Ambush! Don't let your car become your coffin

By John Farnam

In the days of black powder and muzzle-loaders, soldiers referred to a surprise volley of musket fire, usually erupting from a tree line, as an “ambuscade,” from the Old High German word for forest, “busc.” You know it as an ambush. By any terminology, it’s a hellish form of attack, with intended assassins lying in wait for their quarry to blunder unaware into a prearranged kill-zone.

Unfortunately, today’s law officers know this adversary tactic all too well, from bloody experience. Officers have been ambushed in patrol cars as they worked on reports or as they drove on their beats or when they were lured into traps by phony 911 calls.

Some have had luck on their side, like the sergeant who was on patrol in a small Florida town after midnight one morning last fall when a hidden gunman’s bullet shattered his rear window-and lodged in his headrest instead of his head.

Others haven’t been so fortunate. In California, a sergeant was killed and an officer wounded when an AWOL soldier initiated a bogus call for help from a strip mall, then opened fire on police when they rolled up.

With gangbangers, terrorists, and common lawbreakers alike increasingly employing military tactics against domestic LEOs, the threat of ambush is not likely to diminish. What can you do to lessen your chances of becoming a victim?

Here are some practical, tactical options:

The best anti-ambush tactic is avoidance. With good intelligence or sharp observation and aggressive counter-measures, many ambushes can be thwarted before they happen, or frustrated before they achieve critical mass.

• Keep your patrol pattern irregular and unpredictable when you’re working your beat. Don’t always take breaks at the same time or at the same place.

• Be aware of potential ambush locations in your sector and mentally rehearse how you would cope with surprise attacks there. Approaching any location, look for exits, cover, and the nearest intersection.

• Be suspicious of calls that send you to confined areas with blocked exits, to places where there are parked cars with motors running, to spots where people are standing around trying to appear as if they don’t notice you, or, in contrast, where complainants or bystanders seem all-too-congenial and cooperative in trying to direct you. These may be cues to a set up.

• Watch your back. Small, rectangular, convex mirrors that attach to both of your side mirrors will expand your rear vision and eliminate much of your blind spot. Discipline yourself to check them often. They won’t show you much detail, but they will reveal movement and give you a heads-up regarding people or vehicles approaching from behind while you are parked.

• When you have two or more driving lanes on your side of the road, harden yourself as a target by driving in the left lane as much as possible. This increases your distance from a potential sniper hiding off the road to your right, and if the assailant is driving, oncoming traffic or a median may force him to target you from the right, putting more of your vehicle between you and him. Generally speaking, you’ll always have more tactical options for dealing with a dangerous person on the right of your vehicle than on the left, closer to you.

• Be particularly alert when stopped in traffic. Maintain an interval between your car and the vehicle in front of you that will allow you to quickly break out and away.

• Drive with your windows up and doors locked. Car glass is strongest when windows are raised all the way up.

• If sufficient units are available, work out a system where you have a “wing-man” and always know where each other are, so help is never far away.

If you’re in motion when attacked, stay in motion. If you’re not, get in motion. And stay in your vehicle, unless you can’t get it mobile or are caught outside it and need to seek better cover on foot.

Ambushers prefer to catch you, distracted and motionless, in a particular place, or to get you to slam to a stop as a panic reaction to an initial volley so they can more easily rush in and close the trap. Moving targets are vastly more difficult to hit with any firearm than are stationary ones. Go to the range and compare your own accuracy results between moving and stationary targets. Even mild target movement degrades accuracy for most shooters by 70% or more.

Allowing for exceptions we all can cite, modern motor vehicles, glass included, tend to be surprisingly resistant to effective penetration by most handgun bullets. Angle of impact, caliber of round, and target movement may all be factors. Even .223 rifle bullets often will not penetrate. In my Vehicle Defense courses, we’ve shot up hundreds of motor vehicles, with every kind of pistol, rifle, and shotgun, and startlingly few bullets penetrate even one door. Only shotgun slugs and .308, or heavier, rifle bullets will reliably blast through to the interior with enough residual force to cause significant injury to an officer inside. When your vehicle is in motion, effective penetration is even less likely. To further enhance their patrol car’s resistance, some officers have attached retired ballistic vests to the inside of doors-a good idea for extra peace of mind.

We hear of street gangs amassing hand grenades for police assaults. But a hand grenade is probably more dangerous to you if your on foot than if you’re inside your patrol car. Hand grenade fragments most likely will have no more penetrating ability than handgun rounds.

What if someone ambushes you by throwing a Molotov cocktail at your car? Again, your best choice is to just speed away. Even if the firebomb bursts and flames the side of your car, it will burn itself out in seconds and will have no effect on the car’s drivability. Your fuel tank will not burst into flames as you’ve seen in movies. The most a Molotov cocktail is likely to do is scorch the paint. Even when it hits glass and shatters, the odds are that little burning fuel will actually find its way inside your vehicle.

At the first hint-or undeniable evidence-of an ambush:

• Exit the kill-zone without delay. Borrow a concept from airplane pilots. When they get in trouble in the air and lives are hanging in the balance, they address these priorities: Aviate … Navigate … Communicate. The order is important.

First they Aviate; they get control of the plane before they do anything else. For you, that’s getting or maintaining control of your vehicle and yourself. Then they Navigate. They figure where they are and where they need to go and they move there. For you, it’s navigating out of danger. Only when they’re safe do they Communicate, letting others know they’re in trouble. Don’t let surprise and confusion make communication your top priority and end up getting shot because you’re glued to your radio when you should be fully focused on speeding out of danger. Communicate the who, what, when, where, and how once you’re safe.

• Hunker down as far as possible while still being able to see where you’re steering. Go anywhere your car will go. You needn’t confine yourself to streets, nor even pavement. Drive through shrubbery, decorative fences, and lawns when necessary. You may even have to drive over the ambushers themselves, but get out of there FAST! The worst thing you can do is stop in the kill zone, exit the vehicle, and stand there trying to figure out what is happening.

• Drive in a zig-zag pattern if possible, making yourself an even more difficult target. Turn corners at your first opportunity to get out of your attacker’s line-of-sight and put buildings and parked vehicles between you.

• If your tires are shot out, keep driving. A bullet passing through one of your tires usually will not drain it of air instantly. It will likely remain inflated for most of the next minute or two. E
ven if all four of your tires are lost, your vehicle will still be drivable and maneuverable.

• One circumstance in which you may be safer out of your car than in it is when the ambusher’s weapon is a rocket-propelled grenade. A hit from an RPG will instantly convert any motor vehicle into twisted, flaming metal. If you see an RPG in a subject’s hands and he seems zeroed in on you, get to cover away from your car ASAP, if you have time to react. These weapons may be launched at police vehicles, (so don’t seek cover behind yours) but they are seldom squandered on pedestrians. So far, these have not been a problem in this country, but as terrorist strikes intensify, who knows?

What if both you and the ambushers are mobile? Then you may need some additional tactics in your trick bag, because movement on your part alone may not allow you to reach the safe haven you need.

• If attackers launch their ambush from a moving vehicle, one option is to hit your brakes and get behind their car as quickly as you can. From there, you can disengage, or speed up and hit their rear quarter-panel at a sharp angle. This take-out maneuver can cause their vehicle to spin out of control and sometimes flip over.

Conversely, when another vehicle is trying to take you out with this tactic, speed up and continue to make sharp turns, staying close to the curb. You’re most vulnerable to a take-out maneuver when you’re making turns, and if you stay close to the curb line or a ditch at least that side of your car is much harder for an attack vehicle to approach and impact. If the attacker does make contact with your rear quarter-panel, aggressively steer toward the impact. This will turn your vehicle completely around and put you behind him, in position to escape.

• Obviously, you want to avoid being boxed in by other vehicles. If this does happen or looks as if it’s about to, consider throwing your car into reverse and rapidly accelerating, hitting the vehicle that is blocking your exit and pushing past it. Your air-bag will probably deploy, but you’ll just have to work around it.

Once you’ve escaped the immediate kill zone, don’t relax too soon. At your first opportunity, make certain you’re fully loaded, check for additional danger in every direction, and check yourself over for wounds. Report your situation to dispatch and get help, but stay alert. Regrettably but realistically, a secondary ambush may be part of a grand ambush plan. Your fight may be far from over. It may be just beginning!

About the author:

John Farnam, president of Defense Training International, Inc., has trained thousands of federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel. He is the author of several books on firearms tactics, including Guns and Warriors and The Farnam Method of Defensive Handgunning. For more information, visit:

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