The ABCDEs of Cover

The ABCDEs of Cover


I first heard about the “ABCs of Cover” from a former Marine, Brad, who was a lead firearms instructor for our office, and a very knowledgeable guy. I added D and E, which are particularly applicable in a civilian, personal protection context.

Brad and I coaching special agents as they practice “pancake” downed officer rescue with a somewhat limp and heavy handcuffing manikin.


What’s Cover–and What’s Not

We all know the difference between cover and concealment, and we know that most of the things that work for cover on a movie set in Hollywood don’t really work anywhere else.

Not far from those motion picture studios, LAPD Officer John Caprarelli thought he was behind good cover when he ducked behind a cinderblock wall during the North Hollywood Bank of America robbery of 28 Feb 1997–till he started getting hit by chunks of the wall, as multiple rifle rounds struck the other side (Uniform Decisions, pp. 143 – 45).

Obviously, as Clint Smith points out, what defines cover is partially determined by what’s trying to punch through it. Many things are “cover” if the enemy is shooting .25 ACP at you. A dumpster or construction equipment might be cover from most small arms. Not many things in our day-to-day environment will protect us from 12.7mm or .50 Browning.

Some things we consider cover, like automobiles, are mostly, at best, shielding–something that might slow or turn a bullet, rather than stopping it.


Cover and Tactical Medicine

During a recent Austere Medicine class, one of the subjects we addressed was Patient Rescue (i.e., rescue in a tactical / kinetic situation, as opposed to a wilderness survival or disaster type situation).

Moving casualties to cover–or moving cover to downed casualties–is one of the three CoTCCC* approved patient treatment options during hot zone / direct threat situations (the other two are tourniquets and rolling a patient onto their side to protect their airway).

“But you can’t go off half-cocked,” as Dick Jonas, who flew in the 433rd TFS when my dad flew with the ‘Nickel, said about killing MiGs over North Vietnam.

You won’t do the patient any favors if you fall on top of them and bleed to death into their airway.

You need a plan.

If a friendly who is downed in the open needs medical attention ASAP–rather than a call to the coroner–and your tactical situation has given you at least a brief moment of opportunity to get them behind something solid, it helps to know that there is more to cover than just cover.

You have other options, or “suitable substitutes,” in a pinch.

The ABCDEs of cover are:

  • Accurate return fire
  • Body armor
  • Cover (actual)
  • Distance
  • Explosive movement off the X

A: Accurate return fireyou can shelter behind a wall of lead, at least till you run out of ammo and friends with ammo. The only times you can have too much ammo are if you are swimming, or on fire.

Bear in mind, though, that in the ‘States, return fire must be ACCURATE. There is no such thing as “acceptable” collateral damage outside of a war zone, because you are responsible for the final resting place of any bullet you launch. Avoid even saying the words “suppressive fire” in a Stateside context.

Returning accurate fire with a “downed” partner, in a Heloderm class. We call this close order battle drill a “step over.” Note that Up partner’s knee is on her down partner, partially to reassure him if he’s wounded, but also to keep him from rising up into her line of fire.


B: Body armor and ballistic shields / helmets–You probably don’t carry a ballistic shield at the mall, but each of my kids have a light panel of Level IIIA armor in their school backpacks. Vests and even helmets are available on the civilian market.

Scott S of S3 Global Consulting displays a ballistic armor panel you can slip into a laptop pocket of your backpack.

You probably won’t be wearing body armor when you are jumped in a parking lot after work, but if there is a brewing fight, and you have your armor nearby, you can don it before hostilities come to a head.

Even fire / medical personnel are now getting armor for ballistic situations. Photo from an ICSAVE TECC / PSI class

As long as it doesn’t hinder your access to it in places where you might be attacked, it’s a good idea to SECURE YOUR ARMOR AS YOU WOULD SECURE A FIREARM when you are not wearing it.

But you should be wearing it (see One More Thing below).


C: Cover, aka “hard cover”–is something solid that will stop a bullet. The wheels and engine block (which does NOT take up the entire engine compartment) are a good start. If the car is pointing at the bad guy, “tucking in behind a tail light,” as Clint Smith suggested, puts the “cage” of modern (mostly plastic) cars, the narrow A, B, and C pillars, between you and the threat.

The A, B, and C pillars are more bullet resistant than most people realize, but they are also so narrow as to be almost useless. Here, a student tries to put holes in the target behind the van by punching THROUGH the pillars (and the rear passenger door frame). She was unable to reach the target through those barriers with Speer 124 grain 9x19mm +P Gold Dot jacketed hollow points, but a bad guy would probably aim at the part of you he can see–in this case, the head and shoulders of the cardboard target. Don’t be like that target. When Clint Smith said “tuck in behind a tail light,” the key word was “tuck.”

Several cars between you and the bad guy(s) are better than one.

Try not to “crowd” your cover. Been there, done that. I know that even a few inches of reverse slope can be comforting when bullets are buzzing past you. But no matter how warm and fuzzy it makes you feel, try to stay back from it, and away from walls too, when problems are being solved kinetically.

Unless your threat has the high ground of a nearby apartment building, try to stay back from your cover. In the class pictured here, we skipped bullets off the hood of a sedan into three targets behind it. The first target (2 feet back from the car) caught rounds in the upper chest. The next (a yard behind that one) caught rounds in the head. The target a yard behind the second was in a wide enough slice of the ricochet pie to be missed entirely.


D: Distance–Most bad guys can’t shoot worth a darn. Even if he knows what he’s doing, the farther away you are, the harder you are to hit.

Distance favors the trained marksman over the untrained. If your opponent is a military small arms instructor with an M24 sniper rifle, like this protege of mine on a long distance range at Florence, you’ll only die tired if you try to run away. Fortunately, most of these bozos who shoot up schools are just the opposite. One of the Columbine killers shot at Deputy Neil Gardner 10 times with a rifle from a distance of about 50 meters; he didn’t even hit Gardner’s CRUISER (Cullen, Columbine, p. 51). That’s how incompetent those payasos typically are. Distance is your friend.

Do NOT run directly away, if you can avoid it, as doing so leaves you on the railroad tracks of his attack. If you must, because your exit path is channelized (for example, in a hallway), try to zig-zag IRREGULARLY (pilots call that jinking), not following any particular pattern. This goes hand in hand with E, below.


E: EXPLOSIVE movement off the X–YOU MUST MOVE NOW, especially if you are close, as you most likely will be when you are ambushed. You don’t have to run directly away; you just need to get off the X, since all bullets are sent to your last known address. This movement must be “explosive;” not a saunter, walk, or a jog. Drop down into the sprinter’s blocks (we call that a Pekiti takeoff) and MOVE.

Photo from a Heloderm Defensive Pistol Skill Builder class

When we first learn movement, of course we start slow till we get the motions down. Crawl –> Walk –> Run. We gradually speed up as your proficiency increases. Eventually, you need to practice at full speed.

So there you have it: cover, plus four suitable substitutes for cover. The ABCDEs. Just thinking about it makes me want to throw some of my old Jackson 5 vinyl on the turntable.


One More Thing, For Those of You in Uniform

If you work in a job where you wear a big target on your uniform, like law enforcement, security, or even EMS these days, you should be wearing armor. You will not likely get an engraved invitation before the next time somebody tries to kill you. Trying to put it on after the gunfight begins didn’t work out so well during the FBI’s Miami gun battle.

On 11 Sep 2004, a USAF Security Forces airman at Balad stepped out of his tent and a 107mm rocket landed 5 feet away, removing his legs and right forearm. Like I said, no RSVPs.

As I prepped to leave my civilian job for my last active duty deployment, I got some advice from Walter D, who had taught my agency Field Armorer courses. “Wear your body armor every day,” he said. “Every single day.”

Wally had been a SEAL in Vietnam.

That deployment to Kuwait started in the Spring and ended in the Fall, with a hot Middle Eastern Summer in the middle. I wore by body armor from the moment I left my hardened billets till I got back to the bunks at the end of my shift. It darned-near killed me, especially at first. Between the armor and the ammo I weighed 60 lbs more with it on, and the temps were well into the triple digits. But eventually, it didn’t bother me.

I was an area security supervisor. Most of our posts and patrols were inside the wire. Our regs only required us to have our vest and helmet with us, not on us. When I got there, the biggest danger facing us was our own complacency, a pervasive assumption that nothing bad ever happened outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Expeditionary Readiness (ExpERT, formerly Silver Flag) pre-deployment training for Gulf States was shorter, and taken less seriously by students and cadre alike.

Instructor tip: When you are teaching survival skills, some of your students (especially those were voluntold to be there, by their duty supervisor or their spouse), may not be overtly enthusiastic. But if you don’t give a rat’s, NOBODY in your course will.

The vast majority of Kuwaitis–at least the ones I met, who invited us into their homes for chai or meals–loved us. All had lost relatives to the Iraqis back in ’90 and ’91. As far as they were concerned, killing Iraqis was the Lord’s work, and in those days the US was in that business.

While compared to a few miles north in Iraq, or to Afghanistan, being “in the rear with the gear” was relatively tame, but US military personnel had been killed by Tangoes in Kuwait, and one of the 9/11 hijackers had been a Kuwaiti.

Khobar Towers was a lot farther from “the front” than we were. How’d that work out for them? 

The kids I supervised, most of whom had not been born 28 years before, when I enlisted, figured that if wearing my vest all day, every day didn’t kill me, it might not kill them either. After a while, perhaps not wanting to be outdone by the old man, or (I like to think) seeing the logic of my “no engraved invitation” postulate, most of our SF troops were wearing their armor all the time, too.



Perhaps more importantly than the ballistic protection it provided, wearing it front-loaded the idea into their brains that today might be the day it’s needed. Not wearing it had programmed the opposite of vigilance and diligence.



If nothing else, seeing us wearing it through the wire might even have made potential enemies think, “Let’s hit al Mubarak, instead of Ali al Salim. The security here is switched on.”


Domestic Tranquility

Stateside, wearing your armor is as much so your spouse can feel you wearing it when they hug you on your way out the door, as it is for the ballistic protection it provides.

You don’t get shot at all the time, but your marriage needs reinforcement every single day.

When you deploy downrange, seeing photos of you in your armor helps them sleep better at night.

Most spouses can handle the uncontrollable risks, provided they know you are controlling the risks you can.

–George H, lead instructor, Heloderm LLC


About half of this posting is from the training summary, or after action report, for the Austere Medicine class of 19 Mar 2022.

*CoTCCC is the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care, which directs and updates the TCCC curriculum.

Micronesian body armor made of woven coir (coconut fiber) and stingray skin, circa 1902, on display at the University of British Columbia. The rear portions, including the unique, high “Elvis collar” back plate, are double thickness. While the back plate might reduce rearward visibility, it (combined with a helmet) doubles protection from that direction. Apparently, the Kiribatis were more concerned about unexpected attacks from the rear than about visible enemies to one’s front. After all, unexpected attacks are what body armor is all about.