There is no question there is an appeal to guns that even those strongly opposed to civilian gun ownership understand, though maybe at only an unconscious level. Beyond their defensive use as tools, there is an aesthetic to firearms that further builds on their symbolic and historic importance in the United States as well as the rest of the world. Though some see modern firearms as a symbol of violence, many see them as a symbol of self-reliance, independence, and American history. This is all to say it is easier to ‘sell’ gun owners on training to engage threats with their firearms than to get them to think defensively.
Don’t get me wrong, I strongly support those who plan to carry or potentially use a firearm getting properly trained in their safe use. But this does result in a potential mismatch between reality and the training most often offered in classes. For instance, cover can be an enormous strategic advantage in surviving a defensive encounter.
Survival and Stopping the Threat
In the simplest terms, there are two main factors in a violent encounter: stopping the threat and surviving (hopefully unhurt). Both are intertwined, but not mutually exclusive. You can stop a threat and not survive (mortally wounded,) and you can survive without directly stopping a threat (avoiding or escaping a situation). Stopping the threat is where a lot of training is focused including fundamentals of shooting, mechanics of the firearms, accessing the firearm, and defensive shooting. All of these are good skills to train, learn, and practice. There is also no question that these are great skills to develop for a potential violent encounter.
It has always been my opinion that the second part of the equation, survival (or not getting shot) is the more important of the two and should take priority. The old saying is still true that the only way to guarantee winning a gunfight is to never be in one. Thus, avoiding and safely escaping situations should always be the primary goal with defending (stopping the threat) as a last resort. Although survival skills such as using cover and movement defensively are often parts of some defensive training classes, they often seem to be an afterthought compared to utilizing a firearm to stop a threat.
I would argue the more important of the two factors, survival, often takes a backseat to stopping the threat in training classes. Survival skills are important to building up a survival skill set to match our stop-the-threat skill set. These skills include situational awareness to identify potential threats, environmental awareness such as exits, entrances, blind areas, cover points, movement, and use of cover. This article will focus on one aspect of that skill set, cover.
What is cover in a defensive situation?
Cover is generally defined as any object that can successfully shield you from incoming rounds or attacks. Cover provides a barrier between you and an attack and is strong enough to repel that attack. In simpler terms, it is something that can stop the largest rounds being directed at you. Cover can be hard to predict and what is cover for smaller rounds may not be cover for larger rounds.
Concealment, in contrast, is any barrier that conceals your location but would not fully stop incoming attacks. Concealment is easier to identify, as the only requirement is to conceal you from direct observation by an attacker. Generally, cover is also concealment as it stops incoming rounds and conceals your exact location. There are exceptions, most notably bullet-proof transparent glass.
A part of environmental awareness is identifying potential cover and concealment in each new setting you find yourself in. For example, if you are in a restaurant and are suddenly attacked, where are points of concealment and/or cover (not to mention entrances and exits)? You will doubtfully be 100% sure if such quick evaluations of your environment will provide enough information on what is actually cover versus concealment. Fortunately, both are advantageous if you need to defend yourself. Obviously heavy concrete, brick, or metal structures and supports are much more likely to provide cover than just concealment. It should be noted that many forms of concealment may not fully stop an incoming round but may reduce its efficiency. I never want to be shot but if I had the choice between nothing between myself and an incoming round and concealment such as a couch, I would choose the concealment every time.
Cover and Home Defense
When preparing for home defense we have more time to effectively determine what is cover versus concealment. Crime statistics show the majority of violent crimes happen within the home and its associated property. Though statistics for 2021 and 2022 are incomplete, indications are that such crimes are increasing in frequency for the first time in decades.
Any plan for survival and stopping a threat needs to include an honest evaluation of your home. Part of this evaluation includes identifying areas of concealment, cover, and how to utilize both. Having a well-defined area of cover that is not near a point of forced entry or home defense does little good. The first question is therefore to identify likely points of forced entry and likely points you would use to defend your home if necessary. Once these determinations are made, the next question becomes where are points of cover or at least concealment near these areas. This process will be different for each person and home.
For instance, in my previous home, there was a large central 18” X 18” pillar of reinforced concrete that supported the three-story structure. This pillar provided cover and concealment from all but the most powerful rounds. Unfortunately, the rest of the house had larger windows, open spaces, sheetrock walls, and exterior siding—none of which would reliably stop an incoming round. The pillar was well placed to provide a defensive point for the ground floor front door, garage entrance, and back deck door. It was not well placed (in an unfinished part of the basement) for use in defending the walkout basement entrance. Finally, it was moderately well placed for defending the top floor as it was a part of the topmost stair entry point to that area. Thus, it was easy to incorporate this feature into our home defense plans on the topmost floors. My current home has two large stone fireplaces that would serve as cover as well as a full front brick façade. Unfortunately, neither of these is well placed for use as cover in most potential defensive scenarios.
Once a home defense plan is created, if cover options are not available the next step is to decide if some re-arranging or minor remodeling is called for. Cover from most handgun rounds can be provided by densely packed bookshelves. This is likely the easiest way to provide cover, by determining points you would use defensively and deciding if moving your book collections is the easiest answer. It should be noted that this solution can provide cover, but such cover is dependent on rounds impacting multiple books. Even the most packed bookshelf will likely have some areas that are still only providing concealment.
The next more reliable source of movable cover is higher-end gun safes (~300 pounds plus). Not only will such safes with heavy steel sides and doors provide more reliable cover, but that cover will also stop most rifle rounds. The downside is they are more obvious compared to bookshelves and are generally larger, making them less useful for hallways and smaller spaces.
Another option requires some carpentry skills but can result in the perfect, hidden answer to such issues. Once points of forced entry and points of defense are identified, hopefully, your points of defense are already concealment such as door frames and walls. Such points can be converted from concealment to cover with a little do-it-your-self remodeling.
In our past two houses, our main point of defense was our master bedroom—neither of which provided much beyond concealment on either side of the door. In both cases, I removed the sheetrock from either side of the master bedroom door. Once exposed I packed the gap between the wall studs with materials that would stop incoming rounds. The materials you choose can vary depending on your finances and available materials. On the cheapest end, wait for your local library to sponsor a hardback book sale and stock up cheaply and then add a hidden bookcase of protection into each wall section. In my case, I was able to acquire used level IV armor plates from a local police department wholesaler and lined the spaced with overlapping plates. Once installed, I replaced the sheetrock, finished the gaps, and repainted.
Although this may seem excessive it was an easy project and did not set me back much in the way of funds and provided much better defensive points for myself and my wife. The main point is to think about cover. Analyze where it is and how you could use it. If needed, adjust either your plans or your environment to maximize it. Hopefully, we will never need to use either of our skill sets of survival and stopping the threat, but if we do any, the advantages we preplanned will make succeeding at both more likely.