What exactly is the secret to stopping an attacker with only your sidearm?
I have long been fascinated with the topic of handgun stopping power. For almost 25 years, I read everything I could on the topic. I went to autopsies; spoke with coroners and emergency room physicians; interviewed people who had shot others in self-defense; pursued shooting reports from many law enforcement agencies; and I even wrote my master’s thesis on the topic. After all of this, you’d think I’d have a good handle on the subject, but I don’t. Many look to the ballistics laboratory for a definitive answer, but a human’s resilience can’t be recreated in a block of ballistics gelatin.
How about looking at actual shooting data? Sounds like a fine idea, but for every successful shooting with a particular load/caliber I uncovered, I found one or two others where it performed miserably. Is handgun stopping power a problem? Most certainly it is.
Handgun Ammo vs. Rifle Ammo
What do we know for sure on the subject? We know handgun ammo is not long gun ammo. Rifle ammo travels at almost twice the velocity as the fastest handgun ammo, creating a true hydrostatic shock wave, an effect which can damage human tissue beyond the area the ammo actually contacts. Shotguns can launch rounds which strike the body with multiple projectiles at once, creating an overload/shock to the system, or they can deliver one large, heavy hunk of lead weighed in ounces instead of grains.
Standard handgun ammunition must touch the tissue or organ in order to disrupt it which means that, for a handgun projectile to cause physiological incapacitation, it must hit something important, such as the brain, heart or major vessels, which will rapidly leak blood and lower blood pressure. This means that pistol fire must be more accurate than rifle fire which is a tall order considering the handgun’s short barrel, short sight radius and few points of body contact. The handgun is portable, but not really effective. Use it until you can get your hands on a long gun, and don’t expect it to work with only one or two rounds.
What about caliber? Is one better than another? Common sense dictates a bigger bullet is a better bullet. However, a bigger bullet is also a heavier bullet which means it will deliver more felt recoil to the shooter. Because the majority of law enforcement officers are not gun people and will only train with their sidearm when required, we need to take this recoil factor into account. Multiple shots which miss the target are like not shooting at all – unless, of course, they travel down the street and hit some poor four-year-old riding her tricycle. Then, they will be the only rounds fired in the eyes of the community at large.
Can added speed make a smaller bullet more efficient? Sure, it can. Picture a truck hitting a wall at 25 mph and a VW Beetle hitting the same wall at 50 mph. So, yes, a smaller, faster bullet can do considerable damage, but only if it slows inside the body to deliver its energy to the surrounding tissue. If you’re restricted to using only full metal jacket ammo (like the military), using a fat, slow moving bullet makes more sense because it has a greater chance of slowing in the body, delivering energy and reducing overpenetration hazards. A smaller projectile traveling at great speed can zip in and out of the body like an ice pick, damaging very little along the way. Such a bullet must be designed to deform and stop prior to leaving the torso. For instance, take the 9mm. It can be a good choice for some, but it’s load dependent, requiring a hollowpoint bullet of reasonable weight driven at a high velocity. For many, the 9mm is a wise option due to the reduced recoil it offers over the larger bullets of the .40 calibers, but only with carefully selected ammunition.
Over the years, I’ve found certain “formulas” of handgun ammunition which work quite well. First, relying on anything smaller than a .38 Special is less than wise. While smaller calibers can certainly prove lethal, they are less effective than those of the .38 Special or larger. Persons shot with a good quality .38 or larger tend to react to the blow. Those shot with lesser loadings may not even know they are shot, unless the bullet impacts a vital organ immediately. That said, here are the handgun ammunition formulas I’ve seen work well on the street:
.38 Special: 158-grain all lead hollow point. Made by all of the major manufacturers, this may be the most proven load in law enforcement history. The Speer® 135-grain Gold Dot® hollow point is also a proven load.
9mm: 124-/127-grain hollow point loaded in excess of 1,200 feet per second (fps). This bullet is heavy enough to penetrate deeply and moves fast enough to ensure expansion (at least as much as anything like this can be assured) and deliver energy. The most proven 9mm load is the Winchester® 127-grain +P+ SXT hollow point moving at 1,250 fps. Friends in the NYPD tell me that they are very happy with their Speer 124-grain +P Gold Dot hollow point duty load which travels at 1,230 fps and expands – regardless of the intermediate barriers it encounters. I know of a large municipal agency in Kansas which moved back to the GLOCK® 17 with the 124 Gold Dot +P load from a .40 S&W load because they believed their officers shot better with the 9mm (they hit what they were shooting at!) with no loss in effectiveness from the .40.
.40 S&W: 155-/165-grain Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) moving at 1,100 fps or faster. All of the major manufacturers make a load like this. The United States Border Patrol has conducted extensive testing with this load using both the Federal and Remington® versions in the lab and on the street with great success.
.357 SIG: 125-grain hollow point moving at 1,350 fps. The Speer Gold Dot and Federal JHP loads are the most proven in the field. Others are available, but I do not have any hard data on them.
.45 ACP: 200-/230-grain JHP. The Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok® hollow point is the most proven. The Remington 230-grain Golden SaberTM hollow point and Speer 200-/230-grain Gold Dot hollow points have also worked very well.
These trends or formulas have proved successful over and over again. Please keep in mind that they are not absolutes, but they are a good bet if your agency doesn’t have the facilities or funding to extensively test potential duty ammo. I’ve seen a number of agencies change ammunition because of a single incident which is not a good idea if the ammo has been extensively tested.
Hitting Something Important
Ammunition which fails to stop an adversary is usually due to poor shot placement and not poor ammo performance. Expansion is a means to an end and not the end result. A bullet which fails to expand as shown in the gun magazines will not result in an incapacitation failure as often as a fully expanded bullet which does not hit a vital area of the body. Remember: To be effective, handgun bullets must be placed on an adversary in a vital location and no amount of expansion or bullet diameter will change this. The best thing any law enforcement firearms instructor can do to ensure the agency approved gun and ammo incapacitates dangerous felons is train his (or her) personnel to hit vital areas of the body while bobbing and weaving, as in a real fight. This equates to training time and ammunition and no super-duper, thermonuclear +P+ hollow point will make up for this.
Dr. Vincent DiMaio, one of the nation’s foremost experts on wound ballistics, says the secret to handgun stopping power remains where you shoot your opponent and how many times you shoot them. It makes sense to me. Hardware will never make up for sound training and accurate shooting.
About the Author: Dave Spaulding is a 34 year veteran of law enforcement and security operations. He retired with the rank of lieutenant and worked in all facets of law enforcement, including communications, corrections, patrol, court security, investigations, undercover operations, SWAT and training. He is the author of over 1,000 articles which have appeared in law enforcement and firearms publications and is the author of two bestselling books: Handgun Combatives and Defensive Living. He was named the 2010 Law Enforcement Trainer of the Year by ILEETA and Law Officer magazine.
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Richard P says
I have talked to many leos in the metro atl area who are not happy over losing their 40sw weapons in the switch back to the 9mm. I feel depts should spend more time training their officers to shoot better not downsizing their weapons. im from the school of anything the nine can do the fourty can do better.