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Methods of Engagement: Why Double Taps and Head Shots Will Let You Down

   The U.S. Military’s (conventional forces any way), primary method for shooting threats at close range is Double Taps or Controlled Pairs. The difference between the two: Double Taps- the second shot is taken as soon as sights settle back on target; a Controlled Pair- two aimed shots, (just taken as fast as one can), with deliberate aiming in between. When to employ either one should be based on the distance to the threat. (Which ever method ensures getting two hits into the threat).

   Unfortunately (and the military knows this), double taps and controlled pairs do not generally work quick enough to get the job done in CQB. Yet despite this, double taps and pairs continues to be taught as the primary engagement method. Reasons there are many: saving of ammunition in training, trust- sadly many leaders do not trust their own soldiers, to shoot large volumes of fire in close proximity of each other, and lastly and probably the biggest reason; Institutionalization- Simply, that’s the way they have always done it.

  But what about shot placement? Isn’t that key to putting a threat down? True, shot placement can and often trumps volume of shots. I have personally seen a one shot stop in combat with 5.56 at close range. But I have also witnessed and experienced (especially with 5.56), bad guys needing a long multiple shot string of fire to visibly see it affecting them. (Stopping what they are doing).

Faults of the Double Tap

  It’s not only that double taps have proven to be insufficient at CQB distance to get the job done, but also shooting just two rounds is counter intuitive to most peoples response or reaction to a threat. Think about it, in most videos of LEO involved shootings you will more often than not, see the officer draw his/her firearm then continuously pump rounds at the suspect until there is a visible reaction from the bullets. (Suspect falls to the ground, surrenders, ETC).

    Ever watch or participate in simunitions or paint ball training? If so, I bet you have not seen too many double taps being employed. Instead most shooters keep shooting, hammering away until they see some sort of visible cue the threat is down (a hand is raised, or some other indicator the enemy player is done). It’s what we are wired to do; react until our brains process there is no more danger.

 So if double taps and pairs is both ineffective and a unnatural response to danger why practice it? This is exactly the conclusion what Army Special Forces came to back in the mid-2000s, after much fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Double taps and pairs do not work and is not a natural reaction when shooting a threat. What does work? Multiple strings of fire, shot into the torso, driving the threat down to the ground.   

   So why not still practice double taps just to save ammunition? That’s simple, if you do not practice shooting large strings of fire, then there is the very good chance, accuracy is not going to be there when you do it for real. Instead of learning to manage recoil from half a dozen rounds being fired. If only double taps are practiced under threat, one is solely relying on adrenaline and luck to get the job done.  

  The difference between doing it for the first time under stress anddoing it all the time in training can be seen by the size of the shot groups. 1st timers in training tend to use the entire torso area (which is what you often see in footage from real shootings). While those that utilize it as a standard method of engagement, can typically hold softball size group in a kill zone out to 15 yards easy. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be able to put five or six rounds into the heart and lungs. Than pepper all over the torso and hope one or two hit something vital.  

Head Shots

  What about two to the body one to the head (Mozambique)? No doubt a head shot works better and faster than body shots. But getting a head shot under stress is actually really hard to do. In fact, during my 19 years in SF, I only know of two comrades that have utilized a 2 to body 1 to head engagement in real life. (In both cases it was truly at arms-length). Compared to the dozens upon dozens of SF guys I know and have served with, who have employed large strings of fire to drive threats to the ground with multiple lead injections.

  So why not more Mozambique’s?  Because unless one is truly just arm’s length away, pulling off two to the body then one to the head, often requires one to use a precise aim when transitioning from body to the head shot. Which under pressure is again not a natural reaction. The reason- when under pressure our minds are subconsciously or automatically seeking the easiest way of doing something. With regards to aiming that equals focusing on the largest/easiest part of a threat to hit, the torso. The head being smaller, computes to being a harder shot and because of this it takes conscious thought to decide to aim at it.

 Sure, with some distance between you and a threat, one has time for precise aiming and making head shots. But at room distance, most of us have to slow down to aim to get a hit. Which when under stress of life and death, is not a natural act. It has proven to be much easier and faster to pump out a five-round string of fire into the chest than try and shoot two then transition and re-aim at a head. That more often than not is not stationary.   

Driving the Threat Down

 So how should one be practicing? Around 2006ish in SF, the engagement count in training was bumped up from double taps to five round strings. Why five round strings? Well ammo consumption is a factor but, shooting five round strings is a good enough amount to allow for practice of managing recoil of a large string of fire on a target. Sure, under stress plenty of soldiers and LEOs are pumping even larger strings into threats. But five rounds is a good balance between realism and ammo management.

  I should also point out that when I say five rounds strings that means five hits in the high torso area (kill zone). If there are some weak hits or complete misses, one should keep shooting until there are five good hits. (This also applies to double taps). Many will shoot a double tap then check 360 or lower muzzle, only to relook and see weak hits on the target. Bottom line keep shooting until you get the desired number of rounds in a kill zone.   

  The Wrap Up

 Is your unit or department still utilizing double taps as the primary method of engagement? If so, then I encourage finding out why because, it has been proven time and again, regardless of caliber, the more rounds on target the more quickly the desired effect. Even if one does put one single well placed round in a kill zone, placing a half a dozen more rounds on top of that is not a bad thing.

   So instead of relying on hoping to be able to rise to the occasion when the time comes. Why not start training now for the reality of what will most likely be needed. That is- large multiple strings of fire, shot rapidly into the kill zone – thus ensuring multiple positive hits in vital areas, stopping the threat from harming you, or your teammates.  

 Check out this video by 10th Special Forces Group, note the rapid multiple shot strings of fire employed in CQB. Doubles taps have long been a thing of the past. Why? Double taps and pairs have proven to not get the job done and is counter intuitive to the natural reaction to a threat.  

Jeff Gurwitch
Jeff Gurwitch is a retired Special Forces Soldier who served 26 years in the United States Army (18 years with Special Forces). He served in the First Gulf War, three tours OIF, and three tours OEF. A contributing writer for SWAT Magazine and Defensereview.com. He is also an avid competitive shooter, competing in USPSA, IDPA, and 3-Gun.

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