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A HARD LOOK AT HANDGUN STOPPING POWER

"The controversy continues: Which is the better manstopper? -- big, slow bullets or those which are small, and fast? Upon which are you willing to bet your life? -- documented history, computer simulations or limited case-study review?"

Of late we have seen a rash of "new revelations" on the old subject of bullet performance, specifically the issue of stopping power and whether or not hollow point bullets are all they're cracked up to be. These "revelations", based upon results obtained in irrelevant target mediums like gelatin, clay, wet Los Angeles telephone books, limited personal experience or, worse, pure assumption based on nothing at all, are beginning to inundate the pages of the gun press and completely muddle an already abstract and sensitive issue.

Perhaps none of this makes much difference to many readers, but it does indeed matter to a significant percentage of people -- those who either carry a gun for a living or train those who do. In other words, some of us read the trade journals for reasons other than simply to be entertained.

I've said many times that life and death are serious business -- too serious to be left to amateurs. A harsh statement? Perhaps. But to me the problem is that these days it seems like everybody wants us to believe that they have all the answers. And maybe they do, but, at times, I can't help but wonder...

I note that the most prominent writers espousing these "revelations" never give the source of their percentages or the details of their examination -- and I feel this to be significant. On the other hand, I've known Jeff Cooper, for example, for two decades and, while it's no secret that we have differing views on many things, I can tell you that he was once a Professor of History and as such, views all issues from that perspective.

Thus, his review of historic and technical data covering more than a hundred years, shows that the .45 ACP, for example, "gets the job done nineteen times out of twenty or perhaps a little bit more". Now, years later, he has come under criticism for this statement by these same writers, none of whom possess his credentials or intellect.

He isn't alone. The same critics also debunk Hatcher, even though his famous Relative Stopping Power thesis has been far more accurate than anything else so far, and has withstood the test of time -- more than seventy years, as a matter of fact.

Why the assault? Charitably, it's my guess that at best, these writers undertook a less comprehensive examination than Hatcher or Cooper and subsequently concluded that the .45 was only about 65% effective. Neither Hatcher or Cooper ever claimed that the .45 ACP is infallible, only that it is 85-92% effective, depending upon the type of bullet used.

I, too, am a student of history with a pretty fair amount of background, experience and even a bit of expertise with firearms, because as far as I'm concerned, all of these things are part of truly being a professional. And I think it's worth mentioning that Jeff's preference for the big bore is shared by not only the late General Hatcher, but by Elmer Keith, Colonel Townsend Whelen, and tens of thousands of GI combat veterans and lawmen for more than eight decades.

I've examined the same data as Cooper and been in eight handgun fights myself, as well as dozens more involving other small arms, and I can see readily why he feels the way he does. In fact, in general, I concur with his findings because what I have seen in actual combat mirrors both his views and those of General Hatcher.


Were I to "play the percentages," or base my opinion on a more narrow examination such as (for example) a review of the files of the law enforcement agencies with which I have been associated or draw from my own personal experiences alone, I could legitimately state that .45 ACP 230 gr. "hardball" fired from a M-1911 Colt auto, is 100% effective!

How? Simple -- in all of the departmental shootings in which it was used, it worked. And because in five of the seven pistol fights in which I have been a participant, I used a .45 with ball ammo -- and it worked. I won all five with my first shot, my opponent collapsing before I could fire again. Five center hits, five one-shot stops, five DOS (dead on the scene).

Perfect, right? 100% effective. See what I mean about percentages? It's all in your perspective, isn't it?

The first handgun failure-to-stop (FTS) I experienced was with a 4-inch .357 Magnum and 158 gr. JHPs. My adversary panicked upon realizing he had been hit in the chest, abandoned his weapon and ran a full sixty yards in the opposite direction before he became incapacitated, collapsed and died.

My second FTS was with a 9mm Browning P-35. The subject, a terrorist (who was "rockin' 'n rollin'" an AK-47, fortunately with the stock folded, at me during the entire encounter) was struck under the left nipple by my first shot with no effect. Luckily -- and coincidentally -- my second shot, while it struck within two inches of the first, penetrated sufficiently to shatter his spinal column, both incapacitating and killing him almost instantly.

Were I to take the limited view of the writers in question, I could claim the .357 and 9mm to be completely ineffective. But we both know that such a claim would not only be rubbish, but actually insulting to your intelligence.

Again, perspective.

Obviously, the answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes. The rub is in the fact that however "high tech" the testing methodology, there is really no way to obtain data of absolute value by using artificial testing mediums. If you want to find out what really happens in gunfights, you've got to shoot people, not clay, Jello, water jugs, or water-soaked phone books.


And people are different from each other. They possess wildly varying physical and psychological characteristics, from a testing standpoint, all of which are completely uncontrollable. This is why I, too, feel that only an overview of history can give us the broadly-based perspective we need.

How? Because history has recorded what actually happened, pretty accurately for the most part. And when we skim the extremes from both the top and bottom of the spectrum, we find an astonishing consistency over a very long period of time.

This is the best we can hope for, remembering that we're dealing with a highly diverse, abstract and complex subject. And, like it or not, it won't be superseded until/unless we have the socio-political-legal ability to hook up a thousand or so humans to our technology and shoot them under varied conditions and record what actually happens!

Don't laugh. The inability to do this is why we are forced to utilize artificial mediums or review shooting files in the first place.

And I think that it shows a definite loss of perspective when someone who claims to be an expert makes statements that clash with over a century of observed, recorded history, especially when their opinion comes solely from shooting a couple of water-filled 1 gallon plastic milk jugs or looking at a limited number of police files.

Take just a moment and think about it -- are you willing to bet your life or the lives of those you train on bullet performance in artificial mediums or opinions based upon a superficial review of a small number of police files? I'm not and I don't think you are either.

Another observation -- more personal, but still true. Invariably, those who debunk large bore/low velocity handguns prefer them for their own personal use.

And while casting stones is not my intent, I can't help but note that what a man selects for his own defense is the most valid indicator of what he really thinks works best! He can say whatever he wishes, but it's what he does that "tells the tale," as far as I'm concerned.

Logically, the performance of a given number of different projectiles in a medium of consistent density can only be a valid measure of comparison in that medium. There is no definitive proof that those projectiles will behave in the same manner in human beings, all of whom exhibit different bone structure and varying degrees of water content, muscle bulk, muscle tone, nerve sensitivity and mental/emotional condition.

No, I'm not trying to convince you that frangible bullets never expand. However, I am saying that in the real world, reliable expansion is highly questionable at typical service handgun velocities and is influenced heavily by what the bullet encounters during its passage through the target. This in itself is yet another uncontrollable variable, particularly when we consider the different barrel lengths in use and their effects on velocity.

In short, I'm trying to make you think -- no more, no less. By showing you these bullets, all claimed to be Red Hot Expanders, that didn't perform as claimed when shot into real people...

...maybe, just maybe, we can keep some of those we train from getting hurt unnecessarily or even save a life or two.

So, look at the overview before you decide what you are going to bet your life on. And remember too that regardless of your choice of weapon, caliber or bullet style, you must still get solid hits in the thorax or cranial cavity to stop your assailant with a minimum of shots fired. There is simply no substitute for marksmanship, a point that, all too often seems to be overlooked.

Otherwise, you're casting your fate to the wind.

 

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