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Why Do We Train & Aim For Center of Mass?

Lots and lots of things are debated in the world of self-defense…guns, calibers, and tactics.

That’s without a doubt a very good thing. The more we debate and experiment, the more we learn.

9mm vs .45 ACP
9mm vs .45 ACP is a fabled (and ongoing) debate!

Oddly, some things are never debated, or necessarily even talked about.

One such topic is why we aim center mass

Center Mass Target
Center Mass Target

Discussing a subject does not mean we intend to debate it. However, discussion can lead to a better understanding of concepts.

Aiming center mass is good advice, but today we are going to talk about why it’s good advice. 

Body Armor Test LAPG Level 3 Black Tip
Even with body armor, center mass hits can be bad.

For experienced and well-trained police officers, military members, and concealed carriers, it’s obvious.

For those new to the world of firearms-based self-defense, understanding why we aim for center mass is just as important as aiming center mass. 

aiming center mass (Moderno)
Here’s what aiming for center mass can look like. (Moderno)

The subject comes up often; in numerous firearms-based Facebook groups, I see lots of questions and statements.

Lots of “Why can’t I shoot them in the leg?” and lots of bravado talking about “headshots.” 

Often the connecting tissue between the two is a lack of experience

Mastering Handgun, Reset Drill
Guess how you get that experience? You drill!

So today, we are going to go in-depth with why you aim center mass and the reasons why limb and headshots often end up being a poor choice for the average self-defender.

We’ll also be realistic and talk center mass downsides, as well as who teaches center mass shooting. 

Sound like a plan? Then let’s get to learning!

Table of Contents

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What Is Center Mass?

One helpful way to ensure we are on the same page is to all have an understanding of terms. 

Vital Anatomy Center Mass Target
Anywhere inside the lines is center mass!

Center Mass means the torso in the context of a self-defense shooting. 

Not all center mass is equal. On the human body, the important portion of center mass sits below the neck, centered in the upper portion of the chest. 

Ideally, when you train to shoot center mass, you are aiming at the portion of the chest containing the heart and lungs. 

Body Armor Anatomy
Anything that would be covered by a plate is the goal.

Why Aim Center Mass? 

The most obvious reason is that shooting a firearm accurately takes skill. One way to reduce the skill needed to hit a target is to make the target bigger. 

When you gaze upon the human body, the largest target is the torso. 

Body Armor Test Mira Level 4 762
As Thicc Joe demonstrates here — that’s a lot of body mass in just the torso. And lots of ooey gooey organs!

Reason number one to aim center mass: the biggest target presented to you. Even at various angles, the torso is the largest target

In a fight, people move, and the angle presented won’t present as a squared up range-style encounter. 

When someone moves, runs, and dives, they might present a small portion of their body. Regardless of the portion presented, the torso presents the largest target. 

Center Mass at different angles (Moderno)
Center Mass at different angles (Moderno)

Don’t believe me? Here’s what former Navy SEAL and Trident Concepts owner Jeff Gonzalez says on the subject:

“Most defensive gun uses are fast, chaotic and happen with little warning. The average person is always playing catch up since they must respond to the deadly force threat. Add stress and little to no training makes delivering your fire to the largest target zone available your top priority.”

Brownells Daily Defense Ankle CCW
Jeff Gonzales

Gonzales continued, “Typically, the largest target zone will be the upper thoracic chest region or ‘center of mass’ where vital life processes such as the body’s ability to produce and transport oxygenated blood reside.”

We’re pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about since he pioneered some incredible advances for defensive training and runs one of the best combative and defensive shooting training schools

Of the torso, the chest happens to be the widest portion of the body. That’s great because the chest is also the home of the heart and the lung. Both are virtual organs and necessary for a fight. 

When you aim at center mass, you increase your chance of both hitting the target and hitting a vital organ in the target. 

Body Armor Test Level 3 Spartan Armor Green Tip
Yeah, that’ll put a hitch in your giddyup…

If you want to stop a bad guy, shot placement is key. Hitting the bad guy in the chest is not just easier but exercises proper shot placement. 

Hit a bad guy in the chest, and they are more likely to be out of the fight. Aim small, miss small should also be mentioned. 

Aim small, miss small The Patriot
“Not missing” is a much more critical concept with a muzzleloader, I suppose.

If you aim at the chest but hit wide or hit low, you are still hitting the bad guy. If you aim for the logo on his shirt, you’ll probably still hit his torso.

Sure the shot might not be the best for stopping a bad guy, but pain compliance can often end a fight as well. 

Aiming for center mass ensures the safety of others as well. When a bullet hits the torso, it’s less likely to over-penetrate. 

Overpenetration Test Setup
Overpenetration Test Setup — or, “Will it go through?”

Over penetration is when a round goes through your target and continues forward. 

A round over penetrating the target can strike another person and kill or wound them.

When you shoot a person’s torso, the thicker portion of the body often ensures the round does not over-penetrate and travels on to hurt another person. 

Overpenetration with ballistic gel
Over penetration with ballistic gel

What About Headshots?

Without a doubt, headshots will stop a threat outright.

Being able to hit a target in the brain housing group is an almost guaranteed means to turn the lights off. 

Headshot
It’s not as easy as PUBG makes it seem…

Headshots can be hard to hit, though. 

It’s a much smaller target than the torso. Even at 15-yards, hitting a moving target as small as a head is rather difficult. 

Add in a dose of adrenaline, and your heart pumping rapidly, and it gets a little tougher. 

shooting bottles fail
Seriously, you’ll feel like this… but also the bottles are shooting back.

Want to try it out? Do 20 burpees and try to hit a stationary target in the head at 15-yards. Now imagine that target is running towards you or moving to cover or pointing a long gun at you. 

It’s a tough shot to make for most shooters. 

A missed shot means you have a round shrieking through the air and carrying with the potential to harm another person. A missed headshot isn’t just a missed headshot, but a round sent wildly into the world. 

Negligent Discharge
Don’t be this kind of gun owner. Just don’t.

One firearm safety rule is to know your target and what lies beyond it

What lies beyond is pretty dang important! 

Just Shoot Them In the Leg! 

We see these a lot from people with often good intentions but poor knowledge of firearms. 

Shooting someone in the leg or arm is suggested so a potential bad guy can be wounded but not killed. 

Well, there are a few problems with that theory. 

skipped leg day
Legs are small. Torsos are large. There you go.

Getting shot in the leg is not a way to guarantee the person won’t die. The femoral artery could be hit, and the bad guy would bleed out quickly and easily. 

Second, like the head, limbs are always moving. Limbs and arms move and groove quite a bit during a fight. 

kermit flailing
Do you want to try and hit that?

As targets, they can be long but are often thin compared to the rest of the body.

Not only are they hard to hit, but when hit, the likelihood of over-penetration is very real. 

You really can’t win in this scenario. 

Who Teaches Center Mass? 

 Everyone in the industry teaches center mass. At least for self-defense shooting.

gary oldman everyone

Sure, police and military instructors will likely train professional gunfighters for headshots in certain scenarios, but center mass is the go-to 99% of the time. 

Center mass shots are the industry standard for a reason.

When you have an industry that loves to argue all agree on one thing; it’s worth paying attention to. 

Taking A Shot
Seriously, everyone drills, teaches, and trains for center mass shots. (Alien Gear)

As an infantryman, our training was all about center mass shots.

It can be rather difficult to hit a guy in the head in a gunfight, even for trained soldiers and Marines. Headshots require a slower, well-placed shot. 

Heck, sometimes we trained to hit the body multiple times before transitioning to a headshot.

In terms of limb shots, I’ve never received training, outside of less-lethal shotgun, to take limb shots. 

Head and center mass shots
Head shots are for after center mass shots!

Downside to Aiming Center Mass 

Nothing is 100% good at all times. Surely there have to be downsides, right? 

Yep, there are a few downsides to acknowledge when focusing on center mass training. 

Body armor exists and has become quite affordable. Body armor commonly covers the torso and can make your shots less effective. 

Tru Spec 24/7 Concealed Armor Undershirt
Tru Spec 24/7 Concealed Armor Undershirt

That said, criminal use of body armor is rare, and this is more of an issue for police and the military

Even when you get hit in the armor, the best-case scenario is getting the wind knocked out of you.

Worst case, you are dealing with broken ribs and potential internal bleeding. So it’s not like body armor defeats center mass shots completely!

8x10 Body Armor Plate
Eric demonstrating where body armor plates should be positioned

Also, if a bad guy is aiming a firearm at you, their arms, hands, and firearms often get in the way of a chest shot. Even when a bad guy is armed with a melee weapon, they tend to keep their arms tucked in. 

This can slow down or deflect a bullet and make it difficult for center mass shots to reach their intended target. 

center mass target
Here’s what you’re more likely to see — arms and a gun in front of center mass.

However, these two downsides still aren’t enough reason not to train center mass shots. 

Especially if you are a concealed carrier, shooting center mass increases your ability to stop a target and end the threat. 

Conclusion

While there might be more guaranteed ways to put down an assailant — like head shots — these only work if you land the shot. Aiming for center mass will give you the best chances to land your shots.

Olight at Head-Height
Boom, mic drop.

When it comes to a gunfight — nothing is certain. All we can do is train our hardest and learn what techniques have the highest chance of successfully stopping an altercation. 

What say you? How do you train for center mass shots? Let us know your thoughts and tactics. Now that we’ve settled this debate, what about weapon lights? Do they make you a target? Come see in Can a Weapon Mounted Light Make You a Target?

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14 Leave a Reply

  • Spike

    LOL WTF is up will all these people mentioning groin shots?

    Is it Freudian? No people.... if you want to make an argument for an abdomen shot, fine, but a shot at the junk? Sounds like something Biden would recommend to his wife Jill.

    June 5, 2021 11:53 pm
    • David, PPT Editor

      The groin has risen in popularity for a number of reasons and is a reasonable target. The groin has several arteries in a small area making them easier to hit. If you're shooting with a rifle and need to stop someone that is charging you, breaking the pelvis is a completely viable target. It doesn't work as well with pistol rounds, but still works.

      June 6, 2021 12:16 am
      • John Doe

        In certain circumstance a groin shot, if it comes out of the bad guy, will go rather quickly to the ground instead of flying horizontally possibly into an innocent bystander.

        June 6, 2021 4:16 pm
      • Chris

        Also if you fracture the pelvis the person is physically incapable of standing. Your entire upper body is supported by the pelvis. You break that they fall. Which makes the individual less of a moving target. They can of course still shoot but stopping the threat is easier when the threat can't run.

        June 9, 2021 7:21 am
  • eric miranda

    i totally agree . due to my limited resources, i have been working on my " 8x11" plain copy paper drill when i have time to go to the range at 7 and 10 yrds( 50 rds each) as my " center mass" drill. i teach my 3 teens the same way but i still have friends ( the ones that " owns" a hand gun( kept in the garaged or only fired 2x in 2 yrs..) that keep insisting that center mass means you aim to kill the bad guy. i cant get through the concept of " stopping" the bad guy .

    June 2, 2021 11:17 pm
    • Gilbert A. Wilson

      Wise counsel in defending against both an appropriate threat and the resulting legal scrutiny if shots are necessary. Concealed carry insurers & weapons trainers both emphasize neutralizing threats, not maiming or killing in civilian settings, whether from bodily harm or to defend others. Skills developed with good technique practice for situations & settings along with weapons' familiarity should allow the shooter to respond in a moral and legal manner.

      June 8, 2021 10:14 am
  • Stepan

    I like to aim for lower center mass. A gut shot and/or groin shot especially with a shot gun will take the steam out of anybody!

    June 2, 2021 3:50 pm
  • Russel

    Well I have seen four people shot three live and one on CCTV in our gunshop. Two were hit respectively in the left arm and the left shoulder. The left shoulder shot well he was close to the shooter so just clamped his hand over the wound. The shoulder shot she didn't notice, drunk? When told she was shot she moved to a lighted area and only reacted when she touched it and saw blood on her fingers, then screamed.

    The other two first clown was waving a knife and collected a .25 FMJ in the stomach. Instant drop and screaming. It was two blocks from a hospital so he was in ER inside 5 minutes...

    The second one was three idiots had rented a gun - walked out with the gun loaded and turned and shot his friend through his guts and if we hadn't built a metal sheet into the wall the bullet would have hit his other mate in the ankle. They disobeyed all the rules... He also fell instantly. Lots and lots of nerves in your lower abdomen ... Instant pain. So I like John Farnam's zipper theory, start low and go up....

    June 2, 2021 3:21 am
  • MD OPIE

    keep shots in the middle and all in center mass

    June 2, 2021 12:55 am
  • Yogi

    OK, the last few sentences show a perceived downside. My take on that is, shoot a little low, groin area is still center mass.

    June 1, 2021 11:23 pm
  • Bradley Scheel

    Where can I get that second target?
    Review the FBI Miami shoot out.

    Once ain't enough.

    June 1, 2021 8:54 pm
  • Darkman

    At the range my Ol' lady aims for the crotch. She kinda mean that way.

    June 1, 2021 6:30 pm
  • Doug

    I Montgomery Co MD LEO once told me their policy was, it you just had to shoot, shoot like you mean to survive the encounter - two to the chest, and one to the head

    June 1, 2021 5:54 pm
  • John

    As an instructor, I teach that we are shooting to stop an attack. That may mean that the shot is fatal and that may be what is required to stop an attack but that is not the goal. If the center mass shot does do enough damage to stop an attack, it may require firing at another body part (hence two at the body, one at the head) or even shooting to break the pelvis.

    June 1, 2021 4:37 pm
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