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Cover? It’s All About Context

by George on June 24, 2014 07:49

We all should use cover in a gunfight.  Problematically, rather than routinely contacting subjects from cover, most don’t use it until there is a real possibility of shots fired or a gunfight actually erupts.  When there is an exchange of rounds and you’re not initially hit, especially if there is a chance gunshots will continue, you will likely seek to put something to stop the bullets between your soft body (along with all of its parts) and the shooter’s muzzle.  How you might best employ cover to save your life is dependent upon the context of your gunfight.

When discussing what actually constitutes cover, we’d have to go into a discussion of a second topic that requires context:  bullet caliber, weapon and distance from which it is fired, bullet design, and the material type and thickness of the cover being used, not to mention the difference in material thickness to protect against one round hitting the cover or several bullets striking the same material within a small area.  For our purposes, let’s just agree that cover is any material and thickness that protects against fire and the effects of fire (backface spalling, or fragments that chip off the cover at the same speed the bullet strikes the face of the cover and can be lethal for up to three feet or more) from a particular weapon at a particular distance.  Because there are so many factors in what constitutes actual cover, we are probably better served by considering everything to be concealment (a material that hides one from observation but has little to no ballistic protection, e.g., a wooden fence or car door) and tailoring our tactics to it. 

The use of cover is one of those tactics that everyone has an opinion about.  Their way is the only way.  “Always keep back from the corner.”  “Never move up to cover.”  “Always…”  “Never…”  The truth is, every method ever demonstrated on how to use cover is probably “the right way” within a specific context dictated by the situation.  Too often, tactics trainers attempt to force the situation to the tactic rather than the tactic being determined by the situational necessities of the moment.  Tactics are always based upon the context of the fight.

 

BASICS OF COVER

Whether you treat everything you hide behind as concealment or you have faith that the material you are presently hiding behind can actually stop the bullets being fired at you, there are some universal principles that boil down to understanding angles and corners that can be applied:

  • Plane of cover.  This is the imaginary plane established by the suspect’s position and ability to see beyond the corner of your cover (both vertically, e.g., the side of a fence, wall, or tree, and horizontally, e.g., over a wall, a hood of a patrol car, or under the undercarriage of the car at your feet).  The angle of that plane of cover establishes your “safe zone” and the “kill zone.”  If any part of you is in the kill zone, it can be shot.  Keeping your feet inside the safe zone is foundational to the proper use of cover.  
  • A particular piece of cover’s value can be negated by threat movement.  The value of every piece of cover is dictated by the relative positioning of each of the shooters.  Since the suspect’s position dictates the plane of cover, any lateral (or vertical) movement by the suspect will drastically change that plane—and your vulnerability.  Let’s assume you’re a step and a half behind cover and in a gunfight with a suspect 15 feet away and 90 degrees from the left corner of a vertical cover.  Your plane of cover is 90 degrees and we’ll assume you are properly protected by that barricade.  If he takes four steps to his right (your left) and you don’t move, the plane of cover shifts so dramatically that you are probably fully exposed, negating any advantage of cover.  If he takes four steps to his left (your right), the plane of cover is changed to the point where he is using your cover to mask your fire and observation of him.  In order to more safely re-engage, you will have to reestablish the plane of cover—against an aware and prepared threat.  The same problems occur on a horizontal piece of cover: the suspect’s fore and aft movement, or vertical modifications up and down, will change that plane of cover drastically.  BOTTOM LINE: the farther you are away from cover, the more the suspect’s lateral or vertical movement will affect the protective value of that barricade.
  • Threat elevation negates the value of cover.  The higher the position of the suspect shooting at you, the more it tends to expose your position.  For example, you take cover behind a thick rock and earth wall three feet tall, fifty feet away from a suspect on the roof of a three story building.  Unless you are lying along the wall at its base, most of your body will be exposed to the shooter’s fire.
  • The effectiveness of angle of incidence movement is affected by suspect distance from the corner.  It is a rare officer who has not been taught how to “slice the pie” of a corner.  Formally, this is called “angle of incidence,” extrapolated from Snell’s Law of Light Refraction.  Essentially, by moving past a horizontal or vertical corner of cover employing small degrees or angles of movement, you should be able to glean some indication of the suspect’s position (shadow or reflection) or body part (shoulder, elbow, foot, hair, etc.) before he can locate you.  However, this works well only when the suspect is relatively close to the cover.  The farther the suspect is away from the barricade, the greater the likelihood that he will be able to see you as or just before you can see him.
  • If you can shoot him, he can shoot you.  Aside from simply sticking a weapon around a corner and spraying the countryside, if you are behind your weapon shooting at him, even though everything else is protected, he can still shoot your hands, arms, and head.  To lessen this danger, if the suspect is “shootable” (meeting deadly force standards of behavior) and you find him, seeing his elbow or foot, there is no reason to move farther into the kill zone to shoot him “center mass” as this movement will signal to him to respond with fire.  Instead, shoot that which you can see—the elbow or foot.  Then, if still justified, move to targets that are better suited in stopping him—being hit unexpectedly by bullets is often distracting and possibly disabling the suspect attempting to murder you before he can shoot you is a good goal.
  • Corners are dangerous places.  All corners of cover represent danger: from beyond the corner you can be shot.  When employing cover, another danger is in the form of ricochet off of a hard surface.  This threat is lessened by moving back and away from the cover to allow the ricochet’s angle to miss you) or it may consist of the bullet being able to penetrate the corner of the material that is thinner than the body of the piece of cover (e.g., the diameter of a live 30-inch tree is impervious to almost any .30 caliber rifle round, but the edge of the tree where you operate in a gunfight may not be thick enough to stop a round).
  •  Most individuals without military training will tend to shoot at what they can see rather than through the barricade or object the officer is using.  So it makes sense to stay as small as possible behind cover and to expose as little as possible while shooting or observing.  Problematically, suspects aren’t necessarily good shots.  They will likely hit the cover you’re using, so it’s nice to have real cover rather than concealment.

 

TWO NEEDS, TWO TACTICAL CONTEXTS

All tactics are contextual and how you maneuver to employ the tactic is situationally dependent.  Employing cover is not a one-size fits all exercise.  Contextually, officers tend to employ cover in two situations:  deliberate and hasty.

Deliberate.  The officer employs the cover as a means of protection prior to contacting an individual, in anticipation of gunfire, or as a result of gunfire.  This includes searching for a suspect or attempting to locate the threat’s position employing deliberate angle of incidence movement.  Generally, it is safer and more effective to remain minimally at least one arm’s length from the cover and often up to several steps back from cover while searching.  This makes the danger of corner ricochet much less likely.  Because it is deliberate, the officer is able to maintain a more disciplined posture and avoid giving away his or her location by inadvertently crossing the plane of cover. 

When the context changes and the suspected location of the threat is unknown, for example, “The gunshot came from the west!” it is not a good idea to camp out a distance from the cover until you know exactly where that threat is positioned.  The location of the source of a single gunshot is often confusing.  Any movement must now be predicated upon clearing every angle of incidence of the corner in order to work to the point where the plane of cover can be established.  This clearing will begin at the wall and, as possible threat areas are visually cleared, you then move away from the wall until the suspect is located and plane of cover is established. 

Hasty.  The officer unexpectedly comes under fire from a known location at typical police gunfight distances.  The officer moves while firing toward the cover.  Because there is no time to determine the actual plane of cover by slowly creeping up to it (angle of incidence movement or pie-slicing), the officer instead protects as much of his body as possible by moving directly up on the barricade and concealing as much of his body as possible behind the corner of cover while maintaining fire on the suspect, reaching to or past the corner with the muzzle of the weapon.  This permits the officer to maintain the initiative in the gunfight while hurriedly placing as much of his body behind cover as possible. 

 

BUT WAIT…!

Now is the time dogma begins to rear its head and bark.  Bringing up the hasty barricade position often generates mild to outraged protests:  “We always have to remain at least one arm’s length from cover!  This will prevent us from getting hit by ricochets and prevent someone from disarming us who might be standing on the other side of the barricade!” 

Not really.  Remember the context in which it is employed: you are actively exchanging rounds with a suspect.  Because movement is life—it’s harder to hit you—and cover is a good thing to have in a gunfight, you move abruptly as you respond with fire.  As you get to the corner of the cover, you shove your torso and feet behind the protective material but remain engaged with the suspect as long as you are not taking any wounds.  That also includes any round that is so close that you need to duck behind cover to protect yourself.  Your rate of accurate fire—shooting only as fast as you can hit (which is generally a lot slower than most people practice)—is also of equal value in protecting you.

If we accept that both accurate fire combined with the use of cover are desirable components in surviving a shooting, moving to a barricade while continuing to accurately fire on an imminent threat makes sense.  What does not make sense, absent taking wounds or accurate fire that drives you back from the corner, is to voluntarily move away from the corner of cover and cease firing, losing the initiative.  Stopping your fire gives the suspect respite, a chance to reload, or adjust his position.  He’s no longer under any pressure.  Now to reengage, you will have to pie-slice in angles of incidence against a suspect who knows where you are, has demonstrated willingness to murder you, and will likely be waiting for you to show any sign of your body in the kill zone.  Not a good scenario in typical police shooting distances.  Relinquishing the initiative in any fight gives the other guy the opportunity to bring the fight to you.

Regarding ricochets, while there is always a chance that a bullet may hit the edge and ricochet into you, the difference between it hitting the corner of whatever you are using for cover and directly impacting you is often tenths of an inch.  While that may happen, there is a benefit to the certainty that almost all of your body is behind cover and that only your hands and weapon and as little of your head as possible is vulnerable.  The advantage of this confidence may offset the small possibility of ricochet threats.

Everything in tactics is a compromise.  If, in this context, you were to move toward cover while accurately firing and stop where you think the plane of cover might be while remaining well back of the barricade, in practice, we generally find you, like most officers, will be mostly or even wholly exposed.  It is nearly impossible to concentrate on hitting the suspect, move while hitting, and to precisely determine your position relative to the suspect and your piece of cover.  If this proper alignment happens, it only happens in training on a one-way range.  We see officers in force-on-force training disappear behind cover, losing the initiative and advantage, and then have to fight their way back into the gunfight from a position disadvantage.

As far as a suspect grabbing your weapon if it extends beyond the corner, we must remember context and not base our tactics on unknown ninjas and boogey-men.  This is not a slow incident of angle search where the suspect’s location is unknown and may be immediately on the other side of the door frame within hand’s reach of your weapon.  This is a gunfight.  You know the imminent threat(s), his position, and you are keeping him under observation as you shoot at him.

While it is theoretically possible that someone might remain on the other side of your barricade near the corner you are using as the suspect is shooting at you (with the bullets striking where the ninja/boogeyman is standing), it is unlikely.  Besides, we must train for the usual threat, and not the unusual or possible but improbable threat.  If I’m shooting at a suspect who is shooting at me, and I’m at the corner of cover, I’m not going to worry about a guy on the other side of the concrete block wall grabbing my weapon and disarming me.  If that happens, it will be a combatives problem to solve before resolving my present problem of someone attempting to shoot and murder me.

 

CONCLUSION

The “proper” use of cover is context-dependent.  How it is employed as a protective device is dependent upon many factors, including the type of fight you are in.  If the gunfight begins with you behind cover, remaining back from the cover at least an arm’s distance, employing strict discipline in your posture, leaning into barricade to get your weapon and eyes into the kill zone to shoot rather than stepping into it and fighting from there makes complete tactical sense. 

However, if you are not behind cover when a sudden gunfight begins and you are moving toward cover while hitting the suspect as you reach cover, it makes no sense to disappear behind cover, halting your fire, and then being forced to work your way back into the kill zone as safely as possible to reengage.  Stay in the fight by putting your legs and torso behind the cover and remain at the corner of cover to fight and win.  

Context is all-important in tactics.  It is always the first question that must be answered when someone is introducing a new tactic or skill.  Context is the first consideration in all things, for without it, we are unable to determine if the skill or tactic has any validity at all.  Because so many gunfights begin with the officer away from cover, we must consider how to most efficiently employ it when cover is a hasty tactic.  Moving, hitting, and remaining in the gunfight while almost all of your body is covered and close to the barricade makes sense…in this context.