In real life, police and military personnel are trained to fire at the center of mass (read: chest/heart), as the head is a small target that likes moving around a lot, while the center of mass is a relatively easy target that moves with the subject and also has lots of vital organs in it. And even if you miss, you might hit a limb (or, yes, the head) instead.
However, since most games don't have problems with pesky gun sway and other stuff that screws with aiming and bullet trajectory, the head is the usual target of choice, a One-Hit Kill for most low level mooks, which makes it something of a Chunky Salsa Rule. Even in more realistic series, it's better to go for the head instead of the chest. While the Boom, Headshot was popularized by Real Life events such as the Kennedy assassination, this is really a gameplay concept more than anything else, as rewarding the more difficult shot encourages the player to shoot accurately; it should be noted that in videogames it tends to be easier to score a headshot, since cycled walk animations are inherently more predictable than someone's real-life non-repeating movements would be. Additionally, because of Critical Existence Failure, it is important in games to kill targets as quickly as possible, whereas in real life a less lethal but more reliable shot might be enough to incapacitate opponents.
Rule of thumb: With weaker weapons (see Standard FPS Guns), people Cherry Tap via sending a weak pistol bullet into your noggin.
Games that go for a... bloody experience may cause 'buckets of blood coming out of people's heads.' from headshots, or might outright have the human skull be Made of Explodium. Otherwise, they'll probably have Pretty Little Headshots.
The trope name comes from a line spoken by "pro gamer" FPS_Doug on the Pure Pwnageweb TV series.
There is also a common technique known as the Mozambique Drill (also occasionally called the Failure Drill, compare this to the Double Tap), wherein two shots are quickly placed at center of mass, followed by (if the target still seems to be a threat) a third, more carefully aimed shot to the head (This is Michael Mann's trademark execution technique in almost all of his movies, from HEAT to Public Enemies). However, this is mostly employed in combat pistol shooting, and requires a semi-automatic weapon, which military sniper rifles generally aren't.
Compare with 'Tis Only a Bullet in the Brain.
As a Death Trope, all Spoilers will be unmarked ahead. Beware.
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Action Adventure Games
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune awards an instant kill on a headshot, and getting several headshots in a row (as well as hitting certain thresholds of career headshots) helps unlock bonus content.
In In Famous, throughout most of the game head shots (or head shocks, as you're using electricity) are instant kill and give extra xp. Especially if the target is in the air, which is one of the stunts.
This is the preferred tactic of hammer or hunting horn wielders when applicable in the Monster Hunter series, due to their ability to knock out a monster temporarily with repeated hits to the head. The head is also commonly the weakest point on a monster, and exceptions to it are generally rather obvious.
In one level of 2005's The Punisher video game, the eponymous protagonist is accompanied by S.H.I.E.L.D. soldiers. Whenever a criminal is shot in the head, one of the soldiers excitedly growls, "Headshot!" In another level that features head of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury, if the Punisher lands a headshot, Fury says, "Way to make it messy, Castle."
In his Batman Arkham City DLC, Nightwing is equipped with wrist darts that stun his targets, but a headshot is an instant takedown. Unfortunately, Nightwing's aim constantly sways, which is aggravated if you zoom in for a better shot.
Police Quest SWAT (the FMV one) lets you practice the Failure drill on the weapons range.
Assault Cube. With booming "Headshot" announcement, and double kill-score.
Counter-Strike. Oh, so very much.note This is actually the game FPS Doug was playing, making it the indirect Trope Namer. Indeed, the thwack! sound effect and special icon were firsts for FPS games, making this the Trope Codifier in some respects.
Funnily enough, you're better off aiming for the centre of mass instead of the head in most Call of Duty games, since guns kill in about 1-2 seconds of constant fire anyway. Actual headshots generally were rewarded in multiplayer, however - Modern Warfare 1 and 2, for instance, would both give an experience bonus and unlock a new camouflage pattern for the gun in question after a specific amount of headshots were made with it.
World at War includes a Death Card for co-op mode that, when activated, causes enemies killed via headshot to explode.
Battlefield: Generally, only the sniper rifle can really nail a OHK with a headshot, other weapons will just deal out more damage. Bad Company 2 gives you ten more points if you finish a enemy off with a headshot though (a kill is normally 50 points).
In Battlefield 3, several weapons can OHK with a headshot, and will get a headshot bonus for it. The bonus for Snipers is a marksmanship bonus for doing it at extreme ranges.
Left 4 Dead has a few achievements based around this; one for scoring a certain number of headshots over all, one for killing a zombie who hasn't seen you by bashing its head in from behind, and one for killing a Witch with a single headshot (which basically has to be done with a shotgun from point-blank range. And if you screw it up, man is she pissed...)
Left 4 Dead 2 has "realism mode" which (among other things) makes headshots much more important. While shooting the normal zombies center-of-mass enough times will still kill them, they don't go down nearly as easily as in the standard mode...and you also chew through ammo a lot faster. The "Headshot!" mutation plays this trope more straight: headshots are the only thing that will kill a common infected, including melee weapon hits to the head. Hitting them anywhere else causes them to just stumble back. Fire, explosions, and chainsaws can still kill commons in a single hit no matter in what body part.
In the Time Splitters games, zombies often need headshots to be killed. The aiming of that game can be a bit hard though, so the easiest way to kill them is with your fists. The reason is simple, one punch makes their heads fall off.
In Team Fortress 2 only the Sniper does any extra damage for headshots. Everyone else's weapons (except the Ambassador for the spy, see below) do the same damage no matter where they hit.
The "Meet the Sniper" video opens with shots of the Sniper driving his RV through the desert; inside, he flicks a TFC VIP bobblehead on his dashboard and says, "Boom. Headshot." Cut to the title card. Good things are in store.
With the Ambassador pistol, Spies automatically get a critical hit on a headshot. The unpatched Ambassador used to be able to overpenetrate targets, with hilarious results.
The Sniper does get one weapon that averts this though. The Sydney Sleeper can't headshot, but has the benefit of a faster scope charge and coating targets with Jarate on a hit.
Golden Eye 1997 was an early example of this, and certainly made console owners aware of it. However, headshots only did amplified damage, as showcased by it taking several of them to kill an enemy with 1000% health. The Spiritual Successor, Perfect Dark, played it much straighter and had headshots be One Hit Kills.
So was MDK, which was highly praised for its then-strong graphics and gunplay, which featured a sniper option.
Later games feature a "skull" that, when activated, makes the heads of Grunts, the weakest enemies, explode into confetti with the sound of children cheering. It's both hilarious and useful, since headshots are the most efficient way to kill them.
Half-Life. The pistol will require a few headshots to kill most things, but it's very accurate so you can stay well out of range. The magnum will probably do it in one with roughly the same accuracy. Then there is the sniper crossbow: much deadlier than it looks, and headshots can be surprisingly messy. Opposing Force replaced the magnum with the Desert Eagle which was likewise supremely accurate if you aimed using its Laser Sight rather than your own HUD crosshair. And it had a true sniper rifle.
In Half-Life 2, at least, not only do bodyshots towards headcrab zombies do less damage; they also risk leaving the headcrab itself alive to try to attack you. Father Grigori advises you to aim for the head. You will do well to listen to him. The crossbow's back, too. It's still the long-range terror against anything your size, and it now features heated rebar for bolts.
Metroid Prime: Hunters shows HEAD SHOT! on the screen when you score one. The sniping laser, the Imperialist, obviously does a one hit kill if it's a head shot and one of the hunters has the ability to be invisible when idle if he has the weapon.
In Metroid Prime 3, the Nova Beam has the ability to kill certain enemies in one hit if you shoot a particular area (usually the head), and the X-Ray Visor highlights these vulnerable areas. You can even "headshot" Metroids, which are otherwise hard-to-kill nuisances.
The Delta Force series of games awards double points for knocking your opponent's block off in multiplayer. Especially amusing is the fact that this can be done with any of the guns - the knife can't manage it (but killing with that is so rare as to be worth triple points anyway) and nor can the various forms of Boom a player can leave lying around or throw into the other guy's path, but you can score a headshot with a LAW. As in, a rocket that is supposed to be for cracking open TANKS. It was also immensely satisfying to Cherry Tap an opponent by sneaking to within ten metres of them and planting a 40mm grenade from the M203 In the Back of their skull, since at that range it won't explode, but will do enough damage to kill the recipient.
Resistance 2 has a nice, squishy sound when you pop a cap in a Chimera's face, instant kill with even upper-tier enemies except the bosses, which is handy to know as those Ravagers can be damned lethal.
In the In Name Only FPS of Shadowrun, there's an interesting twist on this—the Dwarves seem to be the only race that can survive a single headshot with a sniper rifle.
The Alien vs. Predator PC shooters both allow the titular xenomorphs to score MELEE headshots in which the player trains their crosshairs on the offender's cranium for a moment (causing teeth to appear all around the edges of the screen), then launches the alien's inner jaws at the target, EATING THEIR HEAD and TOTALLY HEALING YOU, all from up to 15 feet away! This can even be performed on corpses.
All parties in the game can go for headshots. The Predator, however, can attack a killed enemy's head with his wristblade to take a trophy.
Depending on the power of the firearm, headshots in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are instantly lethal for human enemies not wearing helmets, and deal massive damage to everything else, but are very difficult to score at anything moving at greater than point blank range. As opposed to most other shooters though, hitting center of mass usually makes the human enemy stagger and stop for a second, making the following headshot much easier.
This is a handy way to bring down enemies in Killzone 2, as well; but first you often have to shoot off the enemies' helmets and reveal their big pale Bald of Evil before you can actually score a lethal hit there.
Unless your using the shotgun at close range, or the sniper rifle, speaking of which, score 15 headshots with the snipe rifle and you're rewarded with the 'Melonpopper' Trophy
Inverted, sort of, in Turok 2. While most weapons instant kill with a head shot, both the Tek Arrows, and the Cerebral Bore are Headshot, Boom weapons.
In Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, it is possible to do this with a bow and arrow - assuming you can get close enough to both aim and avoid the sorta-subversion of No Arc in Archery, you can insta-kill opponents will a well placed arrow to the face.
But if you miss... good luck getting your sword out in time...
You can even do it with the Rope Bow. Sniping zombies from the rafters, hi-larious.
Notably not used in the original game of Rainbow Six. Any shot could kill you or an enemy, or at least put you out of the game.
It should be noted that the cross-hairs would automatically aim for the head.
In Combat Arms, a headshot which causes a death results in a rather satisfying "HEADSHOT" plaque showing up. Often happens with the ridiculously overpowered L96 and G36E guns, but no one's complaining.
Even better if it's through two peoples' heads.
The FPS Red Steel for the Nintendo Wii had an automatic lock-on system, which would put box corners around the entire target's body and lock crosshairs in that region. If the target were standing up or even moving, it was Easier Than Easy to fire at head level (the upper middle portion of the box) and nail the target's head. The lock-on system worked through walls, and the location of the crosshair would scale to the size of the box - aiming at head level when the target was sitting would still be locked to his head when he stood.
Nearly all headshots in Borderlands will remove the head, and even sometimes destroy the entire body. This is sometimes a necessary gameplay gimmick, since some enemies will shrug off everything but a headshot. There are also challenges centered around getting certain numbers of headshots for bonus XP. As of Borderlands 2, we have Face McShooty.
Parodied in RaymanRaving Rabbids 2s FPS segments. You can get the regular headshot, but can also get a buttshot by hitting them from behind.
The first Medal of Honor game had a way of naming the different places where you shoot someone the most (for instance, if you shot the Nazis in the arm the most in a level, one of the titles you could receive would be winger) so if you shot them in the head a lot, you'd get titles like melon popper, cap shooter, helmet plunker, etc.
A shot to the center mass could also One-Hit Kill enemies, especially with higher-power weapons.
Headshots in Bulletstorm are the easiest skillshot to pull off, though also the least rewarding point-wise. You do however, get bonuses for the PMC's Charged Attack (Overkill), the Screamer (One-Hit Wonder for the primary fire, Enlightenment for the Charged Attack]], the Head Hunter (Hotshot), the Flailgun (Grenade Gag), and the Penetrator (Root Canal).
The game Sniper: Ghost Warrior makes a definite point of forcing the player to think much like a real life sniper, though it somewhat averts this trope by allowing you to miss the sweet spot and simply remove a target's helmet without the insta-kill. Also averted in that a single center mass shot with the high powered rifle is typically enough to drop any target.
Clive Barkers Jericho has the Achievements/Trophies named (Insert Adjective Here) Of Pop, where landing so many headshots nets you an additional character bio sheet in the extras section.
Headshots in Project Blackout are instantly lethal if the target isn't wearing a helmet.
Just like the movie it was based on (see below), if Jet makes a head shot in Tron 2.0, it's almost always an insta-kill. The times it's not is when it's glanced off armor. Jet will also say something like "Ouch" or "Yes!" if he manages a perfect hit.
Not only played straight but very nearly a Game Breaker in Ace Of Spades, as the hitbox for a player's head is enormous. The standard semi-automatic rifle is nearly as good as a Sniper Rifle, and headshots with it are a One-Hit Kill. Being hit in the head by the sub-machine gun "only" costs you 75HP, which is hardly better given that most players who wield it really believe in More Dakka, and the shotgun... Well, let's just say it averts Short Range Shotgunhard.
As of version 0.75 the rifle was made much less accurate (making sniping with the submachine gun a viable alternative), the shotgun now follows its stock trope and the SMG is the most commonly used weapon around.
The bots of PAYDAY The Heist will encourage you to go for headshots, with shouts of "I want to see helmets flying!" Because yes, when you land a headshot, the hat or helmet worn by the victim will pop up as a "well done!" signal. Interestingly, the headshot-immune civilians are all bareheaded.
Killing Floor's Specimens all have a weak point in the head. Blowing said head off doesn't guarantee an instant kill, but it does prevent them from using any special abilities (the clot's grab, the bloat's vomit, etc), causes them to stagger around blindly (they can still hit you if they find you), makes any further damage hurt more, and kills them after a few seconds anyway. So, aim for the head.
The Sharpshooter perk is based around this - his weapons are typically single-fire or semi-auto fare which he gets massive headshot-damage and reload-speed bonuses for, from various pistols and revolvers, up to a crossbow and even a breech-loading, .50-caliber sniper rifle.
In Day Of Defeat and Day of Defeat: Source, shooting someone in the head results in a shhunk sound and the opposing player's helmet flying off (provided it wasn't knocked off prior by an explosion). All weapons are a one hit kill to the head, provided it didn't pass through any objects prior.
Inverted in Virtua Cop 3, however, where headshots are actually the least lucrative, as they score low and don't allow for chains. The better alternatives are shooting their gun, or just chaining 3 hits starting with any other part of the body.
Target Terror on the highest violence setting, had this. Multiple bullets in the head of a terrorist would result in Your Head Asplode, a massive point bonus, and in the Gold edition, there's a combat medal for headshot streaks.
In the third Silent Scope game, your life / time meter will refill a bit on head shots.
Headshots on most bosses are a One-Hit Kill, unless they are wearing a mask/helmet.
Averted in Point Blank; in stages where you shoot at human-shaped cardboard targets, shooting the center of the chest yields 100 points, the highest point value on the target. Shooting the head only nets 60 points.
The Headshot skill in Urban Dead results in that zombie being forced to spend 5 more Action Points than normal to rise. However, a skill allows veteran zombies to circumvent this somewhat.
In the Diary of the Dead tie-in side city Monroeville (where the zombies are conveniently Romero-style zombies), a headshot is an instant kill.
A headshot death used to cost the zombie experience. Painful indeed.
The multiplayer arenas in Conkers Bad Fur Day (at least the N64 version) tracked these. Especially fun when the headshot was from crossbow or knife; the bolt or knife would be stuck in the head as they spun dazed.
Also, due to stylization most of the characters were only about 3 heads tall, with their heads being the widest part of the body. That's right, in Conkers Bad Fur Day heads were usually the biggest and easiest target to hit.
Furthermore, during the main adventure, you can only kill zombies by shooting them in the head.
As an added bonus, in the War multiplayer especially, the player character would often yell dialogue for certain kills, and headshots came with a raft of them, such as "Oooh, nasty!" and "Oho, headshot!"
Anytime you run into a seemingly-invincible enemy in the Mega Man series, you have to aim for his head. Does his head fill the screen? Gem in the forehead. No head? Anything that looks like an eye is your target.
The Mega Man X series in particular uses this trope at its most literal every chance it gets. Both the X and Zero series start with an intro boss you have to headshot to damage, Sigma only ever uses One-Winged Angel forms with weak spots in the head, and you can use this to hijack enemy Ride Armors in X8. And that's just a few examples.
In the original Fallout creatures have a location map for called shots; critical hit effects depend on specific location, and head shots tend to be severe. But it's far from "always instant kill" and usually the head is the second hardest to hit location after the target's eyes. Other times it's more beneficial to aim for a different location even if it doesn't bring the enemy down as fast - you'll want to cripple that Deathclaw's legs so you can survive long enough to try for a headshot.
The Sniper perk exists to facilitate these, and gives a substantial bonus when using VATS to aim at heads, which combined with sneak attacks allows you to one-shot many enemies. The Bloody Mess perk on the other hand can cause victim's heads to asplode even if you hit them in the foot. With a flamethrower.
This trope is parodied in Fallout 3 with the quest "You Gotta Shoot 'Em in the Head". A ghoul hires you to kill a bunch of humans who considers ghouls to be just like mindless zombies, and specifically requests that you shoot them in the head or else you're paid less.
The game also features Mirelurks, bipedal mutant crab people with a heavily-armored carapace. Shooting them in the head is the quickest way to bring them down, but said soft target is deeply recessed in their torso and often hidden when they're attacking, making pulling this off easier said than done.
Fallout New Vegas averts this with the "Three-Card Bounty" quest, in which headshots are discouraged because the questgiver wants the targets' skulls intact so he can verify they're dead. There's also the "Center of Mass" perk that gives the player a damage bonus to shots aimed at the enemy's torso.
The "Dead Money" DLC for Fallout New Vegas features "ghosts", which recover from being killed unless they're overkilled to the extent of being decapitated (or otherwise dismembered). The easiest way to do this is to cause enough damage to knock them down, then pull a Boom, Headshot on them.
While attacks to the head in Fallout 3 and New Vegas cause twice as much HP loss, the effect of specifically injuring the head is almost comically minimal: Perception is lowered by 4 (not that big a deal because Perception only matters before the battle starts), accuracy is lowered somewhat, and if it's the player character they also get an occasional Interface Screw in the form of an Impairment Shot. For comparison, crippling an arm hurts accuracy far worse and a crippled leg can make melee enemies too slow to catch up with you backpedaling.
In Fable I of all games, thanks to existent but heavily reduced sway of hands, you can headshot from a fair distance with a crossbow or even a bow. It comes complete with a fountain of blood and the disembodied head spinning for another moment in the air. It's only if you can inflict a one hit kill with it, though (sometimes even more resistant normal enemies can survive a headshot when it's from a weak enough hero and when they're at full HP). For the more sadistic among us, you can also make enemies' head explode in much the same way with a Lightning spell.
In Fable II, the last dexterous style is sub-targeting, which allows you to target specific spots on an enemy such as the hand (to disarm them), groin, or head. A headshot will often kill an enemy in one shot, decapitating them in the process.
You can boot the heads around when you shoot one off, too.
A successful headshot in Valkyria Chronicles will cause critical damage to the opponent. For snipers, who are good at this sort of thing, it's almost a guaranteed One-Hit Kill. You can protect yourself from these types of hits by crouching behind sandbags or laying down in the grass where the enemy can't see you.
Specifically, going into cover (grass or sandbags usually, but other things can give cover, too) prevents critical hits from actually happening, even if a character is actually hit in the head. Unfortunately, it works both ways. Enemies under cover can't receive criticals, either.
Though you can't actually aim for heads in Dragon Age: Origins, one of the death animations for humanoid enemies has the attacker make a wide swinging blow that slices the head of in a huge gush of blood.
A finishing move when equipped with a sword in Jade Empire is decapitation. It doesn't show where the head goes, but it does show a fountain of blood, which makes you wonder just how much of the head is intact afterwards.
In Mass Effect 2 a head shot is (if not an insta-kill) a high damage hit. If it is a kill shot your team mates will make impressed comments about it. One of the upgrades for sniper rifles gives an extra damage bonus to headshots.
In the case of security mechs, killing them with headshots causes them to explode damaging anyone nearby (useful, since they come in packs). Headshotting YMIR Mechs (which always explode on death) causes them to go critical and detonate with a massive boom.
You can also score perhaps the ultimate headshot on the final boss. Human-Reaper's head, meet Cain.
Headshots also tend to leave lots and lots of splatters.
There are even armor pieces to improve the power of your headshots (Garrus wears one).
Averted in a realistic sense by the Widow series, though: it's so overwhelmingly powerful that there's little incentive to go for headshots. Any hit will kill most enemies outright.
Averted with Zaeed's backstory. His business partner double-crossed him and had six of their underlings restrain him while said partner put a gun to Zaeed's head and pulled the trigger.
Shepard: You survived a gunshot wound to the head? Zaeed: Yeah, and you survived getting your ship blown up. A stubborn enough person can survive anything. Rage is a hell of an anesthetic.
Contrary to the first game's relatively realistic Pretty Little Head Shots with small entrance and exit wounds through the helmet, headshots on Cerberus troops in Mass Effect 3 cause the entire head and helmet to disappear, leaving behind bloody neck and a bit of exposed spinal column.
ME 3's multiplayer mode managed to zigzag this trope. Originally, bosses did not suffer from head shots, with the exception of the Geth Prime, which did due to a bug. A path removed this and some other similar bugs and people complained that it removed the incentive to aim, as the bosses where the main targets you needed head shots on. A latter patch added weakpoints for bosses in, but at a much lower bonus. Headshots did 150% bonus damage, and there were a few weapons and bonuses that could increase this. The new weakpoints(sometimes the head, sometimes somewhere else) did 40% bonus damage and were not affected by weapon or other bonuses to headshot damage.
ME 3's new DLC weapon the M-11 Suppressor is built around this trope. While not as powerful as other pistols available, it has the largest headshot bonus of any weapon in the game. This essentially means that as long as you can aim for the head, it is guaranteed to kill in two shots if not instantly.
In Valkyrie Profile 2 Silmeria, the battle system lets you break off parts of monsters depending on what part you hit. If the part you break off happens to be the monster's head, it's instant death, unless the enemy is a zombie or skeleton or something.
In Dark Souls, getting a headshot with a bow causes extra damage.
Shoot 'Em Ups
In Time Crisis 2, 3, and 4, hitting non-armored Mooks anywhere will kill them, but headshots yield the most points, followed by body shots, then limb shots. However, getting points doesn't stop at a headshot; shooting the head once and then shooting their body twice (you can hit a Mook twice more after the initial hit) yields the most points.
Star Fox Assault's Sniper Rifle does bonus damage on a head shot. Of course, the thing is so powerful, you don't even need a headshot to take most opponents down. Wolf is the only multi-player character that can survive being shot at all, but he's also the fastest.
Subverted in first-person hunter Deer Hunter 2005. Headshots will kill the deer instantly, but you won't get the special slow-motion insta-kill bulletcam you get with a lung/heart shot.
Metal Gear Solid. Head shots are handled realistically in this series, all guns have meaningful recoil and idle sway meaning that you do have to adjust your shots at a distance especially if aiming for the head. Also head shots are always instant kills unless the enemy soldier's head is shielded in some way and there is no gore so even with higher powered guns such as the Barret M82 sniper rifle there are no flashyresults. There's even a game mode for multiplayer, where head shots are the only shots that deal any damage for the hard core enthusiasts.
A guaranteed kill in Sniper Elite, complete with entry and exit wound. They give the player fame points.
This is one of Caitlyn's quotes from League of Legends. Her occupation? She's a sheriff carrying a sniper rifle. Her special ability? Every eighth shot she fires is... you guessed it... called 'Headshot', which does additional damage.
Resident Evil 4 is the king of this trope. Unless you were using a particularly powerful weapon, it was nearly impossible to kill any Ganados without shooting them in the head, and even then in Professional mode it would still take around nine headshots to kill them. The only other way you were encouraged to shoot them was in the legs, so you could run up and melee them in the head.
Unless they have a mask on, in which case it takes around 60 headshots to kill them.
With the exception of the Wii version, where Leon's hand is as steady as you hold the Wiimote, their is fairly realistic gun sway. Even more annoyingly, if you pointed a gun at a Ganado's head for to long, they'd anticipate the shot and start covering their faces or move out of the way.
Strangely, despite being able to take multiple bullets to the face, anytime an enemy was killed by an attack directed at its head, their noggin would graphically blow it up, complete with a nauseating splatting sound and chunks off head laying on the ground (strangely, this often doesn't kill them instantly). This includes everything from .50 magnum shots to 9mm bullets to the female PC elbowing them in the face.
Likewise in Resident Evil 5 headshots are powerful enough to take heads clean off but enemies can take a few seconds to die resulting in still being hit or it can turn them into a more dangerous enemy.
Subverted with the Regenerators and Iron Maidens, where shooting them in the head does almost nothing. Even if you use an extremely powerful weapon, or blow it's head off, it'll just regrow in a couple seconds.
In the remake of the original Resident Evil, blowing off a zombie's head was one of the ways prevent a zombie from resurrecting as a Crimson Head (as opposed to burning it or blowing off its kneecaps). The headshots were random when using a handgun, but pointing a shotgun at a zombie's head was much more reliable.
It's actually possible to shoot off the heads off hunters, chimeras, and dogs, especially when using the Samurai Edge, although it doesn't serve any tactical purpose.
In Condemned 2: Bloodshot, getting a headshot will result in the unfortunate target's head bursting like a squeezed zit, even if you're using a dinky 9MM pistol. Considering how guns in the game are rare and mostly situational weapons, this is an efficient way of using them.
In Cold Fear, the only way to kill a zombie is to shoot their head, or else they won't stop coming after you.
In Deadly Premonition, headshots do more damage, interrupt enemies' attacks, and earn you bonus Agent Honor.
Rune. Remember the zombies in Quake? Rune's zombies are just like that, except since the game has a medieval fantasy setting, your only real options are fire and decapitation. Since normal blows just make them fall over for a few seconds (and you can't decapitate them while they're down,) you don't have access to fire weapons for many levels, and only a spinning jump-slash will reliably decapitate them (plus they're otherwise just harmless but annoying goombas,) zombies get really old REALLY fast.
Gears of War cannot be forgotten, seeing as a head shot sometimes results in Marcus Fenix (at least in the Campaign) saying Boom Headshot. Or other witty things such as, "look Ma, no face" in Gears 2.
Everyone has headshot quotes including Baird's "Sorry, was that your spine?" and the epic "So good I should charge admission."
Syphon Filter had this, too, even explicitly telling you that headshots in manual aim were more lethal. Especially needed when enemies started wearing flak jackets, which could take dozens of rounds to penetrate. Nothing says 'I hate you' like a headshot with the lethal taser.
The MMO Third Person Shooter, S 4 League, features critical hits, which generally only occur when a player's shot connects with an enemy's head. On the other hand, S 4 League's entire setting revolves around unashamedly presenting itself as an online 'sport' played in virtual stadiums over the internet. Which it is.
In Total Overdose, head shots give the most style points, and are the only way to rack up combos for multiple kills. The most points are awarded for delivering a headshot while airborne, twisting 360 degrees and getting another headshot before hitting the ground...even more if done leaping from a speeding vehicle.
Lost Planet makes this the only way to liberate weapons from human enemies. Also, the Machine Gun does double damage if bullets hit the head.
Played mostly straight in Monday Night Combat, with a minor aversion: one of the upgrades for the Gunner class is a face-shield that drops down when it deploys, making headshots only as effective as regular shots.
Invoked by name as a ProTag and earned for scoring ten headshot kills in a Crossfire match.
Jet Force Gemini: If you aim correctly even with the pistol, you can blow an enemy's head off. You even get rewards for collecting heads. You can get a sniper rifle later on to make this easier
The Star Wars Battlefront games give a bonus weapon and medal of "Marksman" to a sniper who gains 4 head shots within one life. Snipers can often become Goddamn Bats because of the head shots. The trooper's weapon doesn't instantly kill somebody if you shoot them in the head, but a head shot does more damage to an enemy than a body shot.
Interstate 76 centered on armed cars doing battle with each other. In addition to the usual complement of machine guns, rockets, and the like, the player carried a handgun which could shoot at a ninety-degree angle to the direction of travel. Kills with the handgun were preferable because they not only killed the opponent instantly, but left the opponent's vehicle intact to be scavenged at the end of the mission.
Amusingly, the Mech Warrior games (the computer games, at least) allow you to score headshots on Humongous Mecha. The head is a discreet section of the 'mech with its own armor, and generally has very little protection. It's tiny, but an instant kill if you do manage to destroy it.
Probably a carryover from the original BattleTechTabletop Game, where the maximum limit on head armor was the same (that is, quite low) for everybody regardless of size category. Weapons that could do enough focused damage to take out the head in a single shot were given a very high value compared to other weapons in the Battle Value system, used to calculate the overall effectiveness of a 'mech.
In the BattleTechMech Commander video games, shooting a mech in the head tended to kill the pilot as well. If the mech was destroyed any other way, the pilot would usually eject the head as an escape pod and survive.
Some 'Mechs have notoriously large cockpit hitboxes in their respective games, including the Jenner, the Catapult, and the UrbanMech. It was not uncommon for players to hit the heads of these models of 'Mech without actually trying to, and killing the target in a few clustered headshots instead of slugging it out with them.
Don't get any ideas that it's easy though because unlike humans, the actual 'head' on mechs may not correspond exactly to where one would assume the head is.
in the Transformers game for the Playstation 2, there is a specific Mini-Con upgrade that allows for Sniper rifle Head shots that are OHKO's for a great many units, though it does take 3 Headshots for the Heavy units, and a couple of Enemies have no head, being non-humanoid Mecha.
The Sawn Off Shotgun sidearm and the Shotgun pickup from the same game. Shooting at the target's windscreen earns you the Point-Blank bonus which deals massive damage. Its essentially headshoting a car.
Wide Open Sandbox
This started creeping into the console version of Grand Theft Auto starting with 3, which gave you an M16-type that could be freely aimed (other weapons either fired wherever you faced or targeted centre of mass). Both 3 and Vice City also had sniper rifles (although those would be instant kill even if you shot them in the foot). San Andreas let you aim any weapon manually, so even your lousy 9mm starter pistol can get headshots in. It seemed to vary on whether the victim's head survived such treatment, though.
Reaches its peak in Grand Theft Auto IV. Auto-target aims at center of mass, while holding the auto-target button allows you to move the crosshair slightly. It becomes laughably easy to get headshots in this way, making many of the game's missions incredibly easy.
The latest Chapter in GTA IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, requires you to score a certain number of headshots each mission to get the 100% score. Chinese Take Out in fact requires all kills to be headshots.
Grand Theft Auto San Andreas had this, too. If you're close enough, the auto-target will go from center of mass up to head. Which makes sense—if you're at, say, 5cm range, why not?
Headshots seem to do more damage in Bully too, when using the slingshot at least. A fully-charged shot to the head will drop almost any student.
In The Godfather game headshots are a One-Hit Kill, allowing you to go through enemies more efficiently. Given that Tommygun and shotgun users show up quite early and you don't become Made of Iron until quite a bit later, this is important. You can even go through mob wars using just your .38 pea-shooter by taking cover and making precision headshots. Bonus assassination missions sometimes asked for headshots; this meant even more cash.
Mount & Blade featured the ability to score headshots and deal critical damage with any projectile, including stones, arrows, crossbow bolts, throwing knives, throwing axes, and javelins. Now consider that sharp projectiles sometimes remain visible in an enemy's corpse...
Dwarf Fortress: While it is certainly possible to kill things by severing their heads, in practice not only are called shots to the head with a ranged or thrown weapon considerably harder to achieve, but arrows and crossbow bolts will bounce off even a low-grade helmet. Melee attacks to the head, on the other hand, are significantly more reliable.
Scarface: The World is Yours encouraged bold gameplay by rewarding you more Balls (which allowed you to build your Blind Rage/temporary invincibility meter more quickly). Using pistols gives a 4x bonus, as is manually targeting (the auto-target aims for center of mass but can be tweaked to aim for specific body parts). And targeting some body parts gives you more Balls than others (fits the trope because the head is a high-value target—it and the nuts have the highest value).
On the flip side, taunting a wounded enemy gets Balls as well. Killing and taunting gets even more making it sometimes preferable to avoid the headshot, at least right away.
Anime and Manga
Macross Frontier, and Macrossasawhole, notably inverts the trope almost constantly. Headshots on Valkyries don't kill, but do make Battroid mode useless (you're blind), yet a center of mass shot would, as that's where the cockpit is in Battroid mode. Macross Frontier invokes yet inverts it even more with the Vajra when their sniper blows one of their heads off, leaving them all thinking the Vajra killed. Turns out it wasn't, and that their "brains" are in their stomach, also known as their center of mass.
The Grand Finale of Macross Frontier plays it straight though, as their goal was to kill the Big Bad who had inhabited the head of the err... Final Boss. Taking out the head killed the Big Bad but left the Vajra Queen thing alive, since its brain is in its stomach. Presumably it doesn't need its head.
Mazinger Z: Baremos Q7 was a Mechanical Beast built with stolen samples of Alloy Z. However its head was made of a less sturdy metal since Dr. Hell had not enough alloy. During the battle, Kouji eventually noticed the Robeast was ALWAYS protecting its head. Logically, he aimed for it. Another example happened in one of the first chapters, when he was told Bikong O9 weak point were its horns.
Kiddy Grade pulled one off too in the finale. Namely, Alv became one with the Deucalion so Lumiére hacked into the ship's left arm and used the cannons on it to score a hit on the bridge. Yes, you heard that right: Lumie headshotted Alv with her own arm.
Char Aznable delivers an awesome one of these to Kycillia Zabi near the end of Mobile Suit Gundam. With a rocket launcher.
In G Gundam it's an Enforced Trope, since the rules of the Gundam Fight tournament say that losing your Gundam's head is instant disqualification; any other damage to the machine can be repaired without penalty. For a more literal version of this, England's warrior Sir Gentle Chapman almost takes France's fighter George Do-Sand out with his sniper rifle, but just grazes the head of George's Gundam due to age and illness hampering his skill.
Lampshaded by Martin mocking a gunman for not shooting someone in the head. That someone was him.
Justifiably so in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. As a significant amount of individuals have cyberized brains that can be transplanted into fully prosthetic bodies even if the rest of the body is gibbed, completely annihilating the brain case of a cyber-brain is often the only way to completely "kill" a person and is often heartily encouraged.
In the Cowboy Bebop episode "Ballad of Fallen Angels," a Red Dragon mook who takes Faye hostage gets a bullet right through his skull from Spike, setting off a furious Church Shootout that ends with Spike and Vicious clashing for the first time in the series.
The villain of "Sympathy for the Devil" also gets a bullet in the head. This bullet, however, is fashioned from a gem that was created from the energy released by the Gate explosion, the same energy which broke Wen's circadian rhythm and made him essentially immortal and unaging, and using it has the effect of rapidly aging him to death as Wen's true age is returned to him.
Subverted in the Marvel G.I. Joe comics where Scarlett survives a point-blank shot to the head.
As expected, Sin City does this a lot to gruesome effect. Since it often averts the Instant Death Bullet, almost any quick kills involve bullets to the brain.
Wallace was notorious about this; most of his kills being headshots. In fact, in the climax, he killed an entire warehouse full of assassins with headshots.
Miho, likewise, often hit mooks in the head with her throwing-stars and arrows or simply stabs in the head them with her swords. In fact, in one darkly humorous moment, she shot a neo-Nazi through the chest with an arrow and he remained standing, marveling at the entire situation while the rest of the villains ignored him. She then finished him off with a shot through the head.
In The Big Fat Kill, Dwight killed a few mercenaries via shots to the head.
Dwight also killed Ava Lord with a shot to the forehead.
In Silent Night, Marv killed the madame running the child-prostitution ring with a headshot.
In Marv's first story, he wakes up in a hospital after receiving several bullets to the chest. He complains that, in order to kill him, the bad guys should've shot him in the head — and enough times to make sure.
It should also be noted that when John Hartigan committed suicide, he shot himself in the head even though he had already been shot in the back (Sin City heroes tend to walk away from other shots with ease).
There are aversions, however:
When Jackie Boy's gun exploded, the slide went right through his forehead but he was alive for a few more minutes, prompting Miho to finish the job by chopping his head off completely.
Dwight was shot in the face with what appeared to be a glancing hit and while he needed immediate medical attention, he remained conscious and survived with a little surgery.
In "Half Life: Hero Begginning", when Henry Freeman's mom protests the Combines pointing their lasers at him, they shoot her and laugh at her. Despite this apparently destroying her head ("haha stupid humen girl with no head"), she's able to tell Henry Freeman to run away before she dies.
One of the most famous examples occurs in Maniac when Tom Savini's character gets shot in the head at point blank range causing his head to explode.
In the Transformers Film Series, Optimus Prime seems obsessed in destroying the heads of his enemies. Throughout the course of all three films, he decapitates Bonecrusher, shoots Demolisher in the head, tears Grindor's head in two, shoots off half of Megatron's face (with his own cannon), tears the skin off The Fallen's head, rips Shockwave's eye out of its socket, shoots Sentinel Prime twice in the head, and finally tears off Megatron's head and SPINE.
Both versions of Dawn of the Dead feature shotgun-blast-to-the-head scenes. The remake also has a scene where a character unerringly picks off a string of zombies with headshots, but he's a gun-store owner doing it from a safe rooftop, with a high-powered sniper rifle, while the zombies aimlessly mill around below. And it's all just a morbid way of killing time.
Everyone in The Zombie Diaries seems to know that the only way to stop the zombies is to shoot them in the head.
The Dresden Files: Characters with firearms training occasionally double tap their target if they can get away with it. The most impressive headshot in the series, however, was in Small Favor, when Kincaid dropped two Denarians with one shot, through their heads.
Averted in The Dark Tower novel The Waste Lands. When The Tick Tock Man is shot in the head, the low caliber bullet only grazes the person's skull, a fact which allows someone to revive the person, later.
Played realistically straight in The Zombie Survival Guide and its companion novel World War Z: brain destruction is the only way to kill a zombie (even fire needs to cause brain damage to be effective, and the heads survive after decapitation), but it's not as simple as "Shoot in head, head explodes." It's perfectly possible to miss and shoot off the jaw, and one of the many demoralizing incidents in the Battle of Yonkers was soldiers panicking at the sight of zombies apparently surviving head shots, not realizing that their poorly aimed bullets were glancing off the skull.
In the Bones episode, "The Bullet In The Brain" (guess what it's about), The Gravedigger is headed to an appeal. Outside the courthouse she's shot in the head by a high-caliber rifle (as the name of the episode implied). The shot makes her head asplode.
Another episode deals with a victim possibly killed in this manner, but the team have to figure out how many gunmen and who the victim was. It might have been JFK.
In the sixth season finale of ER, a cop on the scene of a mass shooting is shown doing CPR on someone whose brains were splattered all over the concrete. This is the show's typical subversion of Worst Aid, since Dr. Kovac comes by and tells him to stop.
Dr. Kovac: We'll never get her back with a head wound like that! Stop compressions!
Kate went out this way at the end of Season 2 of NCIS after Taking the Bullet Ari chooses to snipe her rather than Gibbs.
"Penelope": this is how J.J. takes down the crooked cop who nearly killed Garcia. She does so by shooting through a pane of glass while he isn't looking.
"L.D.S.K": Reid manages to take Hotch's ankle-holster gun while being kicked, and then shoot straight through the sniper's forehead.
On Rookie Blue Andy is talking to a young woman when suddenly the woman gets shot in the head and Andy is splattered with the woman's blood and brain matter. The woman is brain dead and the doctors keep her body alive only because she is an organ donor and they need the police investigation to be closed before they can perform the transplants.
A hostage situation in Blue Bloods is ended this way when Frank Reagan kills the crook with a gun to his daughter's head.
In Degrassi High, this is how Claude commits suicide. Snake, who found the body, mentioned later that only half his face was left.
Deconstructed in French Canadian TV show 19-2, where a policeman gets shot in the eye, suffering severe brain damage that leaves him mentally and physically crippled.
This is what happens to the suspect that killed Chris Pacchi.
In The Wire Chris Partlow, The Dragon for Marlo, trains his soldiers to shoot for the head if they're close enough and have a clear shot, or low enough that they'll be able to kill even a target that wears a Bullet Proof Vest, as several of the drug dealers and stick up artists tend to do. We see it played out several times, perhaps most memorably when Chris and Snoop distract Bodie, so that one of their men can sneak up behind him and shoot him in the head. Twice.
In the first episode of Firefly, Dobson, an Alliance agent, holds River hostage. He gets about halfway through his "nobody move or I kill her" rant when Mal, without even so much as breaking stride on his way back onto the ship, whips his revolver out and and puts one right in Dobson's eye socket. The supplemental comic books reveal that Dobson somehow survives this, and gets tasked by the Hands of Blue with retrieving River, giving him a shot at revenge. He fails, and gets shot in the other eye by Mal, along with a few more just to make sure he stays dead this time.
On Forever Knight, Nick gets one of these in 'Knight in Question'. He's a vampire, so he survives, but ends up with temporary Laser-Guided Amnesia. LaCroix has to help maintain the Masquerade by whammying the doctors with the idea that it bounced off Nick's 'very thick skull'.
The music video for "All About Us" by t.A.T.u, this is how one of the singers kills the man who almost raped, then beat and tried to kill her.
Older Than Feudalism: Interestingly enough, this trope can also be found in The Bible in the story of David and Goliath. It was not a one-hit kill, but it did incapacitate him, letting David behead him with Goliath's own sword.
In Cyber Punk 2020, headshots are either the best or worst combat option. There is an attack penalty, but most PCs are skilled enough at gunplay that missing is rare. On the other hand, helmets tended to be much sturdier than body armour, so the chance of doing damage is reduced. But it's often worth it, since headshots give the possibility of an instant kill if your gun is powerful enough.
GURPS makes headshots a very tempting target with a 4x damage multiplier and even if the damage isn't lethal requires an immediate (nearly impossible) roll to avoid being stunned and knocked down. The penalty to hit, however, is very large.
Badly subverted in hunting ranges, where it's not uncommon to see deer afflicted with a severed jaw or an exposed brain because an amateur hunter thought he could take it down with a headshot. In those cases, the range's owners have to intervene themselves to put the deer out of its misery.
Vice-president Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter in the face/head with a shotgun one time.
Not as reliable as video games might have you believe; there is at least one story of a man who was shot in the face in just the right place that the bullet only ejected a tooth, one of a soldier in WWII with a bullet that curved around his skull and gave him the appearance of a man who had been shot straight through the head, and the case of Gabrielle Giffords. A good-quality helmet can also reduce the damage from "messily dead" to "a really bad concussion", depending on the angle of the shot and the calibre and velocity of the bullet.
There's also Malala Yousufzai. And, going back a lot further, Beethoven's nephew, who attempted suicide via headshot and failed.
For those who don't like Squick, here's a video of football/soccer player Fabrice Muamba hitting then England U-21 teammate Jason Steele behind the right ear with a free kick during shooting practice at the 2011 U-21 Euro.
The Metropolitan Police Service's guidelines for counter-terrorism officers was this. Having sought and obtained permission to discharge weapons, the officers were to aim for the head unless explicitly told otherwise. This advice was designed around the scenario of a fanatical suicide bomber - they may be using improvised explosives which could be detonated by the impact concealed under their clothes, and if injured they may still try and detonate their explosives anyway.
Suicide bombers tend to strap explosives on their body, occasionally shoes or underwear, but so far explosive hats haven't shown up yet. Shooting these explosives might cause them to explode so headshots are the way to go.