Shield from Shooters: Using Cars as Cover
The author, Michael Grasso.

Shield from Shooters: Using Cars as Cover

Using cars as cover is one strategy to survive an active shooter situation. Like many catastrophic events, active shooter situations can happen anywhere and at any time. You may be inside your car, or even be caught walking on the street when the shooting starts, and the only cover available could be some parked cars or cars in traffic. In this article, we show you some ways you can position yourself to use cars as a level of cover during an active shooter situation.

You may have observed in movies or TV shows how some people use cars as cover, and shield themselves from a hail of bullets. Pop culture being the way it is, you’ll probably wonder why some people survive, while others become Swiss cheese. Hollywood naturally presents a few myths about what works and what could get you hospitalized, or buried when ducking for cover in or behind a car to avoid being injured or killed by gunfire.

Cover vs. Concealment

Before we delve into the specifics of what works and what doesn’t when using cars as cover, note the difference between “cover” and “concealment”. “Concealment” is your protection against enemy view, while “cover” is your protection against enemy fire. You can avoid getting shot at if you’re effectively concealed from the active shooter, but if your concealment is a failure and you’re observed and seen by the active shooter, you have to find cover that’s tough enough to protect you from bullets. If you can’t remain concealed from the shooter or evade them, you had best get behind the right cover to survive.

Also, keep in mind that effective cover will depend on the type of rounds coming your way. Some types of cover may protect you from some rounds while the same cover may offer virtually no protection from high-energy and armor-piercing projectiles.

Front Windshield vs. Side Windows

If you’re in your car while there’s an active shooter, there will be some differences if you are shot at while you are either sitting as a rear passenger, side passenger or in the driver’s seat. You must note that the windshield glass is different from the glass for the side windows. Side windows are comprised of “safety glass”. This means that if this type of glass is impacted or struck by any object, it’s designed to shatter into a gazillion tiny shards on impact. The resulting shards from shattered safety glass may cut you, but the resulting shards are usually tiny and any wounds or cuts they may inflict on you will unlikely be life-threatening. The reason why “safety glass” is so easy to break is because it’s intended to allow rescue personnel to easily get to any people who may be injured and trapped inside, in the event of a car accident.

Windshield glass differs from the side windows’ “safety glass” in that it’s comprised of two panes of glass, sandwiching a sheet of polymer. Note also that the windshield isn’t completely flat, but more angular to provide both better visibility for the driver, and improved aerodynamics for the car. The degree of angle varies from car to car, but most cars have windshields angled at 40 to 55 degrees. This applies to both the rear and front windshields, but that depends on the make and model of the car.

When fired at and resorting to a car as cover, the car’s front windshield is actually less likely to shatter than the other windows, due to both the angle of the glass and the material. Windshields are designed to crack, but not shatter. This is intended to allow the driver to have continued protection and a degree of visibility even after a large object like a rock has impacted the windshield. In the case of an active shooter, it’s somehow “better” to be shot at while behind the front windshield, and not behind the side or rear windows.

Are Windshields “Bullet-resistant”?

There is actually some truth to the fact that windshields “can be bullet-resistant”. That is, if the bullet is a “weak” caliber such as .25 caliber. The more “moderately-powered” pistol rounds like .38 will definitely penetrate windshields most of the time and can still have enough kinetic energy to cause serious damage or even kill anyone after penetrating the windshield. Given that most active shooters use more powerful rounds, don’t count on a car windshield offering any real protection.

You can see proof of this here:

Which Caliber?

A “wise man” by the name of “Dirty” Harry Callahan, aka Clint Eastwood, once remarked after being asked why he used a .44 magnum revolver, he said: “.357’s a good weapon, but I’ve seen .38’s careen off windshields.” As shown by the video above, this is possible, but not to be counted upon on the street. Looking at statistics, most active shooters commit their grisly crimes with pistols and not rifles, and while it’s rare for them to have used a .44 magnum revolver, the calibers of choice seem to be the .45 and 9mm. There has been an odd FN 5-7 caliber in a couple shootings, but nothing as powerful as the .44 magnum. Seeing that 9mm and .45 cal. rounds are easily procured, expect the active shooter to have the capacity to shoot through car windshields, doors and windows.

FBI infographic showing percentage of weapons used by shooters in active shooter incidents in the US from 2000 to 2015
According to data compiled from 200 different shootings that occurred from the year 2000 to 2015, it was found that pistols, not rifles, were used by majority of the active shooters (TheTrace.Org/rounds/mass-shooting-gun-type-data/).

Do You Feel Lucky?

Given that many active shooters appear to “favor” the use of handguns which will most likely be in 9mm or .45 caliber, you may have better chances at not getting injured if fired upon, but only if you’re hiding behind certain parts of a car. But hiding behind the car’s windshield as an active shooter unloads 15 or 17 rounds of 9mm from a Glock? You’re in trouble. Another caveat is if the shooter is using a rifle chambered in “commonly-used” calibers like .223, 5.56, 7.62x39mm or 7.62mm NATO – rounds with way more velocity, and therefore better penetration, get a shovel because you’re in deep sh*t.

So, if the active shooter has at least a .38 you can count on getting injured; as you get up the hierarchy of pistol and rifle calibers, you can count on getting perforated if you’re targeted while behind a car windshield.

Ruger .38 revolver
If an active shooter uses a .38 revolver, you should be safe in your car, right? Wrong. The .38 round is very much capable of penetrating a car’s windshield, door or windows. Don’t scoff at this deceivingly “small” caliber

Car Doors as Cover

Now that it’s been established that car windshields (front or rear) don’t have much to offer in terms of protection, what about car doors? Unfortunately, the answer is no– unless the active shooter happens to be firing at you with a .22 caliber rifle or pistol, from a decent distance. Car doors or trunk areas shot with the .22 offer some resistance, as it’s apparent that .22 barely penetrates the car’s trunk area, and should it penetrate that part of the car or a car’s door, it will go out the other end with way less energy. Again, given that many active shooters use 9mm, .45 and some of the “common” rifle calibers, relying on a car door as cover will do little or nothing to protect you from harm.

Proof Against Shotguns

While we’ve found that pistol and rifle rounds can indeed make Swiss cheese out of a car’s doors, windshield and windows, the same can’t be said about shotguns. Perhaps surprisingly, shotguns loaded with birdshot or buckshot seem to do mostly cosmetic damage – taking off most of the paint, and not doing much damage to a car body apart from several dented areas where birdshot and buckshot struck. As for shotgun slugs, the story is no different than with rifle rounds. If an active shooter uses a shotgun loaded with slugs, don’t count on escaping unscathed and forget about using cars as cover. You can see the results here:

Man in camo uniform aiming with a KSG shotgun
Even the most menacing-looking shotguns can be ineffective against you if you’re using a car as cover. As long as the active shooter isn’t using slugs, you could remain relatively safe from harm when behind a car

Other Parts of the Car as Cover

Given that car windshields, side and rear windows, doors and even the trunk area don’t really provide much protection, is it still worth relying on cars as cover to protect you from a hail of bullets?

The answer is yes. The only part that not even an AR-15 or similar rifle loaded with 5.56mm steel-core penetrators can go through is the engine block. If you really have no choice but to use a car as cover during an active shooter situation, get out of your car and hunker down low behind the car’s wheel and engine block. Note that some cars have the engine in the back so be sure you’re behind the correct part of the car. If possible, search for better cover options while you’re in this position.

Final Notes

While many guns that an active shooter might use to sow terror are dangerous and powerful enough to shoot right through most parts of a car and do serious harm, there are some exceptions. Smaller caliber pistols like those in .25 caliber or .22, a .22 rifle and most shotguns loaded with buckshot or birdshot won’t have enough energy to seriously wound or kill you if you’re in a car or opt to duck behind a car, unless they’re fired from close range. These are the rare exceptions that could increase your chances of survival. Unfortunately, data shows that many active shooters have access to and are more likely to use significantly more deadly weapons and calibers like 9mm, .45 cal., .223, 5.56 and 7.62, so don’t rely on their weapons of choice to contribute to your chances of survival.

In most cases, it’s best to assume they’re armed with the most powerful weapons. When faced with an active shooter and your only option is to use cars as cover (not concealment), quickly get behind the wheel at the end of the car where the engine is, opposite the shooter’s position. Don’t linger behind the car any longer than needed, and only move away from the area (and the shooter) to the nearest exit if you know it’s safer to do so than if you remain in place.