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.