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


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