For over a century, automobiles have played a significant role in gunfights, marking a tumultuous era where the symphony of the Roaring ’20s intertwined with the staccato rhythm of Tommy Guns and the ominous hum of black sedans.
In the early ’30s, a strategic shift occurred as federal agents and cunning gangsters opted for .38 Supers, known for their high-velocity 130-grain FMJ bullets capable of piercing through cars more effectively than the .45-caliber FMJs.
Gunsmith Hyman Lehman elevated the obsession with .38 Super, ingeniously crafting “baby machine guns” from modified Colt .38 Supers for mob clientele. As the 1930s drew to a close, major ammunition companies responded by producing specialized anti-vehicle loads like “Hi-Way Master” and “Highway Patrol” in .45 ACP, .38 Special, and .357 Magnum. These ammunition innovations spawned urban legends of “block-busting” calibers, weaving themselves into the fabric of American folklore.
Fast forward to today, where law enforcement and military engagements frequently unfold in the vicinity of automobiles, reminiscent of the notorious drive-bys carried out by gangs. Recognizing the gravity of criminals firing from cars, the FBI’s ballistic testing protocol includes rigorous evaluations measuring bullet performance against simulated car doors and windshields, a practice mirrored by other law enforcement agencies.
In my journey, I’ve conversed with various law enforcement trainers, witnessed bullet-penetration tests against diverse barriers, and even took shots at cars myself. Through these experiences, I’ve gained insights into the unique challenges of engaging active shooters in automobiles. Consequently, it’s time to sift through the wealth of information, separating valuable insights from the extraneous details.
Common myths when using vehicles for cover
Dispelling misconceptions surrounding the use of vehicles for cover involves debunking the notorious “block-buster” myth, which is one of two prevalent misunderstandings when bullets and automobiles intersect in hostile scenarios. The second fallacy revolves around the belief that a car provides reliable cover.
Contrary to the notion of a bullet effortlessly busting through an engine block, the reality is nuanced. While some bullets may traverse a fender and partially penetrate an engine block, it doesn’t guarantee the immediate halt of the vehicle. Depending on the bullet type and entry point in the engine block, the car might come to a swift stop or continue running at a diminished performance level. Consequently, soldiers aiming to immobilize motor vehicles wisely target the driver, ensuring that a suspect vehicle will eventually cease, at least until a replacement driver takes control.
However, the potential for unintended consequences looms large, as targeting the engine or driver can send a car into chaos, posing serious harm to innocent bystanders. Consequently, shooting at moving vehicles is a measure reserved for extreme circumstances.
While busting an engine block may prove challenging, modern street loads equipped with bonded JHP and solid-copper or gilding-metal bullets easily penetrate car doors, seats, and windows. Even military ball ammunition can breach vehicle defenses, although its tendency to deflect poses a threat within the confined spaces of a car. Soldiers deployed to the Middle East grapple with this reality, often dubbing cars as “bullet magnets” targeted by enemy forces to trap occupants and swiftly conclude conflicts.
Having engaged in extensive shooting at cars, it’s astounding how quickly pistol and rifle bullets can saturate the interior of a stationary vehicle. While cars may offer concealment, they generally fall short of serving as effective cover unless in motion at speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour. At this velocity, the curved steel and glass surfaces of the moving car amplify the likelihood of bullet deflection, posing risks to bystanders. Consequently, shooting at moving cars should be a last resort, emphasizing the importance of restraint unless absolutely necessary.
Live fire testing
Engaging in live fire testing provided a firsthand opportunity to debunk prevalent myths surrounding the durability of automobiles under ballistic assault. The setting was an abandoned car from a previous shooting event, presenting an opportunity to conduct penetration tests on various sections, challenging the urban legend of the “block-buster” and the belief in cars as reliable cover.
The initial focus was on the engine block, a formidable structure composed of multiple layers of robust metal. Armed with a vintage 6-inch S&W Model 19, I unleashed a barrage of contemporary deep-penetrating loads in common handgun calibers. From Federal’s 158-grain American Eagle JSPs to CorBon’s 125-grain all-copper DPXs and Black Hills’ 100-grain .38 Special +P Honey Badger ammo, the results were consistent across the board—none of the loads managed to breach the engine block.
Even the 5-inch-barreled Ruger SR1911 Target in .45 ACP, armed with 185-grain Black Hills +P ammo and Underwood Ammunitions’ 200-grain +P Extreme Penetrator rounds, along with a 9mm Glock 43 equipped with various loads, failed to pierce the resilient engine block.
To simulate a real-world scenario, a target depicting two hostile silhouettes was affixed to the lower right fender and wheel well, representing armed assailants taking cover behind the engine block. Positioned at a protected firing point approximately 15 yards from the left fender, attempts were made to hit the target by shooting through both fenders and the engine.
Surprisingly, none of the loads inflicted any damage to the target—defying expectations and dispelling the notion of bullets easily penetrating the engine block.
Undeterred, I then employed an IO Inc. AKM247 loaded with two Wolf 123-grain 7.62x39mm rounds, featuring “bimetal” spitzer bullets with copper-coated steel jackets. Despite the increased caliber and robust ammunition, the results remained consistent, with nothing managing to breach the formidable engine block.
This live fire testing underscored the resilience of modern vehicles against conventional handgun and rifle ammunition, challenging commonly held misconceptions about their vulnerability in hostile situations.
A few mentions about the interior of the vehicle
Continuing the comprehensive assessment, the three handguns and their respective loads were employed to shoot through the car’s interior from the exterior, shedding light on bullet behavior in this unique context. The initial phase focused on shooting through the windshield, a critical aspect in assessing potential bullet deflection.
Concerns about ball ammunition and hollow-point rounds deflecting through windshield safety glass prompted the selection of a mannequin in the driver’s seat as the target. To enhance realism, a silhouette target was taped over the mannequin, creating a three-dimensional representation of a person behind the wheel. Shots were fired from the left-front fender, aiming at the center of the 10-point triangle in the middle of the head. Another target depicting two assailants in the backseat added complexity to the test.
Utilizing the .357 S&W Model 19 with CorBon .357 Magnum and Black Hills .38 Special +P loads, both rounds successfully penetrated the windshield, striking the head’s 10-zone on the primary target. They then traversed through the front seat, reaching the lower abdomen of the target in the backseat. Transitioning to the Ruger SR1911 Target, the Black Hills and Underwood .45 ACP rounds hit the front target’s left eye and the rear target’s lower abdomen. The 9mm loads formed a 3-inch group on the edges of the 10-zone in the first target’s head and struck low in the abdomen of the target in the backseat.
Moving on to the driver’s side door, shots were fired from a kneeling position at a 45-degree angle, aiming toward the front of the target. The door’s composition of multiple layers and varied materials posed a challenge, leading to increased bullet deflection, especially given the angled impact. Despite these complexities, all bullets found the target, predominantly hitting the left torso and shoulder, impairing the driver’s ability to continue operating the vehicle.
The examination extended to firing at the rear of the car, exploring the potential for shots through the trunk to reach the driver. Employing the deepest-penetrating loads for each handgun, such as CorBon DPXs for the S&W and Underwood loads for the SR1911 and Glock 43, all shots penetrated the trunk and struck the target in the front seat before embedding themselves in the dashboard.
This thorough analysis unequivocally debunks the second myth—the notion that an automobile interior provides a safe haven during a gunfight when utilizing medium- and large-caliber handguns loaded with deep-penetrating ammunition. The results underscore the vulnerability of occupants from various directions, reinforcing the importance of situational awareness and strategic considerations in vehicular gunfights.
You shouldn’t be using vehicles for cover
This concise test serves as a compelling demonstration, highlighting the need to approach “conventional wisdom” with a substantial degree of skepticism, especially when it comes to the intricate relationship between bullets and automobiles.
It unequivocally challenges the commonly held belief that automobiles inherently provide reliable cover in hostile situations. In reality, the protective capabilities of a car diminish rapidly, rendering it an insufficient barrier against incoming fire.
Even if one were to take refuge behind the engine block—an instinctive choice for many seeking cover—the effectiveness of such protection is short-lived. The vulnerability becomes apparent when faced with assailants initiating flanking movements. In such scenarios, the once-perceived cover of the car becomes a liability, leaving the individual exposed and defenseless.
The pragmatic response to a fired-upon vehicle extends beyond the futile reliance on the automobile for protection. Stepping on the gas, when feasible, emerges as the optimal course of action, prioritizing swift evasion over the illusory safety of the car. In instances where acceleration is not an option, the strategic decision to swiftly dismount and seek hard cover becomes paramount.
This underscores the importance of agility and adaptability in dynamic situations, where relying on preconceived notions about the protective capabilities of vehicles may prove detrimental.
Moreover, this test raises broader considerations about situational awareness and the need for proactive responses in the face of threats. It accentuates the limitations of conventional thinking and encourages a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay between ballistic elements and the practicalities of using vehicles for cover.
In essence, this brief examination not only dispels a prevailing myth but also invites a deeper exploration of tactical choices in the realm of personal safety. The lessons drawn from this test resonate beyond the immediate context, emphasizing the critical need for individuals to reevaluate and recalibrate their responses to threats, moving beyond simplistic assumptions and embracing a more informed, adaptive approach to personal security.
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