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Get to cover? A requiem for common sense.

Chances are, you have a pretty good idea of what is cover, and what isn’t.  If you have been professionally trained, and that professional training was founded in this man’s reality, you have an even better idea of what cover is.  Problem is, you are probably in the minority.  What is and isn’t cover is factually misunderstood to a pretty high level of incompetence.  Many people simply believe that certain things are cover, certain things aren’t cover, and both beliefs are wrong depending on what object we are talking about.  As much as you may want to believe that a refrigerator or that spruce tree will stop incoming fire, neither have an NIJ rating so it’s a best guess scenario unless you’ve been lucky enough to attend a ballistics lab class, and by lucky I mean sought one out and went.


The fact is, your world is full of cover and concealment, and when it comes to teaching people the difference between the two, our industry actually does a pretty bad job; such a bad job that even industry professionals can’t quantify certain objects as cover even though they are demonstrably so.  Why?  Because there are different opinions on what qualifies as cover, and those opinions can be (and often are) driven by a reluctance to be wrong and an adherence to dogma from one camp or another.   Some of it is also based on personal experience (or lack thereof) and that feeds into the previous statement as well.


So let’s look at the definition of cover.

Cover is any object that will, with a high likelihood, stop incoming fire for an indeterminate amount of time.

That’s right; that which will stop bullets, will not do so forever.  Obviously it goes without saying that it’s going to take you a great deal of .308 to chip through a 600 pound granite boulder, but only a scant few to work through a red brick wall.  I’ve seen concrete filled cinder block stand up to less than a magazine of 5.56 before a usable hole was opened (it was about the size of a golf ball, but it was there).  Some objects are going to be better than others, some will last longer than others, and some objects, even though you may have never witnessed them being shot in person, or shot them yourself, by size, density and makeup, lend themselves to common sense as being cover (or at least highly likely).  I have personally never seen any caliber fired at a construction grader blade, but based on its material and purpose I can safely assume it would stop smaller calibers with ease.


So now that we are on the same page about what cover is, we can talk about what it isn’t.  Cover isn’t conveniently sized, conveniently placed, at a convenient distance, or always readily apparent.  Sometimes cover is a fire hydrant, or a concrete parking stop.  Sometimes cover is a pressure treated wire pole or maybe even a dumpster (which are usually good for handgun calibers, at least).  The situation in which you need cover, is going to dictate exactly what cover is present.


You may be asking yourself why this is even being discussed, and frankly I’d be right there with you if it was not for a recent uptick in conversations about vehicle courses and the use of cars as cover; see the car is a pretty common object to encounter, and certain parts of the car offer excellent cover, but that cover doesn’t meet some people’s definitions of cover, so they are dismissing the prudent practice of teaching those points of cover all together.  Let me be clear; nothing an average car offers is conveniently sized cover; but then, what is?

Small Cover Examples

Small Cover Examples

There are parts of certain cars, such as the B pillar, that offer a good deal of cover, but the width of that cover can be as little as six inches.  Six inches isn’t much at all, but you know what? It’s better than nothing and the intelligent shooter would use it only if a better option was not readily available at the moment cover was needed.  Maybe the issue isn’t as much with some people teaching about cars as it is about a lack of critical thinking on the topic and of course, sacred cows being challenged.

Notch WallMy first introduction to cover was a concrete fox hole at Ft. Benning.  That was cover.  It was a lot of cover, and in addition to being a range training aid, it actually was cover…as opposed to nearly every other cover I have ever been trained on, or used to train students.

VTAC walls are not cover, blue barrels are not cover, particle board and 2×4’s are not cover, yet they are used worldwide to simulate cover.  Basically as teaching aides to teach students how to work in and around cover with whatever weapon is the topic of training.  Now it’s the instructors job to drive home what real life cover actually is, and talk about it to a point that a student has a strong understanding of what cover actually means.  This point is monumentally important since those VTAC walls and blue barrels are horrible representations of real life common cover objects.


You know what is cover?  Any car I roll onto a range to teach with.  You know how I know its cover?  Because we are going to shoot it.  All cars (cars being a catch-all colloquial term for light passenger vehicles to include; cars, sedans, trucks, SUVs, Vans, etc) are not created equal, but thanks to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, specifically their issued Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (parts 571, 583, 589 if you are interested in reading it) cites a number of features and standards that each vehicle sold must have and while not intended to provide ballistic protection by design, do so anyway.  Legally required cover; pretty damn awesome if you need it.  Don’t misunderstand me, a vehicle is not an ideal place to fight from, nor around, but we often don’t get to choose where a fight happens, and since a motor vehicle is a common object, it would be quite foolish to ignore any potential advantages they may provide.  So when I teach a student that the C pillar hub on a sedan can provide 8” of cover; that’s not nearly as much cover as provided by a VTAC wall, except one is a prop and the other isn’t.


We are going to shoot that car with handgun and rifle and show the results.  Every possible point of cover on the car body is going to be demonstrated.  Learning will occur.  What will also occur is an in-depth lecture on best practices and smart decisions regarding the use of a vehicle as cover.  You cant always get off the X.  Sometimes the vehicle is all there is.  There are some very vocal voices in the training world talking about fire and maneuver, or moving to superior cover, or shooting and moving and communicating.  These are all sound techniques when they are techniques that can be used.  Often all they do is presuppose that such things are possible in the moment or at all.

A single citizen, a solitary LEO, this is the lens I’m looking through.  If I’m speaking to the military I can presuppose a fire team, a squad, support vehicles, CAS, all manner of organized hate that can be exploited to stop an enemy.  These are not techniques for the man and wife, or the officer on a traffic stop in rural America or a parking lot in urban USA.  I cannot presuppose the presence of other cover when we talk about the car because that cover will not always be there; so we talk about the car.  We talk about the car, we demonstrate the car, and then we talk about other sources of cover.  That 8” of cover may not be much, and it may not be enough for someone who prefers the cover of a tree or hesco, but it might just be all there is for a few seconds, a few minutes, or at all.  For anyone with a realistic expectation of shooting around cars, it would be foolish to not go over this information and dispel the world of myths that are out there regarding vehicles.  Would you be shocked to learn that a 1960’s American sedan is less cover than a 2016 American sedan?   Because it is, thanks to better safety regulations on auto construction.  Meanwhile, plywood used for notch walls is largely the same as it was 50 years ago.

Notch Wall

It is not convenient or possible in some cases to demo real world cover in classes, so it’s understandable that blue barrels and plywood rule the cover instruction world…but those shapes have a dark side and that dark side is teaching instructors and students alike that cover must be huge, much larger than the shooter, to be of any use.  We accept body armor in 10”x12” but turn our noses up at something that could be 6”x22”, 8”24”, 10”x30” worth of cover?   I’m up, he sees me, I’m down is a basic level of operation and presupposes that there’s somewhere to go, or time to go there.  I’m not in the business of planning how a student’s fight will happen, or what will be available for them when it does.  I’m also not in the business of ignoring instruction on a very common object just because not all of the cover it can provide is conveniently sized to one school of thought’s arbitrary dimensions.  I am in the business of teaching a student to identify the best cover for the moment, regardless of size, and considering it as an option.  I can roll a Crown Vic or a Camry onto a range; not so much the corner of a Wawas or the flower bed from in front of the local hospital.  I can go over the theory of cover, and demonstrate in person the cover provided by a car to people who want to know about fighting in and around cars and isn’t that part of what training is supposed to be, realistic as possible?

Not Cover

Cover is any object that can stop incoming fire for an indeterminate amount of time.  You’ll notice that there is no size included in that definition.  Size of cover is a luxury.  Multiple objects of cover to choose from are a luxury.  Superior cover in close distance is a luxury.  We want the luxuries of cover, but we must also be prepared to fight without them.   So if you are trying to shoe horn military tactics for cover into non-military settings, maybe question the mission and goal, because not everything translates.  In fact, very little does.  Everything I learned about cover in the Infantry was based on the premise of a fire team or squad or larger element.  If the foundation for using cover is based on the luxury of multiple team members, do those same techniques apply to the single officer or single mother?  Is the equipment, mission or environment the same?  No, likely it’s not.  You cannot repurpose military techniques for solo civilian use.  Sure it makes for good entertainment and a weekend warrior experience out in the woods, but it’s not nearly as useful as tailoring the lesson to the realities of the student, as opposed to pushing a tailored reality onto the memories of the student.

Wood Poles

Cover just is.  We are better served talking about all of it that commonly exists, and helping the student plan around it than always wishing and driving for something that may not be there.

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6 Responses to Get to cover? A requiem for common sense.

  1. Kurt March 19, 2016 at 5:45 pm #

    Aaron cowan does it again. Turns the training world upside down on its head.

  2. Matt March 19, 2016 at 6:05 pm #

    As usual, very well thought out. Those than run solo most the time, like myself, recognize the advantages of what you’re putting down. Thanks.

  3. Robert W March 19, 2016 at 10:21 pm #

    Very good read on such a subject matter. Love the pics of standard parking lot and letting people look over it and decide what is or is not cover. I’ve done something similar with my students to get them to realize true practical ideas out in the field.
    Very very good article.

  4. Hillbilly Bob March 20, 2016 at 1:01 am #

    Great article. Thanks for posting it

  5. Weltall March 20, 2016 at 2:59 am #

    There is a difference between cover and concealment. Funny how many people do not realize this.

  6. Myke Baird April 3, 2016 at 7:41 am #

    The best thing about Mr. Cowan’s articles is the high level of detail and thought. The worst thing is the high level of detail and thought. My take away is that not all cover is convenient, make the best of what you can find and be prepared to be uncomfortable using said cover.