"Stopping power" studies, although they have not always been called that, have been conducted on actual live beings ever since the Thompson-LaGarde Tests of 1904, which used live animals and cadavers to test bullets in the wake of the Spanish-American War. In recent decades, compilers have gone in after the fact and attempted to correlate data based on police and private citizen shootings in an attempt to see what bullets worked best. I think this peaked in the 1990s with the work of Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow and their series of books, Handgun Stopping Power, Street Stoppers, etc. For a while all anyone could talk about was the best load for a "one shot stop," which was right out of the Marshall/Sanow charts. Today that frenzy has died down a great deal but you still hear it some. Part of what went against Marshall/Sanow was the legion of followers of Dr. (Colonel) Martin Fackler, former head of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory for the US Army’s Medical Training Center, Letterman Institute, who did a great deal of testing in ballistic gelatin and in pig muscle. Dr. Fackler's testing found that Marshall/Sanow's reported "One Shot Stop" numbers did not agree with the results in his lab.
Yet there are those who say you cannot do better than analyzing street results, and new studies continue to be made. While I believe it is smart to analyze shootings, I also believe one must take a very suspicious view of any predictions taken strictly from street results, for reasons I'll explain. In the meantime, here is a fairly new study you may or may not have seen, done by an Ohio police officer over many years.
I picked this example for this editorial because, unlike most, the author actually does mostly "get it" in the end.
As a student of this topic for almost three decades now, here's what I think about this study and this type of study in general. Men and governments have attempted to quantify "stopping power" for at least a century officially, and no doubt since the beginning of time unofficially. It has always been and always will be doomed to fail in the most precise sense, because the reaction of the human being to being shot is subject to a multitude of variables far beyond the control of the testing environment. Because that has been realized in recent decades, several individuals have turned to so-called "street results." This has been seen as a better mousetrap. It's been sold to law enforcement officers and agencies as well as the law-abiding, gun-toting public, as eminently logical. Of course, let's see what's worked and what hasn't. What could possibly be smarter?
It's not that simple due to the variables I mentioned. An individual can be struck once or fifty times, and in such quick fashion that he may have been killed by a first bullet while still being shot at 10-20 times, which under some circumstances might be legally justified. No way to truly know at that point what bullet killed him. Or, if it is fewer bullets, and the autopsy physician can determine what bullet killed the individual, it is probably going to be hard to tell in what order that bullet was fired. And it will be impossible to tell what effect--physiological and psychological--the other bullets had on the individual before the bullet that ultimately killed him was fired. At that point how can we possibly assign a "stopping power" to an individual bullet load? To claim that we can is silly.
An individual can be struck in hundreds of different locations about the body, some likely to be fatal, most not. The same bullet will sometimes expand, sometimes not, depending on exactly where it strikes, and what intervening objects are in the way. Bullets will also perform differently depending on the velocity at which they are traveling when they strike the target, which is affected both by the distance the gun is from the target and by the length of the gun barrel. The ambient temperature can affect velocity as well, with cold tending to hold down velocity. Clothing and the size of the individual affect his reaction to being shot.
The person's health, sobriety, and attitude also affect his reaction. His excitement level, and thus adrenalin level in the bloodstream, affect his ability to continue the fight after being shot in vital areas. Same with his endorphin level, which blocks pain. One man's training will enable him to continue the fight while another's lack of training will see him give up the fight. Yet a third man's misconceptions will see him shot in the fatty part of his arm with a .22 pistol only to fall over dead because he believes he will die if shot with a gun. (This has been documented.)
All guns are different, even guns of the same make and model, as tooling wears and the gun made in March is not the same as one made in August, or the year before. Rifling may be tighter, imparting a different muzzle velocity from two seemingly identical pistols. A shot with one strikes someone in the heart, while a seemingly similar shot with another strikes an inch lower and passes through, doing no serious damage. A load of your favorite ammunition made in the spring won't perform the same as the same "exact" ammo made in the summer, as ammo differs lot to lot. The same ammo in your gun won't shoot the same as it will in your friend's gun. Intervening barriers will never cause the exact same reaction from a bullet striking them. That's because angles will never be identical, thicknesses will never be the same, distances from them will never be the same as another time. What's the bottom line?
It's a crap shoot, no pun intended. Reading studies is interesting but nothing upon which to base taking a decision. The most useful "studies" are basically ignored--reports by our nations law enforcement medical examiners and coroners based on a lifetime of experience. Why are these the most worthwhile? Because these doctors have a dead body with bullets in it and they can often determine the bullet(s) that killed the person, and they can also determine the state of the body at the time of being shot--drunk, drugged, and so on. The bullet can often--even usually--be identified, and we go from there. It's not perfect, but at least it is useful information.
Officer Ellifritz's study was too small to be statistically significant, but that doesn't matter, because even if it was huge, these sort of studies are fraught with problems and essentially useless. Only those who believe in things like the tooth Fairy and not carrying spare ammo because "the average rounds fired in a gun fight is 2.7" can still be accepting this stuff as useful...and yet the gun-carrying public laps them up like they come down from the mountain carved on granite tablets...
Despite all that, Officer Ellifritz managed to come to excellent conclusions, despite his initial dumb comment that the more he reads the more confused he gets--how gullible are you? Probably not at all. What this tells me is that, in fact, Ellifritz already knew the mechanisms of mechanically stopping a human body, and already knew what sort of weapons were likely to produce the best results. (I believe he wrote that he was confused in order to make his readers feel like he was one of them, clearly he was not confused. Was he?) The point of coming out with something like this study was probably because there are too many people out there who are simply not going to listen to reason without something like this study to be able to look at and be impressed by. Okay, if that's what they need, that's what they need.
I will say it is currently faddish in the "Tactical Community" to say caliber doesn't matter, with a nonchalant shrug of your shoulders. This group of folks tends to jump head first into everything, and the idea of easing the learning public into anything never occurs to any of them, I fear. So many of them get a smug look on their face, kind of a "I knew along that this caliber stuff didn't matter," slip on their Oakley's, and proclaim it to the world with an air of casualness that does no one any good. Fellas, fellas. Of course caliber matters, or cops would be carrying Kel-Tec .380s on the job, wouldn't ya? No, not all of them are like this, but depending on what you read, what trainer's class you take, etc., many are professing that attitude, and it needs to be addressed. So let's.
Certain things are true. First of all, all handgun rounds are puny in power compared to rifles and shotguns. If you knew you were going to have to defend your life today you'd never choose to do it with a handgun. That has been repeated so many times by so many people it's become trite--but trite or not it's factual, so it needs to be repeated.
Some of the Joe Combat types say a handgun is what you use to fight your way to a rifle. Okay, I'm a private citizen, I'm not expecting to re-fight the siege of Fort Apache. I see a handgun as what I can legally carry when I'm out and about. That's it. It's not a rifle or a shotgun, but it's legal, and it conceals. Given that, any handgun I choose is less than ideal for the job of defending my life--or the life of my loved ones, even more important to me, and probably all of you.
Despite all the studies over the years, from Thompson-LaGarde to the 1970's LEAA "Computer Man" tests, it's clear that the larger service calibers (military and police) are superior to the smaller calibers. Any tests, no matter the slant, pretty much agree with that, and it's logical.
Today the FBI is considered the premier testing organization for handgun ammunition, and as such they've developed protocol that is pretty well-accepted by law enforcement at all levels. There is no reason private citizens shouldn't benefit from that as well. And we have. Ammo makers have developed loads with JHP bullets that penetrate deeply but expand at a pre-determined rate, which we call Controlled Expansion.
The FBI mandates a minimum of twelve inches of penetration for ammunition to pass their tests, rightly realizing that not all shots take place as on a shooting range, which is to say, straight on. In a shooting, participants are often moving and there are intervening arms and other barriers that bullets must penetrate and still get deep enough to the vital organs to shut off the machine. At the same time the bullet should expand in order to cut the largest swath through the body as possible in order to better the chances to slice and destroy something vital. The only way to quickly turn out the lights is to strike the brain or spine to shut down the central nervous system, or, second best, destroy the heart in hopes of a quick bleed-out and subsequent cessation of hostilities. The bigger the hole the more likely this is to happen. Higher velocity translates into energy to do work, and bullet weight is for momentum to smash hard. Little bullets of small diameter have none of these good things going for them.
In his article, Officer Ellifritz noted that most small-caliber stops were likely psychological stops. Do we want to depend on psychological stops? I don't! But with a 9mm, .40S&W, .45ACP, 10mm, .357 Magnum, etc, and WELL-CHOSEN ammunition, the odds are increased in your favor.
We can control two things in this whole self-defense shooting mess, 1) the gun and ammo we choose, and 2) our ability to shoot. The second clearly impacts the first, but that is another topic for another article....
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