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Posted on June 16, 2023 by in Steve Moses


Most students do not know that a handgun bullet fired on a horizontal plane can travel over 100 yards before it hits the ground and even then skip a considerable distance with enough velocity to injure or kill. Under certain environmental conditions a 9mm round fired at an optimal angle may travel perhaps as far as a mile before it strikes the ground. I have read but cannot confirm that they can travel over 2,000 yards. There will always be a reasonable probability that non-combatants may be found within bullet-striking distance in most of the places in which violent assaults take place. Managing the trajectory of rounds fired within a residence or business is no less important. Sheetrock and wooden walls are easily penetrated by handgun bullets. This is especially so with buckshot, as well as heavily constructed rifle rounds commonly used for self-defense or hunting of medium-sized game like deer or wild hogs.

A high percentage of deadly force encounters take place in parking lots, at gas stations, inside stores and businesses, around cars, and even inside homes and apartments. We should always assume that there may be another person somewhere within range of any round we may fire whether we can see it or not. Most assaults fall into one of the following categories:

  • Mugging
  • Armed robbery
  • Road rage
  • Personal conflict
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic violence
  • Unprovoked ritual violence
  • Home invasion/intrusion

Each  student’s objective should be that they don’t want to draw the handgun, they don’t want to aim it at another person, and they don’t want to shoot that person unless one of these actions is absolutely necessary, and this is never truer than when one or more of those persons might be a non-combatant whether immediately visible or not. Possibly the best way to prepare them to more safely deal with deadly threats in public areas or inside of structures is to first bring it to their attention. While it may be obvious to us, it is highly possible that some of our students have not given much, if any, prior thought to the importance of not accidentally shooting non-combatants. In addition, some of the students may very well believe that all they have to do is not miss. While being largely true, what is also true is that in a frenetic firefight in which both attacker and defender are likely moving there is a major chance that at some point the armed defender will place a round where the attacker was as opposed to where the attacker is. Another thing to take into consideration is the defender’s reaction time. I have seen posts on Facebook where firearm instructors debate the importance of extremely fast splits (the time that elapses between the firing of one shot and the subsequent firing of another shot). Master instructor Tom Givens urges his students in his instructor classes to not teach their own students to “outrun their headlights” by shooting faster in a lethal force encounter than they can perceive and respond to a change of circumstances which may call for complete cessation of shooting or shooting at a more deliberate speed. I am of the opinion that I can improve my chances of successfully defending myself in an area where they may be other people by taking the following actions:

  • Don’t get caught flat-footed. Focus on what is taking place around the student both near and far and avoid (or at least zone in) threat areas where they can be ambushed. I think of a threat area as any vision barrier in which another person could hide and then attack the student without the student first seeing them. Possible threat areas might be edges of buildings, parking lot pillars, gas station pumps, and parked cars.
  • Have a script for managing unknown contacts and potential threats that incorporates movement. Mine is to typically tell a suspicious party that I am unable to help them (note: I am not heartless and will indeed help others who appear to be in genuine need as long as I can control the distance between us), followed by politely telling them they need to stay back if they continue to press me, and finally responding with a very sharp command of “stay back!” if they refuse to stop aggressively moving in on me. In addition, I also move at an arc which not only opens up my field of view but helps me discern their intent should they attempt to catch up with or cut me off.
  • Encourage the students to look for non-combatants in front of, on either side, and behind the potential threat. Is there a possibility that non-combatants on either side of what would be the line of fire if an attacker started shooting at them might cross and get hit by one of the student’s bullets? If there weren’t any people in the near vicinity, could one of their bullets fired in that direction still strike an unseen non-combatant? It is definitely bad juju to launch a round through a plate glass window into or out of a store, restaurant, business, or home.
  • Move. The chances of not getting shot improve not only because the student is a moving target but possibly because the attacker was not expecting it and was caught off-guard. The student can either continue moving until they are in a safer location without firing a shot (this should always be the preference) or if returning fire is the only option to change the angle of attack so that their rounds are less likely to endanger others. In other words, the student looks for gaps in front of, on either side, and behind the attacker and then repositions him or herself if necessary in order to take advantage of it.
  • Don’t miss. The ability to read the situation and respond appropriately should dictate the speed at which counter-violence is applied. Super-fast splits should be reserved for range practice, competitions, and for defensive purposes in certain environments in which there is an adequate backstop or near-zero probability of others being anywhere close. More than likely crowded areas are not going to be one of those environments even if the encounter takes place at only a few yards. The speed at which a person can shift their body, move off the line of fire, or who is suddenly rendered unconscious and can collapse may come as a surprise to the students, and it is entirely possible that the defender is unable to react quickly enough before firing another round into the void where the attacker was as opposed to where he or she actually is.

Several schools, including mine, are teaching short-duration classes covering this subject. Class names I have heard are Parking Lot Pistol and Rule 4 Defensive Pistol Skills. We call our class Gunfighting Around Non-Combatants (previously known as Gunfighting in Crowds). One of the best two-day classes out there is John Holschen’s Applied Defensive Handgun Skills class. I just finished it and plan on taking it again. These classes focus on getting students to get a mental picture of where they spend their time and envision being attacked while out in public or even in their homes or around their cars. Once they can envision where a violent physical attack can take place and how common it is to be around other people the instructors start working on spatial awareness, appropriate handgun ready/muzzle control positions that are less likely to flag non-combatants or areas in which non-combatants might be, and movement drills to locations in which the students can shoot from that lessen the possibility of a non-combatant being shot.  

I hope to see more and more instructors teaching this material in the future. I would encourage other instructors who are not already teaching these concepts to first seek training for themselves. The last thing I would ever want to do is teach an unsound tactic that a student relies upon only to find out that by doing so their life or the lives of others were largely destroyed, perhaps forever.