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Physiology/Psychology of a Gun Fight

How a Bullet Deters an Assailant

Home Security



In any self defense situation, your goal is not to maim or kill your assailant.  It is rather to stay alive, and survive a desperate confrontation.  If flight is possible, escape by any means.  If you are trapped, be prepared to fight.  Proper application of deadly force, through use of a firearm, may represent the only viable means by which the intended victim can expect to have a chance of living through an assault by an aggressively determined, physically powerful, or possibly armed attacker.  

The mere presence of a gun in the hands of a law abiding citizen often prevents the occurrence of bloodshed on either side.  However, if you are ever required to fire a gun to save innocent lives, including your own, keep shooting the assailant in the chest and head until the conflict is over and the criminal no longer represents a threat.  You should not be firing unless the situation has degenerated to a matter of life or death. 

The question of whether or not to issue a warning to your attacker before firing has implications which can be debated with merit on each side.

Essentially, if warning the assailant endangers your life even further or exacerbates the situation, don't feel you are somehow morally bound to give your attacker a time advantage that could result in your death. The violent encounter is not a duel where a code of honor is involved. It is rather elemental survival at its basest.

On the other hand, if you feel that a verbal warning is warranted, yell commands such as: "Back off. I have a gun, don't make me use it;" or "Get out of here. Don't make me shoot you."

In a home invasion, if you have time, call 911. Yell at the criminal while on the phone with the police dispatcher. This affords the legal benefit of a recording of your warning to the criminal in the event of a civil lawsuit brought against you by the dead or wounded assailant's family.

Before bringing a firearm to bear for self defense, quickly determine if the following three conditions exist:

By means of their language, actions, behavior, or demeanor, another person has demonstrated their intent to kill or severely injure you;

This person has ability and the means at hand to carry out their intent, because they are armed with a knife, gun, club, or other lethal weapon, or, if unarmed, they are physically capable of overpowering you;

The physical conditions of the encounter are such that the other person has the opportunity to carry out the attack.

These conditions warrant the use of deadly force on your part.  Keep in mind that all three criteria must exist.  Such conduct is not warranted merely to protect property.  You must, unequivocally, be in fear of your life and in jeopardy of serious physical harm or death.

When the conflict is over, put your firearm into a safe condition, secure it, contact law enforcement officials, call for an ambulance, and retain the services of an attorney. 

The judicial system in America tends to favor the criminal rather than the victim.  It is wise to become familiar with state and local statutes, codes and ordinances regarding the use of deadly force ahead of time to ascertain your rights and responsibilities under the law.

A court of law will investigate and determine if your use of force was logical (involved sound judgment), was reasonable (sane, lucid, rational) and was necessary (unavoidable).  If you have acted in a proper manner, no criminal charges will be filed.  

However, be aware that a civil action will likely will be brought by your attacker's relatives.  After all, you have deprived them of potential income associated with the deceased's future criminal activities!  Successfully defending yourself in court of law may cost up to six figures, but that is of little consequence when you consider that your justified use of deadly force saved your own life.                  

In self defense, preparedness and practice are paramount.  Become familiar with your firearms operation.  Be alert.  When outside the home, the importance of maintaining an awareness of one's physical surroundings is obvious, with increased vigilance required under unfamiliar or suspect conditions.

In a like manner, it is just as important to understand  and anticipate the instinctual alarm reactions your mind and body will likely assume in the event you ever experience a violent attack.    

In a life threatening situation, the intended victim's "fight or flight" reflex manifests itself.  This reflex, honed by millenniums of adaptive human survival behavior, results in increased heart rate and cardiac output, higher blood pressure, accelerated respiration, greater carbohydrate metabolism, and virtually instantaneous supercharging of the body.  

This stimulation is attributable to the adrenal glands above the kidneys which produce steroidal hormones, and the hormones and neurotransmitters epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, responsible for constricting blood vessels and dilating bronchi in the lungs.  

The stress, rage, and fear which overwhelm the intended victim thus create a bodily alarm reaction which expresses itself as a period of greater strength and faster speed, accompanied by near impervious reaction to pain.  At the same time, fine motor skills grossly deteriorate, dexterity noticeably decreases, and the hands, arms and legs may tremble.  The intended victim will also likely experience an altered state of perception as well.  One, indeed, is not calm, cool and collected.

The perception of time may become distorted.  With the body alarm reaction, the mind processes stimuli at a fantastically accelerated rate when compared to normal.  The result may be the perception that activities are occurring in slow motion, even though movements of the event may actually be extremely fast.  The reverse may also occur: the event may seem to transpire faster than one would expect.

In its in incredibly heightened state of awareness, the mind of the intended victim tends to focus with tunnel vision on the identified threat.  This results in the exclusion of normal peripheral vision.  Knowledge of this potential visual reaction to an attack is valuable in the event one is ever faced with multiple assailants.

The perception of hearing, like vision, may also be drastically affected during a life threatening encounter.  The mind screens out everything that is extraneous to immediate survival, resulting in auditory exclusion.  The distorted perception of hearing may mute shouts, sirens and screams.  You may not even hear your own gun fire.  This sensory response was employed with considerable dramatic effect by Steven Spielberg in his motion picture "Saving Private Ryan".

The "fight or flight" reflex allows the mind to draw upon memory resources that are not normally used.  The intended victim may experience a sense of precognition, an anticipation response to a subconsciously perceived sequence of circumstances.  You "see it coming", even though to the casual observer no violent threat as yet exists.

Be prepared to experience a denial response to a life or death situation.  One tends to seek mental and emotional shelter in normalcy.  When this state of mind is horrifically shattered, the intended victim's reaction may be "this can't be happening".

One may experience "hysterical blindness" during or after an attack.  Essentially, the mind refuses to visualize any longer a terrifying event perceived by the eyes.  This may translate into fleeing the scene of an attack, even if one successfully, and legally, used lethal force to survive the incident.  Needless to say, law enforcement officials will take a dim view of this evasion.

In a highly trained person who has practiced to a degree that the body's reaction to a stimulus is automatic, the "fight or flight" reflex may create the illusion of "watching one's self ".  The body movement is so fast, without the guidance of deliberate thought, that one's conscious mind can't keep up.

The highest manifestation of the phenomenon of observing oneself occurs as an "out of body" experience.  Due to trauma, the mind's survival instinct drives all senses into a state of profound and unparalleled perception.  From sounds and recalled sights, the mind is able to generate three dimensional images.

The out of body experience is often combined with a "celestial death".  During this state, one sees a brilliant, bright tunnel or vortex of intense white light.  One may also spiritually encounter luminous figures or loved ones who have passed on.  Vistas, landscapes and images are beautiful.  Sensations are pleasant, reassuring and calm.  The celestial death may be  experienced by those who are clinically dead, who miraculously recover, as well as by those victims of an attack who believe themselves to be mortally wounded, near imminent death.  

After a life threatening encounter, the intended victim may occasionally revert to a state similar to that of sleep walking, seeming to be in a zombie-like trance.

Confusion is a state of mind commonly experienced by an intended victim who has survived a life or death encounter.  Manifestations include remembering events out of sequence, exaggerating the importance of trivial incidents, and forgetting important events due to short term memory loss.   

The ramifications of the foregoing physical-psychological aspects of encountering, enduring, and evading a life threatening violent attack are obvious: recognize in yourself how your body and mind may react, and prepare yourself accordingly to the extent possible.  Mental preparedness is one aspect of self defense.

Likewise, it is apparent that an intended victim who has survived a violent encounter is not going to be in the best frame of mind to immediately recount details of the incident to law enforcement authorities.

Physically, the adrenalin rush which supercharged the body has given way to a precipitous decline in energy.  The intended victim is likely exhausted and confused.  For these reasons, it is not a good idea to give legal statements regarding an attack right away, especially if the attack was terminated by the justifiable use of deadly force on your part.  Rather, politely advise the police officers that you understand your rights.  Then get some rest, collect your thoughts, and consult with an attorney.



A bullet may be effective in incapacitating an aggressor by any of five mechanisms:

  • Disrupting or impairing the supply of blood carrying oxygen to the brain;
  • Disrupting the central nervous system;
  • Breaking bones and the skeletal support structure;
  • Psychological reasons;
  • Neural shock.

The respiratory system consists of the nose, mouth, upper throat, larynx, trachea, bronchi, lungs, diaphragm, and the muscles of the chest.  Oxygen passes through the lungs into the blood, and carbon dioxide is given off.  

The body requires a constant supply of oxygen.  Certain cells, such as those in the brain and nervous system, can be injured or die after four to six minutes without oxygen.  Such damage is irreparable, because these cells are not regenerated or replaced.  The cardiovascular system distributes oxygen throughout the body.

Damage to the vascular system is the most likely occurrence to result from a shooting.  Blood vessels will be either severed or torn.  

Blood loss, hence unconsciousness, is usually a gradual process.  An assailant must lose at least twenty percent (one quart) of the body's total blood supply in order to be incapacitated.  A blood loss of 50 percent usually results in death.  However, even with the heart totally destroyed, an assailant can remain functional for full and complete voluntary action for 10-15 seconds, due to the presence of oxygen already in the brain.

The fact that the brain can survive for a very brief period of time after the body is technically dead has been known for centuries.  During the French Revolution, the mob found great delight in the grisly sport of finding a head freshly severed by the guillotine that blinked or grimaced.

Consider that a man with a 44-inch chest will measure approximately 13- to 14-inches in thickness through the torso.

It is generally regarded that penetration of ten to twelve inches of soft tissue by a bullet is the acceptable minimum performance standard for a self defense cartridge.  Penetration in excess of fifteen inches is excessive, and represents a waste of wounding potential, particularly if the bullet exits the attacker's body.  

The foregoing criteria is not hard and fast, and common sense should prevail.  For example, penetration of eight inches is usually adequate to inflict effective wound trauma capable of terminating criminal hostilities when conditions are favorable, such as a shot placed front to back through the sternum.

In a home defense situation, shots to an assailant will likely be frontal or quartering frontal.  Major blood vessels and vital organs will be encountered at bullet penetration from six to eight inches.  

The ten to twelve inch minimum criteria provides a degree of insurance in the unfavorable event that a bullet requires abnormally deep penetration to reach vital areas.  This can, and does, happen quite often in real life homicidal encounters.  Examples include the presence of non critical tissue, such as a shielding or obstructing arm which must be traversed by the bullet, an unusual angle of the bullet path through the criminal's torso which increases distance to be traveled to vital areas, or the fact that one's attacker is extraordinarily big or heavy.  Clothing may also inhibit bullet penetration.      

Disruption of the central nervous system is produced by a shot to the brain or cervical spinal cord.  Instantaneous collapse will result.  

The most effective shot placement is to the cranial vault of the head or to the brain stem.  The problem with a skull shot is that the head of an assailant is a relatively small and rapidly moving target.  Also, the bones of the skull are extremely tough.  There are numerous incidences where a head shot has resulted only in a superficial glancing blow when the bullet ricochet off.  Should the bullet actually enter the brain, crushing and hydrostatic shock will induce immediate incapacitation.  The cervical spinal cord is only about the thickness of one's little finger, offering a very elusive target indeed.

While most bullets of reasonably sized caliber are capable of breaking bones, this occurrence alone is not likely to bring about a termination of hostility by incapacitating the aggressor.  A shot to the pelvis will tend to cripple, but not kill. 

Psychological predisposition may cause some people to collapse or capitulate when shot.  This "Oh my God, I've been shot" reaction may greatly outweigh the effects of any actual physical trauma.  The psychological response to being shot is extremely variable.  

Emotional fainting may occur.  This type of neurogenic shock is a physiological reaction to a psychological cause, such as intense fear or overwhelming stress.  Walls of blood vessels possess muscle fibers which allow the vessels to constrict or dilate, a mechanism normally employed by the body to adjust blood flow in response to external conditions such as heat and cold.  

An extreme emotion can also trigger this mechanism.  Blood vessels may dilate beyond the ability of the blood supply to fill the increased capacity.  The force exerted by gravity draws blood into the legs and lower torso to the extent that the brain is deprived of oxygen.  Unconsciousness results.

This is the physical cause of the "swooning" often experienced by lovely Southern belles when they are kissed by manly Southern gentlemen.

Recall Scarlet O'Hara and Rhett Butler in "Gone With The Wind":

Scarlet:  "Rhett, don't.  I shall faint."
Rhett:  "I want you to faint.  This is what you were meant for.  None of the fools you've ever known have kissed you like this, have they?"

In addition to emotional fainting, psychological incapacitation can result in a situation whereby the attacker may voluntarily decide to cease aggression and surrender. 

Any psychological reaction to a gun shot wound is very erratic, unpredictable, and unreliable.  A reaction may not occur in everyone, especially in a highly motivated criminal bent on death and destruction (yours). 

Consciousness can be lost due to neural shock.  An area at the lower part of the brain-stem largely controls human consciousness.  This area, called the reticular activating system, can be disrupted by physical damage, by pressure from the cranial vault, by intense emotion, or by physical pain.  

It is speculated that various organs of the body can send pain impulses to the brain stem indicating a severe or overwhelming bodily injury.  The reticular activating system responds by producing a functional  "shut down", which results in loss of consciousness within a second or two.  PCP, heroin, and to a lesser extent alcohol and adrenalin, are known to impair this function.  This sometimes results in cases where a high or intoxicated aggressor seems immune to gunshots and will not stop hostilities even though wounded by multiple handgun, rifle, or even shotgun rounds.

To reiterate and emphasize:

  • The ability to produce instant incapacitation is not possible with any handgun round, unless the central nervous system is hit.  This involves penetrating the brain or hitting the cervical spine.
  • Blood loss resulting from a shooting is the primary cause of incapacitation.  The greater the tissue damage and disruption, the greater the bleeding.  The process can be slow.  Bodily blood loss on the order of twenty percent is required to produce unconsciousness.  One's assailant may be fully functional during the time preceding unconsciousness.
  • Incapacitation depends on the physical, emotional, and psychological state of the assailant.
  • The onset of incapacitation can be delayed by the presence of narcotics, alcohol or adrenalin in the assailant's blood.
  • Cardiovascular organs and vessels will only be destroyed if they are directly hit by the bullet.  Hence, the ability of a bullet to penetrate is extremely important.  Minimum penetration is regarded to be 10-12 inches of soft tissue.
  • The intended victim should keep shooting as long as the assailant poses a threat.
  • The shooting skill acquired with practice promotes the confidence and resolution which allows one to prevail in an armed encounter with a criminal aggressor.  Hence, familiarity with one's firearm of choice is essential.



Possession of a firearm is only one aspect of a total home security plan.  The necessity of establishing a secured perimeter as a first line of defense of one's residence is paramount, because it will discourage criminal invasion or will provide the home owner with early warning in the event of an intrusion.  

Security measures may include adequate door and window locks; perimeter fences; window grates; ornamental, barred, heavy gauge steel "screen" doors; landscaping that minimizes the ability for a criminal to operate or hide unobserved; outdoor lighting on motion detectors; a family pet that serves in a watchdog role; and possibly an alarmed security system.  Getting to know your neighbors and establishing a formal or informal "neighborhood watch" is advisable.

Interior security involves designation of one remote room in the home as the "safe" room.  This room, usually the master bedroom, serves as the location to which individual family members may congregate in relative safety should a criminal forcibly obtain entry to the residence while it is occupied. 

Ideally, the safe room would be fitted with a sturdy, solid core, lockable door, with dead bolt latches on the upper and lower third.  Equipment routinely stored in the safe room would include a flashlight, a cellular phone by which to contact police should phone wires be cut, and a secured firearm with ample ammunition.  All members of the household should be familiar with the home defense plan.

While at home, it is advisable to develop the simple habit of always having a set of car keys handy.  The panic button on most newer keys can serve to activate the "burglar alarm" most of us may not realize we own: the car alarm on our vehicle.

The alarm can usually be activated from within the home, even though the vehicle is parked at the curb or within the garage.  Try it, and see what works for you.  Most of us have become somewhat desensitized to "false" alarms which don't last long.  An alarm of any duration will be investigated by neighbors, however, if for no other reason than to seek an end to the annoying sound.  As a minimum, a predator or aggressor targeting your home will find the alarm disconcerting, and may abandon their plans.


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