Should You Shoot to Wound?

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Last Updated on December 12, 2013

This article was contributed by David Nash of Shepherd School

I talk a lot about lethal force, and one concept comes up almost universally. I call this idea the leg shot syndrome. The leg shot syndrome is expressed by the statement “I wouldn’t aim to kill; I would shoot the robber in the leg”. I believe I know where this thought comes from.

It comes from the fact that everyone I give firearms classes to comprise the “good guys”. Good guys don’t go around killing, robbing, and raping people. They believe that everyone has redeeming qualities. Good guys don’t want to kill people, they didn’t start the encounter, and if they had their way, the bad guy would just leave. Now before I get tons of hate mail, let me say that I understand the reason people think this, and I wish everyone in the world felt that way. If there were no bad guys, there would be no crime. I could then put more energy into my primary job of preparing for natural disasters instead of diverting energy to preparing for criminal disasters.

While understanding and admiring this idea, I want to emphasize that this is not a good way to apply this concept. There are many reasons why this philosophy is not sound in the lethal force arena. Some of these reasons are legal, some tactical, and some, yes, are even moral.

I will jump into what I hear as the most widely use reason why the leg shot syndrome (shoot to wound) should not be used, legal. A handgun is a lethal weapon. Unlike a baseball bat, a butcher knife, or a policeman’s baton, there is no less lethal way to use a handgun against another human. The law does not distinguish the difference between shooting a person in the head, and shooting a person in the chest. If there is not legally defensible motive and the person dies it is still murder. A bullet cannot be recalled once it leaves the barrel, and what it does upon entering a person cannot be decided by the person who fired the bullet. There is a major artery in the human leg, which if severed, can kill a person as quickly as shooting them in the chest.

Tactically manipulating a firearm under lethal force pressure is extremely hard. Quite a few books, and statistics from a vast amount historical data show that only about 1/3 of the rounds fired impact on the target. This doesn’t seem to be that bad, until you look at other statistics that show approximately 90% of gun fights happen under 7 yards and comprise less than 3 shots total.

How realistic is it then that when most people would be lucky to hit their attacker, you are going to hit one of the smallest areas, and an area that is most likely to be moving.  Tennessee (and every other state I have found that has a defined handgun training curriculum) specifies shooting center-mass with the intent to stop. This involves two concepts. The first being center-mass, this means aiming your projectile to impact inside the largest target area (the chest), since this is the largest area you have the greatest ability to actually hit it. Also the chest area has the largest ability to stop your attacker due to it being the location of most the body’s organs. Intent to stop, is neither aiming to kill, nor shooting to wound, either of these are irrelevant, your legal self-defense ability is centered upon the attacker being able to kill you, and trying to kill you.

If the mere presence of your legally owned firearm cause the attacker to stop, it has done its job, if one well placed round to center mass persuades the criminal to stop, that’s okay, however if it takes 3 ” boxes of bullets to stop a drug crazed, gang-banging, neo-nazi terrorist from killing you, hey so be it. This intent to stop is the half of my moral argument.

The other reason comes from plain street sense. I have a few years working in corrections. These years are split between entry level corrections working on the recreation yards and cages listening to inmates talk about themselves and their crimes, to working as a supervisor in maximum security units and applying inmate psychological knowledge to keeping the prison running smoothly. Criminals do what they do because it works for them. If a mugger or a rapist tries to talk you into leaving with him, it’s because it has always worked for him before.

Believe me, a violent criminal hasn’t decided to start being a violent criminal just because your there, a criminal starts small and works up gradually becoming more violent. If a criminal gets away with hurting you, he will do it to someone else. I am not saying that vigilante justice is okay, I’m not. I am not advocating deadly force as a punishment for a criminal either. What I am saying is that you are a reasonable person, with an inalienable right to life and liberty, minding your own business, living a peaceful life. You have a right do what you need to do to be safe, to go home to your family, this criminal attacked you, tried to hurt you for no reason other than his personal gain, you’re not trying to kill him, only making him stop trying to kill you. This is not wrong. This is right, your family needs you; make sure you do what needs to be done to be there for them.



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Cranky Steven

The only time you display a weapon is when you intend to shoot someone and the only time you shoot if to kill.

Pat Henry

My thoughts exactly Cranky!

Cranky Steven

Shooting to wound is like pulling out too early. Why bother to have started the action at all?


Cranky – you have no scenarios in your universe for showing a weapon to stop somebody from doing something without attempting to kill them? Picture somebody approaching your vehicle as you are getting out – you might not want them to get too close just in case, but they haven’t really tried to harm you and may be entirely innocent or even wanting to help so killing them in cold blood might be a little over the top (or if you care not a whit about that, a waste of ammo) – do you just plug them or let them… Read more »

Cranky Steven

You have a voice. Use it. Warn them you are armed and not to approach closer. If they disregard the warning they are up to no good. Then you can show them your weapon. After they see it, you can let them hear it.

northern raider

It is idiotic and irrational to try to shoot to wound, this is the real world and real threats to life and limb not some silly Hollywood movie. You aim for the center of mass , period, no if’s or buts, center of mass.

northern raider

Be it 22LR 38, 9mm, 40 or 45acp nothing works more effectively than a double tap nto the center of mass if you are trying to stop an attacker, just ask the SAS.

Pat Henry

Unless they are wearing body armor and then a little face time action is required.

Barbara Cooley

Sure, if you shoot them in the leg, then they are going to take your money through the courts and win!


This is well stated, and based on solid real world experience with dangerous criminals in the world we live in now. Not everything would apply equally in a post-apocolyptic world where for example the person breaking in might not be a life long criminal knowingly doing a crime like burglary, but an ordinary person trying to scavenge for their family without intention of harm. (Or not). I’m not saying this means we should go to the opposite extreme and sing Kumbya with everybody, OK? A lot of what he says still applies. Just reminding us that if things change radically… Read more »

Cranky Steven

I was rated an expert shot with the .45 in the USMC. I am a veteran of two tours of VN. I would never dream of trying to shoot to wound, much less to shoot a weapon out of someone’s hand. If you shoot them dead, the weapon will, as a rule, automatically fall out of their hands. Problem solved.

gary u. trance

Thank you, sir, for your service.

Cranky Steven

YW. Ask yourself this, is the other guy going to shoot to wound?

gary u. trance

What happens when you intend to shoot the bad guy in the hand, to shoot the gun out of his hand, but then your round goes right into and stops his beating heart? Same with a so-called “warning shot”. Hell, you don’t want to be killing people by accident; you don’t even want to be killing them on purpose. You are just shooting them, aiming for the easiest-to-hit target, trying to get them to stop scaring you.


I know this is an old post but the truth is the truth. It can be hard for a moral and peaceful man to even imagine the evil that lies in these men’s hearts let alone do what must be done to stop them. This lawlessness in our society and dare I say our halls of politics and even our judges plays out in the rot our society is experiencing. There are no excuses only reasons, and the reasons is that justice does not come quickly. Like the good book says (paraphrase) men continue to sin because God’s mercy allows… Read more »

Pat Henry

Thanks for your comments!

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