The Myth of Handgun “Stopping Power”

By CTD Mike published on in Ammunition

This article originally appeared on March 8, 2012.

I enjoy a good sales pitch. Part of being an American is being oversold on everything. This vacuum picks up the dirt that other vacuums leave behind! This home gym will give you a flat stomach by exercising just 10 minutes a day, plus it folds under your bed for storage! This ammo has so much stopping power that the government tried to ban it from civilian purchase! Yeah, right. When it comes to ammunition selection for personal defense, we need to separate real from hype before making a purchase. If you make a bad purchase on a vacuum or a home gym, you are likely to be a bit embarrassed. Making a bad purchase on defensive ammunition could have dire consequences. Let’s talk about some fundamentals so you’ll be able to make an informed decision.

Xtreme Nuke Ninja Ammo!

Would you trust your life to Xtreme Nuke Ninja? Better do some basic research first.

Four terms need defining for us to understand how bullets work.

  • Penetration
    The amount of tissue—bone, fat, and muscle—that a bullet passes through.
  • Permanent Cavity
    The amount of empty space—the hole—left in the body behind the bullet.
  • Temporary Cavity
    The momentary expansion of the permanent cavity stretching as the bullet’s kinetic energy is transferred to it.
  • Fragmentation
    The separation of the bullet into smaller chunks, or pieces, which leave the permanent cavity and spin off in different directions.

Regardless of velocity, the bullet crushes the tissue in front of it as it penetrates or tunnels through that tissue. After the infamous “Miami Firefight” of 1986, the FBI set a minimum penetration requirement of 12 inches for their ammunition. This became the industry standard. All bullets penetrate and leave behind a measurable permanent cavity, even the .22 LR. All bullets also create a temporary cavity, although actually measuring it is nearly impossible. Fragmentation is dependent on two factors; bullet design and velocity. Impact velocities above 2,000 feet per second can cause fragmentation in full metal jacket bullets with thin jacketing, such as M193 5.56 NATO. Soft point or hollow point rounds may also fragment at the same velocities.

In rifle rounds, fragmentation accounts for a lot of the bullet’s ability to destroy tissue and stop bad guys in their tracks. Making slower pistol rounds fragment requires specialized bullet designs that fragment very easily. The problem with these rounds, such as the Glaser Safety Slug, is that they fragment immediately without penetrating. They are advertised as being safer to shoot indoors because they won’t penetrate walls and kill innocents on the other side. This is true! However, a round that can’t penetrate two layers of brittle sheetrock isn’t going to devastate a 250-pound man coming at you with a crowbar either. It will break up immediately upon hitting his skin, shower the first few inches of fat and muscle with little specks of lead, and fail to reach his vital organs. This is not what we want. At this time there is no magic pistol round that is safe when you miss, but “knows” when it hits a bad guy and decides that now is the time to penetrate and then fragment. Any round capable of penetrating tissue to FBI minimum standards is also capable of penetrating doors and walls. Fragmentation in pistol rounds falls into just two categories, won’t happen and fragments without penetrating.

The temporary wound channel is another factor we honestly can’t count on with pistols. Because it is known but not measurable, it has become the center of all sorts of marketing smoke and mirrors. For example, Federal Hydra-Shok ammunition was named for the concept of “hydraulic shock;” the idea that tissue not actually touched by the bullet could still be damaged by the “energy dump” or “kinetic energy transfer” of the bullet’s velocity to the surrounding tissue. The “energy dump” was the given reason why bad guys would be “knocked down” by the new hollow-point technology of rounds like the Hydra-Shok. Of course, there is no such thing as “knock-down power” with pistols, because no pistol knocks the shooter down when fired. Newton tells us that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, the recoil your hand feels when you shoot a pistol is roughly equal to the amount of energy the bullet has as it leaves the muzzle, just compressed into a smaller, denser, much faster projectile. Getting shot by a handgun will not physically knock you down. I’ve been told it feels like being hit by a fastball, followed by a terrible stinging pain coming from your insides. Hydra-Shok is quality ammunition with a long track record in law enforcement and civilian use, but it physically cannot knock the bad guy over like we always see in the movies.

Tissue damage done through hydraulic shock is small even in many rifle calibers. In pistol calibers there is just not enough kinetic energy transferred to surrounding tissue to make any significant difference at all. That leaves us with penetration and permanent wound channel as the two ways pistol calibers consistently damage tissue. If penetration were all that mattered, we would all be carrying full metal jacket rounds like the military does. Of course, penetration is not everything. The military issues those FMJ rounds because under our interpretation of the Hague convention, hollow points are inhumane and contrary to the laws of war. The USA never signed the Hague convention but follows it strictly anyway, while other countries that did sign it have long since abandoned its outdated rules. I suppose the Hague Convention is why you’ll never see the USAF lobbing poison gas bombs from hot air balloons. For those of us who are not stuck in the 19th century, modern technology has provided the hollow point bullet.

.45acp Gold Dots

A few .45acp Gold Dot jacketed hollow point bullets, two unfired and six that have expanded.

A hollow point bullet fired from a handgun is designed to flatten out as it penetrates through soft tissue, staying in once piece but forming a “mushroom” shape with a wider diameter. This means less penetration than FMJ, but a bigger permanent wound channel. If penetration still meets the FBI’s required 12 inches, you get the best of both ways that a handgun bullet realistically damages tissue. What we want out of our handguns is 12 inches of penetration through soft tissue with the largest permanent wound channel possible. This maximizes our chances of directly damaging something vital.

This is the part where thousands of .45 ACP shooters smugly say, “That’s why I carry a .45, it puts ‘em down with just one shot.” I have seen this assertion many times on our Facebook page. Folks, you must hit something vital with any handgun bullet to quickly stop an assailant. A good friend of mine was in a shootout two years ago and was hit three times with .38 Special Speer Gold Dots before he even began to return fire. He scored two hits on the bad guy with .45 ACP Winchester SXT rounds (the ones that known as “Black Talons” back in the day) and the assailant ran off. The police followed a blood trail for eight hours before finding the bad guy hiding in a closet. Both men survived. My friend was the star witness at the bad guy’s trial, where they sentenced the bad guy to life in prison plus 30 years. The .45 ACP did save the day, but it did not physically stop the assailant. He simply ran away because someone was fighting back and his revolver was empty.

Handguns are not nearly as powerful as the movies, the media, and the firearms industry itself want you to believe. Regardless of your caliber of choice, train often, shoot fast and accurately, and be prepared for a life-threatening fight that continues after you’ve emptied the magazine. When deciding on what ammo to carry, do your own research and don’t believe the hype!

Tell us what you think about handgun stopping power in the comment section.

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Comments (178)

  • Martin Pierce

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    I have a Matched pair of Walther PP’s with consect. serial numb. from Germany @ Ulm Do on the Rhine. I bought from a loca Dept. store @ 21 in .32 acp. (Blued) in wood box with 4 mags.–those were the days–all gone now. Still have them–retired them–probley never shoot again. Will sell someday for right price, but not yet.

    Reply

    • Peyton Quinn

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      That is truly a treasure Martin! Walther got the pointing ergonomics right and even the smaller PPK points very well for me. Easy to conceal too but might my goal is to never have to use it for real.

      Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Thankyou for your service. I was Army then and there. Funny that you said that. My father was an instructor during WW 2 and was showing the then new Recoilless rifle. Was test fired ahead of him not on “Q” and almost put his eye out. Had to wear Coke Bottle glasses after that. Other guy was Court-martialed and drummed out. Speaking of other thing. I traded a half viet, half french land owner a M16 for a WW 2 Thompson with 2 sticks and a 50 rnd. drum. When back @ base–wheres your rifle–I said Jammed–rapped it around a tree. Dissasembled it to my duffle bag and off I went back to the Land of the Free.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    Your right. Got it.

    Reply

  • Wolf

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    A .45 cal. bullet in the forehead and no reaction? There can only be one good reason for that: no brain in there. :)

    Reply

  • Vincent

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    I agree completely! Thos perfarmance stats are completely blue sky for any hand guns, even 10″ barrel guns! I have been tabulating ammo for hand guns (and a few rifles) and the fps numbers are rifle number with much bigger cartridges than you can fin in these hand gun calibers. The Max 357 for a 6’5″ barrel I have found online (with MUCH research) is 1775 ( Armscor Percision FMJ 125 gr) producing 874 ft. lbs. or muzzle energy. The typical high velocity 357 MAG muzzle fps is between 1,405 – 1,560. Buffalo Bore has one cartridge supposedly with a 1,700 fps muzzle velocity with 125 gr bullet that produces 802 ft. lbs.

    Vincent
    09-06-14

    Reply

  • Jarhead80

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    Hi Martin, I carried a M1 carbine in Korea and later a M2 (selective auto) hated them both because of knock down. Found a Thompson on a dead gook (they could get them we couldn’t go figure.) He had three long mag’s on him. I think I used more .45 ammo then the rest of the company together. A great up close up and personnel weapon. Some one mentioned getting hit in the head with a .45 and it didn’t penetrate. Someone was lucky in my book. All that I saw with .45. head shots lost their mind. I did get hit with a Chink burp gun. I had a winter parker on and felt this sting in my right side. The round didn’t break the skin but left a bruise mark and I found the bullet in the fabric. Ah younger and crazier days, wish I had them back. Semper Fi J.

    Reply

  • Martin Pierce

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    All wish we had them back–The days themselves I mean. The Thompson is still a crowd pleaser where ever you go; especially being on the right end of one. Was, and still is a excellent Street Sweeper and overall equalizer. Best to tone down the cyclic rate though from 750 down to 500 or so. My Mac 10 is claimed by some as a 950+bullet hose; but I never had time to count or disprove it.

    Reply

    • Peyton Quinn

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      I admit I do not miss my service that much, my youth at that time yes, some good comrades in arms yes, but on the whole it was horror show for me personally. I carried a SW 76 smg not an M16 as I was technically a civilian I also could use HP ammo. I wiaah I could have had Thompson except for the heavy weight in 100% humidity and hot temperatures in SEA. But I am grateful I got back pretty much on 1 piece and pray for my brothers that did not. Yet I am noit religious man, but I like to think a spiritual one.

      Reply

  • Peyton Quinn

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    . “…No brain in here”? Lol good comment!

    The first case I discovered the guy was cursing our his wife across the kitchen table when she fired from there. The guy grbped his head saw the blood, hesitated a moment, then still kept up right on his tirade against here.

    Yet I also saw a case where a armed robber fired his .25 caLIBrE cheap zinc framed RAVEN AUTO ONCE IN THE AIR TO Scare the patrons into compliance.

    The small bullet went through the ceiling and stuck an office worker above in the left ventricl, she died all but instantly

    Calibers , velocity and weight of caliber do strange things the pysicss are not as simple as most people think.. But no handgun is really adequate to drop quickly an animal as large as a human being as quick as hi powered rifle does an Elk or even a Deer.

    And sometimes that Elk or Deer runs along ways before dropping.

    A human armed enemy needs needs a second or even less to kill you even after you have fatally shot him. It’s tactically worth thinking on.

    Reply

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