NO, Ballistic Gel Isn’t The Same. It Isn’t Supposed to Be

*rant begins*

Since the dead horse won’t lay down I’m going to beat it again. Apparently I’m going to have to keep beating it until at least most of you get it. Let me break out the Ibuprofen and heating pads, because it seems like this is going to be an ongoing process.

115gr JHP fired into Clear Ballistics 10% ordinance gel through four layers of 16 oz. denim. This actual bullet penetrated 12-1/2″

Many, many years ago someone came up with Ordinance Gel in an attempt to simulate what happens when a bullet hits a person. Fair enough; it’s not legal to shoot humans just to see what happens and if it was you’d probably run out of volunteers pretty quickly.

There were problems with this. It was was finicky about temperature, annoying to make and handle, and as a representation of the human body it was frankly kind of useless. Muscle, bone, fat, organs with varying composition and toughness… all of these combined to make it terrible at predicting a bullet’s terminal performance in human or animal targets.

OK, time and technology has marched on. We now have products like Clear Ballistics ordinance gel. Not identical to the old pork-based stuff, but it’s close enough and it’s much, much more consistent. It’s also hugely less temperature sensitive, easy to handle, reusable and, let’s face it, less icky. But from the old-school perspective it still doesn’t have bones etc., so it is a lousy simulation of a human being. So why do we keep using it? Because we’ve changed our perspective, and it’s no longer supposed to simulate a human being. Let me explain.

A few decades back people got really, really interested in how handgun bullets performed in human bodies. Having noted that hollow-point bullets can clog with fabric they determined that four layers of 16 oz. denim was a reasonable approximation of ‘average’ clothing to see if a hollow-point would expand or clog up and not expand, so they placed this over the gel. While they were aware that ballistic gel sucked as a representation of a human body they noticed something: actual bullets that worked well on actual human bodies in actual shootings performed similarly to each other in these ballistic gel tests.

This allowed them to establish a performance baseline for bullets. If bullets that work in real life perform similarly in the comparative media it is logical to assume that bullets that perform similarly to these bullets in the comparative media will perform comparably in real life.

Let me make this crystal clear for those that might have missed it- . These tests were absolutely not simulations. They were using it as a comparative test media. As such is is completely irrelevant that ballistic gel doesn’t simulate a human body, doesn’t have bones or variable densities etc. It’s not supposed to, it’s supposed to be a consistent test media to compare bullets to a baseline met by bullets noted to be effective in real life.

That baseline, established by the FBI over decades of study, is that bullets fired through four layers of 16 oz. denim into 10% Ordinance Gel will penetrate 12-19″ and if they expand in the test they will probably do so in real life. Bullets that meet this standard in the test are likely to perform similarly to bullets that have worked well in real life. Without going down the rabbit hole of handgun stopping power (for once) the use of FBI standard tests can establish that, if all other things are equal, a load has what it takes to get the job done. This isn’t a guarantee that it will, just that it can.

*Eyes the dead horse, gets a good grip on the club and prepares to resume.*

Modern ballistics gel tests are not simulations. The simply show you if a) the round meets the baseline for performance established as desirable by the FBI and b) whether the bullet is likely to expand in human tissue.

Why the FBI Standard?

Unlike television law-enforcement shootings involve suspects that are doing things, not just standing and squarely facing the shooter. They may be taking cover, trying to dodge bullets, trying to flank the officer etc. A bullet might have to pass through more or less tissue, bone etc. depending on the angle it enters from. It might have to pass through an arm-bone before striking the ribs, and it still needs to have the oomf to reach the heart, spine and/or other important bits despite this. Bullets that meet the FBI standard can reliably do this, and it doesn’t matter that the !@#$%&*! ballistic gel doesn’t have !@#$%&*! bones.


SHUT UP ABOUT THE FACT THAT BALLISTICS GEL DOESN’T HAVE BONES AND DOESN’T SIMULATE A HUMAN BODY. We know that. We know it isn’t supposed to. We know what it actually is supposed to do and why those standards exist. Those of us who aren’t utter, complete muppets also get that these tests measure bullet performance, not stopping power. So please, please PLEASE just stop it.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

*rant ends*

Stay safe and take care,

Michael Tinker Pearce, 10 January 2022

3 thoughts on “NO, Ballistic Gel Isn’t The Same. It Isn’t Supposed to Be

  1. Carl

    But – but – but . . . dead horses have different sized bones, and some are tougher than others, and dead-horse beating sticks come in many different shapes and sizes!


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