Aiming Center Mass vs. Quick Stop–Which is Better?


I remember the first deer that I shot.

I was about 80 yards away, waited until I had my angle, and hit it with a heart-double-lung shot with my .308. It bucked and then sprinted off as if it hadn’t watched enough TV to know how it was supposed to react when shot.

I was impatient, so we only waited 10-15 minutes and went to where it had been when I took the shot.

Relieved to see bright red blood, we started tracking it and found it DRT 150-200 yards later after it had jumped 2 fences. I butchered it and proudly shared the meat with anyone who’d eat it with me.

It was a clean shot—textbook, in fact. It was a South Texas deer, so I had way MORE than enough gun.

But it didn’t stop the deer instantly.

And if she would have been an attacker, we would have been hands-on before she dropped.

For years, this kind of confused me. Heart-lung shots would get me good kills, but rarely instant stops.  It really made me question self-defense teaching, because, at the same time, almost all of the self-defense literature said that you need to aim center-mass in a lethal force encounter–even with severely inadequate defensive pistol rounds.

This, even though there are cases every year of bad guys absorbing 5, 10, 15, or more rounds and still staying in the fight.

The fact is, “clean kills” and “lethal hits” have a time component.  It’s OK if you shoot a grass eater that’s 100 yards away and it runs away from you for 10-15 seconds before expiring.

It’s NOT OK to make a lethal hit on a meat eater (2 legged or 4 legged) who’s charging you to have 10-15 seconds to put the hurt on you before expiring.

I get WHY center-mass is taught…most schools teach that 8” groups are combat accurate and “good enough.” Stress spreads those groups out, but aiming center-mass insures that a minimum number of rounds miss their intended target. Several rounds hitting the torso are better than several rounds missing the attacker’s head and not stopping him at all.

But center-mass shots don’t always stop attackers…and there’s a very straight forward reason why.

When you break it down, stopping an attacker or stopping the threat is a function of eliminating the attacker’s intent, ability, and/or opportunity to keep hurting you.

You can take away opportunity by removing their mobility and taking away projectile weapons, moving behind cover, or other strategies.

You can take away their intent by convincing them that they should stop fighting and give up or run away (which is what happens the majority of time when non-conditioned people are shot at, regardless of whether or not they’re actually hit). This “convincing” can be verbal, non-verbal, or kinetic, but once an attack has started, kinetic solutions have a much better track record.

And the most effective way to take away their ability is to interrupt their central nervous system either mechanically (trauma to the mid-brain, spinal cord, or the limb they’re using to attack you), hydraulically (blood flow delivering oxygen to the brain), or electrically (interrupt the signal between the brain and the muscles wielding the weapon(s)).

Center-mass shots depend on the attacker giving up, a drop in blood pressure, or a bullet hitting the spinal cord. And, as we’ve seen in hunting and numerous after-action reports, a drop in blood pressure isn’t always a quick solution and sometimes falling causes blood pressure to rise back up to where the attacker is able to continue fighting.

When you’re talking about a situation where you need to use a firearm to defend yourself, you’re not talking about shooting a well-adjusted person. You’re talking about someone who, at that moment, is trying to cause you or another innocent person great bodily harm and who’s acting like a wild animal.

Because of that, I think it’s worthwhile to take a look at how African Cape buffalo and African lions are hunted and, in particular, what hunters do when a shoot goes bad.

The majority of the time, when a hunter shoots a lion or Cape buffalo, the hunter is not being attacked.

As a result, they take traditional hunting shots and try to hit one or both lungs and the heart.

The majority of the time, when one of these animals gets shot, they turn and run. (Sound familiar?)

This is where they get dangerous…and where the tactics and techniques change.

Up to this point, many hunters use a .375 or bigger. When they shoot an animal cleanly with this monster round, they expect it to fall within 100-150 yards. Most shots are taken 60-80 yards out, so the animals have plenty of time to do damage, if they choose to.

In addition, if the shot wasn’t clean, wounded lion/buffalo are some of the meanest/deadliest/aggressive animals on Earth.

So how do the tactics/techniques change?

2 ways…

They track the wounded animal with bigger rounds loaded for deeper penetration in double rifles (which puts a 2nd round right on top of the first round faster than what’s possible with semi-autos)


They pray for a brain/spine hit instead of heart-lung/center-mass.

Here’s why:

So, as a defensive shooter trying to improve survivability for guys going downrange, officers here in the states, as well as civilian defenders, the holy grail for me became, how do I stop a threat quickly with an underpowered weapon (pistol) without risking missing errant shots?  If an attacker doesn’t choose to stop attacking after the first shot, how can I minimize the damage that they are able to do to me?

This is one of those topics where I’ve had to rely on the personal experiences of several friends in law enforcement and military special operations and after-action reports.

One thing was that I did as a result was to train myself to see targets 3 dimensionally and started aiming for the T3-T4 vertebrae instead of aiming at center-mass. The concept of “Aim small, miss small” comes into play here and if I miss my 1-2” target by 400%, I’m still making “combat accurate” hits on center-mass.

Then, if you can pile round after round, you have a very good chance of stopping the threat psychologically, hydraulically, or electrically by drilling through to the spinal cord.

Worst case, you end up with the same number of rounds on target as if you would have aimed center-mass and the center mass hits hopefully slow down the head enough that you can transition to the head or pelvis>head.

Best case, you stop the threat much sooner.

So, how does a shooter with limited time and budget make it happen?

The answer is high quality at-home training.

To be clear, “high quality” is not grinding out 500 trigger presses in a night or grinding out a high volume of any drill like dime drills, wall drills, or other low-leverage drills.

High quality means breaking down the shooting process, mastering the individual components, and then combining them back together.

If you haven’t gone through the 21 Day Alpha Shooter program yet…it’s THE best place to start, regardless of your current skill level.

If you’ve been through 21 Day Alpha Shooter and are looking for the next big jump in performance, Draw Stroke Mastery is where you want to be.

If you own a firearm for defensive purposes and haven’t been through both…what are you waiting for?  Go ahead and click the links above and get started today.

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  • Ron Leifeste

    Reply Reply August 23, 2016

    When I started duck hunting my first year of HS I was told when shooting at a flock of ducks to pick out only ONE duck to shoot at. The same thing applies. Do not shoot at the flock, (center mass), shoot only at ONE duck, (button).
    My future FIL taught me that. He was a WW2 marine. I assumed, correctly, that he was right.
    I sure do miss that man. Ron

  • Frank Doolan

    Reply Reply April 25, 2016

    I work extensively on three shot response to attack. Two to the upper body and one to the head. I change the philosophy of “aim small miss small “to “aim small hit small” and use small targets like the 3×5 cards or dots to reference as the point of aim. I also understand the limitations of handguns and the corresponding ammunition. That in mind , practice, practice, practice.

  • Johnny

    Reply Reply April 20, 2016

    I always shoot two to the sternum (heart,lungs,spine) one to nose and I practice no further than 10 feet and my home range there are no rules that I have to stand in one spot. The reason for closeness of target is coming towards me simulation and movement on my part, gettin off the X.

  • Mark

    Reply Reply April 20, 2016

    Truly accurate in some cases. An animal (sometimes as people are refered to) can excel and attack when confronted and hit inapropriately. Many will charge and let off a furocious attack at anything in the vecinity. Humans on the other hand will to sometimes. Stay on your target and hope to get good hits that will neutralize. Otherwise the lion might rip you to shreads, and so might the human.

  • Dave

    Reply Reply April 20, 2016

    The way I received training in the military was a three shot strategy. Tap Tap to the chest then a Tap to the nose.

    The double tap to the chest applies maximum kinetic energy to the rib cage sternum. This forces the attacker back plus it maximizes the trauma to the heart region.

    Then the single tap to the nose. There is a passage, of weaker bone structure from the nose to the brain stem, so the nose shot gives the greater potential of severing the brain stem.

  • Smokey

    Reply Reply June 29, 2015

    I’ve never thought of things in this manner before, but have seen it in my own shooting for most of my life. When I was a boy my uncle used to have me feel for where the spine was connected to the head in the deer he shot and I’ve always tried to shoot that same spot all throughout my years hunting. What’s funny is that I recently went through an active shooter simulation and my first shot was a head shot, and the second was right below the neck. I did pull the trigger for a third time but missed while the shooter was falling to the ground. I was not thinking about going for a head shot, but it was more of a natural reaction to where I always place my sights, even though I do train for center mass. Everything seemed to change once put on the spot, in a “simulated real life” situation. I may actually start training in this manner from now on. Thanks.

  • George Clark

    Reply Reply June 27, 2015

    Great concept, I will try it and see how it works for me.


  • Steven C

    Reply Reply June 24, 2015

    In principle to shoot the brain stem or spinal cord is the best method to stop an attack. However, a head shot leave very little margin for error. If you are two inches to the left or the right you strike a superficial wound at best and miss completely in most cases. This goes double when your attacker is moving, bobbing and weaving. . . . or shooting at you!

    Center mass torso shots have the highest rate of success to hit a moving active attacker. In the majority of the cases center mass will stop the fight. Two or three rounds to the torso then aim for the head if the attacker does not stop is the most effective training method for the majority of people since most will not put in the level of training and practice to accomplish the method you describe.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply June 24, 2015

      Hey Steven, thanks for your comment..

      Your first paragraph brings up the unfortunate reality that there isn’t really a temporary wound channel with pistol ammo and how unpredictable the effects of shots to the head can be if they don’t hit the mid-brain / brain stem area.

      Your second paragraph is, fundamentally, what people refer to as “the Mozambique” or the “failure drill” and is what Insight teaches as a general rule to most entry level and medium level students. One difference being that the word “failure” is removed 🙂

  • Jim

    Reply Reply June 19, 2015

    Same as my years of martial arts training… Aim Small – Miss Small.

  • Andi

    Reply Reply June 19, 2015

    With shootings becoming more common in public places – schools, churches, malls – a wise fast decision is crucial. When crowds of people are present, what would you recommend as the best choice here? Aiming for a smaller area could mean missing with the first shot, causing the shooter to go crazier than he already is. Aiming for the larger area could cause more people to be harmed if the shooter is still able to function. Advice?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply June 19, 2015

      Great question, Andi, but there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on the shooter and the situation.

      One thing to keep in mind is the following…

      Shooting at a smaller target might cause you to end up missing
      shooting at a smaller area on a target will always make you more accurate.

      Here’s what I mean…

      Shooting at the mid-brain increases the chance of missing your target (walnut sized) over shooting at the torso
      shooting at the top hole in the 2nd button down on a shirt will always increase your chances of hitting the torso.

  • Robert

    Reply Reply June 19, 2015

    I started shooting when I was eleven. No one trained me until I went to Army Basic. There was a nine year difference. Over that time I hunted. No target shooting ever. Never took a shot that I wasn’t confident of hitting. However, a really good friend said one thing to me that meant more to my skills than anything else. He was 82nd Airborne and jumped into Normandy on the night before D-Day. He caused me to love the Sprngfield ’06 round. Now today at 68 years of age and having fired many hundreds of thousands of rounds from .22 to .50 cal machine gun the ’06 is still my favorite.

    My friend told me to break the spine of whatever I was shooting at and it would drop where it stood. On a deer, that’s shoulder top to brain. On a human target it works the same. The difference is the human target is most often facing you. Like the lion, a facing target needs to be shot in the nervous system to insure a stop. Nothing else works as surely.

    There in lies the confirmation that is in ‘aim small’. It works in all calibers and platforms. Obviously in rounds that really reach out there, small is increasingly more difficult. It doesn’t change the concept. Conversely, the attacking critter is closer and the concept has to deal with more serious stresses. Up close is not a bad time to use center mass. Follow up shots will be the only remaining option. As with a certain woman, a head shot does not ensure death, but may work to stop a threat.

    In any case, practice. Perfect practice makes practice perfect. There is no substitute for the real thing. Sun Tsu is quoted as saying that the more you bleed in peace the less you bleed in war. The assumption is you may bleed in either case. Unless the Lord God favors you.

  • EddieW

    Reply Reply June 19, 2015

    All my practise is for head shots, as my carry gun is a mouse gun…a 25 auto A heavy Mackinaw jacket will stop the bullet, as well as any kind of body armor! I dry fire practice daily aiming at small things around my house, as well as on the computer, trying to get 2 shots on targets that pop up for 1 to 2 seconds…Can’t do it in 1 sec. I have a 9MM but my brother gets really mad when he sees me at home carrying it! I use a cross draw holster so need a jacket or vest to hide it. I’ve never been caught carrying, except at home!

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