Let’s Talk Terminal Ballistics: The Confusion of Anecdotal Data

If you’ll remember back to last few weeks, we’ve talked about a number of aspects regarding handgun terminal ballistics. First we talked about how bullets cause wounds, then we discussed the performance benchmarks of the various calibers, and last week we talked about the myth of stopping power. There were some interesting comments following that post…which thanks to the miserable hackers aren’t available at the moment. Still, I remember the gist of some of the more interesting ones and we’ll take some time today to discuss the points they brought out.

As an example of the myth of stopping power I used the legend of the .357 magnum and the “lightning bolt” effect it was reported to impart upon any ne’er-do-well shot with it. In reality, there is no lightning bolt effect from the .357 magnum…or any other handgun round…that is a function of the caliber or the bullet it’s pushing. This led to a commenter asking about the observed results of people dropping instantly when hit with a .357 magnum…and that brings us to the source of so much confusion on terminal ballistics: Anecdotes.

Let me give you an example. When I was but a young Gun Nut, a new cartridge hit the scene: The .357 sig! While on one of my usual visits to my favorite gun store I heard an anecdote about two troopers in a state police agency who stopped a bad guy in a truck. The bad guy decided to shoot it out and the two troopers returned fire. One trooper was armed with a Sig P220 in .45 ACP, the other armed with a brand new Sig P229 in the new .357 sig caliber. The .45 caliber bullets reportedly didn’t penetrate the door, but the .357 sig bullet did, hit the bad guy, and punched his ticket to the afterlife. I bought a Glock 32 right then and there. Who wouldn’t want that kind of power in their holster?

The person who told that tale wasn’t deliberately telling me a story to sell a gun. He was reporting a story he’d heard from somebody, who had heard it from someone else, who had heard it from…you get the idea. Times, dates, location, none of these important details were present in the story. This doesn’t even mean that the story itself wasn’t based on a real event. There very well could have been a shooting which went down exactly as stated, but later when I had done some formal training and had participated in a number of medium shoots involving cars I figured out that whether or not a bullet passes through a car door has very little to do with the round itself. (Someone out there in internet-land documented such an event in pictures and called it “The Buick O’ Truth” ) If that shootout happened as told, it would be difficult to conclude anything about the performance of the .45 ACP rounds vs. the .357 sig rounds without first seeing the door that they hit. Did the .45 ACP rounds hit a structural cross member or a power window motor or something similar stopping them while the .357 sig round managed to hit just a couple of pieces of thin sheet metal that pose no real problem for a handgun round? Without that important detail the anecdote is essentially useless.

So it goes with many anecdotes…devoid of important details that are necessary for drawing the right conclusion. So what of the “lightning bolt” legend?

First, let’s ask ourselves a question: Why do people stop when they’re shot? As we showed last week using actual gunfight footage, handgun rounds don’t usually physically force someone to stop. The human body is built for remarkable durability, and when that durability is fully exploited by the human will to survive or to win, the results can be disastrous/heroic depending on the specifics of the case. An instructor I trained with summed up the problem of stopping a human being nicely with an analogy. The human body has one off switch and multiple timers. The off switch is the brain stem. Place a round there and it’s lights out. Place a bullet anywhere else and you’re playing a waiting game in terms of physiology.

If you’re a hunter, you’ve doubtless encountered this phenomenon yourself. I once shot a spike buck three times with a Marlin lever-action rifle chambered in .30-30 at close range. When we dressed the animal later I discovered that I’d placed my first round directly through the animal’s heart, shredding it. The other two rounds went through his lungs. I know the first shot went through the heart because that was the shot I had the best aim with. After that the confused animal, not knowing where I was, circled me twice at a run, and I ripped the other two shots off with a very fast picture through the scope. After being hit a third time the animal lit off away from me at maximum speed. We found him almost 100 yards away where it appeared that he finally ran out of gas mid-stride and collapsed in a heap. I hit a timer…the best one you can hit…added to it with a couple more good hits, and the critter still managed to run almost a football field up the side of a mountain.

Animals, of course, don’t have the same understanding of their mortality that humans do…and that leads us to where the “lightning bolt” comes from.

When you look at lots of shootings (and I’m talking about video, detailed reconstruction produced by investigation, etc…not gunstore anecdotes) you see a tremendous variation in the reaction criminal aggressors have to the understanding that they’ve been shot…and that’s really where the “stopping power” myth as we know it came from: Psychology. Watch enough gunfight footage and you’ll see people who weren’t even hit drop as if they were, and like last week you’ll see people who were dealt fatal wounds that seemed to take absolutely no notice of it in the moment. How someone reacts to a bullet in their anatomy depends on a great many things you don’t have any control over. Someone under the full effects of adrenaline and with a disciplined mind may take absolutely no notice of their wounds, however severe they are, and will keep trying to kill you. Some time ago a member of the Navy Special Warfare community made headlines because he made entry into a structure and insurgents opened up on him with Kalashnikov rifles. His primary weapon malfunctioned, and while he was being shot by guys with fully-automatic rifles at close range he drew his 9mm sidearm and killed all of them. He survived the incident, thankfully.

Someone may see the flash of the gunshot, not even be touched by the bullet, and go fetal because of a primal fear response. The same someone on a different day in a different mood might absorb unimaginable damage and continue to press an attack until their central nervous system is destroyed or their blood pressure drops low enough that they lose consciousness. An extra .10″ of bullet diameter will have very little to do with which response you get. There are certainly incidents where, say, a police officer has fired a single shot hitting the bad guy with something like a .357 magnum and the bad guy has stopped dead in his tracks…but I can find you documented instances of someone accomplishing the exact same feat with any other service calibers. There are also enough documented shootouts where a bad guy absorbed multiple hits with any of the major service calibers and kept going to show us that dropping someone instantly with a single shot (at least outside of a head shot) is not a reliable phenomenon. It may happen, but it’s not a function of your caliber or ammunition selection.

You can’t control how a criminal aggressor will react to taking a bullet, nor can you find a magic load you can stuff in a legendary weapon to force the issue. If you’re a typical good guy you can’t control the circumstances surrounding the need to pull a trigger to save your life. You can’t control whether or not the bad guy is wearing body armor, what kind of cover/concealment he is hiding behind, how many innocent people are around, or how many shots it will take to make him stop. What you can do is pick a reliable weapon, feed it ammo that meets or exceeds minimum standards, and train to develop enough skill to put those bullets where they’re likely to count for something…and to be perfectly honest, you could even skip the minimum standards part of that equation and still do well. A well trained shooter armed with a reliable weapon will still probably get the job done even if he’s using hardball ammo.

Terminal ballistics isn’t an unimportant consideration, but in the grand scheme of self defense it’s such a small part of the puzzle. It’s amazing to watch people who wouldn’t be able to spot the warning signs of criminal assault to (literally) save their life waging textual jihad on forums over tiny differences in the diameter of a bullet. It’s not a mystery anymore. We have tons of evidence from actual gunfights which demonstrates pretty clearly that all the major service calibers, when loaded with good ammo, accomplish whatever you can reasonably expect a handgun to accomplish. We have ample evidence that there’s no such thing as magic bullets…so how about we focus on the stuff that really makes a difference?

Skill. Awareness. Decision making. Stress inoculation. Fighting mindset. These are the critically important pieces of self defense.

13 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Terminal Ballistics: The Confusion of Anecdotal Data”

    1. Yes, I agree with the author on all points. One should use the caliber he or she is most comfortable shooting, combined with a projectile and load of the best performance. However, I would be very interested to know if there are any differences in the shockwave that travels through the body with each caliber and load. As a former MMA fighter, I wonder if the shockwave can cause enough brain movement to cause a knockout, if placed closely enough to the head. Even if there is a difference though, the effect on each individual would likely vary greatly. There are some people who just go to sleep every time they take a decent hit, and there are guys who can take the most powerful shot on the chin, the temple, behind the ear, or anyplace else, who just won’t go down. It may have to do with the thickness of the layer of brain fluid and/or thickness of the skull, or any one of a number of other factors, but it is an undeniable fact that some people have “glass jaws” and some just have a “great chin”. Still, if there was a caliber/load that produced enough shockwave to cause brain movement enough to cause a KO, I’d prefer to carry that load (provided that it has the same cavitation and penetration produced by modern loads). I haven’t ever seen any ballistic studies on that subject though.
      Back to the subject matter of the article though, yes, a human or animal can continue to attack or run until the brain stem is destroyed, or the brain becomes deoxygenated or rebounds hard enough in the skull to interrupt neural activity.

  1. Well said. Centuries ago in France, there was a legal method of settling a dispute by dueling with a sword. It was overseen and recorded as a formal court event. In those records are numerous accounts of someone being dealt a mortal wound, yet they continued to press the attack and mortally wounded the other person before they succumbed. One case involved a situation where the winning swordsman cut his opponent’s hamstring and the nearby artery. The guy wouldn’t quit, so he cut the other hamstring. The loser kept crawling even though his legs didn’t work, trying to reach his opponent. The winner just had to stay out of range while the other guy bled out. Then and now, only a brain stem hit will stop the attacker instantly everytime.

  2. You touched on, but failed to notice the importance of, the one criteria that seems to have pushed the .357 Magnum 125gr. combination to the top of the success ladder. Why do people stop when they’re shot? Either they’re incapable of responding (wounding mechanism) or they believe they are stopped. Very few of the people shot with pistol bullets ever stop because they’re incapacitated physically. They stop mostly because they believe they should. People shot with the .357/125gr have a higher tendency to BELIEVE they are finished, which likely causes more of them to give up.

    In a short barreled revolver, the .357/125gr has the loudest blast of all of the common defensive rounds that are commonly fielded. From a 4″ bbl, that combination puts out near 170db (published data from about 15 years ago), from a 2.5″ bbl it’s louder still (based on experience, but I don’t own a db meter, and standard ones become useless above about 165db anyway, so you have to start getting engineering-lab sophisticated to measure that high). For comparison, a 9mm (Federal 9BP 115 gr if memory serves) lists at around 155db out of a Glock 19. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so that difference of 15db tells us that the muzzle blast of the .357 carries about 20 TIMES the energy of the 9mm.

    Being on the front end of a .357 fired from a short barrel is functionally identical to being within 5 feet of a standard M84 Stun Grenade (170-180db within 5 ft). The combination of a good, solid hit striking the bad guy at the same time that he experiences the full effect of a stun grenade MAY account for some of the anecdotal accounts of it’s effectiveness. This is probably why the .357 Sig does not engender the same reaction in persons shot with it. It is the same bullet at the same speed, but it is substantially QUIETER.

    Even if I’m wrong and it doesn’t have any more psychological effect than a 9mm, it’s certainly no worse. As for me, I’m quite happy with my .357 housegun.

    FormerFlyer

    1. One of the curious things that happens under the influence of adrenaline is a phenomenon called auditory exclusion. I’ve experienced it myself a time or two and while it didn’t result in a complete loss of hearing, the sound of even a very loud firearm was little more than a popcorn pop. Given that most people who are shooting at one another tend to be under the influence of adrenaline, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to rely on how loud the bang is.

      I’d throw the theory out there that the performance of the .357 sig is not demonstrably worse than the actual performance of the .357 magnum. The legend of the .357, like most legends, is exaggerated by all sorts of anecdotes. In reality when a lot of the popular 125 grain .357 loads were tested with modern procedures they were often found to offer insufficient penetration and unreliable expansion. The .357 sig today offers more reliable performance than any .357 magnum 125 grain load from the old days.

      This doesn’t mean, of course, that the .357 magnum isn’t an effective cartridge. It’s just as effective as any other handgun round. If you hand load to the upper end of the spec and shoot it from a robust revolver it’s still quite potent. Most of the ammo on the shelves is toward the lower end of the .357 magnum spec. A .357 magnum can be an effective home defense or carry gun…but loaded with factory ammo it’s going to offer similar performance to the other service calibers, but in a lower capacity weapon with a more difficult reload.

      Personally I’ll stick to capacity. I can’t count on scaring the bad guy into submission with a loud boom, but I am reasonably certain that being able to put lots of bullets into a relatively small area quickly will have the desired effect. =)

      1. Ah, yes, auditory exclusion. That’s why all the swat teams and special ops guys all dropped the stun and flash devices from their SOPs.

        Auditory exclusion is a fact. But Flash-bang’s and stun grenades work too, and that is also a fact. Nothing works 100% of the time. Everyone has to decide on a balance. Yours is toward high capacity, and that is a valid argument, and I suspect you are well situated.

        For some of us, having a handgun that is useful afield has a value, and that usually means a magnum revolver. I’ve used .40 S&W and .45 ACP on wild hogs and I can tell you that there’s no way I will be as well served in the back country with a service sidearm as with a .357. I appreciate being able to put defensive ammunition in my field handgun and I believe that the trade-off of lower capacity is partially offset by increased psychological effectiveness. I may be wrong, but I’m not unsure.

        It seems that we are both satisfied with our choices, and I suspect that we are both serious enough about the subject that we work to obtain and retain competence with them. In the end, while we may be kitted out differently, I suspect we are both pretty well prepared.

        Thanks for a thought provoking topic. Keep them coming.

        FormerFlyer

  3. I grew up on my Uncle John’s stories of the magical .38 Super going through engine blocks.
    I bought a .357 as my first duty weapon ’cause it could, yes, go though an engine block.
    Evan and Marshall provided eye opening reading.
    And for the record even a .30-06 wont go through an engine block. At least not an iron small block V-8.
    And for Heaven’s sake never, ever shoot at an iron small block V-8. The bullet will ricochet to God knows where.

  4. I have read this series with interest and it has all seemed reasonable. Then on Friday I got a private tour of the SEAL base at theNavy Special Warfare Center at Coronado. It was a great experience.

    During the armory part of the tour I got to talk to several active SEALS and we discussed calibers. It became quickly obvious they the preferred bigger bullets in both pistol and rifle. They are moving away from the 226 and going to a H&K single stack .45. They also had high praise for the 7.62 version of the SCAR (they hated the 5.56 version) but they also love the 10.5 inch M4.

    One seal went so far as to say that they got it right in WWII and we lost our way and now we are moving back to it.

    As I spoke with them I thought of this series and I don’t think you can ask for better feed back as they are the ones putting rounds on bad guys.

    As a side note they love the 6.8 but can’t find it outside of the US and according to them they “don’t travel that heavy” meaning bringing supplies. They thought is was a good blend of power and weight.

    1. Now THAT is outstanding anecdotal evidence! How did you get a special tour of the Naval Special Warfare Center, by the way? Are these available to civvies? I’d love to hear straight talk on guns & ammo and hand-to hand from the SEALS.

      1. I live in San Diego and I struck up a conversation with a guy at the Zoo that turned out to be the commander of Team 1 (our kids were playing together in a line for the sky buckets). He hooked me up with the tour…not sure about tours to general public.

  5. One of the main thrust of this series has been: pistols modern bullets being basically equal it’s better to have more capacity. Like I noted below the SEALS felt or observe through direct experience that calibers are not equal and we changing to pistols that gave up capacity to get bigger bullets.

    To be fair they did say guys are going without pistols and just using rifles. This is mainly due to engagement distances in Afghanistan where a pistol was useless.

    1. As to the NSWG’s preferences, keep a few things in mind:

      1. They are using, for the most part, ball ammunition. Suppressed sub-sonic 9mm ball ammunition has never been known as a particularly great performer. With the .45 ACP, though, you don’t need weaker ammo because the full-power stuff is still subsonic.

      2. They tend to have somewhat specialized applications from a sidearm. In Iraq the ability to punch through windshield glass and do significant damage to the person on the other side of the glass was a particularly desirable given the number of car bombers running around there. The heavier .45 ACP round tends to deflect less when going through windshield glass. making it much easier to get good hits.

      3. The HK45 itself has won a number of fans because of the excellent durability and reliability it has shown in some of the most demanding testing and service use that any handgun has ever been put through.

      4. The HK45 procured by NSWG will not be replacing the P226, at least not anytime soon. It was purchased as a replacement for the MK23 pistol, a massive weapon that was simply ridiculously huge when a suppressor was attached. The HK45 with the new suppressor as a package is smaller, lighter, and much easier to live with.

      5. The units in SOCOM are using the pistol as a secondary weapon, rather than a primary. Capacity concerns are somewhat lower when the pistol you’re packing is riding as a backup to a rifle that’s intended for use in a team environment.

      When you combine all of those factors it’s not at all difficult to see why some folks in NSWG would prefer the HK45’s as a sidearm, at least for certain applications. I’ve had the pleasure of conversing with a number of folks in the NSWG community and their preferences on sidearms vary considerably. Some like the Sig P226 quite a bit, some would prefer a Glock or a 1911, etc.

      As for the rifle calibers, there’s clearly a very large difference in the performance offered by various rifle cartridges, which is why I limited the conversation to pistol rounds. In places like Afghanistan where engagements can take place at more than 400 meters, the 7.62 offers some very clear advantages over the 5.56. Incidentally, the level of performance offered by the 5.56 has been vastly improved during the GWOT. When members of NSWG first arrived in Afghanistan after 9/11 they quickly found out that our existing types of ammunition (M193, green tip, etc) were not working very well against the typically malnourished insurgents. This led to the creation of the 5.56 cartridges using heavier bullets. Even with the heavier rounds, there’s no substitute for 7.62.

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