Gunfighting in the Red Zone

Police on duty

Mike Boyle

History has shown that police gunfights typically unfold at very short range. Approximately 90% occur inside of seven yards and a great many take place inside of double arm’s length.  

 Within close quarters, there is precious little time to react and no special skill is needed to inflict a serious injury or even death.

In 2019, the FBI reported that 48 law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty. Of that total, 14 were killed at distances of five feet or less. That represents a significant piece of the pie with roughly 29% of all fatalities. This is hardly an anomaly and this trend has been evident for years. Quite frankly, it causes you to wonder if our training is up to the challenge.

Football fans are familiar with the term “red zone” where the offensive team has driven within 20 yards of the goal line in the defensive team’s territory. The likelihood of scoring a touchdown or field goal is much higher and both teams play with greater intensity. As a result, both offensive and defensive strategies have to make adjustments in order to succeed. Can we draw a parallel between football and defeating an attack in close quarters? Clearly, drawing from the holster and raising the gun to eye level with two hands may not be the answer when an armed assailant is just a step or two away.

Although most contemporary police qualification courses include an element where officers fire at a target at short range, we need to do much better. Simply put, qualification does not equate to training. Firing a requisite number of rounds at a static target does not prepare you to succeed in a fight against a violent, moving aggressor who has sucker punched you or pushed you to the ground. Granted, the use of deadly force cannot be justified in many of these attacks, but when a weapon or improvised weapon is being brought into play, the game changes completely.

Hands-on to Handgun

The fact that you are armed doesn’t mean that you are in total control. Should an assailant introduce a knife or club in close quarters, you have little time to counter and going to the gun right away may get you killed. Sure, you can execute that one second draw on the sterile range, but by the time you process all that information and go for the gun, the bad guy has already plunged that screwdriver into your neck.

The reality of the situation is that your “go to the gun” response is going to eat up a few seconds and give your opponent the advantage. In many instances, you will be far better served initially responding with an empty hand technique which may allow you time to access your higher power. Unfortunately, many officers have not had the opportunity to train in bridging that gap between empty hand skills and the firearm. If your agency has been remiss in this regard, you would be well advised to seek it out on your own. Contrary to popular opinion, you do not have to be a black belt in the martial arts to meet with a measure of success.

Effective countermeasures in any close quarters conflict can be realized by doing any of the following to your opponent: interrupt the breathing; interrupt the vision; or interrupt the balance.

If possible, combinations of the above will dramatically increase your odds of success. Your initial response should be to block the incoming attack and protect the vital areas of your head, neck and chest. Immediately take the fight to the assailant before he can regroup.

Fingers in the eyes, palm strikes, hammer fists, knees to the groin, or common peroneal nerve (nerve in the lower leg) can be very effective in taking the fight out of an aggressor in close quarters. Consider working out with a training partner to master a few simple blocks which can protect you in a close quarters attack.

The Retention Position

Over the years, there have been a number of close quarters techniques devised – some are good; others are best forgotten. For this discussion, I will offer a few which provide the best chance of success. Recognize there is no one technique which is best and you have to pick and choose based on what is going on around you and what the assailant is doing. Needless to say, a firearm response would only be justified if there was an immediate and unavoidable threat of death or serious bodily injury.

Probably the most commonly taught extreme close quarters shooting technique is the retention position. Unlike the range, we have to consider that you may be in physical contact with your assailant at the moment of truth and this simple fact is often ignored in traditional police firearms training. To avoid a disarm attempt or having the muzzle deflected, the gun is drawn and held tight to the body at chest level. As soon as a decision to fire has been made, both hands are in motion. As the strong hand goes for the gun, the support hand is brought to the back of the neck while the arm protects the head and upper body.

Depending on the situation, the muzzle of your firearm may be level or angled down. Bringing the elbow all the way to the rear will put shots on the assailant’s lower torso, groin or even the legs. The key is to get your pistol as far to the rear as possible. The pistol should also be slightly canted to the outside so that the slide does not come in contact with the upper body or a jacket.

After firing those initial shots, break contact and, if possible, step back out of the hole to create distance. Be prepared to fire additional shots if the threat is still viable. A common mistake in watching officers using this technique is that the gun is extended too far forward. Instructors need to take note of this and make sure their students do not reinforce an unsafe technique by having the gun too close to an assailant.

Shove and Shoot

Another effective close quarters technique is best described as shove and shoot. Should you find yourself in very close proximity to a subject and it appears he is trying to bring some sort of weapon into play, this may be the solution. As soon as you recognize the threat, strike hard with your support hand, create distance and quickly move backwards as the gun is brought to eye level. Ideally, the subject has been driven a short distance to the rear while you have moved in the opposite direction.

There are many variations devised around this theme including a sudden strike with one or both hands. Some trainers advocate that the strike should be directed to the face. Unless I am physically tied up with the subject, I prefer to direct that blast to the solar plexus rather than the face. There are simply too many bad guys with some training or skill who might be able to avoid your strike. The chest offers a much bigger target. If possible, your rearward movement should be on a slight oblique angle as your opponent will have a hard time adjusting.

Does it work? At best, this is a sometimes solution. Should an assailant be moving aggressively toward you, it’s unlikely that your strike will move him to the rear far enough where you can disengage. Keep in mind that the assailant can move much faster forward than you can move backwards and he is likely to run right over you. Where it may work is on a static threat who is inside your personal space. The key to success remains that hard blast. Also, consider what is behind you. While this may work just fine on the range, it would not be the technique of choice in a confined space with furniture or alongside a busy highway where you might move into traffic.

Drive Forward

Yet another possibility is the drive forward technique. Again, the presumption is that you have an aggressor in very close proximity attempting to access a weapon from their pocket or waistband. The support hand comes up and the idea is to get the palm under the chin as you quickly move forward. The gun is drawn and held close to the body very much like the retention position discussed earlier. If all goes well, your adversary is knocked off balance and unable to bring his weapon into play while you deliver a burst of shots.

Much like weapon retention or shove and shoot, the viability of using the drive forward technique depends on what is going on around you. Clearly, you wouldn’t want to move in on a subject with a knife in hand. However, it can work very well against subjects who may be in light contact with you. Quickly sliding your support hand from the chest to the chin while you aggressively move forward will get things going your way. A smack on the nose and fingers in the eyes will also pay dividends. It is extremely important that the muzzle of the handgun is angled down as to not cover your own body parts.

Contact Shots

Violent struggles are unpredictable and there is a very real possibility that the muzzle of your firearm comes in contact with the body of the aggressor. Body contact may very well push the slide out of battery and prevent the pistol from firing. When revolvers ruled, this was a nonissue as you can still fire multiple shots with the barrel in hard contact with an adversary. But, that was then and this is now. Quite simply, we need to find a solution.

Do you think that is not going to happen? Guess again! A stronger, larger opponent may push you up against a wall or vehicle or take you to the ground. While you’re in this compromised position, he is doing his best to choke you out or smash you in the head with a brick. Lesser measures have failed or are clearly impossible and you have no alternative but to resort to deadly force.

Let’s assume you have gotten the gun out of the holster, but it has come in contact with the body of your assailant, pushing the slide out of battery. Either the wall or the ground prevents you from pulling your arm to the rear and having the pistol return to battery. To remedy this, try to get the support hand over the top of the slide and take a firm grip. If you can retract the strong side arm just a fraction of an inch, your gun will return to battery and you can trigger off a shot. Because the support hand is in contact with the slide, you will experience a stoppage, but that one shot has probably changed your opponent’s focus. Disengage to create distance, clear the stoppage and fire additional rounds, if necessary.

Having a weapon light mounted on your pistol may actually alleviate this problem. With many lights, the bezel extends beyond the muzzle and body contact typically will not push the gun out of battery, but I wouldn’t bet the mortgage on it!

Other Concerns

Be sure to incorporate a good bit of one-handed shooting into your training regimen. Although the overwhelming percentage of police firearms training is conducted with two hands on the pistol, real life tells a slightly different story. Footage from both dash and body cams shows that officers often fire one-handed only when confronted with danger at very close range. Techniques often don’t look like anything we see or teach on the range, but as long as we’re getting hits on the threat, I’m not all that concerned about form. I do make it a point to regularly include quite a bit of one-handed shooting with movement when training the officers in my outfit.

Another area of concern involves firing from nontypical positions, including the ground or while seated. It doesn’t take too much imagination to come up with scenarios where you slipped on the ice or have been injured and fallen to the ground. You may be down, but the fight is still on. Hopefully, you can draw and still deliver active fire.

Law enforcement officers spend a good amount of their workday in a seated position inside the vehicle. Additionally, you may find yourself seated behind a table in some café or fast food restaurant. Could you quickly react to a deadly threat in close proximity? I make it a point to have our guys and girls shoot from the patrol vehicle at least once per year and, on occasion, we bring a bunch of chairs out to the range and work that angle as well.

For many officers, they haven’t trained for a sudden violent attack in close quarters. My advice would be to go outside your comfort zone and try to fill in some of the gaps. I find that Airsoft technology is a great tool to help integrate open hand and firearms skills with minimal risk. By incorporating some basic empty hand blocks and strikes, along with some tactically sound firearms skills, an officer will be in a much better position to defeat a potentially lethal attack in close quarters.

Captain Mike Boyle served with the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife, Bureau of Law Enforcement, and has been an active firearms instructor for more than 30 years. He has been an assistant police academy director and remains active as an academy rangemaster and instructor. Mike has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) since 1996. He is the architect and coordinator of IALEFI’s Master Instructor Development Program.