Monthly Archives: January 2020

Handgun Stopping Power- What Really Matters?

An expanded Hollow-point bullet next to an unfired bullet of the same type. Effective? maybe, maybe not.

It never ends, does it? I suppose if the dead horse insists on popping up all we can do is continue to beat it.

A lot of very good information and very bad misunderstanding are available on the topic of stopping power. This is a subject that has been of great interest to me for over thirty-five years, but I am not an expert or ‘guru’ by any means.  I’ve some real-world experience, I’ve read a lot accounts of real-world shootings, talked to medical examiners and emergency room personnel and watched hundreds, if not thousands, of videos of actual shooting events.  The conclusions I have come to are not the results of a scientific study, but include the results of scientific study. Nevertheless all they are is an opinion. Arguably an informed opinion, but an opinion all the same.

In this article I am applying this knowledge specifically to stopping a human attacker; game animals or dangerous critters are a different problem. You still need enough penetration to break things that matter and good enough accuracy to hit those things, but this may be best done with a different bullet than you might use for self-defense against a human.

A lot of discussions involve the results of ballistic gel tests, so let’s start there. These represent the Gold Standard for bullet testing, but it is misunderstood and sometimes knowingly misused for marketing purposes. Let’s start by discussing it’s appropriate role in testing bullets.

Very pretty bullets recovered from gel. In real life? Maybe not so pretty or uniform.

Ballistic Gel was originally formulated to simulate pork tissue, and attempting to predict real-world bullet performance was using it was a dismal failure. This was partly because it does not include variable densities, variables of elasticity, density or bone. It was also because of the mistaken (and somewhat ludicrous) notion that bullet performance was the most important criteria for stopping a human attacker. But since the eighties ballistic gel has been used differently by informed researchers.

At some point someone asked the right question, which was, “Do bullets that work well in real life perform similarly to each other in ballistic gel?” In fact they do, and looking at it from this perspective they were eventually able to establish a standard of performance in ballistic gel that more or less corresponded to results in the real world. The presence or absence of bone etc. is irrelevant in this application, because the gel is a comparative media, not a representation of an actual human body.

The standard that was established was that a bullet needs to penetrate at least twelve inches of gel after passing through an anticipated barrier. For civilian self-defense the best analogue was determined to be four layers of stout denim, because the anticipated barrier is clothing. Some hollow-point ammunition is more easily clogged by clothing than others, which can dramatically affect not merely expansion, but penetration as well. Maximum desirable penetration was established at eighteen inches, because bullets that over-penetrate in real life tend to penetrate more than that in gel. Experience has shown that a bullet that meets these performance standards is likely to work well in real life.

Ballistic Gel is often used for marketing bullets, because not only is it the Gold Standard, it is also an excellent media for producing beautiful, predictable and uniform expanded bullets. These look great in advertising copy, but seldom reflect real-world results. Real life is messy, and so are expanded bullets recovered from human tissue. Yes, a pistol bullet that expands well in ballistic gel is more likely to create a good result in real life, but it ain’t necessarily gonna be a perfect, pretty metal flower when they remove it.

So, now we know about ballistic gel, how and why it is used and what it probably means in real life. Next we’ll discuss why this is of limited importance in actual civilian self-defense shootings.

Putting the bullets where you need them in a hurry will work better than just having the latest, greatest bullet… but make no mistake; putting the latest, greatest bullets where you need them in a hurry will work even better.

Handguns, of any kind, caliber or bullet configuration, suck at rapidly incapacitating an aggressive human being. The only way to reliably incapacitate an attacker instantly is to hit the central nervous system or upper spine. That’s it. You can shred someone’s heart, liver etc, and they might not die fast enough to save your ass. There is no magic gun, caliber or bullet that can change this. Under stress against a moving target it’s fantastically hard to reliably hit the skull or spine.

While handguns aren’t very good at incapacitating a determined assailant, they are moderately good at stopping an aggressive human being, if by ‘stopping’ you mean getting them to quit doing whatever it was that made it necessary to shoot them. They might drop in their tracks, drop after running a hundred yards or walk into an emergency room three hours later, but the important thing is that they stopped doing what they were doing, I.E. trying to harm or kill you or another innocent.

In civilian self-defense that is the goal- make them stop. They can fall over dead, run away or surrender; it really doesn’t matter which. If they do any of these things you have achieved the goal. The best way to accomplish this is to damage them rapidly and effectively, and the best of the best is to rapidly incapacitate them… which handguns aren’t that good at. You need to stack the odds.

The best, most consistently effective way to stack the odds is to break something they can’t live without. Experience has shown that the best way to do this is to put multiple rounds in the middle of their body. This is the easiest point target because it moves slower than the extremities. Also, the heart, liver, aorta and spine live there, and the more rounds you can put there the more likely you are to break something that matters. It follows logically that you want a gun that allows you to fire rapidly and accurately so you can do this, firing bullets with enough penetration to reach those things. This should outweigh caliber or bullet configuration. Fortunately in this day there are a lot of effective bullets in practically every handgun caliber, so there probably isn’t a need to choose between a gun that works for you and a good, modern defensive bullet.

Bullet design is only one ‘force multiplier’ that you can avail yourself of. If you have the physical capacity and finances there is all manner of training available, and some would argue that a good ‘force on force’ class will improve your odds more than picking the right miracle bullet. Training to draw and acquire a sight picture rapidly can be done at zero expense in the comfort of your home, and from nearly any position. It doesn’t cost more to practice strong and/or weak hand shooting than it does with your high-speed thumbs-forward isosceles stance.

Just as being truly Tactical is about planning, not cool gear, stopping power is more about ability than caliber or bullet design. This does not mean you shouldn’t research which bullets are effective and make sure to use them if it is practical and legal to do so; you absolutely should. It’s dumb not to stack the deck any way you reasonably can. Just remember that a good, effective modern bullet is the icing, not the cake.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 27 January, 2020

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Concealed Carry Pistols- Some Things to Consider

There are differing schools of thought as to what constitutes and ‘adequate’ or even ‘ultimate’ concealed carry pistol. People are different; they have different ages, sizes, physical abilities or limitations. The places they live are different, as are the type and level of threats they face. People’s situations vary, with differing levels of income, job requirements, whether they have children in the household or not, relations with family members etc. Then there are local laws and ordinances… It makes it hard to advise someone as to what the best choice for them is.

The Sig P238 Legion .380. High-quality, reliable, reasonably effective caliber, excellent accuracy. Good choice for a CCP? For some, certainly. For others? Not so much. Probably not the best choice in bear country…

For the purposes of this article we’re going to assume that the reader lives in a place where there is a legal mechanism for concealed carry, and that the weapon will be carried legally.

People are all created equal, but their needs and situations aren’t. Likewise not all guns are created equal, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to be ideal for another. In practice there are few universal rules about concealed carry pistols (CCPs) but there are some:

*It has to be with you and accessible

It’s axiomatic, even a cliche, that the gun you have with you is better than the gun you don’t. A gun that you left at home is useless for self defense. Depending on your individual circumstances this can have a significant effect on your choice for a CCP; size, weight, even shape can constrain your choices. A gun that is uncomfortable to carry is very much more likely to be at home when you need it.

*It has to go bang when you pull the trigger

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? A reliable gun is essential, and this can affect your choice not only in terms of quality, but in the configuration and safety features of your CCP choice. Also- the less you are willing or able to train the simpler the gun’s operation needs to be.

*You must be able to reliably hit the target with it.

As addressed in a previous blog, being able to hit a stationary target doesn’t mean you’ll be able to hit a target under self-defense conditions… but not being able to makes it a certainty that you won’t. If you cannot put in enough practice reliably shoot a good group at 5-7 yards the chances of failure, or worse, damage to innocents, are simply too great to risk carrying a gun in public.

Detonics Mk.1 Combat Master .45, one of my absolute favorite CCPs… and it’s not a gun I would recommend to most people.

OK, that’s the basics. Every CCP is a compromise, but none of these things matter if your choice doesn’t meet these three standards. I’m going to limit the scope of this article to, as the title says, things you need to consider, but I think those three rules are absolutes.

There’s a lot more to think about, of course, and we’ll address some of those concerns now.

*Affordability

It’s easy to say, “What’s your life worth?” when encouraging people to spend a disproportionate amount of their income on a gun or training, but this disregards the needs and considerations of real life. What is it worth to not disappoint your children, and to build memories that will last a lifetime? What is it worth not to watch your child go hungry? What is it worth to be safe, warm and well fed? For most of us affordability is an issue, and it needs to be considered.

The HiPoint C9 9mm. Heavy, bulky, ugly, cheap… but they work, and for $70-$100 used for some people it might be the only choice.

Yes, you should buy the best-quality gun that you can reasonably afford, and it’s pretty easy to watch reviews on YouTube to see what works, and what might work for you. You absolutely should, if it’s possible, go to a local range that rents guns and fire a variety to see what works in a hands-on situation. A gun can be fantastic, but not good for you.

A gun is a capitol purchase; once you have it you don’t need to spend the money again. But you need to bear in mind that you will need to practice, and that the affordability of the ammunition to do so may also be a consideration. A 9mm is relatively cheap to shoot. A .22 LR is really cheap to shoot, but unarguably less effective and arguably less reliable. You might find comfort in the large bore and heavy bullets of a .44 Special… but at $35-$60 a box can you afford a reasonable amount of practice?

A Gun For All Seasons

This is another area where affordability enters the equation; can you afford more than one gun? People dress differently in different seasons and different social settings. If you can afford only one gun that needs to cover everything from heavy winter clothing to shorts and a t-shirt at the beach, it’s going to limit your options to the lowest common denominator. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the market is flooded with different types, styles and sizes of guns. With modern defensive ammunition the gun that works at the beach can still work in the dead of winter, even if it’s not ideal. A good quality sub-compact .380 will get the job done, even if there might be better choices for the particular circumstances.

You know your finances and situation. It might be better to to spend less on each individual gun so you can afford multiple guns for different seasons or settings. You need to balance whether you will be better served by a single, expensive gun that does everything well enough, or two (or more) somewhat lesser guns that do specific things very well.

Operation

In this day and age we are fortunate that there is no dearth of guns that work very well indeed. But how they operate varies wildly. Running any of them isn’t rocket science, but how much effort you are willing to put into training matters.

Revolvers are about as simple as it gets. Fill the holes with cartridges, aim and pull the trigger. Take the empty cartridges out. Repeat. But… while revolvers practically never jam, if it does you have a blunt object until you get it home or to a gunsmith. Another consideration is how easy it is to fire; some people find it difficult to reliably get good hits with a double-action revolver without extensive practice. Revolvers generally hold fewer shots, and are slower and more difficult to reload. Learning to reload efficiently, even with speed loaders, will require more dedication than shoving a magazine into the handle of a semi-auto.

Semi-automatic pistols are pretty damn good these days, and are pretty easy to operate at the basic level. They reload faster and easier than revolvers, and generally hold more shots… but they do jam. Not often, but often enough that you’d be a fool to carry one without extensively practicing clearing jams. Malfunctions, rather than capacity, are why it is essential to keep an extra mag handy, because the fastest way to clear a jam is to drop the magazine, clear the chamber and reload. Another advantage of the auto is that jams can usually be cleared on the spot, fast enough to keep you in the fight.

In terms of carry, autos are flatter and in some ways better suited to discreet carry. On the other hand a revolver’s more rounded shapes can be more comfortable to wear, and less obviously a gun than the angular shape of most autos. It’s a balance, and one that is strongly individual.

The used market can hold many bargains… and not a few disasters. Know what you want and what you are looking at! This 1970’s-vintage Taurus Falcon .38 was a good one… and a bargain at $150.

Lastly we’re back to affordability. Both revolvers and autos have their good and bad points, but if we’re talking about buying new there’s a real difference in the entry price, especially if we limit ourselves to options that are generally considered viable for self-defense. A good, reliable entry-level semi-automatic pistol can be had for $200 if you shop around. A good, reliable entry level snub-nose revolver (which will be more difficult to shoot well for most people) starts at about $300 if you hit a good sale. Across the board, these days new revolvers cost more than semi-autos of comparable quality… just another of many compromises you need to consider. You can, of course, buy used, but you’d best be well informed and know what you are looking at if you do.

Capacity

The average defensive use of a handgun by a civilian generally requires 1-3 shots. Cases where a civilian in a self-defense shooting needed, and had the opportunity, to reload are vanishingly rare. Most agree that the minimum capacity of a defensive pistol should be five shots, and having more isn’t likely to be worse. A reload is a good idea if you are carrying a revolver, and essential if you are carrying an automatic (as stated above.) Given that multiple center-mass has has historically been the best way to stop an attacker, you might want to consider the likelihood of multiple attackers when selecting your CCP.

Caliber

I’m listing this last because it is literally the least important consideration. Stopping a fanatically determined attacker with a handgun, any handgun of any caliber or bullet type, is a pretty dubious proposition. The main advantage of pistols is that you are likely to have it when you need it, and it’s better than throwing rocks. Yes, good quality, modern defensive ammo increases your odds and should be employed whenever possible. But the simple fact is this: if someone wants you bad enough and all you have to defend yourself is a handgun, if you don’t hit the central nervous system (brain or spine) there’s a good chance they can get you, regardless of the caliber of your weapon or the type of bullets used. They might not live to bask in the glory of their victory, but that’s not going to help you. Fortunately most people that instigate criminal attacks are not fanatically dedicated to taking you with them.

Is a .22 better than nothing? Yes… but it’s far more likely to fail to stop an attacker than larger calibers, regardless of the number of hits.

People have been dropped in their tracks by a single hit from a .25 ACP. Others have failed to stop after taking multiple torso hits from hollow-point .44 magnums. These are outliers of course; people don’t like being shot, and experience suggests that in most cases it is likely that getting shot three times with anything will make an attacker reconsider their life choices. But there are always exceptions. Taking out the spine or brain is the only sure thing.

Head-shots being difficult to reliably achieve in self-defense scenarios, the best, most reliable method of stopping a determined attacker has proven to be hitting them multiple times in their center of mass. Not only the spine, but all sorts of other stuff people can’t live without are clustered there. Things that bleed a lot, and running out of blood does stop people. Not super quickly, but it works.

I’m not saying caliber is irrelevant; statistically a .22, .25 or .32* is significantly more likely to fail to stop an attacker regardless of the number of times you hit them. It’s possible that they just don’t reliably have the penetration and damage potential to rapidly incapacitate a truly determined attacker. While an argument can be made that these smaller calibers allow you to put more hits on target quickly, If you can reliably put hits on target reasonably quickly with a larger caliber in a gun you will routinely carry you’d be well advised to do so.

*This statement is limited to .32 ACP and .32 S&W long; the .32 Magnums, with modern ammunition, are likely to be considerably more effective, but there is insufficient data to say for certain.

Not for nothing, but decades of law enforcement experience has shown that, with modern defensive ammunition and for the average person, 9mm Parabellum provides the best compromise of effectiveness, capacity and ease of shooting accurately. Recoil can be prohibitive in the smallest CCPs in this caliber for some people, but it’s a pretty good place to start. Even in bear country 9mm has proven effective with the correct bullet choice and good shot placement. .38 Special occupies a similar niche on the revolver side of things (though maybe not for bears!)

In the End…

..there are always other things to consider. CCPs should always be carried in a secure holster that covers the trigger- even when pocket-carried. The Kydex vs. leather debate rages on, but since I make all of my own holsters I’m ill equipped to weigh in on that.

You may need to shift your manner of dress to accommodate a CCP. You may even need to decide where you will or will not do business based on whether they allow concealed carry. It would be prudent to obtain a safe to secure your weapon in a vehicle for those instances you can’t avoid going to into places that don’t allow it.

The choice to carry a weapon for self defense is an individual one, and the choice of what to carry is equally so. Put some thought and research into it before you spend money on something that might not suit your needs in real life.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 25 January, 2020

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How Obsolete Are They? More Results

Continuing the series of ballistics tests on old cartridges, this time testing .32 S&W Long, .38 Short Colt and more tests with .38 S&W. Some data from the previous post will be duplicated for comparison.

I’d like to note- the longest barrel used in these tests is 4″, and several are significantly shorter. Ammunition companies tend to fire their tests through special barrels, which are far longer than the sorts of guns these cartridges were generally used in. I’ve deliberately selected the kind of guns people actually carried to give a better picture of the ‘real world’ performance of these cartridges.

Of course before we get to it we need the standard disclaimer- use of the reloading data presented in this article is attempted at the user’s own risk; the author assumes no responsibility for the use or misuse of this data.

Today‘s test guns- S&W, Colt and , uh… Belgian.

.32 S&W Long/ .32 Colt New Police

The first newcomer to the test is .32 S&W Long. Introduced in 1896 for the new S&W Hand Ejector revolver, cartridges were originally loaded with black powder with a round-nose lead bullet. By the time the Model 1903 was produced the transition to smokeless powder was made. Colt adopted the cartridge, but used a flat-nose bullet and called it ‘Colt New Police.’

While it has fallen out of favor in the US, .32 S&W Long remains popular internationally, particularly for target shooting. Not surprising, as the cartridge has always had a reputation for exceptional accuracy.

Modern commercial loads are low-velocity and low-powered. While light hollow-point bullets are offered they do not expand at these low speeds.

S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector (top) and a Colt Detective Special (bottom)

The test guns for this cartridge are a S&W Model 1903 Hand Ejector with a 4″ barrel, and a Colt Detective Special with a 2″ barrel.

98gr. LRN, Remington commercial ammunition

S&W- 4″ barrel- 694 fps. 105 ft/lbs SD: 18

Colt- 2″ barrel- 643 fps. 90 ft./lbs SD: 32

Definitely what I call a ‘lawsuit load,’ well under SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Pretty much designed to punch holes in paper and not break really bad guns.

96 gr. LRNFP, 4.3gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W- 4″ barrel- 1089 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 31

Colt 2″ barrel- 984 fps. 206 ft/lbs SD: 53

This load was taken from Sharpe’s 1937 ‘The Complete Book of Reloading,’ and does not exceed SAAMI pressure limits for this cartridge. Quite a difference from factory loads! Still, I would restrict the use of this load to good quality firearms in good condition… and fire them sparingly.

96gr. LRNFP, 4.0gr. Power Pistol, CCI500 Primer

S&W- 4″ barrel- 1148 fps. 281 ft/lbs SD: 41

Colt 2″ barrel- 1090 fps. 253 ft/lbs SD: 45

While I don’t have access to scientific pressure-measuring equipment, I think this is almost certainly a +P load, and would only use it sparingly in the strongest revolvers.

As you can see from the results above, particularly the Unique load from Sharpe’s book, there is a lot of un-tapped potential in this cartridge. At these velocities I think it very likely that a well-designed hollow-point would both expand and penetrate adequately, even from a 2″ barrel. When we get to the gel tests we shall see…

.38 Short Colt/ .380 Revolver

This cartridge was introduced at the dawn of the 1870s for .36 caliber Cap-and-ball revolvers that had been converted to fire metallic cartridges. It used a heel-base .375 bullet in a cartridge very similar to .38 S&W. It found some popularity in Europe for use in compact ‘bulldog’-style revolvers, and in that role remained in use into the early 20th Century. I understand that this ammunition is still in production from various makers, but no longer uses a heel-base bullet. Instead they use a hollow-base .358 bullet in the hopes that it will expand enough to engage the rifling. By all accounts this is not entirely effective.

At 11.3 oz., this tiny gun is quite a handful in .38 caliber. Recoiil tends to lick the muzzle up about .45 degrees, causing my finger to slip right off the trigger. I have to significantly shit my grip to recover between shots.

My test gun for this cartridge is a tiny, anonymous Belgian Bulldog with a folding trigger, most likely made in the 1880s or 1890s. The barrel is 2-1/8″ long. Despite having a hammer-spur the gun seems to be double-action only, though whether this is be defect or design I couldn’t say. One of these days I’ll have it entirely apart and see what’s what.

125gr. dry-lubed heel-base LRN, 10gr. Triple-7 (black powder substitute,) CCI500 primer

544 fps. 82 ft/lbs SD: 19

Not at all an impressive cartridge, but rather fun to shoot. Not going to push this one; this load is quite sufficient for recreational shooting, Cowboy Action shooting etc.

.38 S&W

We’ve already gone over the history of the .38 S&W, so we’ll not repeat that here. I will note that although they share a cartridge-case, I consider this to be, for practical purposes, a different cartridge than the British .38-200. Revolvers using the British cartridge will fire ordinary .38 S&W, but that is a one-way street. Firing .38-200 ammo through an American top-break revolver is liable to quickly put it out of order if it doesn’t break it outright. Webley and Enfield service revolvers are a great deal more robust than even the best of the American-made offerings, and should be treated with separately when it comes to reloading for them.

A pair of S&Ws for this test- a 4th Model .38 Safety Hammerless on the left, and a .38 Double-Action (2nd Model) on the right.

I’ve also changed out one of the test guns this time; in the last round the Harrington & Richardson turned out to be a ‘slow’ gun, consistently turning in lower velocities than the S&W, despite have a barrel twice as long. I’ve replaced the H&R with a S&W .38 Double Action (2nd model) made around 1884. This has produced the expected result, as you will see below.

We’ll start with re-listing the Winchester factory ammo for comparison.

Winchester 145gr. (modern) factory ammunition

S&W- 1-5/8″ barrel- 535 fps. 92 ft./lbs SD: 39

H&R- 3-1/4″ barrel- 478 fps. 74 ft./lbs SD: 42

Deeply unimpressive, and one of the reasons for this became plain when I pulled several of the bullets to try a different load under them. They are not .361″. They are not .357″. They average .352″! This was consistent across all fifteen bullets that I pulled, and may go a ways towards explaining the results of this first load-

Winchester 145gr RNL, 2.8gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 540 fps. 94 ft/lbs SD: 28

This performance is similar to the results for firing the factory ammo through the 1-5/8″ gun last time, and the bullets keyholed at 7 yards. I didn’t even bother to test them out of the shorter gun. Next…!

160gr. .361 LSWC, 2.7gr. Unique, CCI500 primer

S&W 3-1/4″ barrel- 754 fps. 202 ft./lbs SD: 24

S&W 1-5/8″ Barrel- 722 fps. 185 ft/lbs SD: 31

This load, while still considered safe for top-break revolvers, doubles the power of the factory load, and is my new defensive load for this caliber. I will restrict this to my S&Ws, though. They are of high enough quality to handle this load, but even they won’t be getting it as a steady diet; there’s simply no need to risk beating up an antique gun when practice and recreational shooting can be accomplished with milder loads.

That is very much a thing to bear in mind; a couple of these loads are pushing the boundaries, notably the two .32 S&W long handloads. It’s nice to know what the cartridge and gun can do, but unless you are employing the weapon for self-defense there is absolutely no reason to load to that level of power. If you are shooting for pleasure or even hunting small game, a factory-level load will do just fine… and be a heck of a lot less hard on your gun.

Next time we’ll be heading further down the black powder path, attempting to replicate the original loads for .32 S&W and .38 S&W. Gel tests will happen further down the road; setting up to do them is a not inconsequential expense, for me at least.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 19 January 2020