Prepare for a shot of reality: most of what you
have read in the popular press concerning handgun effectiveness
have been written for entertainment purposes. We wonít discuss
one-shot stops, magic bullets, or the 9mm vs. the .45.
But we will recognize that there has been more
discussion, research, experimentation and important development
in handgun cartridges in the past twenty years than in the
previous 200. At one time
word of mouth was the sole barometer of cartridge effectiveness. The
.45 Colt and the .44-40 worked, period, and
the smaller calibers were recognized as last ditch propositions
with more threat than real power. When gun writers of bygone days
tested handgun cartridges, they measured penetration in pine boards. I
well remember a high school project I observed in the
mid 1970s in which Janie Hughston, daughter of
pistolsmith T.N. Hughston, presented just such a test as
her high school science project. It was well received, with the
differences in .22 Long Rifle,.38 Special,.357 Magnum and .44
Magnum penetration clearly demonstrated. Those were different
Pine boards measured only one criteria: penetration. Penetration
remains as a constant that cannot be compromised. Later, duct seal and clay were used to gauge the
upset of expanding bullets. Both of these materials are
unrealistic, overstating expansion dramatically while retarding penetration. Today, ballistic gelatin is heavily used in
ammunition testing but is recognized as at best an approximation
of the human body. Much emphasis is placed on handgun ammunition,
and we should endeavor to make an intelligent choice.
But the study of tactics and human reactions in a gun
battle is more important and should receive the lionís share
of study. The most important single predictor of gun battle
survival is training. The most important immediate factor is marksmanship. More
often than not, gun battles are won with
pretty ordinary equipment.
There are two basic camps as concerns handgun
bullet study. One prefers to study actual shootings, the other
will conduct laboratory tests of expansion and penetration.
It is obvious that each shooting is a unique occurrence. By
the same token, laboratory testing cannot duplicate
differences in point of impact, attitude, muscle structure and the
level of intoxication in a subject. Lab tests are scientific. Histories
of shootings are far less reliable. They simply cannot be supported by scientific
criteria. A scientist
can only present his data and ask you to make your own interpretation. You
are free to make your own tests to confirm or
deny his results. That is the heart of the scientific outlook.
Stopping power studies are unreliable compared to
laboratory results. It is
strange to some of us to see results quoted as gospel in the
popular press as if the various studies were the King James
version of stopping power. In fact, they are fraught with problems. Worse, some go past reporting shooting histories and
engage in predicting the effectiveness of one load or the other,
often arriving at figures that are preposterous to those
who have observed shooting results over a period of time. This is
no surprise - the conclusions are based on flawed data.
It is interesting that after quoting impossibly high
claims for minor calibers, some Ďscholarsí have adjusted
their figures downward to stay in touch with reality. This is
after the published figures were met with incredulity. We have to
remember that any peace officer or trained investigator who
could not identify his
sources would realize that his material did not meet a simple
investigative standard. The validity of his work would be zero. On
the other hand, as a former peace officer, I can
understand the need for confidentiality. A respect for families
and for those who simply do not wish their war stories printed
must be maintained. By the same token, without due documentation
and a willingness to open our files to investigators, we cannot
expect our material to be accepted. Officers working trouble
spots such as Area Six, Chicago, the Bronx in New York, or the
Wall in California have seen the damage inflicted by most of the
popular handgun calibers. They also realize that eyewitness
accounts by those testifying in good faith often differ
considerably in perspective. By applying normal investigative
discipline to stopping power studies we find they come up short
in reliability. Most do not even meet the standards set forth for
finding fault in a motor vehicle accident!
Some trainers and armed civilians do not study
the various debates on handgun effectiveness and concentrate
upon marksmanship, tactics, and standard service grade
equipment. When we criticize issue gear and equipment, we
undermine an individual's confidence in his gear. Often, the man
issued a 9mm pistol or a double action only type - neither of
which I care for - is simply stuck with the pistol and must do
the best he can. The man or woman behind the sights of these guns
can make all of the difference.
Among the most inane comments ever to see print
and one that did armed individuals great injustice was a pat
pronouncement on shot placement. This individual told us that
load selection is more important than shot placement! The point
was that we cannot control shot placement but we can control
load selection, and a good hot load might serve even if not well
delivered. Anyone who has shot game knows better than that.
This is even more true in self defense. Accuracy can make
up for power. The reverse is seldom true. The bullet must be
delivered to the right place, and that is the blood bearing organs. Only
loss of blood and actual damage can be counted upon. A bullet
that makes a peripheral hit simply cannot be
counted on, whatever the caliber.
A look at the methodology of stopping power
Most stopping power histories we care to study
are based upon flawed precepts. As an example, multiple strike
histories are discarded. In other words, to be included in the
data base, the incident must be one in which only one shot
impacted the person shot.
A success is counted when the person shot stops his violent action or
runs no more than ten feet after being shot. That is fine as far
as it goes, but quite a number of shooting incidents involve
more than one hit...especially in the minor calibers. One shot
failures will be rare. If one shot fails, why would we not fire another? Trained
shooters often make double taps on the target. The type of methodology used in many studies can accomplish only
one thing, and that is to make smaller calibers look better.
By excluding multiple hit failures then we have
eliminated a great number of incidents. On the other hand, large
caliber handguns will more often solve the fight with a single
round and the numbers excluded will be less.
As for medical reports, I have met experienced peace
officers and coroners who could not agree upon the number of
hits and exits on a felonís body. In another case, a medical
examiner taught a class I attended in which he spoke in glowing
terms concerning a bullet that he felt performed in the ideal
range. He showed us
photos of the wound track from a shooting, and allowed us to
examine a picture perfect recovered bullet.
Some years after the class, I met the officer who fired
that bullet. He stated that the subject took the shot, stopped
his attack, but remained mobile and asked for an ambulance. He felt that had the man had the
determination, he could of
continued his assault. Opinions
from the field and the lab can conflict.
The multiple shot question is pretty simple. When human beings fight for
their life, they become excited. Often, they strike the object of
their passion as hard and as many times as possible. This may
mean five or six .38s, seven .45s or thirteen 9mms.If the
felon goes down in the volley, the shooting is a success. If he
is still standing, we have a failure to stop.
When we study what happens during gunfights, we should study the
tactical information first and bullet
performance second. We can study comparative bullet performance
in the laboratory. No, gelatin is not flesh and bone, but it is
useful in comparing one bullet to the other as a general outline
of performance. The exact placement of the shot will matter the most. The
threatening person who is shot may be under the
influence of certain drugs that are based upon painkillers. When
we compare the power available in handgun bullets to that of
long guns such as the 12 gauge shotgun or the .223 rifle, we find
that the Ďweak .38í and the Ďstrong .45í are more alike
than they differ!
Over time, the inescapable conclusion is that the
key to handgun stopping power is marksmanship.
But big bore handguns make a bigger hole and let out more
air. This makes for more rapid blood loss, the only mechanism
that can be counted on to do the business. Penetration must also
be considered. We are looking for a balance of penetration and
bullet expansion, and I tend to favor penetration. Sometimes,
penetration is spoken of as a bad thing. We do not wish to let
off a high power rifle round in an apartment complex, true, but
on the other hand the level of penetration needed in a defensive handgun is often misunderstood. A projectile that has
only five to seven inches of penetration in gelatin will not do
the business. If the adversary has his arms extended and is
firing at you, chances are good one of your bullets will meet
his arms and may be stopped by heavy bones. If the bullet has to
penetrate thick clothing such as a leather jacket, the chances
of the bullet reaching the vital organs are greatly reduced. A bullet with a minimum of ten to twelve inches of penetration in
flesh and bone is needed.
If light cover or vehicle glass is a
consideration, even more penetration is needed.
When choosing a defensive handgun caliber and
loading, take your own counsel and conduct tests that reveal
bullet performance. Donít take to hard a presentation that has
as much credibility as little green men from Mars. I donít
believe in little green men but I do believe in big bore
The 9mm isnít ok. Tell the fellow who took four
9mm soft point bullets and still managed to inflict a nasty
wound that remains with me to this day, and gives my face
The .38 isnít enough. I once shot a fellow in
the lower leg who debated with me whether he had been hit at all
until the blood ran from his shoe - then he commenced whimpering
I once took not the traditional icepick but thank
God a nutpicker in the leg. It didnít go in very far but
instantly floored me. The shock to my system completely locked up
my knee and thigh muscles. Yet, I did not even require stitches.
I once fired a single .45 caliber hardball round
on the move, quickly, and the effect on the target, struck in
the ribs, was immediate. All motion ceased - and he fully
recovered within a few weeks.
On another occasion I suffered a failure to stop
with a much vaunted .45 ACP 200
grain JHP very much in the vogue in the early 1980s, the darling
of gunwriters. It penetrated two inches and expanded to a full
one inch. Nice but ineffective. The second round produced
I observed the effect of the .357 Magnum 125
grain JHP once over the top of my own sights. The effect was
gruesome. A solid
hit that produced a severe blood flow AND dramatic effect from
the rear, including lung tissue thrown perhaps three feet.
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