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A Beginner's Guide to Stopping Power

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  • A Beginner's Guide to Stopping Power

    B]A Beginner's Guide to Stopping Power [/B]
    By Chuck Hawks

    Much of what one reads about the subject of handgun stopping power is a mixture of truth, half-truth, untruth, rumor and legend. A good place for inquiring minds to start would be to read the books by Ed Sanow and Evan Marshall, which are the most important works on the subject at the present time. They did the research, visited the morgues, talked to the shooting victims and police, and in the end collected the validated data from actual shootings that demonstrates what has worked in the real world. Their findings can correct a lot of popular misconceptions for those who are willing to learn.

    When discussing terminal ballistics what seems "reasonable" on the face of it often turns out not to be, sometimes for fairly complex reasons. One example would be the alleged superiority of the semi-wadcutter (SWC or "Keith style") bullet form. General Julian Hatcher, who invented the widely quoted (and copied) theory of Relative Stopping Power, and those who followed his lead theorized that such a bullet should be 25% more effective than the traditional Round Nose (RN) bullet. And, in fact, the SWC style bullet does look somehow deadlier than a RN bullet. Its sharp shouldered, truncated cone configuration was alleged to "chop" a chunk out of tissue and blood vessels as it passed through, rather than press them aside as it was alleged a RN bullet would do. This seemed to make sense to me, and for years I shot SWC style bullets. But when Sanow and Marshall evaluated over 100 actual shootings with 158 grain .38 Special lead SWC bullets, there proved to be no significant difference in stopping power compared to 158 grain .38 Special lead RN bullets at the same velocity. Clearly, the Hatcher theory has some flaws, no matter how reasonable it may seem.

    The stopping power of any handgun bullet turns out to be a function of its ability to disrupt vital bodily functions, not the diameter or weight or initial shape of the bullet that strikes the victim. For example, the difference in the size of the entrance hole made by a .451" bullet compared to that made by a .355" bullet in an elastic (semi-self sealing) material like skin turns out to be largely irrelevant to stopping power. The idea (which I have heard expressed) that a bigger bullet makes a bigger hole to "bleed out" a man or an animal is faintly ridiculous.

    The principle method of both stopping and killing with any firearm, whether rifle or pistol or shotgun, is the disruption of vital bodily functions. Fatally damage any animal's heart, liver, lungs, or central nervous system (including Homo sapiens) and it is not going to live long enough to bleed out. Fail to put your bullet in a vital spot and you are very likely to have a problem with a man or an animal. That is not to say that some bullet placements might not eventually cause death by loss of blood, or infection, or some other mechanism, but that is never the goal of any hunter OR gunfighter who wants an immediate one shot stop.

    Readers who have done some deer hunting have probably observed that often the entrance wound from a modern expanding rifle bullet (like a 100 grain .243, 130 grain .270, or 150 grain .308) seems minimal, with almost no external blood loss at all. In addition, there may be no exit wound--the bullet is often found just under the hide on the off side. But if the shot was true the deer's lungs probably look like they went through a blender, and the animal was down in seconds. That is an illustration of nearly perfect stopping power and it has little or nothing to do with the relatively small caliber of the bullet involved.

    Modern big bore advocates, following in the footsteps of Jeff Cooper (who I respect greatly and regard as a fine and very persuasive writer), will claim that the example cited in the paragraph above and witnessed by countless tens of thousands of deer hunters does not apply at typical handgun bullet impact velocities. They argue that below some magic impact velocity (usually about 2000 fps) the temporary stretch cavity that contributes so much to the lethality of rifle bullets like those in the example above ceases to exist. These writers continue to ignore any facts contrary to their preconceptions. (As an aside, it is interesting that big bore rifle fans use a similar argument, but for them the magic velocity is typically about 2400 fps.)

    Unfortunately, they are simply wrong about pistol and rifle terminal ballistics being fundamentally different, which can and has proven by controlled testing and high speed photography. In fact, they are fundamentally similar. Both depend on disrupting the function of vital organs, and bullets that reach such organs and expand quickly and violently, thus destroying a lot of tissue, are the best way to accomplish this, whether fired from a short barrel or a long one.

    How could the terminal ballistics of pistols and rifles be so different, since today we have pistols chambered for rifle cartridges and rifles chambered for pistol cartridges? In general, rifles have an advantage in kinetic energy, and this gives them an advantage in the amount of potential damage they can cause. (Of course, most of the big bore boys don't believe that kinetic energy matters, either, but that is their problem.)

    But in terms of the mechanisms of wound dynamics, rifle bullets and pistol bullets are both bullets, and function in pretty much the same way. The stopping power of pistol loads and the killing power of rifle loads are both based on a combination of the temporary stretch cavity and the permanent crush cavity produced by the bullet as it traverses the target. Any theory that ignores either of these factors will give erroneous results. Ignore the temporary stretch cavity and your results will favor big caliber bullets. Ignore the crush cavity and your results will favor high velocity, nearly explosive bullets. Both results will be incorrect.

    For at least 40 years I have been reading claims by various "authorities" that bullets cannot be made to expand reliably at typical handgun velocities. This is just plain not true. I discovered that in the middle 1960's by shooting game with .357 Magnum JHP expanding bullets, and it certainly isn't true now. These opinions usually trace their origin to ancient theories and flawed experiments, particularly the Thompson-LaGard study conducted around the turn of the (20th) Century and General Julian Hatcher's aforementioned Theory of Relative Stopping Power.

    When applied to contemporary handgun cartridges, theories based on Hatcher (which include Cooper's and Taylor's "Short Forms") have a statistical correlation to reality of only .64. In other words, they are meaningless. A vocal minority of gun writers and their disciples (again mostly big bore pistol fans) have come to accept this bunk as gospel, but it is really in the same category as urban legends. These "authorities" have been repeating this misinformation for as long as I can remember--but that does not make them right.

    It is instructive to read the actual results of the Thompson-LaGard cattle shooting experiments, which I have done. I urge my readers to do the same. It would be hard to imagine a less appropriate or more poorly controlled study. Despite the significance ascribed to it to this day by the ignorant and willfully blind, it proved absolutely nothing about the lethality or stopping power (on humans) of the handgun cartridges and loads tested. And it is even less relevant (if possible) to modern handgun ammunition, since no expanding bullets were tested.

    All that the Thompson-LaGard experiment really proved is that none of the handgun loads tested were effective at killing cattle. Most of the bovines those early experimenters shot had to be put down with a sledge hammer! The conclusion that the .45 caliber pistol was superior was forgone from the outset due to the bias of the testers, and it became their official conclusion despite a startling lack of data to support it. Interestingly, the only steer put down quickly with one shot was killed by a round from the high velocity 7.65mm (.30 caliber) Luger pistol!

    Well designed bullets (which includes most of the JHP pistol bullets now on the market) expand very reliably at their intended impact velocity. How do you imagine the 115 grain JHP 9x19 +P load, 125 grain JHP .357 load, 155 grain JHP .40 S&W load, and 230 grain JHP .45 ACP loads earned those outstanding 90%+ one shot stop records in the real world? In a sentence: due to the consistent performance of their JHP bullets.

    The famous 125 grain .357 JHP bullet, the most effective one shot stopper of all handgun loads, penetrates 13.25" in ordinance gelatin and produces a football shaped stretch cavity. This is how the very best bullets perform. And bullet performance has a great effect on stopping power.

    For example, the .40 S&W has higher one shot stop percentages in the real world than the 10mm Auto. Yet both use exactly the same caliber bullets, and the 10mm Lite load has exactly the same velocity as the .40 S&W. What gives?

    The difference is a function of the terminal performance of the bullets involved. The FBI adopted the 10mm Lite load and became the main driving force behind 10mm load development. The FBI protocol calls for more penetration, and therefore less expansion, than is desirable to maximize stopping power in most shooting situations. They are more concerned about shooting through car doors, barricades, and so forth than putting criminals down with one shot in the typical frontal shooting situation that homeowners and civilians are most likely to face. The FBI essentially wanted ammunition designed for extended gun battles with perps hiding behind cover, and that is what they got. But as a result most 10mm ammo has less actual stopping power than the lighter, faster expanding bullets used in the best .40 S&W loads.

    I wrote this article, not as a diatribe against big bore handguns (indeed, some of them--using JHP bullets--are near the top of the stopping power list), but because I have grown weary of hearing and reading the same old misinformation endlessly repeated. My opinion is no better than anyone else's unless it correlates with reality. Read the actual studies, not what others say about the studies, and decide for yourself. For those concerned with the problem, handgun stopping power is too important a subject to be left to urban legend.

    .45 ACP full metal jacket 230 grain ....... 49
    .45 ACP jacketed hollow point 230 grain ....….. 60.7
    .44 Magnum full metal jacket 240 grain ......….... 92.3
    *.44 Magnum lead wad cutter 240 grain ...... 136.8
    .44 Special full metal jacket 240 grain ......... 51.6
    *.44 Special lead wad cutter 240 grain ...……...... 76.5
    .41 Magnum full metal jacket 230 grain ........ 54
    *.41 Magnum lead wad cutter 230 grain ........ 80
    10 millimeter full metal jacket 180 grain ....…..... 50.3
    10 millimeter jacketed hollow point 180 grain ... 62.1
    .40 S&W full metal jacket flat nose 180 grain .... 53.4
    .40 S&W jacketed hollow point 180 grain ......... 59.4
    .38 Special full metal jacket 158 grain .......……... 26.7
    *.38 Special lead wad cutter 158 grain ........... 39.7
    **.357 Magnum full metal jacket 158 grain ........ 32.7
    **.357 Magnum lead wad cutter 158 grain ........ 48.5
    .357 SIG full metal jacket 147 grain .....…….... 36.6
    .357 SIG jacketed hollow point 147 grain .... 45.2
    9 millimeter full metal jacket 147 grain ...... 32.3
    9 millimeter jacketed hollow point 147 grain .... 39.9
    .380 Auto jacketed hollow point 95 grain ...…..... 18.3
    .32 Auto jacketed hollow point 71 grain .......... 11.1
    .25 Auto jacketed hollow point 50 grain ......... 3.7
    .22 Long Rifle jacketed hollow point 40 grain .. 4.2
    Last edited by USMC0351Grunt; 04-16-2011, 05:34 PM.
    "Trained to kill, prepared to die, prefer to live, Semper Fi!"

  • #2
    Excellent post, copied this into my ballistics thread as well

    People need to learn the and accept the night and day differences between 45 and 9mm, when your life and your family's life depends on it, don't choose caliber based on cost.. which is what most people do, then they defend it in forums and conversation trying to make it out to be a better round ballistically than it is.

    The 10mm performance results have really piqued my curiosity, off to do some research
    Last edited by Diesel; 04-16-2011, 05:53 PM.

    The best thing you can do to support the site is pass it on to your friends and fav sites like other forums, facebook, twitter etc. Let people know about us! :)


    • #3
      I always look at forums as a place to come for reliable information rather than rumor and myth.

      When it comes to a person relying on facts and proven data in order to save their life or the lives of others, I have a zero margin for ANY BS.
      "Trained to kill, prepared to die, prefer to live, Semper Fi!"


      • #4
        Awesome post! Thank you for spending the time in putting it together.


        • #5
          Great information! The one thing that most "stopping power" discussions lack is the mention of shot placement; if you want your round of choice to work to its optimum it needs to be placed in an area where it do the most damage. Thank you for the post!
          Don't pick a fight with an old man. If he's too old to fight, he'll just kill you.


          • #6
            It takes MANY seconds to bleed out or stop from loss of organ function. HG confrontations are nearly always at too close ranges to rely on such a slow mechanism. We are stuck with trying to enhance the shock effect AMAP, and hope that it causes the man to psychologicallly quit, since it's quite well proven that we can't physically incapacitate him with a chest hit, in less than 5 seconds, with any relilability, other than with a luck hit to the spine. it takes 5 seconds for him to stop, even if you blow apart his heart, unless the stop was voluntary, not a physical incapacitation. This is true because the brain always has 5 second's worth of oxygenated blood inside of the cranium. Therefore, no matter what you do the his body, his brain can still send fighting messages to that body, for 5 seconds.


            • #7
              The FBI consulted with Col Martin Fackler of the Army Wound Ballistics Lab after the Florida takedown of the bank robbers that resulted in so many agents killed/wounded and Fackler determined a 40 cal HP at 1150 fps was acceptable.
              He also found out that HPs did not reliably expand in the body when the bullet hit at less than approx 1130 fps regardless of caliber.

              One thing about the list the 22 is in the right place even though the FBI Uniform Crime Reports for years list it as the No 1 killer I would not want to depend on one.

              I am acquainted with a guy who shoots lots of deer with 22LR and they are all head shots. I am also amazed watching Swamp People and all but one I have seen so far uses 22LR. One of them is really on the cutting edge and he uses a 22 Magnum haha.
              Distinguished Rifleman High Power , Distinguished Rifleman Smallbore Prone, Presidents Hundred (Rifle), Palma Teams Member (2), Dewar Teams Member (2), Member 4 Man National Championship Smallbore AnySight Team, Certified Small Arms and Ammunition Test Director Aberdeen Proving Ground , Eagle Scout, AC4HT, NRA Benefactor Member, Firefighter I, Shriner



              • #8
                This is all very interesting data. We could argue calibers and stopping power like politics and religion: nobody would ever be convinced: nobody would ever change their mind.

                In the case of Swamp People I would think they would use the 22 because of cost. When you don't have much you make the most out of what you have.
                The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.

                Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you are stupid, and make bad decisions.


                • #9
                  Great post ...thank-you
                  "One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors." Plato

                  That Government is best which governs the least, because its people discipline themselves.

                  — Thomas Jefferson

                  You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.

                  — Abraham Lincoln

                  I was so embarrassed today. I got caught peeing in the pool. When the lifeguard yelled at me I jumped and damn near fell in.



                  • #10
                    Great post. As mentioned by others, I was surprised by the 10 mm and 40 cal numbers. I still think I will stick with one of the most common rounds. 45 ACP just for availablity. I am a big enough person the weapon weight is not an issue. One of the most important things to remember is it does not matter how good a shot you are or how deadly the ballistic value is, if the weapon is uncomfortable and you don't have it when you need it, it won't do you any good.
                    CITIZEN by BIRTH
                    AMERICAN by CHOICE
                    NRA PATRON MEMBER by NECESSITY


                    • #11
                      ( Chunkee....Therefore, no matter what you do to his body, his brain can still send fighting messages to that body, for 5 seconds). Not to pick on you and not sure where you got the info, but how did anyone test to see what signals brain sends to body when shot ? Chest hits have stopped many a man dead in his tracks....his brain may send signal to body but body ain't listening....unless you have seen people shot...every situation is different and always will be....we can argue caliber forever and it will not change....gotta hit what you aim at and keep shooting till other person is down and out or you run out of bullets....then reload...


                      • #12
                        heart and brain are the same size, but the heart hit is NOTHING like the instant stopper that the brain hit is. so if you COULD reliably hit the heart, why not aim for the brain, eh? you don't, because you CAN'T rely on hitting it, that's why. people MOVE in combat, and their attack makes you duck and weave, nd the blasts make you flinch, and so do the flashes. and the debris tossed into your face. so shot placement is bs. the best yuo can hope for is to get 50% of your shots on the chest, you know

                        furthermore you can blow the heart apart, and the man CAN still keep fighting for up to 5 seconds. the mammalian brain ALWAYS has 5 seconds worth of oxygenated blood inside of the cranium. if they heart has just contracted before you blew it apart, the guy just got yet ANOTHER 5 secn's worth of blood pumped to his brain, and you handgun bullets will NOT blow apart his heart. often, .45 ball w;on't even make the heart stop pumping, depending upon what part of the heart is hit. so you want MASSIVE destrucktion, like you get with good 223 softpoints, or extreme loads in the 460 rowland, like 70 grs at 2200 fps, 4" barrel, with a bullet that breaks in half at impact. less recoil than .45 ball, by the way.


                        • #13
                          actually, marshall made that stuff up, guys. he has never once backed up his claims with info to qualified questioners.


                          • #14
                            anyone can prove to you that blood loss has no effect for 4-5 seconds. A double carotid choke, properly applied, shuts off all blood flow to the brain. many a chest hit with a bullet can't do that. If a man does drop to a chest hit, it was not caused by blood loss, nor by organ damage. He just quit trying, that's all. Sometimes that quitting is not conscious, but an overwhelming of his ability/willingness to persevere. But it's not physical incapacitation. There's no basis for that, other than a hit to the brain or lucky fluke hit to the spine. Also, even tho a hit to the lower spine/pelvis or hip/femur might cause him to fall, it can't stop him from shooting at you from the deck. "wild" richochet shots that hit you or your loved one can still kill you, ya know.


                            • #15
                              Different firearms instructors, shooters, researchers and historians all have varying opinions on all the different rounds and their terminal ballistic impact on different targets.

                              Historians tell us that there are about a dozen or so places that try to take credit for developing the first pistol. These same historians tell us that the very early pistols were meant for use only by members of royal families. In fact, if you were not of royal blood and you were caught with a pistol you could be executed in some areas which meant being hung or beheaded. These same historians tell us that pistols were meant to be used by royalty during melee fighting and as a desperate means of self defense. In other words, pistols started off as a close range, personal defense firearm to only be used as a last resort.

                              Depending on where you are in the police community, different officers look at Evan Marshall in different ways. Some people like his work. Some people look at him with sideway glances and question marks on their faces. Still other people just shake their heads and walk away. Most police firearms instructors look at the work Marshall has done, think it through and understand what he was TRYING TO DO. Those of us who are firearms instructors do not accept everything that Marshall has put out there and we don't discount everything that he did either. What we do is look at his information, analyze it and see if it applies. Like anybody else, Marshall has his good and bad points. He has his followers and naysayers.

                              Most military snipers, up until recently, liked to engage hostile targets using a medium diameter round with over 150 grains of weight to it. Here's the thing that most snipers learned: No matter how tall the target was, if you got a good center mass hit in the chest of the enemy person, that killing shot would cause the person to spin 180 degrees and their feet would almost point back in your direction. This is one reason why snipers would relocate after making a killing shot. This is another reason why many snipers would engage a target from on the ground next to a tower or high position of some kind. By making it look like they were in the tower a sniper or his team might get to see who or what they were up against when those people attacked the empty tower after the sniper and his team relocated.

                              In more modern times, some snipers, inside of perimeters, will use the powerful .50 BMG rounds to engage enemy snipers. When one of those rounds hit a person in the center mass the damage is extreme as you can imagine. It is not unusual for the person who gets shot with one of these larger rounds to not survive at all because they were pretty much blown into chunks. That's some pretty impressive terminal ballistics right there.

                              The one key element to effective terminal ballistics that has always remained constant is: good shot placement. Special Forces Hostage Rescue, Navy SEALs, various police SWAT and Tactical Teams all understand that for their tactics and firearms to work that they need to:
                              1. Get close to the target to be engaged, 2. Deliver well placed shots into the target and 3. Use multiple bullet strikes on the target. Think about it for a minute. Almost all SWAT teams will close with their targets and deliver multiple shots into the center mass of the bad guys. For the guys on the assault force that means getting up close with a MP-5 in 9 mm to deliver a short burst. In other situations it might mean an officer getting close and delivering several shots with his handgun into the center mass (chest) of the bad guy. Either way, multiple bullet strikes at close range fired into the bad guy's vital area.

                              So terminal ballistics can also involved multiple shots as well as a single shot. This is why some police shootings get complicated. We've all heard the stories about a suspect being shot like 50+ times by a group of police officers. Sometimes such shooting scenarios can be excessive and other times, because the suspect consumed a large amount of drugs, 50+ rounds might not be enough at all. So the variables that come into play as far as terminal ballistics are concerned are many. Same thing applies to different points of perception too.

                              Years ago a number of us got to talk to a firearms instructor who had an offbeat sense of humor. The instructor said, "Imagine this... There I am. I'm at home minding my own business and over the P.A. I hear a voice say, "This is the F.B.I. We have your house surrounded." The very first thought that flashed through my mind is that my house is surrounded by accountants and lawyers..." That's the way some people actually think. That's also the reason why issues involving terminal ballistics will forever remain open to debate, everybody has their own way of thinking about different issues.