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Pelvic Shots: Fight Stoppers or Self-Defense Fiction?

At what point does immobilize equal incapacitate? Is the pelvic shot viable for armed professionals and self-protection-minded citizens? Career law enforcement officer, combative pistol instructor and tactical professor Dave Spaulding gives his take.

Pelvic Shots: Fight Stoppers or Self-Defense Fiction?

There is some debate about the fight-stopping viability of shots to the pelvic girdle. The fact is, however, in a lethal force encounter, especially in close quarters, you need to take the shots your given and keep working until the fight is won. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

Like most of you reading this, I take my personal security seriously. When it comes to including something into my battery of skills, I choose wisely. I am not much for fads or trends, I want stuff that has been proven to work over a long period of time. I apply what I call a “Three S Test” to any skill, tactic, technique or piece of gear I am considering for inclusion. It looks like this:

  • Simple: Is the tactic, technique, skill or piece of kit SIMPLE to do or use?
  • Sense: Does using or performing such skills, techniques, tactics of gear make SENSE to me based on my background, experience and training?
  • Street Proven: Has it been used in real fights, you know, STREET PROVEN. Not just once, but time and again.

While not fool proof, the Three S Test has served me well for many decades.

Understanding my adoption criteria, I’d like to apply it to a topic of much debate in the realm of combative pistolcraft, namely, the validity of the pelvic shot. Some claim it is the "ultimate" location to shoot a person in an effort to create incapacitation. Others argue that shooting an assailant in the pelvis is a serious mistake. Often, these opinions are formed based on second-hand information. Some of it comes from eye witness accounts, others from medical professionals that see wounds after the fact, and, unfortunately, much is just hearsay. Like many debates in the gun world, there is little middle ground.

Anatomical target with pelvic and abdominal shots
Gunfights are not static affairs; there is a good chance both parties will be in motion and under a high degree of duress. It’s best to shoot for the largest body mass possible and, if that doesn't work, be prepared to try something different. (Author Photo)

The most "famous" pelvic shot/wound ever recorded historically, probably belongs to western lawman, buffalo hunter, gunfighter and legend Bat Masterson. In 1875 in Sweetwater, Texas, Masterson was involved in a shootout with Corporal Melvin King (U.S. Army) involving either hard feelings over a card game or the affections of a woman, historians go both ways on the issue. I know, I know, the shooting involved liquor, gambling and a woman, hard to believe those three would result in a fight, right?

Near midnight, Masterson left the Lady Gay Saloon accompanied by Mollie Brennan and walked to a nearby dance hall. Masterson and Brennan sat down near the front door and began talking. Corporal King, intoxicated and angry over the night’s events (either losing at cards or Brennan's attention to Masterson), saw the two go into the dance hall and watched them through the window before he approached the locked door. King knocked and Masterson got up to answer it. As he did, King burst into the room with a drawn revolver and a string of profanity.

While stories as to exactly what happened vary, somehow Brennan found herself between the two men when King fired (whether she was trying to protect Masterson or simply trying to get out of the way is unknown). The first shot narrowly missed her and struck Masterson in the pelvis taking him down. King’s second shot hit Brennan in the chest and she crumpled to the floor.

At this point, Masterson raised himself up and fired the shot that killed King. Some say Bat Masterson walked with a cane the remainder of his life due to the severity of the pelvic wound while others say he merely used it as an excuse to keep an impact weapon with him at all times — a weapon he was known to use with great effectiveness. What can be said is that Masterson was seen throughout his later life without the cane.

Please re-read the first sentence of the previous paragraph, as it’s of great concern to those who question the pelvic shot. I have talked to many people over the years who have either been involved or have been witness to armed conflict in which a pelvis shot was delivered and some describe the victim of said wound going down. But not always. Down or not, as Masterson proved a pelvic-shot person is capable of remaining in — and winning — the fight.

This being the case, we should ask ourselves if lack of mobility is the same as incapacitation. Incapacitation means “being unable to take action” while immobilization means “not being able to move.” Are they the same thing?




I have been looking at the issue of handgun "stopping power" for decades now and have come to the conclusion that handguns are not impressive man stoppers regardless of caliber or bullet design. While we currently have the best combative handgun ammo ever designed, all the logical person must do is hold a cartridge in their hand, consider its weight and size and compare it to the mass that is the human body and it is not hard to see why such a small, light projectile will likely have limited impact on the human organism quickly. Just hold a .45-caliber projectile in front of the human chest cavity and you will see it is pretty small. In order to get any type of rapid result, it will have to hit a pretty important part of the body. The question: Is the pelvis important? Should it be a primary target?

Handgun bullet penetration through gel
While it is easy to become overly enamored with handgun bullet tests into gelatin, handgun rounds are not as destructive as some would have you believe. There is a good chance a handgun bullet will not break a pelvic bone. (Author Photo)

Dr. Martin Fackler, one of our preeminent researchers into wound ballistics, thought not. In an article he wrote in 1999 (Fackler, M.L. "Shots to the Pelvic Area". Wound Ballistics Review, 4(1), 1999.) he stated:

"I welcome the chance to refute the belief that the pelvic area is a reasonable target during a gunfight. I can find no evidence or valid rationale for intentionally targeting the pelvic area in a gunfight. The reasons against, however, are many. They include:

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  • From the belt line to the top of the head, the areas most likely to rapidly incapacitate the person hit are concentrated in or near the midline. In the pelvis, however, the blood vessels are located to each side, having diverged from the midline, as the aorta and inferior vena cava divide at about the level of the navel. Additionally, the target that, when struck, is the most likely to cause rapid and reliable incapacitation, the spinal cord (located in the midline of the abdomen, thorax and neck), ends well above the navel and is not a target in the pelvis.
  • The pelvic branches of the aorta and inferior vena cava are more difficult to hit than their parent vessels — they are smaller targets, and they diverge laterally from the midline (getting farther from it as they descend). Even if hit, each carry far less blood than the larger vessels from which they originated. Thus, even if one of these branches in the pelvis is hit, incapacitation from blood loss must necessarily be slower than from a major vessel hit higher up in the torso.
  • Other than soft tissue structures not essential to continuing the gunfight (loops of bowel, bladder) the most likely thing to be struck by shots to the pelvis would be bone. The ilium is a large flat bone that forms most of the back wall of the pelvis. The problem is that handgun bullets that hit it would not break the bone but only make a small hole in passing through it: this would do nothing to destroy bony support of the pelvic girdle. The pelvic girdle is essentially a circle: to disrupt its structure significantly would require breaking it in two places. Only a shot that disrupted the neck or upper portion of the shaft of the femur would be likely to disrupt bony support enough to cause the person hit to fall. This is a small and highly unlikely target: the aim point to hit it would be a mystery to those without medical training — and to most of those with medical training."

At this point it is wise to keep in mind that handguns and long guns are not the same. A high velocity rifle round or a heavy shotgun slug will do more damage than a low velocity handgun round. Thus, it is reasonable to think a pelvic shot with a handgun will not have the same effect as a rifle round and the two should not be compared.

When I was in SWAT, we were taught to “shoot pockets” — as in the side pockets of blue jeans — as a way to create a “mobility kill.” Even then, what we were trying to hit was not the pelvis, but the ball joint where the leg joins the pelvic girdle. It was thought that by breaking this area, the suspect would go down and could be contained without killing them. Potential retaliatory action would then be contained by a team surrounding the suspect with multiple weapons aimed in. It should be noted, we were using Heckler & Koch MP5s for this exercise. It was a nice thought, I guess, but really hard to do quickly, under duress, and while moving. Questionable? Maybe. Probably. But, this doctrine comes from the 1980s — before many of Guns & Ammos younger readers were born — and “Use of Force” was viewed differently that today.

In my classes, I use a simple target that highlights the upper chest cavity and head, a 6x6-inch square that includes the vital organs of the heart, aorta, major vessels and spinal column. I use a 3x5-inch Post-It note for the brain vault. Few dispute these area as "vital.” The high chest is obvious but the head can be considered controversial since handgun rounds have been known to not penetrate the skull. I, personally, discount this. I have been on the scene multiple times when humans have been hit in the skull by a handgun round that did not penetrate and, on all occasions, the target was knocked off their feet — much like a batter hit in the head with a baseball. They are not capable of an immediate response and I have yet to be made aware of the person who responds like a James Bond villain and takes a non-penetrating round to the head with no affect. My experience has been bolstered by similar accounts and feedback from other knowledgeable folks.

Close quarters defensive shooting
While the pelvic area is not the best location to shoot to achieve incapacitation, circumstance may make it the logical place to shoot. (Author Photo)

My big concern with head shots is the lack of "back stop" to catch a round that is not well placed. The 6-inch square high center chest has the remainder of the torso to help slow/catch a round that does not hit the center while a round that misses the head goes over the shoulder. I counsel my students to use the head shot for close distances where they know they can hit, or for times they can take a low position and shoot at an upward angle.

I believe the high chest and head are a much better "strike zone" for combative pistolcraft than I do the pelvic girdle. I never emphasized it in my classes, but I also do not take to task those instructors that do. In the end, you will shoot at the region of the body that is available! We will all take what is offered to us, but if there is a hierarchy of shot placement, the pelvic girdle would be ranked below the chest and head, at least in my mind. Also keep in mind, when shooting someone with a handgun, expect very little in terms of reaction and stay ready for follow-on shots or other actions.

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