High Performance Shooting: The Head Shot

June 07, 2016

High Performance Shooting: The Head Shot

This article was originally written for PoliceOne.com.

In any discussion of lethal force shooting, the subject of head shots is one that needs to be addressed thoroughly. I would like to offer some insights and drills for officers and other personnel who are interested in this important topic.

While we know that hits to the central nervous system (CNS) result in more or less instant incapacitation of subjects, there are multiple challenges with targeting this area: it can be a fleeting target, there is a high probability of a miss under real world conditions, and you must be able to account for the rounds fired if you miss your target.

What scenarios might require such a challenging shot? Here are three possibilities:

  • Close quarter assaults: 5-7 yards. These may have been preceded by body shots.
  • The only target available is the subject's head: he is shooting from cover or is in a crowd.
  • Rapid incapacitation is necessary: hostage type situations or suicide bombers.

To make a direct hit to the CNS in any of these scenarios you must be aware of multiple variables that could affect your point of impact:

  • Lighting conditions: low light or need for artificial illumination?
  • Is the subject moving or still?
  • How far away is the subject?
  • How well do you have your gun sighted in?
  • How wide is your front sight? Does it cover the head at 15 yards?
  • What position are you shooting from?
  • What kind of time pressure is there to fire? Is the target going to disappear or does he present a fleeting target as he moves through cover or crowds?
  • What kind of backstop is there in the event that you miss?

Your ability to rapidly analyze these variables in a close quarter scenario will have a large impact on your ability to make a precise head shot. For this reason your training should put you in situations where face time restraints and non-ideal conditions. Try using the following to make your practices more realistic: tight time limits, realistic scoring zones, miss penalties, different lighting conditions, stationary and moving platforms, realistic cover and awkward positions, and artificial light.

Head Shot Drills

The following are some of the drills I recommend and use in training students. Perform these drills using a standard IPSC target with a three or four inch circle of paper inside the head of the target; this is your aiming point. You will need an electronic timer for the following drills–stop watches or turning targets will not suffice.

Drill #1

  • 3 yards: From an imminent threat position, shoot one round in the center of the head in 1.5 seconds.
  • Drop down to 1 second.
  • 3 yards: From a low ready position, shoot one round in the center of the head in two seconds.
  • Drop down to 1.5 seconds and then go down to 1 second.
  • 3 yards: Repeat the drill, from the holster. Use different hand start positions so you don't just practice with hands in one position. Work down to 1.5 seconds.
  • 3 yards: Repeat the drills, this time firing two shots in head. Work down to 1.5 seconds.
  • 5 yards: Repeat the above exercises
  • 7 yard: Repeat the above exercises

Drill #2

  • 5 yards: From a low ready position, drop to a kneeling or squat position and shoot one round in the center of the head in two seconds. Drop down to 1.5 seconds
  • 7 yards: Repeat the drill
  • 7 yards: Put a no-shoot target next to the head to increase the stress load. Have two setups, one on the right side of no-shoot and one on the left side of no-shoot.
  • 10 yards: From a low ready position, fire one head shot in 2 seconds then reduce time to 1.5 seconds.
  • 10 yards: Repeat drill from holster, hands in different starting positions.
  • 10 yards: Repeat the drills using the no shoot target setups.
  • 10 yards: Repeat drills above, firing two shots. Start with 2.5 seconds, work down to 2.0 seconds.
  • 10 yards: From low ready position, drop to kneeling or squat and fire the shot in 2 seconds.
  • 15 yards: From a low ready position, fire one round in 2.5 seconds. Drop the time to 2 seconds and then 1.5 seconds.
  • 15 yards: From a low ready position, drop to kneeling and fire one shot in 2.5 seconds. Then drop time to 2.0 seconds.
  • 15 yards: Repeat drills, from holster.
  • 15 yards: Repeat drills, firing two shots. Work down to 2.5 then 2.0 standing. Working down to 3.0 and then 2.5 from kneeling.

This should get you warmed up. Now let's start putting together some more dynamic drills.

Drill #3

The fact that you can hit the head on a target out to fifteen yards is a good start. Now, if possible, use a swinger target that induces movement from side to side. Have it gently swing while you place head shots on it.

  • Starting at 15 yards, move rapidly to a shooting box placed at 10 yards and then place two shots on head target. Time limits will vary but make it snappy.
  • Next, move from 10 to 7 yards in the same manner.
  • With gun up in imminent threat position, move from 7 to 5, firing two shots in the head while moving.
  • Move laterally at 5 yards, first to the right, firing two shots in the head.
  • Repeat drill, moving laterally to the left, firing two shots.
  • Move backward from 3 yards to 5 yards, firing two good shots while moving.
  • Repeat this last drill, moving from 5 to 7 yards, firing two controlled head shots.

Score these movement drills by dividing the points scored by the time taken to complete the exercise. This will result in a decimal fraction which we call a comstock factor. Divide each officer's score by the highest factor in your department or area. This will give each officer a percentage of the best score shot.

Trigger and Sight Recommendations

Most front sight posts are too big when they come from the factory. A front sight of around .090 to .100 will give you a much better picture on the head out to 15 yards. Richard Heinie makes a nice one on his "straight eight" sights.

If trigger pull is too heavy, it is difficult to isolate the trigger finger at speed. Additionally, firing a rapid, precise first shot in double-action requires a great deal of work to master. This may make a good case for getting the lighter 3.5 connectors for Glocks or authorizing 1911-style single action autos. If that is not allowed, consider teaching rapid thumb cocking of the double action to get a better quality shot.

Special Considerations

Head shots are generally "finishing shots." They are difficult to hit at speed and the chance of a miss is relatively high for the average officer who doesn't practice on a regular basis. Go for the sure hits first unless a head shot is your only option.

If the distance is too great, the lighting poor, or you have no other choice, consider using pelvic girdle shots to break the subject down and then apply a head shot. This is particularly applicable for a rapidly moving subject, i.e. a suicide bomber trying to get close to a crowd to detonate himself. Keep in mind that using a handgun to take a head shot on a moving target past ten yards is dicey for anyone but a high level expert.

Stay safe all!

Ron Avery, Co-Founder

Tactical Performance Center

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