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TAKE COVER!!! But Not Behind A Car

Taking cover behind a car - steel wheel rims backed up by brake discs will stop some bullets but alloy wheels may fare worse [© Carl Schulze]

On the urban battlefield there are usually no shortage of locations to seek cover but behind a car is not necessarily the best option, writes Carl Schulze.


You see it in movies, during exercises and even in combat in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere: Troops are engaged by small arms fire, they return fire and then take cover behind a car, a van, a mini-bus or any other type of soft-skinned vehicle. What works in a Hollywood blockbuster will most certainly have fatal consequences in reality, as soft skinned vehicles do not offer suitable protection against the fire of small arms such as pistols, sub-machine guns and assault rifles. This article aims to make you aware of the reality.


This shot shows even the more substantial base of the A-pillar is easily perforated by 5.56mm bullets [© Carl Schulze]

Unterlüß, Germany. A Volkswagen LT35 double cab pick-up truck is parked on the range of the production and test facility at defence manufacturer Rheinmetall AG. Distance is 100 metres. I flip the safety catch to full auto, take aim and pull the trigger of the 5.56x45mm assault rifle. Round after round of the ball ammunition hits the vehicle. Windows shatter, groupings of bullet holes appear in the doors and tyres are punctured. I empty magazine after magazine, the barrel of the weapon is hot by now and touching it would certainly mean a major burn. After a quarter of an hour of hammering away at the soft skinned vehicle it is time to take a look at the level of destruction achieved.


After initial strike bullets began to tumble causing much larger exit holes on the other side as a result [© Carl Schulze]

Straight Through: Even when closing in on the vehicle it becomes clear that many of the 5.56mm calibre bullets fired at the vehicle went straight through it punching, for example, first through the right side passenger door, passing through the interior and then exiting through the driver’s door on the left side. While doing so, the bullets lost some of their punch and started to tumble. As a result of this they caused havoc when exiting the driver’s door, creating large exit holes.


Ordinary 5.56mm bullets went clean through bodywork panels as if they were made of thin tinfoil [© Carl Schulze]

This said, they certainly would still have had enough power to badly wound or kill a person taking cover behind the vehicle. The same effect can be observed all along the side of the vehicle. Even in areas where the more substantial framework of the vehicle body is found, such as the A-pillar, bullets have just gone through. The inside of the cab is covered with chips of safety glass from the windows of the doors, as is the ground behind the vehicle. Someone hiding behind the vehicle would certainly have received some damage to their eyesight from the chips unless they wore eye protection.


In the vicinity of the engine block the mass of metal has prevented bullets from punching through [© Carl Schulze]

The only area where no bullets went straight through the vehicle is where the engine block is situated. The main mass of metal of the engine block stopped bullets dead in their tracks. Other areas of the engine compartment saw the full metal jacket lead bullets of the ball ammunition just passing through, as they did through the rest of the cab. The steel rims of the vehicle, backed up by the brake discs and other technology, also managed to stop some of the bullets, though alloy wheels would have fared worse.


Bullets went right through the vehicle perforating the nearside door then out through the opposite one [© Carl Schulze]

Even More Destruction: The 5.56x45mm NATO round is not the most powerful on earth, neither does standard ball ammunition offer extreme penetration power. It was, however, more than enough to penetrate our double cab pick-up truck. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to imagine what damage more powerful ammunition would have caused, for example 7.62x39mm or 7.62x51mm rounds, not to mention armour piercing (AP) rifle ammunition that features a bullet built around a special penetrator.


And do not be a fool and say: “Sure, but that was an automatic rifle, fire from a pistol would be stopped…” The 9x19mm round is a widely used for pistols and sub-machine guns. Regular 9mm ball ammunition fired by these weapons can easily punch through a 3mm thick sheet of steel… and there are much more powerful calibre pistols out there.


Inside of the cab is strewn with chips of glass that would serious cause damage to your eyesight [© Carl Schulze]

What Are Your Options? Certainly your best option is not to take cover behind a car. You are far better off behind a concrete wall or an earthen berm. However, if a soft skinned vehicle is the only thing in reach take it, as it at least prevents you from being a clear target in the open. Remember the vehicle does not provide protection from bullets, it merely conceals you and prevents the enemy from taking clear aim. If you are taking cover behind a soft skinned vehicle the following might save your life:-

  • Do not crouch behind the vehicle, place yourself flat on the ground behind it.
  • Try to take cover in the area where the engine and/or axles are situated.
  • Rather than lying alongside the vehicle, try to be the smallest target possible and place yourself facing towards the direction the hostile fire comes from.
  • Be aware that bullets can pass underneath the vehicle and that an enemy firing from a prone position might well be able to see you.
  • If you are armed yourself you can use different prone positions to return fire from underneath the vehicle.


The wheels took a pasting too but several bullets were stopped or deflected by the steel rim and hub [© Carl Schulze]

After taking a couple of hits fluids might be leaking from the vehicle such as fuel, engine oil, battery acid, coolant containing antifreeze and so on. Make sure not to get in touch with the stuff, especially taking care not to get spilt liquids in your eyes; wearing EyePro will help. Battery acid, for example, will cause chemical burns. Also be aware that spilt fuel might ignite. While fuel tanks of cars usually do not explode in the dramatic way often shown in movies, there might be a darting flame. If your clothing gets soaked by spilling fuel, make sure to stay away from open flames.


Finally, train in the manner you plan to fight so that seeking proper cover becomes second nature.

The bulk of this article was first published in COMBAT & SURVIVAL Magazine in 2017.

{ images © Carl Schulze unless noted }

Note how bullets have punched straight through even the more substantial material of this door pillar [© Carl Schulze]

Under the bonnet the engine block has absorbed or deflected most bullets that punched through [© Carl Schulze]

This SpecOps operator is using the engine block for cover – shooting underneath rather than over can be a safer option [© Bob Morrison]


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