From my earliest days of training beyond the fundamentals of shooting, I recall being taught that cover is better than concealment and that the most valuable tactic is gaining cover. As with many things I was taught as doctrine, I now say “maybe.”
Concealment is basically a visual concept. If the best way to win a fight is to avoid it, concealment may be a useful means to avoid or escape a fight. It may also allow you to move unseen to a position of advantage in a fight that you cannot avoid. Concealment is also pretty much an all-or-none proposition – if your foot is sticking out beyond the side of what you thought was concealment or if your shadow projects beyond it, your assailant may notice that you’re there. Similarly, if you’re trying to move your children unseen, from their bedrooms to yours, and scrape your gun or flashlight against the wall, you may have lost the concealment that the wall had provided you.
Okay, but there’s still a wall between you and the intruder – does it provide cover? I can’t recall how many photos I’ve seen in magazines and books depicting a homeowner “taking cover” in the doorway to his bedroom or behind the bed. In this field, cover is defined as something that stops bullets. Most interior walls, unless struck where the stud is located, will not even stop .22’s reliably and most mattresses consist largely of air between the springs.
While cover will usually provide concealment, it may not always. Think of the Lexan panels or bullet resistant windows found in some banks and businesses. They provide a measure of cover but no concealment. I say “measure of cover” because something that stops common handgun bullets may not stop a bullet from a centerfire rifle. And, as I pointed out to one former employer, that “bulletproof” window may stop a centerfire handgun bullet but the wall surrounding it may not. Also worth noting is that, unlike with concealment, there is such a thing as partial cover – optimally over your most crucial organs.
My early training taught me that cover is superior to concealment. It may be on a battlefield, where there may be indirect fire, shrapnel from artillery shells, etc. On the street, however, a good friend once pointed out to me that cover is similar to a latex device commonly used to prevent the sexual transmission of disease – you can only use it for a fairly short time before you have to throw it away. If you are dealing with one or more determined assailants, you may be outflanked if you expect to rely on the same cover indefinitely. Is unseen movement starting to look more attractive? By the way, the exception for long-term use of cover is typically when you’ve been able to prepare an ensconced position, such as in the designated safe room of your home, and you are able to limit the direction of attack so that you cannot be outflanked.
Since my illustrations for this article are drawn from my book Defensive Use of Firearms, let’s take an abbreviated look at a couple of issues discussed there involving the use of cover:
For ages, cover props on the range were referred to as barricades and served primarily as support, to gain more accuracy with the handgun, at the longer distances in the courses of fire. However, from a tactical perspective, many law-enforcement instructors came to advise not to “hug cover,” in order to lessen the risk of getting struck by bullets skipping off hard surfaces. Unlike light, where a beam is reflected at the same angle that it strikes the reflective surface, bullets that glance off hard surfaces (including water) tend to do so at narrow angles, typically around six degrees. While the illustration shows the implications of this with a wall, this is also why many instructors counsel not going to kneeling or prone positions without cover. Doing so may simply lower your vital areas to where they are more likely to be struck by bullets jerked low so that they skip off pavement or packed dirt.
On the other hand, shooting over low cover may pose the risk of outgoing bullets skipping off cover. Those bullets will strike someplace and, in an urban environment, may produce tragic results when they do. The risk of this is greatest with a rifle whose aiming plane is significantly higher than the axis of the bore. However, I still recall a serious dent that I was shown in the hood of a car owned by one of the most prominent federal law-enforcement agencies, made by an agent firing a handgun under the relatively low stress of training on the range. When firing over low cover, it may make sense not only to crowd it but to place the support hand on the cover to prevent this sort of mishap. While we’re at it, compare the choices of firing over versus firing around low cover.
I’ve heard the mantra “create distance, seek cover” repeated in more than one classroom and on more than one training range. Good advice? It depends on the circumstances. Several years ago, John Farnam studied one of NYPD’s annual reports on shots fired and noted that bad guys rarely score hits beyond what John referred to as “six meters” (just under seven yards). However, unless they’re ambushed, most police officers killed by gunfire in the US get shot at distances of six feet or less. Unlike private citizens, cops are often required to engage with criminals and have the privilege of drawing a gun proactively. Thus, they are more likely than a private citizen to be able to use part of a vehicle as cover, when a traffic stop turns sour, or to seek cover from a utility pole, when responding to a robbery in progress. At such longer distances – where cops do most of their training – they are usually the ones who prevail. At the aforementioned distances of six feet or less, there is generally no time to seek cover. Further, bad guys – since they’re the ones acting, not reacting – generally do well with point-and-shoot techniques. Under those circumstances, all that is normally accomplished by trying to create distance is a very slight reduction in the angular size of the assailant’s target.
When I was teaching, I told my students that the single most valuable exercise I was teaching on the range was countering an attack at arm’s length. The drill involved side-stepping while deflecting the attack, shouting to disorient the assailant and drawing to a protected-gun position (an improved version of what Fairbairn and Sykes called the quarter-hip or close-hip position), then firing the first shot into the assailant’s pelvis, to destroy his mobility. Rather than seeking to create distance at bad-breath range, I emphasized circling into the assailant, to limit his mobility during this complex drill.
Sorry folks – sometimes there aren’t simple solutions to complex problems. If you notice that an instructor is teaching you to stand in one spot, particularly at such a close distance, while you draw and fire, get out your shovel and take some of that stuff on the ground home to fertilize your garden.
Yeah, my book also shows the best way to move to cover at longer distances but the odds are that the preceding paragraph will prove much more valuable on the street.
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All illustrations are by Jeff Cahill, copyright 2005, 2010 by Defensive Use of Firearms, LLC