Let’s Talk Terminal Ballistics 3 – The Myth of Handgun Stopping Power

In our continuing effort to talk about the basics of terminal ballistics, let’s chat about “stopping power”.

First let me ask a question: What, exactly, do we hope to achieve by using a firearm in self defense?

We intend to stop the hostile actions of the threat. We are hoping that by pulling the trigger we render the criminal aggressor physically unable to continue the hostile actions that place our life in peril. We intend to stop him from firing any more shots at us, or from continuing to encroach on us with an edged weapon, etc. Please note that this isn’t the same thing as killing someone. A wound that is eventually mortal does us little good if the bad guy presses his attack and kills us first. If a guy trying to bash your face in with a bat eventually dies from a gunshot wound you gave him just before he introduced your skull to Easton at maximum velocity, it won’t un-crack your skull. Since we want to stop somebody in their tracks, it follows that we’d want whatever weapon/ammunition combination we can find that does the best job of stopping somebody cold. What’s so hard about that?

Well…everything.


Human beings, as it turns out, are pretty hard to stop. The following video is security camera footage of police interrupting an armed robbery. The video shows one of the armed robbers charging right into three police officers.

The armed robber here was engaged initially by the first officer with three shots at a distance of just a couple of feet…but the bad guy doesn’t stop. He continues his movement towards the door and the other two officers and they open fire at a distance of only a few feet…but the bad guy doesn’t stop. He seems to try and open the door that won’t open, figures out his mistake, and goes through the partially open door on the left…all while two police officers are shooting him. He finally falls in front of the second door a full six seconds after the first shot was fired. In that span three officers fired over thirty shots at this individual, hitting him fifteen times. The late Mr. Dejuan Colbert soaked up the entire on-board payload of a Glock 22 magazine before he finally dropped. If you ever wondered who would need more than ten rounds…well…anybody trying to stop a dude armed with a knife, apparently.

Let’s look at another video:

The criminal in this video was shot only one time, but apparently shot very well as he died from his wound shortly after being hit. Note, however, that although he was eventually killed, he was not stopped. After being hit he backed away from his intended victim, jumped the counter, checked himself, and then ran until he dropped in the street a short distance away.

In both of these videos you see bad guys who, after being shot, retained the ability to continue fighting. They were still on their feet, still able to move, and had they been so inclined still able to press the attack. A few years ago a dude with a “live by the gun, die by the gun” tattoo picked a fight with a couple of police officers and was shot at over 100 times. The officers, armed with .40 caliber handguns and 5.56 patrol rifles, hit him 11 times, and he only stopped fighting because one of the .40 caliber rounds that connected broke his arm forcing him to drop the gun. When the officers tried to cuff him he was still violently resisting despite having been dealt wounds that would shortly end his life.

Folks, hear me:

Stopping power as it is traditionally discussed, is a myth. There is no magic round you can stuff into a handgun of any caliber that will guarantee that the bad guy you hit with it will drop like a rock and offer no more resistance. Even if it’s a caliber that starts with .4, even if it’s got the latest greatest uber-super bullet design, even if through skill or luck you place the bullet in a vital area that will eventually take the bad guy’s life…you still aren’t guaranteed that it’s going to stop his hostile actions in time to keep him from harming you any further.

This notion of “stopping power” comes from a bunch of unverifiable anecdotal data that’s little more than gunshop/internet forum lore repeated often enough to become axiomatic. The legend of the .357 magnum is an excellent example of this. I remember reading gun magazines that talked about a “lightning bolt”-like effect on bad guys who, when hit with the mighty magnum, dropped as if they’d just been struck by a bolt from Zeus himself. Now what sane individual wouldn’t want a holster full of Zeus?

…but if you zoom the lens away from individual anecdotes and look in aggregate at a whole bunch of shootings, it becomes very clear that the “lightning bolt” wasn’t a reliable phenomenon. Some bad guys would take even a minor hit from a .357 and drop like a stone, and others would absorb a whole cylinder full of Zeus’s finest magnum power in vital areas without noticing. Those discordant data points never seemed to get much attention, though. Not in gun magazines or in the now widely discredited Marshall and Sanow “One Shot Stop” data. (Which is still being used in arguments about terminal ballistics for reasons that mystify me.) The same is true for other calibers as well. The .357 magnum is just an easy target because of the “legendary” reputation the 125 grain JHP round gained over the years. It certainly offered better performance than many other options on the market at the time and with loads available today it will certainly perform as well as you can expect a handgun round to perform, but I’m afraid there’s nothing mystical about a few more feet per second of muzzle velocity.

…or a bullet with a slightly larger diameter.

Why is it, then, that some bad guys drop and others fight on? We’ll talk a bit about that next time.

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