Driving Out of the Kill Zone

NOTE: This article is the property of SWAT magazine and is posted here with their permission. It is copyrighted and may not be copied or used in any way without the permission of SWAT magazine.


Tony Scotti and James Yeager Authors

A book could be written about the skills, tactics, and decision making processes necessary to successfully drive out of a Kill Zone. This article will concentrate on what has become one the most important skill sets needed to escape a vehicle ambush, the combination of reversing out of the Kill Zone and returning fire.

Before getting into the specifics some basics:

History says you will have to survive the initial fire, and have the capability to drive off the X.

The definitions of getting off the X means driving out of the range of the weapons being fired or go some place bullets can’t find you.

The decision on what you’re going to do, and who does what needs to made before stuff happens.

Surviving the initial fire depends on whether you are in an armored vs. non armored vehicle. If you are in an unarmored vehicle and bad things happen your chances of survival are not good. The advantage of an armored car is that it buys you time; you have to do something with the time.

In most vehicle ambushes the definition of “do something” is escaping to the rear, which requires the driver or drivers to backup as fast as possible. Backing up fast is not a skill taught in most driver training programs. It is hard skill to master, it is sensitive to vehicle design, and if not done correctly can get you into more trouble than you were originally in. But with all that said reversing out with the team laying down fire is by far one of the most valuable skills to have in a high risk environment.

Do not equate driving in reverse to driving forward, there is no comparison, when you are in reverse you are driving a different vehicle. The reason is that automobile suspensions possess a quality known as "caster". Caster is the force that helps to straighten out the front wheels after turning a corner. Caster gives the car stability while traveling forward. Un-fortunately, this stabilizing forward force de stabilizes the car while it's in reverse. Because of the castor effect small changes in steering wheel movement cause big changes in the way the car reacts to your inputs. The faster you go in reverse, the more difficult control becomes. There is nothing you can do about caster. You need to understand that it’s there, live with it and learn to control it.

When driving in reverse the steering wheel will not center automatically. If you loosen your grip, it will stay in its last position until you move it. This is a characteristic of “vehicles in reverse” that creates an unstable vehicle, and shooting platform.

Also adding to the excitement of driving in reverse is that the correct direction to move the steering wheel can be confusing. The correct way to move the wheel is really quite simple: Move the top of the steering wheel in the direction you wish the car to move. It's actually no different from what you do while driving forward; it just feels different in reverse.

Here is the scenario, things have gone bad and the decision has been made to reverse out of the Kill Zone.

First and foremost, put as much distance as you can between you and them. One single thought needs to be foremost in your mind - Back up as fast as you can and as straight as you can for as far as you can. The quicker you get yourself going backwards the better off you are. If we use 30 MPH as an average back up speed (that’s fast in reverse) every second is 45 feet of distance you put between you and them. In three seconds you will be 135 feet away from the problem. If you sit there for a 1.5 seconds and contemplate your navel, you have given up around 68 feet of distance.

It was mentioned earlier that while driving in reverse if you loosen your grip on the wheel it stays in its last position and if want to move the wheel you have to move it. A hint; with the front wheels pointed straight put a piece of tape on the top of the steering wheel. If you start to loose control it will tell you where straight ahead is. If you look at an in car camera shot of a NASCAR car you will see tape on the top of the steering wheel.

If you have to back up around obstacles - never combine a great deal of steering wheel movement with a heavy foot on the gas pedal. The faster you travel in reverse the more sensitive the steering becomes, and the greater the chance for disaster. If you have to drive around an obstacle in reverse and you are in the fast mode, decrease your speed before turning the wheel. While driving fast in reverse you can flip a car in a heart beat. (Author speaks from experience)

Even if there is an opportunity to turn in a short distance, don’t, you want to put as much distance as possible between you and the enemy before you turn the vehicle. If you are in their range, you do not want to expose the side of the vehicle to the enemy. Attempting to turn around while still on the X will cause bad things to happen.

Once off the X you will have to turn the vehicle 180 degrees and drive off into the sunset. For decades the preferred method of turning 180 degrees while in reverses has been J Turn’s. J-Turns have their place in security driving, but driving in a High Risk Environment on a narrow road covered with potholes is not that place. Also doing a J Turn with a bunch of folks with weapons along side and behind you can be a life altering experience. There is a world of difference between doing a J Turn on a race track or airstrip in a Crown Vic and doing them in a SUV, armored or not armored, on a narrow road covered with potholes.

If you can’t do J Turns how do you turn around?

The basic theory of turning around has been taught at police academies for years, it is called the three point turn. But the police version of the 3 point turn needs to be modified to work in a High Risk Environment. The standard 3 point turn requires the driver to drive forward, then back up, which means you are driving into the kill zone. Not a good thing.

(Diagram not posted at this time.)

Position One
As mentioned above and worth mentioning again. With the front tires pointed straight, back up as fast and a far as you can (remember the hint about the tape on top of the steering wheel). Since you more than likely won’t be able to see out the back window, use your side mirrors. If you have never backed up using your side mirrors, I would suggest you practice. The first time you backup using your side mirrors should not be when lives are a stake, find some place safe and practice, slow.

Position 2
When you feel it is safe to turn around (you are off the X) slow down and move the steering wheel a little. The initial movement of the steering wheel is critical; it can create a huge problem. The faster you are moving the more sensitive the steering gets, small inputs to steering will create big movements in the vehicle, which in turn produces loss of control. The driver will have to communicate to the team, he is about to turn the vehicle. If you can always turn towards the driver’s side, the reason is simple, you can see much better.

It may seem trivial but I suggest you practice moving the gear lever from drive to reverse and reverse to drive without looking at the lever. I would bet that in the vehicle you drive everyday when you put the lever into reverse, you look. If you take one second to look at the lever, at 30 MPH you have give up 45 feet.

At position two, three and four you are the most vulnerable with the side of the vehicle exposed. This is the area you want to practice being quick at. If you are out of range it’s not a problem but I would not gamble and always assume you are in range.

What else is happening in the car?

At some point during this attack everyone in the car with the exception of the driver should be doing something. What is that something? Well first and foremost they need to be communicating with the rest of their convoy and to their command center about the attack. Each person in the car should know the direction, description, and distance from which the attack came. This is done by simply yelling “AMBUSH FRONT!” and is possibly the most overlooked aspect of the communication process. Always remember: Communication is the most critical aspect of a tactical operation and it is the most fragile as well. Communication is the first thing that breaks down.

After the threats are identified shooting back might be a good idea if your vehicle platform allows it. Shooting from moving vehicles has its own unique set of issues. Shooting is hard enough and then add shooting from a moving object at a moving object and you begin to understand some of Newton’s laws of physics on a more practical level. Certainly in some places you will be liable for every round that misses your target. In an ambush, the misses are not stopping your attackers, and THAT is a liability.

We do a lot of shooting from moving vehicles at Tactical Response. We have found out some things that work well and other things that don’t work at all. The best hit ratio we can seem to get from our top students is about 50%. To the uninitiated that doesn’t sound so good. For those who have tried shooting from vehicles they always ask “HOW!?”

The first thing to consider is the environmental factors. While the driver is up there working his magic you are getting bumped, pushed, smashed, bounced, and banged all around. Now if you add to that the g-forces pulling and pushing on you as the car brakes, turns, and accelerates and that is all you have to worry about if you are on a smooth road way with no potholes (don’t even think about off-road, night time, bad weather, or weapons malfunctions). Do you see why 50% isn’t too shabby?

The second thing to consider is the shooter. Most shooters haven’t shot much from moving vehicles and simply doing it dislocates them. Just like with anything else your abilities can be improved with training and practice. It is important to shoot from a variety of positions like seated in the right front seat, right rear, left rear, and if the vehicle is an SUV type being seated as the “rear gunner” facing straight back.

The third and final factor is the weapon system. Since this article is limited we will concentrate on the ubiquitous M-4. Let’s say you have 30 rounds in the gun and you are aiming your rounds instead of spraying them on full-auto and you shoot one round every quarter second. That rate allows you to deliver accurate fire for only 7.5 seconds. Not much time huh?

And time is what getting off the x is all about, put as much distance and rounds between you and them. At an average speed of 30 MPH, and using an M4, in a little over four seconds you would be around 200 feet from them, and a lot of rounds would be headed their way, and that can be the difference between surviving or not.

About the authors: For the past four decades Tony Scotti has been conducting training programs in the high risk areas of the world, he has conducted programs in over 30 countries. He holds a B.S. in Engineering, and was a consultant to Mercedes Benz Armored Car Division. James Yeager ( is a current police officer and former PSD Operator.

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