Boom! Headshot

Every now and then when folks get to talking about pistol bullets and their terminal ballistics, someone will bring up an argument that goes like this: “Well I heard that BFE PD carries Round X in their guns, and they shot this guy in the head and the bullets didn’t penetrate his skull.”

skull with bullet hole

This will always elicit an eye roll from me, because as it turns out the human skull is a pretty robust structure. It’s designed to protect the super-computer that keeps this show running, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when it does what it’s designed to do. Usually, when you hear about “failed” headshots on badguys, it’s because of one of the following circumstances:

  • Poor ammo choice
  • Poor shooting angle

Usually, the “creasing” headshot only happens when the shot is taken at the hardest part of the skull – the frontal area above the eyebrows. That’s one of the toughest bones in the body, the sloping shape of the frontal area can aid in causing projectiles to glance off the skull instead of hitting and sticking. I’ve read reports of just about every pistol round failing to penetrate the skull at one time or another: everything from .22 all the way to the “mighty” .45 ACP. I will say that I’ve never heard of a .44 Magnum failing to penetrate a human skull, but I can also say that I’ve not read too many coroner’s reports where a .44 Magnum was the weapon of choice, either.

The point being is that using “round so and so” failed to smash through one of the toughest bones in the body is a flawed argument when you’re talking about service caliber cartridges. Without knowing what type of ammo was used and the exact circumstances of the shooting, it’s pointless speculation. Let’s just accept the fact that the forehead and skull is a pretty tough bone, and sometimes under the right conditions it can even deflect bullets. Most major LET agencies know this, which is why they don’t train for the “Hollywood” forehead shot, and instead teach that if you’re taking a headshot, it should be in the magical T-zone.


  1. The skull is tough enough that I’ve read firsthand reports of grizzly bear attacks wherein the maulee described teeth scraping across their skull, or being picked up by the head and shaken, without skull penetration. This is in the jaws of largest, strongest land based predator in the western hemisphere- seems like its a pretty tough bone.

  2. Sounds about right. My wife’s skull is impenetrable. Been trying to get through that thick head for years…

  3. The Russkies are taught to aim for the nostrils when face-to-face. It’s a weak point, plus has a vector straight to the brain stem.
    Not sure how that would work in reality.

  4. Really, really well. There’s a reason the eyes and nose are called the “Fatal T”, and getting hit there, especially by a rifle, leads to a thing called canoe head.

  5. These thing are often urban legend. There is a story told how The director of “Rigby Rifles” in the 20’s used only round nose bullets because he had survived a German ‘spitzer’ head shot that failed to penetrate his skull. Truth? I don’t know. The head is actually a poor choice for shooting. It moves too much. Even at a walk it’s hard to hit. True story. I actually saw this at the range with my own eyes. A fellow had a .44 cap-n-ball revolver. The backstop was railroad ties. I was a few yards away. I herd the shot and glanced over. He was laying on the ground. As I ran over he sat up. Red welt in the center of his forehead. The ball had bounced off the tie and then his skull. He packed up and left. (Days pre cell phones and the range had no phone.)

  6. There are sinuses just above and between the eyebrows and the bone can be quite thin. The thinnest part of the skull is the temples. But a shot that penetrates the frontal lobes or goes front to back through one hemisphere is often survivable (Gabby Gifford). A bullet passing through the side of the skull (especially just above the ear) is almost always fatal. Likewise a bullet entering the back just above the spinal column where the Medulla is located. That is the thickest bone and requires an upward angle unless you have truncated cone FMJ designed to punch through bone like the bear defense ammo sold by Double Tap or Buffalo Bore.

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