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 (190)

  • wolf

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    Will all due respect, all this talk about the caliber for self defense is a little absurd! A miss with a .50 cal. is a non-impact shot, except maybe for the loud bang. A bulls eye (a vital organ) with a 9mm will have an impact, three of those even more. I much rather have 16 9mm shots in my gun than 7 big 45 cal. After all, there could also be more than just one attacker.

    Reply

  • Peyton Quinn

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    Glad to hear this from you SS1. I do like the feel of the Ruger Black Hawk in 44 Magnum.It sort of fires with authority (:

    With reasonable mn one can reason.(:

    Reply

  • Peyton Quinn

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    “My side weapon in Vietnam was a 45 acp (230 grain) ?, I can testify at 30 yards , a .45 will do it;s job , meaning kill.I had to use it twice in my 13 month tour, both times one shot -one kill, since then I have always carried a .45 pistol.USMC”

    First let me thank you for your service to our nation sir.

    But as I recall Charlie was small person, WE are larger people in the US for the overwhelming majority any way. It dos make difference.

    Yet any gun that saves your life becomes ‘the best dam handgun ever made’ This is natural and nearly inescapable. It is how I feel about the SW Model 76 :)

    Reply

  • catt11daddy

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    My side weapon in Vietnam was a 45 acp (230 grain) ?, I can testify at 30 yards , a .45 will do it;s job , meaning kill.
    I had to use it twice in my 13 month tour, both times one shot -one kill, since then I have always carried a .45 pistol.
    USMC

    Reply

  • Peyton Quinn

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    I have studied 4 cases where a person was shot point blank in he forehead by .45 ACP and not only did it niot stop them, thy were not even seriously injured.

    In all 4 cases despite being shot from less than 6 bft away the bullet FMJ spi\un around the skull and never penetrated th brain case

    IN another case two low lifes shot it out one with 19111 the other with Raven .25 auto.. The Raven guy fired once and his gun jammed, the 1911 guy fired all 7 shots. The 19111 guy died in seconds after mh fired from that .25 auto bullet severing his left ventricle.

    The Raven.25 auto shooter went to the bus stop, then to transfer bus stop to gt to the hospital where 4 1911 45ACP slugs were taken out of him. He was released two days later.

    The fact is no handgun is powerful enough to stop a person immediately for medical reasons. .Only a bullet that enters the brain case or severs the left artery or ventricle has chance of on shot stop.

    Also actual field data show the .357 Magnum JHP has better stopping record than .44 Magnum JHP.. Actually if you understand te physics of stopping power on would expect this too. The 44 Magnum over penetrates and leaves less energy expended in the area of the major organs.

    Reply

    • ss1

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      Peyton I don’t know where you get the “field data” you speak of, but your statement that a 357 magnum has more stopping power than a 44 magnum is nonsense. With the proper load and the proper bullet, the 44 magnum can expand just as easily as the 357 can, and yet it will expand with a wider and deeper wound channel. If for instance a 357 was a whole different configuration of cartridge, like if the case was fatter, making it some super magnum with extreme velocity, that’s when a lower caliber bullet can do more damage than a bigger caliber. But the 44 magnum is the same proportion, yet bigger, making it a more powerful and damage creating cartridge than a 357.

      Reply

    • Peryton Quinn

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      SS! I agree that this is controversial topic. And the cass I looked at 14 shootings with the .44 Magnum and twice that many for the .357 is not sa large sample space. However, these results reflect the same thing I se in 10% gelatin test I conducted for major ammo mfg .

      The .444 Magnum seemed to b overpowered and thus the TSC was too far from the vital organs and not fully developed.

      Having said that I imagine reduced powder charge and lighter bullet in ..44 Magnum could do as well as the .357 Magnum.

      Now where the .444 magnum would do better than .357 magnum in stopping power is if the man shoot were very large such that his organs were where th maxima of the TSC occurred.

      Hence If i was worried about a bear attack and could only have handgun I would prefer the .44 Magnum. over th .357 Magnum. But the .357 on a human being attacking me.

      Both are powerful loads and about as good as you can do wih a handgun.

      Reply

    • ss1

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      Peyton your last reply makes more sense to me. I agree with your reply.

      BTW I own a Ruger Super Redhawk 44 magnum and was shooting Underwood Ammo (240gr JHP and 245gr FMJ) with it for the first time yesterday. That’s about as powerful of a load that you can get. I could feel it.

      Just for the record though, the gun I keep closest for self defense is a Glock 10mm, also with Underwood Ammo, 180gr and 200gr Hornady XTP JHP. I know about the 10mm FBI history, but I’m a 10mm believer and let’s just say it’s somewhere in between 357 and 44 magnum.

      Reply

  • the sanson

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    45 acp has too much hype, it aint all that great, a 40 beats it, but the 10mm kicks somr azz, so does 454 casul, 45 wont go thru any type of barrier and some dummies say its the woods gun for bear lmao get ready for one really pissed of bear, oh and a free 45 to someone who comes along after the bear is thru eatin.

    Reply

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