Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sage Dynamics Firearms Training: Cover and Concealment

The use of cover and concealment is a fundamental skill set of firearms training and practice.  Any course, program, academy or basic tactical course is going to include common sense instruction on the use of everyday objects to protect us from our threat.  Cover can stop incoming fire; concealment can hide or obscure us from our threat, making it difficult for them to acquire us as a target.  
Tandem Low Light Cover
Modern day training has seen practices and training aids advance to a near standardized approach when it comes to instruction in the use of cover and concealment. We see notch walls (training barricades with multiple exposures and elevated positions to fire from) and cover drills used to instruct the student in the importance of the use of cover and concealment, which helps the student by providing essential skills they may need in the event of a use of force.  Quality instruction on the use of cover and concealment is marked by our (the instructors) ability to impart not only the techniques, but the importance of the proper use of cover and concealment (C/C).   If we teach the how but not the why, we are only giving you half of the tool.

Of course that goes without saying, though I mention it as a preface so you know that I am not re-inventing the wheel here, I simply mean to provide as many tools and techniques as possible in order to help those who may have not received instruction on the use of C/C and perhaps give those experienced with C/C practice a few new ways to think of things.  As with all the training we provide, we approach everything with the three dimensional world in mind and the use of C/C is no different.  If anything, thinking of C/C in three dimensions goes far to helping you see every aspect of firearms training and practice in 3-D.

Knowing your cover

Exigent Cover: Vitals Protection
We all know that 55 gallon drums made of aluminum or plastic are unlikely to stop bullets, just like notch barricades and walls made of plywood wont stop bullets and probably couldn’t repel a well thrown spear; they are simply training aids.  We use them to teach because they are light, portable and very functional as tools.  In the real world, cover comes in many shapes and sizes, and much of it will obviously stop most small arms (such as cement pillars, concrete blocks, I beam supports, and a 100 year-old Oak tree) while some of it is questionable (cinder block walls, thick metal doors, the rims of a small car, or an antique corner mail box).  What some don’t think of when it comes to cover is that many of the best cover objects in terms of stopping incoming fire, have been made too small to cover your entire body as if by some cruel cosmic joke.  Fire hydrants, telephone poles, concrete bollards, sidewalk curbs; the list goes on and on.  What we can use as cover varies greatly, though what remains the same are the methods in which we use it.  

Cover should provide a positional advantage and at the very least, vital area protection.  Cover should not reduce our mobility unless it is essential or the risk otherwise would be too great.  Movement to and from cover should be done with as little exposure as possible (which isn’t always a straight line).  We should only leave our cover if there is a real need or advantage to doing so.  Cover should not suck us in to a false sense of security, meaning that cover works both ways; if he can’t see me, I might not be able to see him.

Minimal Exposure
Thinking outside of the traditional box, we always have one cover option available to us and that is accurate gunfire.  If I have nothing between me and my threat, I have every intention of making him rethink his life choices with a thoughtful use of aggression and accuracy.  Since cover works both ways, so must the lack of cover and if you press the fight first, their one bad decision will be made painfully obvious by the lack of solutions you leave them, sort of like trying to crimp a fire hose with a mattress.

On Cover and Off Cover

Off Cover: High Right
Off Cover: High Left

Any object that can obscure and or protect you from a threat can do so at any distance.  What that means is that if my threat cannot see me while I am 12 inches behind a concrete block in a crouch, he may also not be able to see me while I am 12 feet from that block, so long as I keep it between me and him.  Under normal lighting conditions, I do not have to be On Cover in order to use an object for cover. There are a few distinct advantages to being Off Cover. Our largest advantage is that a greater distance from the object we are using as cover allows a shallower angle of exposure while giving you a greater angle of engagement. From 1-2 feet, you may expose more of yourself and be forced to exaggerate your movements to bring your weapon to bear while gaining only a small exposure on your threat.  The greater the distance, the less exaggerated your movements and the greater the exposure on the threat while minimizing yours.  

Off Cover: Low Left

Off Cover: Low Right
A second advantage to thinking in terms of Off Cover is that you can take cover sooner.  When a threat presents, you can put any object available between you and them and assume an appropriate position to use it effectively (such as crouching or prone).  Another advantage is that Off Cover increases mobility and provides distance for movement, allowing you to fight on your terms without getting sucked in to an extreme close quarters fight or having your cover overwhelmed by an aggressive threat with you right behind it.   

By far, my favorite aspect of practicing Off Cover is that it reinforces my desire to not be sucked in to situations without a reason.  From door ways to incidental funnels (funnels created by the unintentional placement of objects such as cars, containers or other objects), If there is real estate beyond an object that I cannot see, I will work the angles until I can see all of it or all that I can without committing to moving forward.  If there is nothing pressing me to push up to my cover, I prefer to keep the mobility offered by being off of it. 

Though, Off Cover is only effective if your threat is a certain distance from the object you are using for cover.  If your threat is close to a low object such as a car hood or fire hydrant, going to a low crouch will do little to provide cover from a threat that is close enough see over the object.  This is mostly a moot point, as in this situation the object is your threat’s cover, not yours.

Because off cover practice helps us realize that cover is infinite (so long as we can place it between us and our threat) we can use this to our advantage when moving.  While the quickest route from one object to another may be a straight line, it may also extend your exposure time to your threat.

Direct To Cover
Minimal Exposure
In low light, being Off Cover can create a condition known as backsplash in which a handheld or weapon mounted light reflects off of the cover, illuminating you to your threat (and obscuring your vision).

Backsplash Ex.1
Backsplash Ex.2
In low light, we want to push our light beyond the cover, if possible. Backsplash decreases as distance from your cover object increases, though  if you are a greater distance from the cover object, it can have a secondary effect of shadowing, which casts a distance dependent shadow from the object towards your threat (on isolated objects with either side exposed such as a pole or box).  This shadow will telegraph your movement even if your threat cannot see your actual light source.

Past Cover CU

Past Cover FP
Be Ambidextrous

One thing I have to stress with all firearms is that you should have at least a basic proficiency with your support side when it comes to weapon operation.  I stress to all my students that they should strive to move past basic proficiency and work towards being just as capable with either side no matter the weapon, though I understand this does double both practice time and cost and not everyone will be able to achieve it.   

Why ambidextrous? In order to maximize protection from cover and concealment, the weapon should be moved to the leading side of the body; meaning that if I intend to use the right side of an object to angle and shoot, the weapon should be on the right side, with a left side exposure, the weapon should be on the left.  The further the weapon is from the center line of your body, the less you expose to your threat when you angle out to engage.  If a right handed shooter has to lean out to the left, they are forced to push the weapon over the centerline of their body, exposing more of their torso and (possibly) their head.  If the situation allows it, Off Cover and ambidextrous shooting provides an extremely low level of exposure, in many situations allowing you to see the total of your threat while they may only be able to see your leading eye and weapon.

Body Positioning

The shooting stance is the most stable platform from which to fire. The shooting position however, can often be a compromise in order to increase safety and avoid those nasty holes and side effects bullets cause.  We may not get to pick where we have to use force, which means we may have to pick our cover from a short list of availability with quality going from that will do to if the buttons on my shirt weren’t so thick, I could get closer to the ground.  Keeping this in mind, our shooting position may be dictated by what we have available, or because we don’t want to be predictable. 

FBI Low Light

Even the densest bad guy can recognize a pattern when he sees one; if you have standing cover and continue to angle out in the standing position, eventually the bad guy is going to set up a sight picture ambush and wait for your grape to reappear.  Utilizing every available exposure (both sides, over/under, etc) and the height of a cover object can allow you to shoot from a different position each time.  Following gravity, you can work from standing to crouching to prone, alternate sides, over the top, under, and any number of other possibilities based on your cover.  If you are forced on to your cover by low light or because of tight quarters, you can minimize exposure and maximize positioning by primary or support hand only shooting; this technique can also be helpful with small cover objects that only protect vital areas such as a fire hydrant or similar object.

Minimal Exposure with Cross Body Light Technique
Get Sideways

Side Exposure
Urban movies about the misunderstood drug dealer with a heart of gold aside, there is actually a few damn good reasons to practice shooting with the weapon off-axis, or on its side.  You can get much lower to the ground with a rifle laid on its side, and shoot under lower objects with any weapon laid on its side if the cover prevents using a traditional prone position.

Off Axis Prone
Does this effect ballistics?  Sure does. Without going off on a ballistic tangent, there are a number of internal and external ballistic factors and weapon design features that alter the point of impact from the point of aim. At most self-defense distances, the POA/POI difference would not be noticed at all, though as distance increases it becomes more obvious.  

The important thing to remember is that with a weapon rotated on its side, the greater the degree of rotation, the greater the POA/POI difference and the bullets POI will be low and in the direction of the sights/optic.  So if my point of aim is center of a threat and my handgun is rotated with the sights to the right, the point of impact will be right and low.  For rifles (and handguns) this style of shooting is a great reason to use a red dot optic that is parallax (technically near-parallax) free.  The reason red dots excel here is that, especially in the case of a rifle, a proper cheek weld is near impossible.  

With handguns, the red dot negates the need for sight alignment, which is a conscious chore for anyone who has not practices alignment with the handgun off-axis. Also, I mount a 45 degree optic on each of my rifles to allow more precise and faster off-axis shooting.  

Concealment, the second best choice.

Lacking any hard cover when reacting to a spontaneous threat, you have few options; aggress the threat with accurate gunfire as cover, use an intermediate object as a barrier (any object that is unlikely to stop bullets) or move in a manner to escape the situation or break the threat’s line of sight.  Any object that will not stop gunfire is an object of concealment by default and will only serve to obscure you from your threat.  This makes concealment a vehicle to regroup, not a position to defend from.  What I mean by that is movement to concealment should be done with the intention of working to actual cover, or preparing yourself to defend against your attacker (such as crouching behind a fence in order to draw your concealed weapon or fix a malfunction).  Once behind concealment, your immediate plans should include movement and re-assessing/engaging your threat as soon as possible and not from the last location your threat knew you to be.

Cars are More Concealment than Cover
If your threat is using a knife, bat, club or other hand melee type weapon, a concealment object doubles as a barrier.  Since the bad guy must get extremely close in order to harm you, the barrier can be kept between you and your threat while you access your weapon; at which point the wiser bad guys will give up on a futile and potentially fatal game of merry-go-round and simply sulk off into the night or surrender.  The more aggressive criminal class will still press the fight and force you to use your weapon, which may have not been possible without the time bought by using a barrier.

For the rare circumstances in which we expect to get into a use of force, concealment can be used as a place to initiate an encounter.  Nothing in my bedroom besides my plate carrier and body armor will stop bullets.  I know this; I’m also aware that someone can kick in my front or my back door and likely be in my bedroom, before I could put either of them on, especially if woken from sleep.  For most people, the same is probably true.  What I have then is the furniture in my bedroom and at night, the lack of light.  With time permitting, I’m going to use both and let the threat come to me.   

For those with children, this is probably not an option as you need to move to protect them.  With the majority of every home being made of materials that are unlikely to stop gunfire, everything must be treated as concealment which means moving and remaining unpredictable.  With darkness, we have concealment from anywhere light isn’t.  Because light works both ways, the use of your light to navigate in a constant on will telegraph your location and direction of travel.  

Relying on your knowledge of an area based on long term or short term memory, you can navigate and/or search for a threat by strobing the light in brief flashes.  Not only does this technique provide more than enough light to navigate, it disorients anyone lurking in the dark and makes detecting your exact location difficult unless they are extremely close by. 

Sage Dynamics Home Defense Course
Once a potential threat is identified, the light can be used in a constant on for control/issuing of commands or illuminated long enough to acquire your target and fire.  Light itself is also a form of concealment, as it blinds the threat and prevents them from physically seeing you.  While it’s true they may shoot at the light if armed with a firearm, a powerful light (90 lumens or more) at close range directed directly to the face will remove a threat’s visual horizon which provides you with a considerable advantage in a spontaneous use of force.

While the ifs, ands, and buts sound complicated, when you think if it and practice it, the common sense becomes evident quickly.  We all live in a three dimensional world, we should train in one as often as possible and this axiom is no less true when it comes to working with cover and concealment.  We move around cover and concealment every day, from the home to the parking lot to the work place and everywhere in between and every time we do so are chances to at least mentally assess an object and ask yourself how would I use that to my advantage? 

Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction from the fundamentals to advanced skills for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor overseas and as a police officer.  In addition to patrol he worked as a a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer.  Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others. When he isn't teaching or training, hes writes semi-regular for Recoil (web) and Breach Bang Clear among others."

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