Shooting People in the Back

In June we wrote an article discussing some great lessons that we took away from a very thorough debrief we recently received about a real-world, justified (and required) shooting. This is the follow-up.

Sometimes killing other people is the right thing to do, morally, legally, and tactically. When this is the case, there are no adequate alternatives. However, these situations are incredibly rare, even for the vast majority of armed professionals. For civilians, if those three things are all lining up—there was probably a significant error (most likely a progression of significant errors) in judgment that made it so. Perhaps not too, but most likely that’s a true statement.

Either way, in the event killing other people becomes the right thing to do, our chances of succeeding improve dramatically if we have prepared, which includes gathering knowledge and learning from other folks’ experiences. We had the opportunity to do this recently and felt there were a lot of things that were both important and appropriate to share via this open source medium, hence this pair of articles.

In the first article , we focused on two issues: the dubious reliability of human memory, especially during a critical incident, and the potential tactical impact of auditory exclusion. We also discussed some the ways that trainers can start to address these issues and better prepare their students for success on the street.

Here, we’re going to shift gears a little and look at some of the more “tactical” issues raised by this event. First, a quick summary of what happened based on our recollections from the video (sorry we can’t share it and don’t have a copy).

Event Summary

The shooting involved an off-duty police officer in civilian clothes carrying a 9mm. The officer challenged, then was charged by a man armed with a knife. The man’s actions prior to the shooting led the officer follow and then challenge him with his pistol out. 

After the verbal challenge, the attacker counted down, “Three, two one…” before charging the officer from a distance of approximately 7 yards. The officer never heard this countdown (see the previous article for analysis and discussion). However, this event occurred in a crowded area so several bystanders confirmed this, in fact, occurred.

Once the officer visually saw the attacker charging him with a knife, he engaged, firing multiple rounds to the attacker’s center of mass while backing linearly. Based on the debrief, the officer (who is a highly skilled shooter and who had last conducted live-fire training with the weapon he was carrying just a few hours prior to the shooting) did not recall what manner of visual reference (if any) he used during the initial volley and surmised that he must have been “point shooting.”

The officer’s initial volley was ineffective at stopping the charge, so he conducted a “failure drill,” taking one aimed shot to the head. The officer distinctly recalls a sight picture, specifically a visual focus on the front sight blade, when this round was fired. This “head shot” effectively knocked down the attacker—who was within three yards of the officer when he went down. The officer also went down (he tripped while backing) at the same time.

The officer scrambled back to his feet. At virtually the same time, so did the attacker.

After both the officer and the attacker were back on their feet, there was a period of verbal engagement/attempt to elicit compliance during which they both moved circularly around a display case. This ended with a second charging and second volley of center-mass gunfire after which the attacker fell to the ground for a second time.

The officer then created distance, linearly, from the attacker. The attacker got back up—again.

The attacker charged the officer a third time, receiving a third volley of center-mass fire. During this third engagement, the attacker was hit, then turned his back and continued to charge the officer—moving backwards. The officer continued firing into his back, and the attacker went down for a third time.

The officer again created distance, seeking both cover and concealment while maintaining visual contact. The attacker continued to attempt to get to his feet for approximately 30 seconds; however, he was moving slowly, bleeding profusely, and not presenting an imminent threat to anyone.

The attacker eventually bled out and on-duty law enforcement responded to the scene.

Event Highlights for Trainers


One specific takeaway of particular importance for law enforcement officers and those who train them is the physical multi-tasking that the officer was required to engage in. Like most shooters of virtually every flavor these days, the officer has done most of his training using both hands on the gun. However, in this event, the officer was off duty and in civilian clothes.

Once he visually identified the man as a potential threat, the officer drew his weapon and began pursuit. While he ran, he accessed his cell phone to call 911; he then accessed and displayed his badge, identifying himself as law enforcement. During the actual shooting volleys, the officer retained his badge in his support hand and used a modified two-handed grip—something he had never previously practiced.

For law enforcement officers, multi-tasking with these tools (phone and badge) when off duty are issues worth thinking about. Can you and the people you train respond while manipulating weapon, phone, and badge at the same time? What takes precedence? How much time is spent handling the badge along with the firearm during training? Are tools needed to assist with this off duty? What about making the phone call as an off-duty officer, juggling the need for phone, badge, and gun? Is there ever a time to drop something (badge and/or phone) and get both hands on the gun? If so, do you train to do this?

For civilians, the cell phone issue is certainly worth thinking about. We can’t and won’t give legal advice, nor will we get into in-depth tactical discussions here. That said, it’s worth considering that, in contrast to a sworn officer’s appropriate response, a civilian may be in a much better place (both tactically and legally) staying completely out of any potential problems and just “being a good witness,” at the very least until there’s “imminent danger” involved. 

This “good witness” role may involve getting first responders to the scene—probably through use of a personally carried cell phone. How all of this mixes in with access to and potential operation of a weapon is something for both concealed carry folks and those who train them to think about. 

How much time is spent in training handling the phone along with the weapon, or practicing making a call while maintaining adequate personal security and situational awareness? Is there ever a time to drop the phone and get both hands on the gun? If so, is this practiced?

All food for thought.

Point Shooting—Does it Work?

Another good takeaway from this event is the apparent effectiveness (or lack thereof) of point shooting. This topic can turn into a relatively mindless, dogmatic discussion in a hurry with respective “gurus” and their acolytes gathering in various corners. Let’s please avoid that here if we can. 

For one thing, this is a single, anecdotal event and it’s usually a mistake to make too many judgments and decisions based off any specific occurrence. In other words, avoid preparing exactly for somebody else’s fight (which occurred yesterday). Instead, prepare for your fight—occurring sometime in the undetermined future, on as-of-yet unknown terrain, against an undetermined enemy.

Also, the officer can’t recollect anything with respect to his visual reference during the initial volley of fire. While suggestive of “point shooting,” at best, this is informed speculation. Amplifying the previous point—it’s not the best information quality with which to justify absolute statements and or use as the sole basis for anything.

With these qualifiers, it’s worth at least considering the ineffectiveness of the first two volleys of fire in discussion here. Terminal ballistics (9mm) certainly could have played a factor. We have decided not to go into that (or the specific ammunition used etc.) here because it’s outside our industry focus and the purpose of this article. However, in this case, a highly skilled shooter (by any standard—we know personally) missed with several rounds and had several others impact outside of the attacker’s vital areas while being charged (and backing) at close range in a real fight.

If the officer was, in fact, point shooting (as he believes), it is certainly possible that this contributed to a degradation of accuracy. 

A lot of training methods/systems consider point shooting results “good enough” based on paper target accuracy at average gunfight ranges. This may or may not be true; however, it doesn’t seem to be in dispute that using the sights does, in fact, generally improve accuracy. 

If the goal is to stop somebody’s actions because those actions are producing imminent danger of death or serious bodily harm, we further doubt anyone would argue that better shot placement won’t at least contribute to one’s potential for success. Therefore, it’s worth at least considering how much accuracy degradation is really acceptable in a training environment and how this will translate to the street when the techniques that are predominantly used in training are applied in either your or your student’s future fight. 

How big is the target—really? Is it the torso (or head), or is it the specific organs and structures inside that facilitate continued physiological capacity to present a lethal threat? At what distance can the actual intended target be hit while both the target and the shooter are moving and under stress without use of the sights?

Again, food for thought.

Is “One to the head” a flawed concept?

This leads to a second shot effectiveness topic. In this event, the officer recognized that his initial volley of fire was ineffective and performed a textbook failure to stop drill—firing an aimed round to the head. He hit the head. The attacker went down. Then the attacker got back up and required two more volleys before he stopped being a threat. Had he possessed a firearm instead of a knife, it’s possible that he could have required more than three volleys (see below).

Shot placement is almost certainly an issue here; however, the takeaway cannot be simply: “train harder to shoot better.” It is frankly unrealistic to expect a better, long-term, maintained skillset than this officer possesses from anybody of any background or within virtually any training environment.

Maybe a better approach is to (as quite a few others have suggested in recent years) re-evaluate the “one to the head” concept that the industry has largely accepted and trained to for decades. One round to the cranium might work. Then again, it might not. Perhaps it’s better to train to apply force to achieve an actual result—regardless of the intended target area. 

Ammunition Capacity

Shot effectiveness (or lack thereof) in this situation also brings to mind an equipment issue. In this case, the officer did not have a spare magazine of ammunition on his person (although he typically carries one). Over the course of the incident, he fired 10 rounds to end the lethal threat presented by a single opponent—armed with a knife. 

The attacker’s choice of weapon is significant here because a knife is usually only a lethal threat at contact distances, meaning that distance eliminates the imminent danger. Had the attacker used a firearm, more rounds could have been required. Had more than one attacker been involved 10 rounds would almost certainly have been inadequate to solve the problem.

Do with this information what you will; it’s anecdotal, but worth noting. 

Shooting People in the Back

Another takeaway—one that we thought was extremely poignant—was the assailant’s natural physiological reaction to receiving gunfire to his front while charging over an extended linear distance. He turned his back—and kept charging backwards. Watching this happen on video was eye-opening.

Of course, it only makes sense. How would anyone respond to unpleasant impacts repeatedly occurring to their front? Most of us have experienced this with wind, sand, debris, cold water, etc. at some point. We’ve never trained to do it, we just do it instinctively, indicating it’s probably a natural and common physiological reaction.

There’s an important lesson here. Real life isn’t a western movie. Ability, intent, and means leading to imminent danger of death or serious harm (or some similar set of deadly force justification factors based on your policy and/or jurisdiction) are what justify shooting a person, not that person’s relative positional orientation to you at the time the trigger is pulled. We need to understand this as trainers and strive to incorporate it into our training programs, especially as they reach more advanced levels and branch into experiential learning.

Shoot-through risk – Real or Imagined?

Another highlight is the real effect of shoot-through rounds. In this particular shooting, there were four rounds that went through the attacker and came out the other side. The hollow-point rounds did expand, they just went all the way through. Sometimes it’s tempting on a range to be focused on the potential effects of shoot-throughs. In other words, would a bystander get shot if a round goes through the target?

We don’t know for certain if what happened in this particular shooting would be indicative of the performance of every handgun round or caliber, or if the same results would be repeated using the same ammunition again (remember the danger in drawing too much from a single occurrence). However, this incident seems to indicate that shoot-throughs may not be real, practical concern, at least with non-magnum, hollow-point, handgun ammunition.

The farthest that any of the shoot-through rounds traveled after leaving the attacker’s body was about 35 feet. This indicates that the rounds exited the body with roughly a hand-thrown velocity—unlikely to cause serious injury to a bystander. 

However, it is equally noteworthy here that (as mentioned previously) a highly skilled shooter still missed with several rounds at relatively close range. While shoot-throughs may not be very likely to pose much of a danger to bystanders (again, not a validated statement of tactical dogma—merely indicated by this specific event), missed shots certainly are.

Bystander Awareness

This leads to bystander awareness. If your fight happens to occur in a crowded area, there will probably be bystanders. In decades past, perhaps people could generally have been counted upon to take action in the furtherance of their own survival given this type of situation. This seems to be the case no longer. 

Several bystanders told first responders that they were unsure which way to go, so they went nowhere. Instead, they simply stood around gawking within a few yards of a circularly moving, dynamic scenario involving gunfire.

The officer showed tremendous awareness throughout the scenario and recalls being cognizant of bystander presence in relation to his direction of fire throughout the incident. While perhaps not a traditionally practiced “range skill,” this type of awareness may be critical for real world success, especially with respect to surviving the liability issue. 

A step or two in one direction or another during an approach, retreat, or maneuver to improve tactical advantage may make all the difference in the world when it comes to affecting a successful engagement. 

It’s been part of industry canon for decades, but it’s worth repeating here: what’s behind the target matters, especially in the real world. This means it’s something we should train for.

As trainers, let’s consider that this type of situational awareness is virtually impossible to train for in a live-fire setting. We talk about this at length in our book Building Shooters; live fire is a necessary training environment, but it’s not necessarily always the best one. There is a lot of firearms training that can actually be done better off the range.

Cover, Concealment, and First Responders

The final lesson that we took from this event actually has nothing to do with the shooting itself. It has to do with the immediate aftermath. As with the remainder of the event, the officer involved showed tremendous awareness— something we all (law enforcement and civilian) should learn from and train towards. 

Once the attacker stopped presenting an imminent threat, the officer disengaged, maintained visual contact, and took cover. It’s noteworthy here that he didn’t just take cover from the attacker, he also took cover from the avenues of approach available to the responding law enforcement officers that he knew were coming—leaving himself the physical capability to move (escape) if necessary.

Whether they were called by the person doing the shooting or not, armed first responders are probably coming into a scene (especially in a public area) where gunfire has occurred. They are expecting the worst, have their adrenaline pumping, and have probably been provided with incomplete information. 

In this case, the officer identified himself to the dispatcher during his initial call—but this information never made it to the first officers who arrived on scene. As first responders arrived, the off-duty officer who did the shooting put his gun down, raised his hands from behind cover in surrender, and identified himself. He then followed all commands from the first responders.

This highlights a crucial training point. Do you (either off-duty law enforcement or civilian) train to interface with responding officers? Do you train your students to do it? Do they practice it during training? 

Interfacing appropriately with “dialed up” first responders and law enforcement is something that I can personally attest to as having most likely saved my life on more than occasion (though not domestically). It’s also a skill that has been integrated into our training programs for years. In terms of a real-world example, it would be hard to find a better execution than the one demonstrated in this scenario. 

Tactics shouldn’t stop just because a single threat to your safety is incapacitated–but they may need to change. You can’t point a gun at or shoot every threat to your safety. 

Are the responding police a threat to you as an armed citizen or off-duty officer? You bet they are. If they come around a corner and see somebody (you or your student(s)) armed and assuming some sort of tactical pose—especially if they are looking at the business end—do you think this threat level goes up or down?

Without diving into specifics here, sound tactics are about maximizing your capabilities against your adversary’s limitations to accomplish an objective, based on the terrain at hand. 

This entire picture shifts dramatically when you pivot from fighting a lethal threat to interfacing with first responders—though both have the potential to be equally dangerous. When the tactical picture changes, your tactics should change as well. And, again, this is something you should train for—and train your students for.

We’ve successfully used a simple acronym for introducing law enforcement interface in our defensive and personal security courses. You’re welcomed to borrow it (or come up with something better). Ours is COP: Communicate you’re not a threat, Obey, and Proceed with caution.


This concludes our pair of articles about this real-world event. Although we generally steer clear of tactics and such in our articles, we felt that the information contained here was both vitally important to share and appropriate for this medium. We hope that you took as much away from this event as we did and are able to integrate at least some of these takeaways into your own training programs.

In closing, there’s a lot of heat being directed towards law enforcement these days both socially and in the media. Some of it is deserved; however, there’s no doubt that law enforcement is a tremendously difficult and, at times, ridiculously dangerous job. There’s also no doubt that a combination of resource limitations and suboptimal training structures don’t always set the police up for success—which is a big part of why we’re doing what we’re doing. 

We’d like to take this opportunity to recognize the hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers here in the United States who place themselves in harm’s way for all of us on a daily basis. It’s a tough job. We’re glad you’re out there doing it. Thank you…

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition