July 23, 2020
The best way to deal with a carjacking or other vehicle attack is to prevent it altogether. If the car is running and operable, use it to ram your way out and escape. If the car is not running, and you are facing an armed assailant while unarmed, the best thing to do is abandon ship. Get out of the car as quickly as you can, and get as far away as possible so that you do not become a hostage (and murder victim) or shot. But, what if none of this works?
Shots Fired – Fighting in the vehicle environment
This where we come to two of the most important points:
- Most carjackers are armed with some type of weapon. Most victims are not.
- The last place you would want to be when under fire is in or next to an inoperable car. In a moment, we will show that an immovable vehicle is the worst place you can be during such an ambush. The best defense against carjackers and other assailants around an immovable vehicle, both statistically and tactically, is to be armed. A firearm, whether drawn and presented or fired to stop the threat, is the most proven carjacking countermeasure.
Reasons why stationary vehicles are the worst place to be in a gunfight:
- It is imperfect cover: The materials used in automobiles are anything but bulletproof, especially in lighter, more fuel efficient vehicles. In fact, most cars are fairly ‘transparent’ to most small arms projectiles (especially rifle bullets). They were never designed to stop bullets. Due to the shape and design of vehicles, especially cars, they are very difficult to properly hide your body, move, or get into any type of good shooting position. The average wheel well is not even large enough to cover most people’s torso and head. What you can do: If you use a vehicle for cover, put either the engine block and/or a wheel well between you and the attacker. Treat everything else as if it is made out of tin foil. But, even the engine block is not a guaranteed bullet stopper. And, the bad news is that even the smallest of the military style rifle calibers in circulation will penetrate the brake disks of most cars after one to three hits. But you never really know what will happen.
- It is a bullet magnet: Cars make a great sight picture for someone aiming a weapon at you. They are larger than the person associated with it, are easy to find in the dark and often contrast with the sights of many weapons. If you stay in the car, you make it even easier for them. And, once bullets hit or penetrate a vehicle, they often will ricochet around inside until they find something soft to stop in.
- Weapons effects that can disable you: More than bullets can kill/injure you. If a projectile hits either type of the most common vehicle glass, fragments, called spalling, will travel nearly the velocity of the bullet in a cone perpendicular to the glass itself. Even if the bullet misses, various sized pieces of material and atomized glass easily capable of penetrating the skin will fly at you. These can be fatal or blinding. If firing from inside of your enclosed vehicle, the smoke and/or overpressure can obscure you (dust or particles of glass or other matter becoming airborne). The extreme noise (sonic crack and blast) and bright flash can cause flash disorientation or temporary blindness. If you have ever fired any type of firearm from inside of an enclosed vehicle, you know what I am talking about.
- Confusion and difficulty drawing, identifying and engaging in a car: When in a vehicle, it’s very common to not be able to accurately pinpoint where the gunfire is coming from, especially handguns. Drawing from a concealed carry holster can be difficult and the seatbelt can get in the way. And, attempting to fire from inside of a vehicle from an awkward position, at a moving target amongst blind spots, and the limited range of motion from a car seat, is all similar to engaging from inside of a tank or submarine. Threat identification may be degraded by glare, lighting or the intermittent appearance of a moving threat.
- “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel”: The most common statement by assailant role players after countless force on force scenarios conducted simulating the most prevalent carjacking tactics. Though there are a number of shooting schools that teach ‘shooting from vehicles,’ or ‘hugging’ against the vehicle when using it for cover, many don’t teach much more than that. So, don’t fool yourself that the really fun vehicle bailout drill in a shooting course is going to give you all that you need if you end up in the kill zone. You are still in danger until you are far away from your car. Plus, most of what is taught is usually stationary on a static range. How much of your range time is devoted to firing from inside of, or using cover, at a vehicle?
- Stationary shooting tactics can be fatal: Imagine trying to respond from your seat while surrounded by armed moving assailants.
React to attack – Movement and cover
If you see a weapon, or are under fire and are in an immovable vehicle, it requires split-second decision making. The decision to ‘abandon ship’ may be the most prudent survival option. Whether or not you use a firearm in this instance, the very fact that you are moving may make yourself a more difficult and confusing target. The possibility that the taking the vehicle itself may be the attacker's goal, as in a real carjacking, could quite possibly afford you a better chance of survival. If you are moving away from what the attacker really wants.
This also reduces the chances of being kidnapped while in your car. You might have a chance to talk your way out of the car before using your firearm, thereby delaying your draw and not telegraphing your intent to use force if needed. You might be able to position yourself where you can keep the mass of the car between you and the assailant(s) while you are talking to them, looking for an escape route or cover all the while. If you absolutely must draw and deter or engage from inside of the vehicle, make an initial engagement on the closest armed attacker, shooting your way out of the trap, then bail out of the car right away.
Either way, don’t sit there or stay in one spot for very long. At all cost, get out of the car and:
- Move! Bail out when you see a weapon or hear it firing. Not necessarily out your door, use whatever door or window that puts you closest to your first piece of cover, or at least gets more metal between you and them. If you are already under fire, lie down on the seat and crawl to the opposite door, then crawl out to either wheel well or the engine block.
- At the car- Stay low and move to one corner of the car quickly, not touching it, and putting as much metal between you and the assailant(s). Draw as you exit and move to cover, or draw once at cover. They may be confused as you have dropped out of sight temporarily. As soon as you get there and can do it, find your next piece of cover that is ‘away from the car’.
- Run! – Away from the car focused on your first piece of cover. Draw either on the way or once you get to cover. Scan for assailants and begin looking for new cover, as you more than likely are still too close. Moving away from the car may split their attention between you and the car. At that point, they might just focus on the car and take it.
What about multiple occupants, including children?
You run into a risk of not being able to get everyone moving, moving in the same direction or on the same sheet of music in terms of a response or resistance. This is especially true if you are the only one armed. Worse yet, you can risk a crossfire situation if fellow occupants are caught in the middle, or taken hostage. We have studied these responses for years, and reenacted some during scenario driven training. Based upon this, the best advice in this difficult situation is any of the following, as applicable:
- The only armed person should never be the driver, if at all possible. This frees up the occupants for a possible combined firearm / driving escape, or being able to have the armed person exit quickly and deal with the situation outside of an immovable car.
- Attempt to talk your way out of the car ensuring that all of the occupants are out and grouped together before going to guns. If you can exit out of one door, and/or put the car between all of you and the assailant(s), that is preferable. Then, separate yourself laterally from the group and engage the armed assailant(s) first. This may draw fire away from the unarmed passengers. If you can push the occupants behind cover before firing, even better, but keep in mind that the assailants could quickly flank the vehicle.
- Draw covertly, keeping the weapon hidden and wait until you have a clear, accurate shot on the only armed attacker, from either inside or outside of the vehicle. It is usually best if the other occupants know you are armed, know not to give that fact away and have done some talk-thru scenarios.
- If there are children or babies in the car, the only option is to keep the assailants talking while climbing into the seat that they are in, shielding them with your body while unbuckling and physically moving them with you as you exit the vehicle. Keep the assailants talking while continuing to shield the youths while moving. If it is a true carjacking, keep offering them the car while begging them to leave the children alone. If you absolutely must shoot, then immediately separate yourself laterally or diagonally and take the shot(s). Most importantly, get them all out of the car so that you and/or they are not taken hostage.
Survival wisdom of movement and cover: Here is more wisdom why getting as far away from the car as quickly as possible is the most proven survival option. In most cases, you can usually run 5 to 20 yards away from a vehicle faster than you can draw from a concealed belt level holster, that is trapped by a safety belt and clothing. The whole idea is to make them react to you, not the other way around, while making yourself a difficult target. Distance will favor the trained shooter.
John Peterson is a US Army Special Forces combat vet with experience as an Antiterrorism/Driving Instructor, Executive Protection Specialist, Surveillance Specialist, Intelligence Instructor and as a full-time Firearms and Tactics Instructor for the Smith & Wesson Academy, SIG Sauer Academy and Federal government.