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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1 thought on “Handgun Stopping Power- What Really Matters?

  1. Bill

    Really well-written and thought out. So good, that I have to exercise the old English Teacher muscles and point out, in the interest of improving it slightly, the following:
    1. “criteria” is plural; the singular is “criterion”; and
    2. “media” is also plural; the singular is “medium”.
    Keep up the good work (and the good grammar) 😉


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