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.