is facing.

    The bottom of the spine isn't much use. I know of several people shot in the pelvis. It did not break them down as many theorize. I am not saying it doesn’t happen but in the only case I know of in which it did the person who was “anchored” with a .357 magnum to the pelvis killed the person that shot him – you can shoot just fine from prone.

    A shot, or preferably multiple shots to the heart and major arteries above the heart (not below!) may achieve Rapid Collapse, but not always. Officer Stacy Lim was shot in the heart at contact distance with a .357 Magnum and is still alive and her attacker is still dead! Score one for the good guys…or in this case gals!

    So now what constitutes Marginal Effectiveness? A hit to the lungs! Even multiple hits to the lungs. Unfortunately though, most often lung hits are effective in ending the fight because the subject decides to quit the fight, not because he MUST. A famous Colonel Louis LeGarde once wrote what is considered "the" book on gunshot wounds. 65% of his patients shot through the lungs – with rifles! – survived with the predominant treatment being only bed rest!

    Effective Practice and "Dynamic Response"

    The goal of practice, one would think, is to make correct, effective shooting techniques a matter of reflex, so that you don't have to think about what you are doing in a gunfight.

    Most people will perform under stress at about 50 to 60% as well as they do on the range…and that is if they practice a lot! If they only go to the range once every other month that performance level decreases dramatically. Shooting and weapons handling are very perishable skills. Also folks tend to practice the wrong stuff inadvertently. I put this in the classification of “practicing getting killed” but that too is a topic for another day.


    Movement and Variation doesen't mean innacurate shooting. In a real gunfight you and your adversary will most likely be moving. Click here if you can't see the video. Let’s talks about a basic response, what I call "Dynamic Response." Situations vary and this is not meant to be a universal answer, just one that will work for about 80% of scenarios.

    It is pointless to stand still on the range and shoot a stationary target, unless you simply want to polish up some marksmanship fundamentals. That is a necessary part of learning to shoot. But if you are practicing for a fight, then fight!

    Some rules.



    Don’t go to the range without a covering garment – unless of course you always carry your gun exposed (no comment).

    Don’t practice drawing your gun fast – ever! – while standing still.

    Part of the Dynamic Response is to step off the line of attack (or on rare occasions that are dependent on circumstances backwards or forwards) and present the weapon with as much alacrity as you can muster and engage the target with overwhelming and accurate fire! By the way, never assume a fight is completely over just because you canceled one threat. Don’t practice “standing down” too quickly. We have a video attached which will hopefully give you the right idea.

    I wish there was a formula of how to stand and how to hold you gun but there really isn't. We don’t do “Weaver vs. Isosceles vs. Modern Iso vs. whatever”. We don’t do “Thumbs Crossed vs. Thumbs Forward vs. Thumb Up…never mind.” Those are things for you to work out on your own. You use what makes YOU effective not what works for a guy who practices 50,000 rounds the week before a big match (that is not an exaggeration). Competitive shooters will throw out advice on what works for them. It may not work for you.

    There is also not “one true gun”. Your skill is far more important that what you carry, within reason. We are not really talking about “stopping power”, whatever that is, here but rather effectiveness.

    I can find no real measure – referred to by some as a mathematical model – of stopping power or effectiveness. And I have looked for 44 years now! Generally speaking I do see that bigger holes (in the right place) are more effective than smaller holes but the easy answer to that is just to shoot your smaller gun more – “a big shot is just a little shot that kept shooting”. True, I carry a .45 but that is because I am lazy and want to shoot less. A good bullet in 9mm in the right place (the spine!) will get the job done. If you hit the heart, 3 or 4 expanded 9mms will do about what a .45 expanding bullet will do or one might equal .45 ball….IF (note the big if) it penetrates. That is not based on any formula, it is based on what I have found to happen – sometimes real life does not make sense.

    Practicing Dynamic Response means practicing with an open mind. Circumstances in a real gunfight are unpredictable and the more unpredictability you mix up into your practice the more your brain will be preparing itself for a possible real gunfight.

    In real life, your gunfight may be dark, cold, rainy, etc. The subject may be anorexic (a lot of bad guys are not very healthy) or he may be obese (effective penetration and stopping power of your weapon). There are dozens of modifiers which change the circumstance, most not under your control. My only advice on this is what I learned from an old tanker: “Shoot until the target changes shape or catches fire!” Vertical to horizontal is a shape change, and putting that one more round into his chest at point blank range may catch his clothes on fire, even without using black powder.

    We tell our military folks to be prepared to hit an enemy fighter from 3-7 times with 5.56 ball, traveling at over 3,000 feet per second. This approach sometimes worked, but I know of several cases where it has not, even "center mass."

    With handguns, and with expanding bullets, it is even more unpredictable, but through years of study I have developed a general formula, subject to the above mentioned unpredictable circumstances.



    2-3 hits with a .45
    4-6 with a .40
    5-8 with a 9mm
    With a revolver, the rounds are not necessarily more effective but I would practice shooting 3 in a .38 or .357 merely because I want 3 left for other threats. Not that those next three won’t follow quickly if the target hasn’t changed shape around my front sight blade. A .41, .44 or .45 Colt I would probably drop to two. Once again, they are not that much more effective than a .45 Auto but I don’t have the bullets to waste.

    In any case, I want to stress the part that it is more about how you shoot than what you shoot, within reason. It is also more about the mindset and condition of the subject you are shooting which is not under your control. Take control – buy good bullets and put them where they count the most! And remember “anyone worth shooting once is worth shooting a whole lot!” (but please stop when the threat is cancelled, we don’t advocate “finishing shots”).

    Gunfights are ugly things. I don't like to talk about the blood and guts aspects of defending life any more than the next guy. But it is our lives we are talking about here. By researching how gunfights are fought, and more importantly, how gunfights are won, it may give both of us the edge if a gunfight ever comes our way. I hope to cover many of the points I have learned and learned to train others in over the coming months. It isn't as easy to write about it as it is to teach it in person, but you can only succeed if you are willing to try.

    I hope you enjoy the ride.

    Press on!
    Former Army Infantry Captain; 25 yrs as an NRA Certified Instructor; Avid practitioner of the martial art: KLIK-PAO.


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    Good read. Anybody worth shooting once, is worth shooting many times.
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    Distinguished Member Array jumpwing's Avatar
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    Excellent article. Thanks for posting!
    "The flock sleep peaceably in their pasture at night because Sheepdogs stand ready to do violence on their behalf."
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    Ex Member Array swamp's Avatar
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    Interesting article, You find about as many opinions as authors though.

    Some of the things I have learned during those many nights of endless surfing are; the FBI did an extensive study on stopping power and surprisingly enough bigger isn't necessarily better (this from a guy who carries .45 ACP exclusively).

    During winter months, especially, clothing plays a big part in bullet penetration and effectiveness as does body type. I am a rather large man and that alone is a pretty effective shock absorber of even bullets fired from a handgun. Then add a 5.11 Tactical Coat (which is made out of fabric with the characteristics of canvas) and you've got all but a bullet proof vest especially if firing a .45 bullet at it; .45 is a big hole to punch.

    Case in point I read an article about a cop who emptied his service pistol into a large man without any protective barriers then the large man fired one shot from a .22 that caught the cop under the arm, missing the BP vest and killed him; the large man lived. So dont think that a .45, 230 grain hollow point is the ultimate deadly weapon that will stop an elephant. The FBI study leaned towards the conclusion that a 9mm is a better winter weapon based on energy verses hole it will punch.

    The other important lethal issues were penetration and tearing ability which made the Talon Bullet so popular with the multiple razor blade like protrusions from the expanded bullet. Tearing as much tissue as possible is the best stopping power as it obviously does the most damage to internal organs and blood delivery supply lines; just making holes is a crap shoot. There's a story about a guy who tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the forehead and the bullet passed between the brain halves and all he got was a serious headache.

    Read through some of these studies; there's a lot of good information there:

    FirearmsTactical.com - Web Site Index and Navigation Center

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    Distinguished Member Array razor02097's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    Interesting article, You find about as many opinions as authors though.

    Some of the things I have learned during those many nights of endless surfing are; the FBI did an extensive study on stopping power and surprisingly enough bigger isn't necessarily better (this from a guy who carries .45 ACP exclusively).

    During winter months, especially, clothing plays a big part in bullet penetration and effectiveness as does body type. I am a rather large man and that alone is a pretty effective shock absorber of even bullets fired from a handgun. Then add a 5.11 Tactical Coat (which is made out of fabric with the characteristics of canvas) and you've got all but a bullet proof vest especially if firing a .45 bullet at it; .45 is a big hole to punch.

    Case in point I read an article about a cop who emptied his service pistol into a large man without any protective barriers then the large man fired one shot from a .22 that caught the cop under the arm, missing the BP vest and killed him; the large man lived. So dont think that a .45, 230 grain hollow point is the ultimate deadly weapon that will stop an elephant. The FBI study leaned towards the conclusion that a 9mm is a better winter weapon based on energy verses hole it will punch.

    The other important lethal issues were penetration and tearing ability which made the Talon Bullet so popular with the multiple razor blade like protrusions from the expanded bullet. Tearing as much tissue as possible is the best stopping power as it obviously does the most damage to internal organs and blood delivery supply lines; just making holes is a crap shoot. There's a story about a guy who tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the forehead and the bullet passed between the brain halves and all he got was a serious headache.

    Read through some of these studies; there's a lot of good information there:

    FirearmsTactical.com - Web Site Index and Navigation Center
    A lot of strong claims there swamp

    You would have to wear a bit more then a 5.11 vest and coat to stop a bullet. Besides the OP wasn't talking about clothing penetration so much as the fact of being taught to fire center mass isn't always effective.

    nobody expected a .45 to stop an elephant that is just a silly statement.
    There is something about firing 4,200 thirty millimeter rounds/min that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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    Ex Member Array swamp's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by razor02097 View Post
    A lot of strong claims there swamp
    Take that up with the FBI.

    Quote Originally Posted by razor02097 View Post
    You would have to wear a bit more then a 5.11 vest and coat to stop a bullet. Besides the OP wasn't talking about clothing penetration so much as the fact of being taught to fire center mass isn't always effective.
    If a large mans flesh alone has enough stopping cushion to make a bullet ineffective, adding several layers of canvas to the mass of shock absorbing blubber wouldn't help absorb the bullets energy? Again, take it up with the FBI's study. Read those studies before slamming my statements because the statements aren't mine, I'm the messenger. Also, how can you ignore clothing penetration of you're talking about the effectiveness of shooting anybody anywhere but in the head? A bullet proof vest is simply fabric that has the ability to catch a bullet; a fat guy with sufficiently strong fabric has a similar effect.

    Quote Originally Posted by razor02097 View Post
    nobody expected a .45 to stop an elephant that is just a silly statement.
    You figured that one out; a silly statement as well as the correlation between a fat guy and an elephant.

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    Member Array laguna0seca's Avatar
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    Unfortunately it seems that the ones who take so many rounds and live, are often the "bad guys", and too often the men worth a damn don't have the same luck.
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    Distinguished Member Array razor02097's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    Take that up with the FBI.
    ummm ok?

    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    If a large mans flesh alone has enough stopping cushion to make a bullet ineffective, adding several layers of canvas to the mass of shock absorbing blubber wouldn't help absorb the bullets energy?
    That statement is just not true.

    Sure there have been cases where a criminal was shot several times and lived even skinny people but there have also been time when people where shot in the arm or foot and died.

    just because someone is large doesn't automatically make them impervious to .45 caliber bullets.

    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    Again, take it up with the FBI's study. Read those studies before slamming my statements because the statements aren't mine, I'm the messenger. Also, how can you ignore clothing penetration of you're talking about the effectiveness of shooting anybody anywhere but in the head?
    I never "slammed" the statements you wrote. The OP article isn't about clothing penetration.

    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    A bullet proof vest is simply fabric that has the ability to catch a bullet; a fat guy with sufficiently strong fabric has a similar effect.
    A bullet proof vest doesn't exist. A kevlar vest is specifically designed to slow a bullet. I just have a hard time believing a 5.11 vest stopping live fire. In fact I seem to remember experiments that concluded the HP bullet having overpenetration due to the the hollowpoint getting clogged up when shot through clothing.

    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    You figured that one out; a silly statement as well as the correlation between a fat guy and an elephant.
    nope you where talking about a .45 not stopping an elephant.

    Quote Originally Posted by swamp View Post
    So dont think that a .45, 230 grain hollow point is the ultimate deadly weapon that will stop an elephant.
    I see nothing about a fat guy in there.
    There is something about firing 4,200 thirty millimeter rounds/min that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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    Ex Member Array swamp's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by razor02097 View Post
    ummm ok?



    That statement is just not true.

    Sure there have been cases where a criminal was shot several times and lived even skinny people but there have also been time when people where shot in the arm or foot and died.

    just because someone is large doesn't automatically make them impervious to .45 caliber bullets.



    I never "slammed" the statements you wrote. The OP article isn't about clothing penetration.



    A bullet proof vest doesn't exist. A kevlar vest is specifically designed to slow a bullet. I just have a hard time believing a 5.11 vest stopping live fire. In fact I seem to remember experiments that concluded the HP bullet having overpenetration due to the the hollowpoint getting clogged up when shot through clothing.



    nope you where talking about a .45 not stopping an elephant.



    I see nothing about a fat guy in there.
    You obviously still haven't read the FBI reports since the things you say aren't true are in the reports. You're going to just have to find someone else to pick a fight with; try the FBI since that's who you have troubles with here, not me.

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    Member Array NC Buckeye's Avatar
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    My father is a retired LEO and saw a man in a heavy leather jacket, sweater and t-shirt have a .45 not break skin.

    He and I both carry 9mm for that reason.

    The best though is the guy that had just been shot in the top of the head, while in a headlock (noogie style) with a .25 and walked over to my father to report it.

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    Distinguished Member Array razor02097's Avatar
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    What have I said that isn't true?
    There is something about firing 4,200 thirty millimeter rounds/min that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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    Distinguished Member Array razor02097's Avatar
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    For the hollow point over penetration test I was referring to look here

    The Box O' Truth #8 - The Rags O' Truth - Page 1

    it was re tested with newer ammo and got different results.

    The Box O' Truth #10 - The Water Box O' Truth - Page 1
    There is something about firing 4,200 thirty millimeter rounds/min that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

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    OKAY folks! I posted the original article and I would ask that we keep to the main idea of the piece which is (as Razor02097 ably pointed out) that firing center mass isn't always effective especially when one may have been taught that such a strike with "X" caliber of "Y" type projectile configuration WILL definitely cause a so called "one shot stop."

    Also may I be allowed to please ask that nobody refer to the BOX 'O TRUTH herein as you can't know the depths of my contempt for that site. When we discuss lethal attacks by filled plastic water jugs they will become an important source of info and not before. I'd sooner trust Rocky Balboa's opinion on the proper method to tenderize raw meat.

    We are a pro law enforcement forum and that's a fact, but there have been a number of studies done on this issue and I wouldn't declare the FBI to be the final word of such studies. Look at their own track record of caliber choice. They have been all over the board ever since they were first armed back in the late 1920's.

    They have been from using 45's both as a handgun and the venerable chicago typewriter (Thompson Sub Gun) and the .30-06 BAR all the way down to the 38sp and then back up to the .357 and then down to the 9mm and all the way up to the 10mm which they decided had too many recoil issues so they had it shortened into what became the "shorty forty." Why they didn't just admit the 45 ruled I'll never know but that's the FEDS for ya. The "facts" amassed by the extensive "studies" of their famous crime lab is laudable, but the FBI does not control what other agencies use, either. For example, Air Marshals use (IIRC) the 357 sig. The FBI HOSTAGE RESCUE TEAM (HRT) were just a bit more consistent. For a looooong time they stuck with the Browning Hi-Power 9mm and then switched out to the custom made 1911 45ACP by Les Bauer. I'm not certain what they use currently.

    So I think my point has to be that citing studies by the FBI might be persuasive but it's certainly not a lock especially when it misses the entire point of the article.
    Former Army Infantry Captain; 25 yrs as an NRA Certified Instructor; Avid practitioner of the martial art: KLIK-PAO.

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    Ex Member Array swamp's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by NC Buckeye View Post
    My father is a retired LEO and saw a man in a heavy leather jacket, sweater and t-shirt have a .45 not break skin.

    He and I both carry 9mm for that reason.

    The best though is the guy that had just been shot in the top of the head, while in a headlock (noogie style) with a .25 and walked over to my father to report it.
    Finally intelligent life!!!

    Yea there are great arguments for carrying a 9mm; and let me remind all and especially razor02097 that I carry a .45 exclusively; I'm just open to all the possibilities and dont let my ego shut down viable studies. I was shocked when I read how hard it is to kill someone with a handgun and how flexible and energy absorbing the human body is.

    I dont remember if it was in the same study but in one of the studies they actually said that a handgun is NOT the ideal weapon to stop someone. If you want deadly force for sure, you need a rifle. But a handgun is easy to carry/conceal and is still effective. Believe me I wont be volunteering to stand at the end of a hallway and have people shoot at me with handguns but as the first article says and the FBI adds even more shocking information, a handgun has some limitations.

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    Ex Member Array swamp's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ExSoldier View Post
    I'm not a mod, but please, we don't STOMP on first time posters if we want them to stick around and we DO. Please keep it civil or I'll have to tell the Boss or one of his attending zotsmen.
    Thank you.....

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