Monthly Archives: March 2017

Handgun Stopping Power and Other Myths, Part 2


Brace yourself, here it comes. Ready?

Handguns are not good at stopping a determined attacker, regardless of the caliber, muzzle energy or bullet configuration.

Take a deep breath, pause and count to ten. Got it together? Let’s continue.

Consider: 1986, Miami– The primary shooter in the Miami shoot-out took a lethal hit from an effective round which performed correctly. Medically speaking he should have dropped from a catastrophic loss of blood pressure in 25-30 seconds. Instead he shot six FBI agents and was killed by a shot through the skull as he tried to drive away two minutes later.

Summer 1993, Los Angeles– Off-duty LAPD police officer Stacy Lim was shot through the heart with a 125gr hollow-point from a .357 Magnum at close range. The bullet expanded properly and damaged several ribs as it exited her back. Her response was to shoot her attacker 5 times. She not only lived, but returned to unrestricted duty a year later.

Neither of these people were on drugs- OK, the Miami shooter had drunk a beer at some point before the shooting. These are only two of many cases where people took hits that would drop most people in their tracks but somehow continued to function. People are tough.

OK, most of the time it doesn’t go that way. Typically if you put a bullet in someone they run like hell. Sometimes they surrender. Sometimes they take a relatively minor hit and drop like a pole-axed steer. The question is if you are being attacked by someone wielding lethal force do you want to bet your life, or worse yet the lives of loved ones, that you won’t get one of the other kind? The kind that stand there soaking up bullets and keep shooting at you?

So what do you do? You can’t carry a 12-gauge stoked with slugs with you everywhere. Or a high-powered rifle. Within the limits of common sense and practicality you are likely to be restricted to a hand-gun. Over the decades police have found that the most effective method of stopping a determined attacker with a handgun is to shoot them multiple times in the center of mass.

There is a lot to recommend this approach. The heart, major vessels and spine are all at the center-of-mass and police typically use weapons that can penetrate deeply enough to hit those structures, so it makes sense that this would work pretty well. Multiple hits mean more chances to destroy these things. Properly done this worked well enough even when most police used .38 Specials firing round-nose lead bullets.

The simple fact is that the only way to be certain of stopping a determined attacker is to break something that they cannot function without. This means the central nervous system or cardiovascular system. The brain and upper spine control the body- take either of those out and you’ve ‘cut the wires’ that send the signals that control the body. This is the only guaranteed instant stop. The cardiovascular system sends fuel to the body that allows it to run. The bad news is that a major hit to the heart can take up to two minutes for them to run out of fuel. Taking out the Aorta can drop someone in s little as 25 seconds… but again might take as long as a couple of minutes.

OK, realistically someone shot through the heart will be most likely be more worried about that than about continuing to try and hurt you. But they might not be. If you are in a shooting you are already in a worst-case scenario. Can you afford to bet your attacker will stop or surrender before they are forced to by their body’s failure?

“But Tinker,” I hear you cry, “I use the latest high-tech defensive ammo on the planet! Surely that improves my odds!”

Yes, yes it does. Let’s take a look at how much it increases your odds. The first thing is that the bullet must penetrate deeply enough to hit the cardiovascular system or central nervous system. A pistol bullet won’t damage it if it doesn’t reach it. Conventional modern defensive ammunition is good at doing this, so we’ll take it as a given.

Medical Examiners and ballistics experts pretty much agree that ballistic gel is a fair approximation of human tissue. A bullet that performs well in real life typically performs similarly in gel. All other things being equal a modern defensive bullet will produce a similar permanent wound channel in either flesh or ballistic gel. So how big a permanent wound channel do modern, high-tech super-bullets produce? It varies from test to test, but top notch stuff produces a permanent wound cavity 1-1/4 to 2 inches in diameter.

What this means is that if your bullet performs ideally you have increased your margin of error by about 1 inch. At the most. At the most you can miss a vital structure by as much as one inch. Of course with multiple hits near together those inches overlap, which helps. Yep, the last one hundred years of bullet development have given you up to a one inch margin for error.

Don’t despair though; the odds that you will ever need to shoot someone are vanishingly slim; the odds that you will encounter a person absolutely committed and mentally prepared to take you out at all costs are much, much slimmer.

OK, you’re using a service caliber weapon with state-of-the-art ammo. What else can you do to increase that tiny margin for error that you have bought? Practice, of course. As much as you can stand. Practice dry-fire. Practice deployment and presentation. Practice with your strong and weak hand. Practice reloading and clearing jams. Shoot as much and as realistically as is practical. When the excrement hits the rotary impeller and the rational, civilized part of your brain is gibbering with fear and denial you will do as you have trained to do, and your odds will be better than average of things working out. If you have practiced.

Yep, we’re back to the bad news; more than your wonder-gun, more than your miracle ammo, whether or not you survive is all on you. Sorry about that.

Tinker Pearce, 24 March 2017

First Time Reloading- Holy Crap, It Worked!

I’m going to call my first reloads a success… much to my surprise! Seriously, the normal thing when I try something new is that it takes a few tries, some fiddling and fussing’ before it comes out right. This time it worked right the first time and gave pretty much exactly the results I had hoped for. I know, right? I’m as surprised as you are, believe me!

The reloading press I traded from another knife maker (thank you Jim!) came with .38/.357 dies. All to the good; I have those, and a few hundred empty cases. The powder choice was made for me when an old pal sent me a few cans of Unique that were surplus-to-need (thank you Tim!) The first rounds I wanted to reload were .38 S&W; I have a couple of these that I love shooting but factory ammo can be hard to come by and tends to be bloody expensive. One issue with these is that .38 S&W has a bore diameter of .360-.362; just enough bigger than .38 Special’s .357″ bore to cause issues like excessive leading, key-holing and poor accuracy. The only readily available, inexpensive bullets for .360 bores are 147gr. RNL. Fine as far as they go, but one hopes for better… especially when one’s wife carries a .38 S&W revolver.

After checking around I discovered that some people had good results from using .357 148gr. Hollow-base Wadcutters. The lead skirt easily bumps-up a few thousandths of an inch to engage the rifling in the larger bore. As a bonus I can also load these in my .38 Specials. So now I need loading data… Oh. None to be had for the 148Gr. HBWC with Unique powder. I did find a load for 147gr. RNL that was said to be safe for top-break revolvers so I used that, backing off a bit from the listed maximum load.

.38 Special/.357 dies are not really intended for reloading the shorter .38 S&W but it can be done fairly easily. The one downside is that you cannot roll-crimp the casing as you normally would for a revolver cartridge. As it turns out though if you set the seating die to the right length for .38 S&W you get a quite adequate taper-crimp, and at the low levels of recoil this round produces there is little danger the rounds will ‘walk out’ in the cylinder.

The rounds were loaded in new Starline brass with CCI small pistol primers. The bullets were Hornady 148gr. HBWCs over 2.5 gains of Unique. This is well below the best estimated safety threshold I could establish for use in a top-break revolver. The bullets were seated to give an overall length of .970″, so that the bullets protrude approximately 3/16″ from the loaded cartridge.

Recoil and muzzle-blast were comparable to factory ammunition, being mild and not overly loud or sharp. The first test was a single round fired from a 1-5/8″ barrel at an kiln-dried Douglas Fir 2×6 board. In the 19th century the Army reckoned that a round that would penetrate a soft 1″ pine board could produce a lethal or incapacitating wound. The 2×6 is 1-3/4″ thick and significantly harder and denser than pine, so I thought it would make an acceptable test.

The round completely penetrated the board and made a 1/2″ deep impression in the 2×6 a foot behind it before bouncing off. This result was very similar to the performance of factory RNL ammunition in a previous test with the exception that the factory bullet remained fully imbedded in the second board. The recovered bullet exhibited stria from the gun’s rifling, shallow at the front of the bullet and deep on the skirt of the bullet where it had expanded into the rifling.

Forty rounds were fired through the test guns. The primary and secondary test guns are both S&W .38 Safety Hammerless Fourth Models with 1-5/8″ barrels. The primary test gun shot to point-of-aim and the secondary test-gun shot low in the fashion that I had anticipated based on the very tall front sight. All shots struck squarely with no evidence of instability or key-holing. None of the fired cases showed any evidence of excessive pressure; no flattening of the headstamps or primers. Neither gun showed any sign of damage or excessive leading. Accuracy was within the limits I was capable of producing on the shooting day. I was able to produce decent but not exceptional groups at seven yards. I have no reason to attribute this to the ammunition rather than the shooter; I am recovering from a severe cold and am not at my best.

The group shown in the picture was fired in approximately 2 seconds at seven yards. Under the circumstances I’m pretty happy with the result.

I like this load, and I’ll be using it for both targets and as a defensive load.

What’s that? Yes, I did say I would be using hand-loaded ammunition for defensive loads. Yes, I am aware of the arguments against this, the primary one being that an overzealous prosecutor could claim that I loaded ‘special killer bullets,’ that normal defensive ammo that was OK for the police and military just wasn’t good enough for me.

Oh hogwash. If your lawyer can’t beat that argument check their pulse… then fire them. Especially in this case- these are lightly loaded target bullets specifically designed to punch clean holes in paper targets. Yes, they are likely to be more effective than factory loaded round-nose lead, but so what? They are certainly less effective than modern service-caliber factory defensive ammunition. Using target loads in an antique revolver is going to be pretty difficult to demonize.

As for reliability as long as I am mindful and exercise due care when reloading the rounds, which I should anyway, I cannot believe they will be less reliable than factory ammunition.

What about reloads? I usually carry five rounds in a speed-strip and thought the square-shouldered bullets would be problematic. Nope- not much harder than with RNL. Strange, but I’ll take it!

Anyway, success! I can readily envision vast fortunes vanishing into the rapacious maw of the reloading press… (insert evil laughter here.) I’m already thinking I want a second set of .38 Special/.357 dies so that I don’t have to mess with my settings for .38 S&W…

Tinker Pearce, 23 March 2017

The .38 Special Wadcutter as a Defensive Load

Doing a bit of research lately on .38 Wadcutters as defensive ammunition. For years these have been the ‘go-to’ low-recoil defensive load for snubbies- not perfect, but better than lead round-nose or semi-wadcutters. So much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ about guns has proven to be hogwash over the years that I thought I would look into this.

First I checked for ballistic Gel tests on Youtube. Pocketgunsandgear had such a test, and the results really didn’t indicate performance superior to conventional lead round-nose. However several Medical Examiners have stated over the years that they were impressed with the wounds left by these rounds. OK, I dug further.

It turns out that the Army had actually done ‘energy deposit’ testing back in the 1970s. They fired through a 20cm block of ballistics gel and chronographed the bullets just before entry and after exit from the block. They found that .38 Special 158 gr.RNL bullets deposited 25% of their energy in the block, and 148gr wadcutters deposited 63% of their energy in the block. There is a direct correlation between energy deposit and permanent wound cavity.

The RNL bullets started with about 200 ft-lbs. of energy and deposed 50 ft-lbs. in the block. Even though it started with only 158 ft.lbs the wadcutter deposited 99 ft-lbs. of energy- nearly twice as much as the more powerful RNL round. That pretty much settles the question on that score- wadcutters do more permanent damage than round-nose lead. The conventional wisdom holds true- as far as it goes.

This isn’t the 1970s though, and bullet design has come a long way. There are light-recoiling hollow point rounds that work very well from short-barreled guns these days and one might be well-advised to research them. Still, it’s kind of nice to know the old stand-by is always there if you need it… and they are a LOT less expensive than modern defensive ammo.

Tinker Pearce, 20 March 2017