How Relevant is Handgun ‘Stopping Power?’

.32 ACP- Plenty of killing power, but stopping? Well, that depends…

Let’s talk about justified self-defense shootings, whether civilian or law-enforcement. How relevant is handgun stopping power? Well, there’s the rub… it’s either almost irrelevant or of absolutely critical importance.

It’s axiomatic that the first rule of armed self-defense is ‘Be Armed.’ Another commonly heard truism is ‘any gun is better than no gun.’ We’ve all heard these and sayings like them; ‘The .32 in your pocket is better than the .45 in your nightstand..’ A million variations on a theme, and I think we can all agree that having a gun, any gun, is a step in the right direction. The question of ‘is it enough gun?’ is pretty important though, and the answer is almost always ‘Maybe.’

I’ll tell you straight up, the odds go way up if you can carry a service-caliber handgun with modern defensive ammo. The recommendation that you should carry the largest, most powerful handgun you can manage is not bad advice. However most of us have real lives, and the conditions and circumstances of those lives vary, so ‘manage’ is a broad term that involves a lot of variables.

So after reading endless studies, watching endless videos of actual shootings and talking to everyone and their sister Sally until our ears bleed, how much gun is enough? Spoilers, you’re not going to like the answer.

The Much Ballyhooed Philippines

Another anecdote that most gun people know is that the US Army .38 revolver was found to be ineffective during our early 20thC. fracas down in the Philippines. The .38 Long Colt cartridge at that time fired a 148 gr. round-nose lead bullet at about 750 fps. for a muzzle energy of 185 ft/lbs. Not a magnum by any means. In the hands of US soldiers these proved singularly ill-suited to stopping native warriors charging them with big knives. Sure, they died, but they didn’t die fast enough to keep them from hacking up a soldier or two before they did. As a result the Army dragged out a bunch of their old .45 revolvers, but these arrived too late to be able to say whether they were more effective.

Given that .30-40 Krag rifles, firing a 200gr bullet with nearly 2000 ft.lbs of energy were not noticeably more effective than the .38s I rather doubt it. So why was it so hard to stop these fellows? I mean, we are talking small guys here; wiry and tough, sure, but not at all large. So what gives?

Not them. As in they gave not a single sh*t. They were going to die. They knew they were going to die, and cared not one bit as long as they could take an enemy or two with them. That’s commitment.

The Committed Attacker

This is where all our theories about handgun stopping power fail. You get a person determined to take you with them at any cost and they are damned hard to stop if you don’t hit the central nervous system, no matter what you shoot them with. You can take out their aorta and they’ll still reach you before the massive drop in blood pressure takes them down.

We’ve all seen videos where a cop pumps a dozen or more bullets into an attacker before they drop. Usually these are 9mms (because that’s most common in LEO circles) but it’s not the cartridge’s fault; recently one of these guys soaked up twenty-two hits from a .45 before going down.

If a suspect with a hand-weapon charges an armed police officer they are almost certainly a Committed Attacker. The most successful way of dealing with these folks is to shoot them a lot while retreating, interposing barriers etc. Every second you can buy yourself increases your odds dramatically. They will fall over eventually; you just need to make sure you’re still in one piece when they do.

It’s now controversial, but the common wisdom in days of yore was to put multiple, repeated hits into the pelvis to take out a joint or break the pelvic girdle. The theory was simple- if you break the stuff they use to move they can’t charge you, or as I put it, “If you cut the strings the puppet can’t dance.”

Naysayers will point out that there isn’t much immediately vital stuff in the pelvic region, but you aren’t trying to kill them, you are trying to stop them. In this case to stop them from running up to you and stabbing, slicing or beating you to death. I do not know if this is really a good idea, but I know a lot of respected old-timers that swore by this advice. Take that under advisement, but you’ll need to make your own decision.

The main point is that in the face of a committed attacker handguns effectively don’t have stopping power. If you don’t hit the brain or spine they will not stop quickly. If you don’t do your part by getting repeated hits, evading and interposing obstacles they are not going to stop fast enough to save you. You can still stack the deck, and you should. More powerful calibers, modern defensive ammunition, lots and lots of bullets… these things will increase your odds. Combined with good tactics it’s likely to be enough.

Civilian Self Defense

Civilians can and do encounter Committed Attackers, but they are very much the exception, not the rule. Typically a criminal that instigates an attack against an average citizen does so because they want something. That something is almost certainly not a fight or to be shot. While they might be willing to kill you it is not so important that they want to throw their life away to accomplish it.

My evidence is in large part anecdotal, strictly speaking, but it seems that in most civilian defensive shootings the attacker’s priority immediately shifts to flight once the shooting starts. Possibly in an overwhelming majority of cases. Maybe the second most common response is to simply give up, either surrendering or simply becoming inactive and no longer a threat. They seldom press the fight because they are not committed to killing you at any cost.

This is where the ‘any gun is better’ thing comes in. The attacker doesn’t want to die. It might have never occurred to them that they could. When a bullet drives home the point that they might the desire to live generally overwhelms other motivations. Generally speaking civilians can get away with employing a less effective gun (less power, fewer shots) than a police officer because of the difference in commitment of the average criminal preying on Joe Public. There are other factors that play into this as well, mainly having to do with the differences between the average citizen and a police officer on the job, but that’s not a rabbit-hole we need to go down right now.

Yeah… But is it a Good Idea?

That’s up to the individual to decide for themselves. People’s lives, circumstances and environments vary, as do the levels of threat they face and their capabilities. Yes, civilians these days often face multiple attackers, but in practice that usually just means more people running away. Until it doesn’t.

For myself knowing my capabilities, circumstances and environment I am comfortable with a six-shot service-caliber revolver or single-stack auto. But the thing is I am likely more skilled and experienced than the average man on the street. Consider your own skill, circumstances etc., make your own evaluation, and for your sake be realistic.

It’s also worth noting that as an armed civilian simply paying attention is your first, best line of defense. Situational awareness has probably saved more people than guns have. The best way to survive a gun-fight remains being somewhere else when it goes down, and situational awareness can help make that happen..

The Best Advice…

…is still the same old advice. Carry the most capable handgun you can, preferably in a service caliber. Use modern defensive ammunition. Carry more reloads than you think you need. Yes, life may force you to adjust based on specific needs and situations, and that’s fine. But when it does be aware of the changes and the limitations they impose.

You are unlikely to ever need to employ a firearm to defend yourself. If you do it seems unlikely that you’ll need to fire it. Nevertheless it is prudent to plan as if you will and equip yourself accordingly, to the best of your ability and circumstances. After all, you’re unlikely to regret being too well prepared.

Stay safe and take care, and all the best to you and yours this holiday season.

Michael Tinker Pearce, 23 December 2021

1 thought on “How Relevant is Handgun ‘Stopping Power?’

  1. Brett

    Well thought out article. I agree with you 100%. I read Cooper and Keith when I was young. Large caliber was the way to go. When I’m out in the wild I will commonly have a large caliber revolver in a chest rig. But that won’t work day to day. What works for bear won’t work in the city. After 50 years of testing, learning, and thinking I have finally came up with the following.

    I don’t care what caliber but the gun has to be 100% reliable. In .380 or smaller go with ball. Anything larger go with modern HP’s made by any of the 4 big ammo companies. Practice a lot. Always be in condition yellow as Mr Cooper used to say. Be ready to retreat if you can pushing yourself loved ones along. If you can’t retreat you have to defend them. Good luck


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