Shot Placement: Why It’s Vital By: Jim Davis


Just where, exactly, should we be intending to place our bullets on the target? Have we been doing shot placement all wrong for decades? Let’s take a look and see if we need to make any changes.

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The B-27 Target

For decades, the B-27 target has ruled the roost for law enforcement, and also in many civilian circles. Life was good. Paper targets on a calm, square range called for us to shoot Center Mass. I can hear the phrase in my sleep…..Center Mass…Center Mass…It’s still echoing through space and time somewhere out there.

And we never really questioned it. It was how we always did things, and rocking the boat wasn’t something that was encouraged or tolerated. We marched to the drumbeat, thank you very much!

B-27 NRA target
B-27 NRA target, the standard Qualification target for law enforcement that has been used for decades. It encourages shot placement to be concentrated too low in the anatomy to be optimal. Initial shots on the assailant should be in the center of the chest if that area is available to the defender. Any hits outside of the 7 ring are only given three points, despite the fact that the head and groin are very effective zones to place shots.

Scoring center-mass hits on huge targets without outside stressors was child’s play for most of us. And administrators loved it! Why? Because they could check off a box that said the troops were properly trained for “combat”, and if we screwed up, it was on us because, well, as they said—we’d been “properly” trained.

Looking back on it, that so-called training under calm circumstances was pathetically inadequate.

Those big qualification targets make it easy for large departments to qualify a huge volume of officers quickly. It involves logistics and budgets, along with staffing and time constraints. In short, bureaucracy. They want to train the most amount of people in the shortest time possible while expending the least amount of money. They do not care if the people they’re sending forth to fight evil are realistically qualified or not.

Because of the huge, unrealistic scoring areas, shooters with poor abilities can score high on targets. That makes departments look as though they have highly skilled shooters. And though administrators love that, it may be far from the truth.


The standard, official NRA Official Competition B-27 target has five rings, the smallest of which is at the center of the target (which is marked with an “X”). They become progressively wider as they spread out toward the edges of the target.

Outside the second ring, the ring number is a 9. The next ring denotes an 8, and finally a 7.

The scoring key indicates the following:

  • Any hits inside the X, 10, 9, or 8 rings get a score of 5.
  • Hits inside the outer ring (7) receive 4 points.
  • Any hits in the black but outside the 7 ring receive 3 points.

Notice that the X-Ring is situated smack-dab in the center of the target. Basically, the high region of the stomach. This is not the optimal place to be hitting the assailant if we are intent on stopping said assailant.

Hitting in the upper chest is far better than the stomach.

Some targets are more realistic than others. Hits to the center of the chest should be our first priority if that portion of the anatomy is available to use. (Photo: Birchwood Casey)

Placing a shot into the silhouette’s head would net the shooter three points. Normally, a headshot is a pretty good fight stopper, but not according to the scoring key. We’d actually lose points for making a good shot. The range personnel for my agency actually told us not to shoot for the head because it would look as if we were trying to kill the person.

Mind you, headshots are very hard to pull off in a real situation where all parties are moving and shooting at each other.

The Real World

On the square range, everything is normally two-dimensional, with nice, flat targets. It’s simple and easy to work. In the real world, however, there are angles to work and three-dimensional things to consider. Movement happens. There are obstacles, some of which provide cover (protection from bullets) and concealment.

Problems with the regular shooting range include the fact that paper targets don’t react to hits; they just keep standing there. Targets are normally right there in front of us. And they’re often on the same plane.

These days, some target makers offer options that are more 3-D as opposed to flat paper targets. This is certainly an improvement. Some of these targets can even be adorned with clothing, adding to the realism. Birchwood Casey makes some 3-D targets that some shooters might find helpful. 

Birchwood Casey 3-D Target - shot placement
This target from Birchwood Casey is a bit more realistic than a flat paper target. Photo courtesy of GunMag Warehouse.

Central Nervous System

For our needs, the central nervous system (CNS) basically consists of the brain and spinal column.

When we’re discussing pistols, a CNS hit is the only way to reliably stop an assailant immediately. This is because pistol bullets move at comparatively slow velocities and they suck at stopping hostiles. That might shock some people, but it’s true. Any time a bad guy falls down immediately when he or she is shot, and it’s not due to a CNS hit, it’s probably because the person has it in their mind that they’re supposed to fall down. Even if they are hit in the heart, the brain still has enough oxygen to carry on the fight for up to 30 seconds.

Hitting the brain or spine will usually bring things to a screeching halt. “Hey, wait a minute,” you say, “those are small, hard-to-hit places!” Well, yeah, they are. It’s a part of life that sucks, especially when someone is trying to revoke our birth certificate.

Outside of a CNS hit, the body will eventually shut down if/when the blood pressure drops low enough. That might take a little while to happen, especially depending on shot placement. And it will also very probably mean that the bad guy has to be hit several times in order to create enough leakage in the circulatory system.

Long Guns

Rifles are more effective at stopping people because of their much higher muzzle velocity, which allows the rounds to cause far more destruction than pistol bullets. Shotguns with buckshot are also effective because they deliver multiple projectiles at one time, which causes lots of disruption to the body.

Another aspect of long guns is that they’re easier to aim because there are a couple of points of contact with the body. Pistols do not enjoy that advantage.

Other Options

These days, it is easy to research how people react when they are shot, thanks to YouTube and other venues. Do a little research and take a look at what happens. You might find it surprising how many people keep on doing what they were doing in a very animated manner.

Let’s say we put several rounds into an assailant’s chest with no discernable effects. What can we do?

An option is called a Failure Drill (as in Failure To Stop). We shift our point of aim either up (to the head, if practical) or down to the pelvic region.

Viking Tactics targets - shot placement
These targets by Viking Tactics illustrate the three main regions we should be trying to hit. Note that the targets are very detailed, mapping out the Central Nervous System (CNS) regions and the skeleton. (Photo: Viking Tactics)

As we mentioned, the head is a small, pesky, difficult-to-hit target that has the irritating habit of moving around a lot when the user engages in strenuous activity.

The pelvis, however, is a much larger target, and one that doesn’t move around quite so quickly as the head. Another advantage of hitting the pelvic girdle is the possibility of breaking the bones that support mobility. This can cause a biomechanical collapse. Even if the bad actor desires to keep moving, they might not be able to with broken bones that won’t support the body. They can still be a threat, but their mobility will be taken away.

sniper targets - shot placement
These are a few of the sniper targets that I had to qualify on as a sniper. The box around the eyes was considered a hit; everything else was a “miss.” During sniper scenarios, the head is not moving around as it would in a standard gun battle.

Take What We Can Get

Sometimes bad guys take cover while shooting at us—something about trying to preserve their life and make them harder to hit.

During a real gunfight, we might only be able to see a small portion of the hostile’s body. Maybe he’s crouched behind a vehicle and all we can see is an elbow, shoulder, or knee. If that’s all we can see, we’ll take what we can get—shoot center mass of the exposed part. Landing a hit on the bad guy will give him something to think about while he’s trying to kill us. Hell, if we’re lucky, the shot might even take him down or at least distract him from trying to kill us. When people are hit, they sometimes try to treat their wound and not get hit again. While they’re doing that, they’re typically not shooting at us.

If the fight is around vehicles, and we have the opportunity, we can sometimes see the bad guy’s feet underneath the vehicles. That might present an opportunity to put some rounds into the bad guy’s feet or lower legs. Again, broken bones don’t support weight very well, so this might put the goblin on the ground.

Realistic Training

At my agency, qualification was referred to as “training.” However, it really was not training, as it did very little to prepare anyone for combat. Classroom blocks of instruction were also called training, but they hardly qualified as that. These were better described as administrative functions as opposed to any real training.

I’ve participated in force-on-force training in which we were put through scenarios armed with Airsoft weapons. My agency never did this, however; I sought training outside my department. The Airsoft training went a long way in helping to understand just how difficult it is to hit a moving human who is shooting back.

Another good aspect of force-on-force training is the pain. When hit with those little plastic pellets traveling at several hundred feet per second, they hurt. Not terribly, but it felt like a bee sting, which was enough to motivate folks to not want to be hit. To be honest, this was some of the best training that I have gone through.

force on force training
Properly conducted Force-On-Force training can be invaluable as a teaching tool! As an added incentive not to get hit, the rounds do hurt. The introduction of adrenaline and the fact that real people actually move around quickly ups the ante for every shooter who participates. Interestingly, our body finds it next to impossible to differentiate whether the stress it feels is from training or the real thing. (Photo courtesy of Marty Hayes)

In The End

If you’re an officer working for a department that is merely worried about checking off the boxes, you need to seek outside training if you expect to improve. Even doing some research on your own and training in new techniques on the range is better than being saddled with nonsense.

There is probably some training available nearby. If not, you may have to travel. Yes, it can get expensive. However, your survival, and that of the people around you, are worth it.

Also, there are targets on the market that provide more realistic target zones than standard qualification targets. However, if you’re using standard qual targets at the range, you can simply adjust the zones that you’re aiming for on your own, making better use of the targets available.

With a little effort on your part, you can improve your training. Don’t believe everything the administrators tell you; they may not have your best interests in mind.