Where's the Best Place to Take a Bullet if You Get Shot?

By: Josh Clark & Francisco Guzman  | 

There were 19,379 gun violence deaths in the U.S. in 2020, according to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. See more pictures of guns. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

More than 10.6 million pistols, revolvers, shotguns, rifles and misc. firearms were manufactured in the United States in 2020 [source: Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]. In 2019, firearms were used in 14,414 homicides [source: CDC]. And a Geneva-based Small Arms Survey found that in 2017, United States civilians held almost 40 percent of the world's firearms, with about 121 firearms for every 100 residents in the U.S. The research group found that of the 857 million civilian-held firearms worldwide, 393 million are in the U.S., which is more than civilians have in the other top 25 countries combined.

With all of these guns, it may seem like the chances of being shot are pretty good. In 2015, Americans had a 1 in 315 chance of being killed by a gun, based on the population and number of assaults by gun [source: Mosher and Gould]. So if someone near you pulls out a gun, what should you do?

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Ed Sizemore, a lead instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center's Firearms Division, says that for the average bystander, retreat is the best idea. If that isn't possible, Sizemore says, take cover. Hiding behind an object that can absorb the force of the rounds is a good idea. So, too, is getting down on the floor, which presents a smaller target for a shooter.

Sizemore tells his law-enforcement students to orient their bodies toward the threat. Most people doing the shooting tend to aim for the easiest target — the torso. Since police officers wear body armor, they have the most coverage in front and back. He would not, Sizemore makes a point to add, recommend the same thing to any civilians.

In Sizemore's opinion, there's no single best place to be shot. Ballistics — the study of the projectiles, like bullets — is too much of a gamble. "People get shot in fatal areas and live, and others get shot in non-lethal areas and die," he says. But he believes the most painful place to be shot would be in your pelvis. The nerve bundle located there would quickly and efficiently distribute pain throughout your body. He can also think of a worst place, medically speaking: "The brain," he says. "Hearts can be repaired. There is such a thing as an artificial heart. But as far as I know there are no artificial brains."

But the brain isn't necessarily the most lethal place to be shot. Patients with gunshot wounds to the head have a 42 percent chance of surviving, according to a study from 2000 to 2013 of more than 400 patients at two level 1 trauma centers [source: Muehlschlegel].

But if you are ever faced with a choice of where to take a bullet — say, a choice given to you by an angry loan shark — where should you take it?

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Number One with a Bullet

gunshot
Surgeons work on a gunshot wound victim at the Ben Taub General Hospital emergency room in Houston, Texas. Wound ballistics is the study of the effects of projectiles on bones, tissue and organs. The study begins if medical staff can't save its patient. Gregory Smith/Getty Images

There is no existing body of work regarding the best place of the anatomy to be shot, but there are a few contenders. To understand where the best place to be shot is, you must first understand a little bit about bullets and the effects they have on the human body.

The study of what bullets do to tissue, bone and organs is called wound ballistics, and this field has come up with some definite conclusions about the destructiveness of projectiles on humans. A bullet is a carrier of force, and its purpose is to transfer that energy within the body. This energy causes all of the injuries sustained, whether directly or in a secondary manner.

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The injury inflicted by a bullet is directly related to the bullet's kinetic energy. This is a measure of the bullet's weight, velocity and gravitational trajectory. The combination of the three describe how much damage a bullet will cause.

As a bullet enters the body, it causes laceration and crushing wounds. The bullet punctures tissue and bone, crushing or pushing aside anything in its path. When a bullet passes through tissue, it creates a cavity that can be 30 times wider than its track (the path it takes). This cavity closes behind the bullet less than a second after the bullet passes, but the cavitation it causes can damage nearby tissue, organs and bones via shock waves.

The type and amount of injury sustained from a bullet also depends on what a bullet encounters. Soft tissue can carry shock waves more easily than bone, but since bone is dense, it absorbs more force (and damage). Bones also splinter, causing further damage as the fragments travel through the body as projectiles themselves.

A bullet that passes through the body (creating an exit wound) generally will cause less damage than one which stays in the body, because a bullet that stays in the body transfers all of its kinetic energy (and ensures maximum damage to tissue). This is the aim of most modern ballistic design. Jacketed bullets are designed to fragment after impact, dividing their destructive power. Hollow-point and soft bullets are designed to flatten and spread, creating a wider area for their tracks and increasing the damage caused by shock waves and cavitation.

Based on this information, we can make some conclusions about the areas you might least like to take a bullet and deduce the best place from there. A bullet can shatter bone, and bone can also ensure a bullet won't leave the body. So you'd want to stay away from areas with a lot of bone mass, such as the ribs. You would also want to stay away from nerve bundles, as Ed Sizemore mentioned. And, most importantly, you'd want to keep your vital organs away from a bullet. This definitely counts your torso out and your head, too.

So it looks like your arms and legs are the best place to take a bullet. But wait: Your thighs and upper arms both feature important arteries — your femoral and brachial arteries. If a bullet severs either one of these, the loss of blood can cause death in just a few minutes. So the legs and arms are out.

Based on their location and relative distance from vital organs, your hands or feet appear to be the best place to take a bullet. Getting shot in a foot or hand would certainly shatter most of the many bones there, and it would be an extremely painful experience, but it would pose little deadly threat. What's more, although you have plenty of bones there to shatter, the fragments are less likely to travel easily to your vital organs, like your heart. Plus, with your hands and feet as relatively thin as they are, a bullet also has a better chance of passing through your body before it transfers the full extent of its power. You might suffer a disability, but you'd be more likely to live through the experience.

Editor's Note: Ed Sizemore was interviewed in 2007.

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Originally Published: Dec 7, 2007

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More Great Links

  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "Annual Firearms Manufacturing and Export Report." 2020. https://www.atf.gov/file/156011/download
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. "Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2019 on CDC WONDER Online Database." released in 2020. https://wonder.cdc.gov/controller/datarequest/D76;jsessionid=5B9AC12B558E976CC5DE91B08A1E#Citation
  • Leinhard, John H. "No. 774: William Beaumont." University of Houston. http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi774.htm
  • Mosher, Dave and Gould, Skye. "The odds that a gun will kill the average American may surprise you." Business Insider. October 29, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-gun-death-murder-risk-statistics-2018-3
  • Muehlschlegel, Susanne, Ayturk, D., Ahlawat, A., Izzy, S., Scalea, T. M., Stein, D. M., Emhoff, T., & Sheth, K. N. "Predicting survival after acute civilian penetrating brain injuries: The SPIN score." Neurology vol. 87, 21. November 22, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123553/
  • Small Arms Survey. "Global Firearms Holdings." Small Arms Survey. 2017. http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/Weapons_and_Markets/Tools/Firearms_holdings/SAS-Press-release-global-firearms-holdings.pdf

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