Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Tactical Anatomy

Tactical Anatomy logoAs much as the word “tactical” is overused in Gun Nation, it definitely fits here. Dr. (yes, he has a DEA number, sorry all you PhD doctor-impersonators) James Williams has a very interesting background that provides a scientific basis for his Tactical Anatomy concept and training.

He offers training classes in gunfight anatomy, yclept Shooting with X-Ray Vision, in versions for both sworn law officers and for “civilians” (wait, cops are civilians, as are we retired soldiers, NTTAWWT), and in treatment of gunshot wounds, and occasional posts to a blog that are entertaining as hell. He also publishes an instructor manual. We’ve ordered it based on his description of its content, which is highly congruent with the practical instruction one gets in anatomy at a place like SOT, SFARTAETC, or SFAUC, but we doubt it’s as useful or as much fun as attending one of his classes.

James S. Williams, M.D. … used his experience as a hunter and a competitive shooter in conjunction with his extensive trauma medicine experience to develop the Tactical Anatomy model, targets, and instructional systems. He has a wealth of firearms training experience and is an NRA-certified instructor.

via About Tactical Anatomy – Tactical Anatomy.

He served as the MO on a SWAT team for many years, and has practiced, taught, and shot in Canada and several American States (he’s now in Texas). We found his blog whilst contemplating a post on the limitations of “center of mass,” the hoary old military standby, as an aiming point in the sort of close-in social work that police and defensive shooters in general usually face.

You see, the military chose “center of mass” for very deliberate reasons, which are not applicable in a non-military-combat, often one-on-one, self-defensive shoot. We’ll probably go into that in depth in that contemplated post, if and when we get to it. We assume that military training, given the presence of vets in just about every police force and the military experience that many (not all!) of the best firearms trainers share, was the vector by which this idea infused itself in the defensive handgun world.

What Doc here says about it is pithy and, well, correct, apart from the fact that the term does exist outside of police work, in the military, and is useful there precisely because a soldier’s objective in shooting an enemy is often not the same as a policeman’s or defender’s. Here’s the meat, occasioned by a hairy firefight at short range with limited cover between a cop (Officer Peter Soulis) and a felon (“Tim Palmer,” pseudonym, who unbeknownst to Soulis was wanted for murder):

But here’s a hint as to the root of a correctable problem: the author of this article states that  “Palmer had taken 22 hits from Soulis’ .40-caliber Glock, 17 of which had hit center mass“.

The author’s implication is that a “center mass” hit is a good hit. And that, my friends, is where we descend from good tactical analysis into the Land of Bullshit.

If you’ve attended my Shooting With Xray Vision class (SXRV), or you’ve read my book, you have heard me say this before:  there is no such thing as Center Mass.  In 6 years of undergraduate and graduate level science, I never once read or heard of an anatomic structure called “center mass”. In all my years of medical school and postgraduate residency, I never read or heard of a medical term called “center mass”. And in 40 years of hunting animals for food with rifles, handguns, bows, blowguns, atlatl’s, and other weapons, I never once heard another hunter tell me to aim for “center mass”.

The reason for that is that outside of police circles, the term does not exist. And for good reason. It’s a bullshit term that has no relevance to reality. People use the term “center mass” because they’re lazy and ignorant. Sorry if that offends you, but that’s the bottom line. People who use the term “center mass” are admitting for all intents and purposes that they have no idea that critical structures of the human body exist in the human body that need to be interdicted by a police bullet to stop a felon’s violent actions. They are admitting that they have no idea where those vital structures are, and they have no idea how to visualize those anatomic structures in a real live human body.

The link in Doc’s article does not work, but the story is still there at — here’s a corrected link; if that one too goes bad, just do a search at LawOfficer — it was a hell of a fight and it’s a hell of a read, despite Doc’s quibble about the “center mass” term. Here is a period news story about the shooting — one of at least five Soulis was involved in during his time as a cop — and reading it probably explains why thought it worthwhile to change the name of the criminal. We know you guys have too much class to hassle a criminal’s innocent mother, unlike newspaper reporters. And the shootout became a made-for-TV episode calling Soulis an “action hero” last year, the season finale of ABC’s “In an Instant,” available online for viewing. But we digress; back to Doc’s site.

Wile-E-Coyote-Genius-Business-CardIf you think his view of Center Mass as a concept is entertaining, you should read his post occasioned by some Wile E. Coyote Super Genius asking him why it was a good idea to — we are not making this up! — shoot an assailant or hostage taker in the kidneys. One more taste, but you then have to go Read The Whole Thing™.

Military snipers train to incapacitate their targets with a single shot. Incapacitation on the battlefield is highly congruent with rapid death of the target. Centerfire rifle bullets are designed to produce incapacitating injury as quickly as possible. Incapacitation by GSW entails putting the bullet into the primary or secondary target anatomy. The primary target is the CNS, and the secondary target is the cardiovascular system that supports the CNS. The kidneys are part of neither. The kidneys are small, deep in the body, and in anatomic locations that medically-untrained snipers would have significant difficulty visualizing in the 3D human body. As such, deliberately targeting the kidneys is so far from practicable I actually laughed out loud in disbelief when I first read your email.

Let me be perfectly clear: shooting an enemy combatant anywhere other than the CNS/CV bundle target zones would be, first, a failure to fulfill the tactical mission (incapacitate your target asap), and second, wanton cruelty. This is at best comic-book mall-ninja material, and should be rejected out of hand.

Exercise for the reader — point to your kidneys, from the front, back and side.

Q1: Are you sure?

Q2: For extra credit: Describe that target in terms of size, criticality, recognizability, vulnerability, effect — hell, do a full CARVER on it — vis-a-vis the brain stem and cerebellum.

36 thoughts on “Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Tactical Anatomy

  1. Keith

    I had always thought that center mass and the CNS/CV bundle were the same thing, with center mass being a bit less precise of a concept due to the various sized and shaped people one might have trying to kill them and the necessity of streamlining things a bit for police training.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The Army shoots center of mass because it’s perfectly satisfactory to wound the enemy. You’re not going one on one. A wounded enemy is more of a complication to your enemy commander than a dead guy; the wounded fellow has to be protected, medevaced, treated. The dead guy can be left where he is for whoever winds up in possession of the battlefield to deal with.

      A policeman can’t be content with wounding the threat, nor can a self-defender. They must stop the threat. Not all stopped threats are dead right there, but all DRT threats are stopped.

  2. S

    Many mentions of “tactical” are actually referring to the lesser known word “tacticle”: a round soft gregarious organ suffering from low self esteem, motivated by an obsessive compulsion to negate the suppressed certainty of being unfit for actual combat. Can be used as adjective, noun or adverb.

    “Centerfire rifle bullets are designed to produce incapacitating injury as quickly as possible.” Under certain limitations; military rounds having to comply with the 1868 St Petersburg Declaration and especially the 1899 Hague Convention in conflicts between sovereign states. Hosing down common criminals or insurgents with hollow point would therefore seem to be ok.


    So it’s dark, you’re alone, you’re badly brassed up, you think you’re probably gonna die from your wounds that are spurting blood and your enemy is triumphantly advancing on you to finish you off.

    Naturally, at that moment you think calmly, develop a plan, shoot the bastard down like the dog he his and go home to your family that day while your attacker ends up turning into worm shit as he deserves.

    An extraordinary man and my hat is off to him. Must be a lot of dust in the air because my eyes are watering.

  4. Aesop

    Thanks for this one, Hognose, because I really needed a spare lifetime to go get lost down this black hole of internet fun, and I’ll try to remember as I’m laughing along the way that it’s your fault I’m trapped there.

    Q1: Yes. I’m sure.
    Q2: (Using a 5 pt. scale)
    Kidney C-3 A-3 R-2 V-3 E-3 R-2 = 16/30
    CNS/CV: C-5 A-4 R-5 V-4 E-5 R-5 = 28/30
    Which is why the doc, and his excoriation of the idea, including the term “comic book mall-ninja” probably goes too gently on the mope bringing it up, if anything.

    “Remember recruits, there are no stupid questions, there are only stupid people.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I know the feeling; to actually read and follow all the threads of the stuff I recommend, I’d need to triclone myself. (Is that a word? Is now). And then I’d have the problem of three separate selves, with no shared consciousness or data (but then, maybe by the time we’re tricloning, they’ll have Dropbox for Clones™ or something).

  5. Ryan

    I haven’t read any of his books, but I have taken an engineering statics course. CENTER MASS EXISTS. Of course it’s not a medical term but it has the same meaning whether it refers to a human body or an inch thick triangular steel plate. It’s just harder to calculate for a moving person, not that you’d want to try.

    I’m sure he has good stuff but he sounds like an idiot.

    1. LSWCHP

      I think that’s a harsh judgement. If I understand correctly, based on his shooting and medical careers he’s simply saying shoot for the high chest in order to incapacitate versus actual centre of mass, as CoM may lead to a gutshot. A group in the high chest will result in a better chance of quick incapacitation.

      I concur with his views.

    2. Hognose Post author

      Ah yes, S&D, Statics and Dynamics, thought to be the origin of the title of the Marquis de Sade.

      The military (where at one time, all regular officers came from the Academy, and all Academy grads had an engineering education — that went out when women came in to the Academies and couldn’t pass the engineering curriculum) uses “center of mass” to mean something more like “centroid of the target as presented to you.” (And yes, I just checked that I meant centroid and not barycenter. Since we’re talking about a 2-dimensional presentation, centroid).

    1. DSM

      The old PPC we shot in the AF had hip zones on the E silhouettes. It was the qual for concealed carry and the OSI agents at the time. The thought being if your hip is shattered you aren’t going anywhere. Last time I shot that course was in the late 90’s but I couldn’t tell you when it went out.

      1. Dave

        I have seen, with my own two eyes, a sober patient stand up and walk across the room to the head with a badly broken hip.

        That was a fucked up hospital. she complained of hip pain so they sent the massage therapist up to see her before calling us (X-Ray). Even then, nobody thought to mention it to us, and we only saw it because the image was low enough to catch the femoral neck.

        Anyway, it just reinforced to me the idea that the only shot that’ll stop someone RIGHT NOW is a solid CNS hit.

    2. archy

      ***I fondly remember I panel Awerbuck presented at a 1993 convention in Las Vegas, where I first heard of the idea of aiming at the pelvis as a preferred target.***

      Odd, I heard it long before then, from Retired [maybe] Col. Rex Applegate around 1957.

  6. James Sullivan

    I second Aesop. I got sucked into reading James Williams last night. There went four and a half hours.
    But, man, he is funny! I laughed the whole time.


  7. staghounds

    “Center mass” sounds less like killing someone than than “Shoot him in the heart”. Better PR, better desensitization.

    1. archy

      ***“Center mass” sounds less like killing someone than than “Shoot him in the heart”. Better PR, better desensitization.***

      For pretty much the same reason, during my last qualification course and firing [which included a couple of department rookies and spouses] we discussed shooting for *The T-Zone* between the two eyes and the mouth. Which sounds so much friendlier than shooting someone in the face.

      And afterward, they can take him/her away in a casualty evacuation pouch instead of an old body bag.

  8. Buckaroo

    The man who founded Front Sight, Ignatius Piazza, was a chiropracter. After 10 years or so of practice, he had a library of thousands of chest x-rays. He measured the dimensions of the mediastinum of each x-ray, averaged those, and created a generic human upper-body target with the mediastinum as one of two highlighted target areas (the other being that part of the cranium from the top of the eye sockets to the top of the lower jaw).

  9. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    The deer hunting hunting crowd and to a lesser extent the hog exterminators have embraced visualization of the vitals of the target. I seem to remember seeing a site that had a rotatable(x,y & z) see through deer so you could get an idea of where to shoot. A little reading in the hog hunting forum at arfcom will show you real quick that the earhole shot with a .22wmr has a way better chance of bangflop than a solid chest hit with a .679 Hognose. I think it’s a damn good idea to have a visualization in your head of where to aim but it seems the vast majority of shootings will have the shooter reverting to a default “training scar” if you will. That might be two to the chest and one to the head or center of mass or just empty the mag whilst shitting your self depending on the level of training and number of reps/drills based on that training. Some of the current gurus with a bazillion reps will probably score quite well but the vast majority of gun toters are going to fall into the lower percentile.

  10. W. Fleetwood

    A minor historical point. I was around back in the antediluvian days when there were quite serious arguments about the advisability and techniques of “warning shots” and “shooting to wound”. Really, there were. And the first use of “center mass” that I recall was in reaction to those ideas. As in; “Damn it, forget that cowboy movie BS, shoot center mass and keep shooting till it’s done! Repeat that one hundred times and write it on the back of your gun hand!” “Center mass” may not be an ideal choice of words but it is better than going down the “One warning shot, then two for the legs.” rabbit hole.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

  11. Cap'n Mike

    Great post Hognose.
    I look forward to any other thoughts you have about the topic.

    Its a subject near and dear to my heart, because the powers that be at the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Council have ordained that police officers will not be trained to stop people, but will be highly proficient at stopping barbarous, corrupt, dangerous, degenerate, depraved, diabolical, ferocious, immoral, monstrous, savage, unprincipled, violent, wicked Milk Bottles.
    “Watch the skies. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!!!”
    “The Milk Bottle people are coming!!!”

  12. Hillbilly

    The Dr. this article refers to posts fairly frequently on a forum I hang out at. He seems like a guy that has some solid reasoning behind what he teaches.
    I would have asked about bringing him in for a class if I had found out about him when I was working as an instructor.

  13. Kirk

    One of the points a lot of these critics fail to grasp is that a lot of the time, you are faced with a dynamic, moving target that you do not have a good clear shot at. And, that it is better to make a hit, any hit, than not to do anything while waiting for a perfect set-up.

    Sure, you’d do better to shoot for a vital spot, but… How? When the target is moving, presenting itself fleetingly, you often can’t process and take action rapidly enough to make that “ideal shot”. In that case, you take what you can get, and if a wing shot is it, then a wing shot it is. A sniper can carefully consider his options, and set himself up to make the perfect shot. In the course of a dynamic gunfight, when the subject is shooting back at you, and there’s a real risk of getting killed yourself? You often don’t have time to work through some cascading list of things to shoot at. You aim and fire at what you have, and if you shoot the sonuvabitch in the arm, so be it–You’ve done some damage, likely slowed him down, and maybe set yourself up for a later opportunity to shoot.

    Hesitancy and waiting for the perfect shot plays out well in pool. Real-world gunfights? Gets you killed. It pays to aim for the ideal shot, when you can, but if the subject of your fight only exposes his left shoulder to you, take the shot. At worst, you’ll just annoy the shit out of him. At best, you’ll cripple the bastard, and make him withdraw.

    I forget what movie it was that I saw the the guy shoot the ankles out from under a bad guy when he was on the other side of a car, but that mentality is what wins gunfights. Not the “go for the ideal shot” mentality that tells you that if you’re not going to make a kill with the shot, don’t take it. Sometimes, just being super-aggressive makes for a better solution than the carefully considered “ideal action” mode of thinking.

    1. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

      With you on this one. My last job where a gunfight was a fairly decent probability I was almost certainly going to be playing catch up and planed to get five hits as fast as possible, any hits. The CNS shot was drilled for the unlikely situation where I had the drop on him, her or it. Rumsfeld paraphrased, you are going to take the shot you have, not the one you want.

      The ankle shot under the car is a way to put the adversary in a better position to take more hits after he goes down and you have the momentum.

    2. Aesop

      FTR, in the North Hollywood Bank Robbery Fustercluck of Feb. 1997, the late-arriving SWAT teams cornered Target #2, with an abandoned carjack fail between them. One of them laid sideways, and dumped a buttload of shots on full-auto, including ricochets, into his feet and ankles, driving him onto his ass, where the second and subsequent volleys of full-auto fire tore him a number of new @$$holes though the pelvic girdle, including both femoral arteries, at which point he was down for the count, and allowed to quietly bleed out in the next several seconds, as he deserved.

      Hollywood lost no time in incorporating this maneuver into subsequent efforts, at many opportunities.
      There are no “dirty shots” in a gunfight. Just hits and misses.

      While I agree with the idea of shooting at important targets, with lead flying both ways, you take the shot you have RFN, not the one you wish for.

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  15. Docduracoat

    As a doctor, I have no problem pointing to my kidneys, aorta, carotid arteries, heart, vena cava and cranium.
    I love shooting at anatomy targets. has a great selection of anatomy targets, including the life size, full color, bag o bones targets.
    They also offer targets with people in other poses than facing head on.
    Urban situation targets have people climbing thru windows, standing sideways at walls, or crouched over unleashing attack dogs at you.
    None of these targets are permitted at the 2 local outdoor ranges here in south Florida

    1. Red

      Maybe if they had a target depicting a local heaving a gator at you, it would be considered acceptable.

  16. Mike_C

    > Exercise for the reader — point to your kidneys, from the front, back and side.
    I personally know a Harvard Medical School graduate who, when shown a straight axial slice on a body MRI, could not tell me whether the kidneys would be cranial or caudal to the visualized slice. (He could point correctly to his kidneys on his own personal pink body, but the bar is set higher for MDs.) Fortunately this fellow never went into internship, much less practice.

    >serious arguments about the advisability and techniques of “warning shots” and “shooting to wound”.
    While not really an issue of debate among serious people any more, one still hears “why didn’t he fire a warning shot?” or “couldn’t he have just wounded him?” when some poor cop (or private person) has to shoot an attacker. Of course, we usually also learn from the speaker that the attacker was a good boy who was just turning his life around….

    Perhaps the “shoot ’em in the kidneys” fella read in various works of fiction the assertion that stabbing someone in the kidneys causes such paralyzing pain that the victim is unable to even cry out. I think SM Stirling is one of the writers who described this as a good method for stealthy sentry removal in his Emberverse/Change series. While I lack personal experience in deliberate renal perforation, I sort of doubt this, but I suspect someone here may have more direct knowledge.

    Finally, #GrayMilkBottlesMatter, unless it’s actually stumpy/decapitated bowling pin, in which case nevermind.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The kidney stab was taught in WWII under Fairbairn and Applegate. By 1977 or so Echanis was teaching that it was bullshit, go for the carotids instead.

      1. S

        Never done either, and wouldn’t want to if there were any better option; I’ve heard that the kidney stab was intended to also pierce the diaphragm and allegedly near-paralyse the victim with pain and shock, whereas the in from the side, out through the front throat attack was noisier, with all the wheezing. The Swiss manual “Total Resistance” I found at some now-unknown site and you graciously reposted here was unusual: it recommended the use of the blunt side of a short axe across the small of the back or to the spine below the neck/shoulders. But, those are all surprise/quiet murder scenarios akin to the sniper, not last-man-standing duels. The southern Chinese knife form teaches multiple slashes and stabs to major vessels, including the kidneys. Gimme a gun any day, preferably a rifle….

      2. archy

        ***The kidney stab was taught in WWII under Fairbairn and Applegate. By 1977 or so Echanis was teaching that it was bullshit, go for the carotids instead.***

        My father was taught by William Ewart Fairbairn during the Second World War and da taught me as he had been taught. The kidney strike was acceptable, particularly for sentry elimination in the event a rifle, ammunition pouches, etc. in front could possibly block the strike and the target had to be taken from behind. But other likely striking points were also taught, all depending on the circumstances of the encounter and the desirability of keeping the activity as quiet as possible.

        So the Brachial, Radial, Carotid and Subclavian arteries were all noted as possible targets, with incapacitation or unconsciousness charted as likely occurring from a half-second to two or three, depending on the exertion of the target and the effectiveness of the strike.

        Artery #i. Knife in the right hand, attack opponent’s left arm with a slashing cut outwards, as in Fig. A.
        Artery #2. Knife in the right hand, attack opponent’s left wrist, cutting downwards and inwards, as in Fig. B.
        Artery #3. Knife in right hand, edges parallel to ground, seize opponent around the neck from behind with your left arm, pulling his head to the left. Thrust point well in; then cut sideways. See Fig. C.
        Artery #4. Hold knife as in Fig. D; thrust point well in downwards; then cut. Note. – This is not an easy artery to cut with a knife, but, once cut, your opponent will drop, and no tourniquet or any help of man can save him.

        1. Mike_C

          > the Brachial, Radial, Carotid and Subclavian arteries were all noted as possible targets, with incapacitation or unconsciousness charted as likely occurring from a half-second to two or three
          Very interesting. Most medical training (during internship for nearly everyone) includes learning venous access to the internal jugular vein (paralleling, but lateral to, the carotid artery), the subclavian vein, or the femoral vein (medial to the femoral artery, annoyingly opposite to the case in the neck*) for purposes of placing a central venous catheter (sort of a super IV). In each case, hitting the adjacent artery is considered bad form, as in “don’t touch big red!” Generally arterial access is peripheral (radial) and used for getting a blood gas, and for things like an “art line” when you need lots of serial blood gasses, or for certain kinds of blood pressure monitoring.

          Some specialties involve accessing large arteries, e.g. for heart catheterization or dialysis. The femoral artery is the go-to location for most heart caths, but increasingly the radial artery is being used due to factors such as the increasing prevalence of obesity. (More complications from groin access in fat people, in part because the anatomy is less certain based on what you see at the skin-surface level, and because it’s harder to compress the site after the procedure.) Anyway, once early in training I “lost control of the groin” while holding pressure post-cath. Only for literally a second, but subjectively (and objectively for that matter) a LOT of blood comes out of even a little-ish (6Fr) hole in the femoral artery during that time. I’d hate to think what it would be like if a major artery were completely transected. [The patient did fine overall, but did have a hematoma :-(]

          *mnemonic you’re taught for relative positions of artery and vein in the groin: NAVEL=nerve, artery, vein, [empty], lymphatic (from lateral/side to medial/middle.
          mnemonic that you actually remember: “venous is penis”

          1. Hognose Post author

            Anatomy is… different, when your oath is more that of Odysseus and his men of the Trojan Horse, than Hippocrates and his men of healing.

    2. Hognose Post author

      Fortunately this fellow never went into internship, much less practice.
      Ah, I’ve met a few of these. PhD, MD, principal investigator….

  17. archy

    ***in versions for both sworn law officers and for “civilians” (wait, cops are civilians, as are we retired soldiers, NTTAWWT), ***

    Not necessarily. Yep, most cops are indeed civilians, that is, not under the jurisdiction of the UCMJ. But in the last few years *civilian* military contractors are so encumbered, and, thereby, are now professionally referred to as private military contractors. Likewise, some nuclear plant and facility security force personnel are similarly beholden to military law, and are accordingly not so classed as *mere*civilians; note among other novelties the Mark 19 grenade launchers and M2 .50 calibers those worthies may use in the performance of their duties. . And, of course, some military police personnel [like those USAF OSI investigators now authorized to use personal weapons off-duty] pretty much wear both hats…but when it gets right down to it, Title 10 of the US Code makes it pretty clear: *civilians* they’re not.

    Title 10, US Code:

  18. archy

    ***We found his blog whilst contemplating a post on the limitations of “center of mass,” the hoary old military standby, as an aiming point in the sort of close-in social work that police and defensive shooters in general usually face.***

    It was always my understanding that *center of mass* [sometimes heard as *center mass* from the undertrained] was a target shooter’s or range instructor’s having to do with the aiming point as centered in one’s sights [then, meaning rifle sights, but the term does show up in tank gunnery as well;’ as opposed to the *beaten zone* delivered by a coaxial or mounted emplaced belt-fed machinegun.

    On the other hand, it never seemed to be a consideration for the Soviet NKVD execution team members who dealt with problems such as desertion, treason, wounded personnel enemy or friendly/unrecoverable or politically underirables all as nails to be hammered on by the same simple procedure: a small arms bullet, usually of pistol caliber, to the neck. Ideally, this can sever the cervical cord at the medulla, but if the target moves and the muzzle-contact shot is off an inch or so, no matter: either an artery will be severed, or tissue disruption in the area of the throat will get the task accomplished. Next!

    This also served as the means of civil execution in the Soviet prison system for decades, and, I believe, still does in China. The tools need not be sate-of-the-art: the Nagant revolver served for decades, supplanted by the TT-30 and TT-33 Tokarev semiauto pistols, all in calibers of 7.62 or about .30/.32 caliber US/British, and more recently 9mm PM Makarov semiautos and now at last, the 9mm Parabellum, bringing the Sov… [oops!] Russian administration of Justice right up into the early part of the Twentieth Century, circa 1908.

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