Hostile or Friendly? Target Discrimination with Paul Howe

With all the chaos of the last couple years, more people than ever are taking control of their personal security. Carrying a gun competently is part of that, but do you know how to evaluate threats and non-threats? Paul Howe of Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT) discusses a basic system of target discrimination that he teaches in the video linked below.

Target Discrimination Paul Howe
Paul Howe of Combat Shooting and Tactics has a simple system of scanning for potential threats.

Keep in mind that this is an introduction. Reading articles and watching videos will help your mindset and get you thinking. But That’s not a substitute for actual training.

Paul’s System of Target Discrimination

A system of discrimination is basically a way to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Its purpose is twofold. First, it can keep you from engaging a non-threat with deadly force. Second, it can help you articulate later, in court, why you deemed someone to be threatening enough to use deadly force.

Paul calls it “cleaning” or scanning people with whom you come in contact. He says, “It will work for everybody out there: law enforcement, government security, civilians, teachers, guardians, or church security.” It’s a simple system but it requires practice. Fortunately, it’s based on situational awareness, which you can practice while going about your everyday business. Make the effort and it will soon become a habit.

Target Discrimination Focus Areas

Paul trains his students to scan the following areas IN THIS ORDER. It’s a general to specific progression.

  1. Whole Person – Make sure the person is not a cop or security guard. That means you have to look for a badge or some other indicator. Those indicators could be multiple places. Some cops, for instance, may wear their badge on their belt or around their neck. Scan the entire body.
  2. Hand/Hand – Notice Paul doesn’t say “hands.” Develop the habit of looking at each hand individually and determining whether there is a weapon or threat there. The hands are the fastest and most likely way to produce a weapon. Paul never buys practice targets with the hands at the same level, forcing his students to look at both. He knows that your eyes progress high to low, so he may put a gun in the higher hand and a badge in the lower. Look at each hand. Watch the video to see what I’m talking about here.
  3. Waistline – The belt or pockets are the most likely place from which to produce a weapon. Progress from the hands to the waistline. You aren’t just looking for weapons. Again, a clue to the person’s identity may be there.
  4. Wingspan – What’s in reach for you to use as a weapon or resource should you need it? He only mentions this in passing.
  5. Demeanor – Again, this is only mentioned but we can assume he means the demeanor of the person you’re observing as well as your own. I recommend looking at Paul’s other training aids for a better explanation.
Target discrimination Paul Howe hand
Observe each hand independently. Paul’s targets deliberately place the hands at different levels to teach that skill.

Practice and Targeting

  1. You can practice the first three focus areas just walking around in your daily routine. Notice people before they get into your “sphere of influence.” If they get too close and they have a weapon, you’re already behind the curve. Engage and “clean” people at a distance with your eyes. That means you’ll have to get your nose out of your phone. “The further we can see, we can start to orient off that.”
  2. Go slow. Done properly, your eyes have time to engage the whole person, each hand, and the waistline. You can then assess demeanor. Remember, you can’t take back a bullet so take advantage of time if you have it.

    Target Discrimination Paul Howe
    Look for any potential weapon or indicator of the person’s job or identity as you “clean” them.
  3. If you decide to act against a perceived threat, Paul recommends targeting the thoracic cavity. That means you must know your holds for your firearms. You’ll most likely be at point of aim/point of impact with a handgun. I will add that recent events force us to consider the possibility of a bad guy wearing body armor. I offer no specific advice on that other than to be aware of the possibility beforehand and train accordingly.

What it all comes down to, Paul says, is that he wants you to exercise mental discipline before taking a human life. Again, once that trigger is pulled, you can never, ever take it back. We must make that effort. Because we’re the good guys. Remember that.

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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