Quick Thought on Stopping Power

While there is no doubt that modern hollow-point bullets are scientifically better at incapacitating badguys and that no modern service caliber is “better” than any other, I have a pet theory that most pistol cartridges that have legendary reputations as poor performers don’t necessarily deserve that rep. The following theory doesn’t really apply to mousegun rounds like .25 ACP or .32 ACP, by the way.

Doubletap .38 Special +P

The Caleb Giddings Theory of Historical Stopping Power: Cartridges that have reputations as poor performers before the era of modern pistol-craft may not have been as bad as the legends would have you believe. Pistol marksmanship prior to the Modern Technique was mostly an afterthought, and guns of the era also had tiny, hard to use sights. For example, perhaps the 158 grain LRN .38 Special round wouldn’t be known on the internet as The Widowmaker if officers of its era had better training.

Discuss in comments!


  1. Looking at the guns of bygone days gives some clue as well: The sights on most of them are pretty poor. Factor in the low light that plays into many armed encounters and it’s pretty clear that lots of time people were point shooting at each other in the dark…which isn’t conducive to expert marksmanship even by skilled shooters. I have a feeling a lot of encounters went like the incident Jim Cirillo mentioned in his book where two NYPD detectives met the suspect they were trying to apprehend in an elevator. 3 J frames emptied in the elevator, nobody got hit.

  2. I agree Caleb, however, the modern ammo makes a huge difference. For example, everyone is moving back to 9mm these days because there is so little difference between it and .40 or .45, but 9mm gained a poor reputation in the World Wars, yet .45 had a good reputation. so, with only ball ammo, there seems a difference. with good modern ammo, not much difference. The referenced Widow Maker round has some lame balistics, for a non-expanding bullet it moves very slow, so while the shooting ability trumps all, there is certainly a huge difference between 158 grn LRN and a modern +p hollow point. The “FBI Load” which has been around for quite some time earned a good reputation.

    1. This still holds true today as the 9mm ball ammo our troops are using has a pretty crappy reputation as far as I know, and that is being fired from a modern pistol with decent sights and better training. The level of training probably plays much more of a roll but how many people carrying a gun are going to be shooting like Bob Vogel while in a firefight?

      1. I’m not convinced the ball ammo in use by our troops is necessarily “crappy”.

        Graveyards have been built over the last 12+ years due to the fatal wounds inflicted by 9mm NATO Ball.

      2. I gotta say, sometimes I wonder if it’s just bias. I remember reading an entry on, I believe blackfive where the author spoke of his experience with 9mm ball being in effective in Iraq. Yet in the very same column, he talks about emptying his personal PDW .45 ACP Colt Commander into an insurgent who had charged one of his soldiers. The insurgent didn’t stop and would not get off his soldier. It wasn’t until the person beat the insurgent with his Commander until the trigger guard bent that the guy stopped fighting. Yet, somehow the .45 was an unstoppable round. Um, no.

  3. Tim, on the other hand, in “Guns, Bullets and Gunfights” Cirillo recounts the case of “Marty and Benny” who unexpectedly have to deal with an armed robber and hit him in the head multiple times using the 158 grain RNL load. The incident had more than two hits to the head where the projectiles failed to penetrate the skull, including one that lodged in the perpetrator’s sinuses. The perpetrator was knocked out and woke up to walk to the ambulance.

    I don’t recall an elevator incident in that book, do you remember which chapter?

  4. In many cases, you may be on to something. Considering that rounds like the 158gr .38 Spl was mass issued to the Lowest Common Demoninator along with really poor training, and that gun savvy cops (and more likely to be able to SHOOT) frequently carried something other than the issued lousy ammo, there may be some truth here. Likewise the reputation of teh 125gr .357 Magnum may well be enhanced by this same selection bias — a cop who spends his own money on his revolver and then buys the more expensive 125gr JHPs or SJHPs rather than take a department issued Model 10 and 18 rounds of 158gr RNL is probably more likely to actually spend time practicing shooting and therefor be a better shot, even if he DOES do all his practice with .38 wadcutters.

    On the flip side, when people equipped with one round loudly declaimed as a “mousegun” which they used in combat and noted its relative ineffectiveness then switch to a different caliber loudly proclaimed to be a “manstopper”, they have often reported seeing a noticeable performance change, even when receiving no significant additional training. The Philipines, with units reporting regular stopping failures with the M1892 in .38LC switching to M1873 SAAs in .45 Colt, for example. (On the other hand, it may be that since the M1892 was a DA and teh 1873 was a SA, the fact they HAD to cock for each shot may have made all the difference by forcing them to slow down, making it more likely they actually HIT. . . )

    I will note that the reputation of the .30 Carbine as a “nonstopper” really hit its stride in teh Korean War, where most carbines were the M2 selective fire variant, and troops INVARIABLY flipped the Happy Switch to “Go Faster” and did a lot of long bursts from the hip. Best guess is that the .30 Carbine rounds failed, not so much because the crappy quilted cotton winter jackets stopped them or the bullets failed to function, but because they missed the NK and Chinese targets entirely. . .

  5. I think the .30 carbine had such a crappy reputation because it was only slightly more powerful than a pistol…compare that to a M1 Garand, and there is certainly a difference. But that’s because rifles (especially a 30-06) can actually be described in terms of stopping power.

    I think there is a marginal difference between modern .45 ACP and 9mm luger that gives a very slight nod to the .45 but there was a slightly larger difference between the 230 grain .45 caliber at 800fps and the .38 special 158 grain LRN cartridges farting along at 750 fps. Especially as far as penetration is concerned.

    I think the more powerful bullets gained their reputations because they were among the only pistol cartridges that would penetrate 12″ or more with regularity.

    Take for instance, the .357 magnum. Your typical .38 special 158 grain LRN at 750 fps has little force behind it. Lead deforms pretty easily, and it seems unlikely that such a round would penetrate very far after going through a bone such as a rib or sternum. The .357 magnum pushed a similar weight bullet at nearly 400 fps faster (conservatively) and typically SWC rounds were the order of the day by that time. Such bullets had a better ability to reliably (this being the key word) drive deep into a target and thus, the .357 magnum became the preeminent manstopper. Paradoxically so, because the guys who carried .357 often just carried the .38 special 158 grain +P SWC “FBI load”. That load was still fairly capable of penetrating deeply enough and reaching organs.

    The .45 (always had a reputation for being a manstopper) enjoyed such reputation because the heavy weight of the bullet (that was often jacketed) gave it more force (mass x acceleration) and thus the repeatable ability to penetrate very deeply. It was also a fairly wide bullet (though this is largely academic) and didn’t require much practice to shoot well (and that is debatable). But, let’s face it, a SAO pistol is easier to shoot well than a DA revolver (especially when we’re talking about beginners)

    Back to present. Now we have bonded core hollowpoints and a 124 grain 9mm JHP can drive 12″ and expand to about the width of a .45 round and then some. That’s the same penetration as a 230 grain JHP out of a .45 or a similar load in the .40 S&W. They all expand to a total diameter that is only different by .1 to .2 inch differences. It is really only different paper, but you’ll get a slightly, very marginally wider expanded HP bullet out of a .45 as opposed to a 9mm (and even this is not a certainty).

    Penetration first, then all the other stuff comes into play.

  6. 9mm ball is like stabbing someone with an ice pick. Enough holes will still make them bleed to death, but frequently not quickly enough to keep them from doing the same to you before they finally keel over.

    I had a student on one of my CHP classes who had been shot something like 8 times with 9mm FMJ. He fought them off and got himself to the hospital. Based on where some of those bullet hole scars were located, I find it unlikely that the sheer lack of quit in him wouldn’t have overcome that rate of blood loss.

  7. I’m not going to touch the 38spl, 9mm, 40s&w, 45acp. That horse left the gate a long time ago. I will touch on training. I still have my father’s 1941 training manual. All weapons listed date to WW 1. The instructions for the 1911 pistol are a bent wrist and elbow. This is also the position for a gunfighter in a Fredrick Remington painting. It’s how they used to shoot. I’ve tried it for fun. It’s painful and inaccurate. At least I found it so. I imagine that is the reason the 45acp developed the reputation as a wrist buster. I learned to shoot with a Llama 45acp. Rental. all the 22’s and 38’s were out already. Loved the 45acp ever since.

  8. I started my LEO career using .38 110 grain +P+ in a Ruger Speed Six chambered in .357. Fast forward 27 years, after using everything from .9mm to .40 to 45ACP, I’m finally back to the .38 +P+ in a S&W model 60 Pro series 3″ chambered in .38 Special +P. The more things change the more they stay the same.

  9. Platt and Matix were “fatally” wounded. Fatal on a battlefield where the time and distance for your enemy to expire is completely different from an encounter in a dimly lit parking lot at 1AM where you could be stabbed to death by a “fatally” wounded assailant.

  10. John January 23, 2014 at 15:28
    “I think the .30 carbine had such a crappy reputation because it was only slightly more powerful than a pistol…”

    John, the .30 Carbine had a MUCH better reputation in WWII, where the overwhelming majority of carbines were the semiauto M1 variants (yes, would-be pedants, a few M2s WERE issued in WWII at the end. . . not enough to be statistically significant, but a few did make it into combat).

    As poor a round choice as the .30 Carbine ball round is (it is just a hot .30 pistol round, after all), the biggest variable between its reputation in 1943-1945 and the reputation it developed in 1950 and early 1951 was the full auto capacity — and contemporary evidence (training, combat photography, veteran accounts, etc.) indicate that the most common way of firing the M2 in combat at that time was full auto, from the hip. So, just as soon as the weapon was being used in a way that could barely be DESIGNED to encourage missing, it “suddenly” loses all stopping power, after performing fairly well against both highly motivated Japanese and fairly large (by comparison to NKPA and PLA conscripts) European combatants. . . strange. . . almost as if there is a correlation between “hitting” and “stopping”. . .

    1. The .30 carbine is, was, and always lacked stopping power. That was never the point. As a replacement for the pistol it was good enough. With the poor techniques of the day, few men could hit with a handgun at more than a few yards. The M-1 carbine is accurate to at least 150 yards. Light and handy it was issued in huge numbers. Indeed, a 1944 division had many more Carbines than Garands.. And anyone (which means everyone) trained with a rifle, no matter the type, could use it. I don’t doubt that full auto, from the hip, will miss every time if that’s what indeed happened. I had no trouble hitting a 50 yard target with a M-1921/28 Thompson. From the shoulder using 4-5 round bursts. Never fired an M-2.

    2. By the way; the biggest problem with the carbine was what it did to US rifle design. The Army decided on a full power rifle with select fire that weighed not much more than a Carbine.There is a big difference between a select fire 5-6 lb carbine firing the pipsqueak .30 carbine round and one firing .308. And the Army at one time specified the select fire Garand replacement weigh under 7 lbs. There was little chance the M-14 at 9.5 lbs could do so. I have fired a full auto M-14. It requires careful trigger work to keep 2-3 round bursts on target. And I had a bipod.

  11. Ethan — The point I was trying to make was not that the M1 Carbine with ball ammo is a Massive Stopper; it isn’t.

    However, it seemed to get the job done well enough, often enough in WWII, yet in Korea it was supposedly incapable of putting down malnourished and (in many cases — study what percentage of the NKPA soldiers were actually SOUTH Koreans “conscripted” at gunpoint when the NKPA overran their villages — look at the repatriation issues when HUGE percentages of “NKPA POWs” weren’t willing to be “repatriated” to North Korea and weren’t Communist at all) severely undermotivated troops. The real change was the “Go Faster” switch and the firing technique, not the round — and the _targets_ in question should have, if anything, been easier to put down when hit.

  12. Also, my dad loved the M2 Carbine, and for one tour in Vietnam, carried one in an M1A1 stock relieved for the selector because for his duties at the time, he felt an M1911 was inadequate but an M16 was too much — the Carbine tucked away behind his back with the stock folded quite nicely). He also said he could hit what he aimed at, but there were only three ways to do any good with it — fire aimed semi auto from the shoulder out to 100-150 yards, fire aimed SHORT bursts from the shoulder at _handgun_ ranges, or do a mag dump from the armpit in the general direction of the enemy so they duck while you bug out into the weeds to get away from the crashed helicopter. (And, in all three modes, he viewed the Carbine as being a “Go Away!” gun while you went to cover or found a real rifle. . . i.e., a “PDW”, not a “combat rifle”. Which is, as you point out, what it was designed to be – a gun for troops who don’t think they’ll actually need a gun.)

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