“Just shoot him a little bit”

“Why didn’t the cop just shoot him in the arm, or the leg?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard or read something along these lines after an LE or self-defense shooting, I would actually have a pretty decent amount of money. Once again, we find Hollywood and pop culture has completely ruined the common person’s perception of how guns work and what they do. Most people have no idea what a police use of force doctrine looks like, and for this post I’m not going to go into all the nuance. We are going to focus on deadly force, which is what the gun represents.

skull with bullet hole

First, let’s talk about the physical act of shooting stuff. Fact: it’s harder to hit a small target than a large target. This is why police officers are trained to shoot for the center of (available) mass. That means you shoot for the biggest part of whatever’s available to your vision. If that target is an unobstructed person, that center of mass is going to be the chest and upper thoracic cavity. That will be an easier target to hit than the arm or the leg.

Building on this the reason officers are trained to shoot for center of mass is because of how the body reacts to bullets and the goal of any use of force incident. The goal of the officer (or armed civilian) when using a gun is to get the bad man to stop being bad as fast as possible. Because of how the body works, there are only two ways to shut it down, via either an electronic shutdown (hit to the brain or central nervous system) or a hydraulic shutdown (loss of blood pressure due to hits to major organs/arteries). There is a third kind of stop, which is psychological. This occurs when someone gets shot, realizes they’ve been shot, and decides that they’ve had enough of whatever caused the shooting to start and then proceed to cease and desist being naughty. Psychological stops can occur with non-fatal wounds from small calibers, or from mortal wounds with serious calibers. They are also not reliable, which is why the police and armed citizens are not trained to rely or even prepare for these sorts of things.

Now that we understand what stops a fight, we can go back to the concept of shooting center of mass. It is an unfortunate side effect of the way our bodies are designed that the fastest way to shut a person down is to shoot them repeatedly in the chest. There is a lot of important stuff in there that’s full of blood, and putting holes in that stuff is the most reliable way to stop bad people from continuing to act badly before we or others suffer terrible harm from their actions.

Next, we have to understand what happens when you shoot someone in a part of their body that’s not the chest or head. First off, there is a very good chance that without immediate medical attention, they will die. Shooting a person in the leg runs a very serious risk of hitting the femoral artery or the femoral vein. Hitting either of those with a bullet will cause rapid and extremely dangerous blood loss, more with the artery than the vein. Even lower leg shots aren’t a safe bet, because the anterior tibial artery and the great saphenous vein are in the lower leg. So what about shooting a person in the arm, or the shoulder? Well, up there you have the brachial artery, the axiliary artery, and the subclavian artery. There are also large veins in that same area.

The reason we need to understand that is to know that real bullets don’t work like they do in Hollywood. In TV and movies, bullets either cause minor, insignificant wounds, or instant, hot death. In reality, they frequently do neither. In fact, shooting a person in the arm or the leg is the worst sort of way you can shoot them – you are still running a very serious risk of killing that person and have used deadly force, but you have not shot them in a place that is likely to cause rapid incapacitation. Which is another reason we don’t do it.

Let’s sum everything up, now. The reasons that armed citizens and the police do not shoot people in the arm, the leg, or the gun hand when deadly force is justified are these:

  • It does not produce reliable, rapid incapacitation
  • It has a high possibility of maiming a person or causing an extremely painful death
  • It is a much tougher target to hit under extreme stress

So the next time someone says to you “he should have shot him in the arm/leg” what they’re really saying is “he should have horribly maimed and possibly crippled him for life.” That’s an awful thing to say, and just because it’s coming from a place of ignorance doesn’t make it okay.

Let’s talk about handgun stopping power

We’re going to open with a quote:

“…there is no appreciable difference in the effectiveness of the 9 mm and the .45 ACP cartridges.”
Vincent J. M. Di Maio, GUNSHOT WOUNDS: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques SECOND EDITION, Page 150.


The reason why I open with that quote is because it goes to a point I’ve wanted to make for a long time. When you tell someone that they have to carry a .45 or a .40, you’re creating a mindset that sets that person up for failure. “You have to carry a .45 because it has more stopping power” – well that’s great, but I’m issued a 9mm for work; does that mean I’m going to get killed because of my duty gun caliber? That mindset of failure isn’t a problem for experienced, talented shooters, but imagine someone is a new officer, with minimal firearms experience. It can absolutely create problems.

I mentioned on Friday that if I could kill one gun myth, it would be that the AR15 isn’t reliable because “it shits where it eats” as a DI gun. I thought about that a bit longer, and realized that what I really wanted to kill was the myth of handgun stopping power. If you’re talking about service cartridges like the 9mm, .357 Sig, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP, they all do the same thing. Even the legendary .357 Magnum in modern loadings isn’t going to blow a man up into a shower of sparks. Yes, when you start getting into heavy magnum loads for rounds like .44 Magnum or some of the crazy magnums things change, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about practice service pistol cartridges.

So the question is why do people get so invested in handgun caliber wars? Because for most people guns aren’t a dispassionate purchase. In a perfect world, every gun selected for self-defense would be selected as free from bias as possible, but evaluating only the objective good and bad features. Unfortunately, that’s not usually how these things work, and people will let their feelings drive choices for the self-defense guns. Honestly, that’s not a bad thing when you’re picking between say, a Glock 19 or an M&P9, and decide on the M&P because you like the way it “feels” in your hand. Or if you’re choosing between a Beretta or a Sig and go with the Beretta because it looks cooler. Where the feels become problematic is when it drives self-defense purchases to do things that, for lack of a better term, aren’t smart. Like buying a gun from a sub-par company.

There’s a place for feels in gun purchases. I own a lot of guns because I like them, even if they’re not practice. For example: basically every revolver is not as good as a carry gun as a semi-auto. It’s just true. And I will often let my feels drive me to carry a wheelgun, because I like them more and as such am more likely to train with a wheelgun. I’m not immune to this by any stretch. That’s what causes caliber wars as well – people make emotional investments in their self-defense purchases, which is why some people react poorly when you tell them the fact that .45 doesn’t have any more “stopping power” than a 9mm. It’s not a rational thing, it’s an emotion thing.

They’re not hearing “All service handgun calibers are equal so it doesn’t matter what you carry,” what they’re hearing is “you made a bad choice and are wrong and dumb” regardless of whether or not that’s what is being said. When I carry a semi-auto, I carry a 9mm. I have in the past carried .40s and .45s as well, but anymore I just carry a 9mm because it’s easier to shoot well and holds more bullets. That’s if I’m not just being lazy and carrying a j-frame in a pocket or something, which honestly happens quite a lot. But even then I’m starting to carry my j-frame less and carry my Shield more…because for the same footprint I get 3 more rounds.

The bottom line of this post is simple: caliber wars are stupid. If you believe that your .45 is going to magically put a guy down harder than a 9mm, you’re wrong. It’s not. It’s just another tiny handgun bullet, and they’re all really not that great anyway. So instead of worrying about how hard your bullet hits, go to the range and get some trigger time in. It’ll be a better use of your time.

The myth of the temporary wound cavity

The tissue disruption caused by a handgun bullet is limited to two mechanisms. The first, or crush mechanism is the hole that the bullet makes passing through the tissue. The second, or stretch mechanism is the temporary wound cavity formed by the tissue being driven outward in a radial direction away from the path of the bullet. Of the two, the crush mechanism is the only handgun wounding mechanism that damages tissue. To cause significant injuries to a structure within the body using a handgun, the bullet must penetrate the structure. Temporary cavity has no reliable wounding effect in elastic body tissues (emphasis added). Temporary cavitation is nothing more than a stretch of the tissues, generally no larger than 10 times the bullet diameter (in handgun calibers), and elastic tissues sustain little, if any, residual damage.

That’s from the FBI’s study of wound ballistics; and is something that everyone should bear in mind. Temporary stretch cavity is only a significant wounding mechanism in projectiles over 2000 FPS, which no handgun round is going to be able to reach. Why does this matter? Because the discussion of terminal ballistics is fraught with so much myth and nonsense that it’s very easy to lose sight of what a pistol bullet is actually doing. Remember: kinetic energy doesn’t kill, energy dump doesn’t kill, and temporary stretch cavity doesn’t kill. The only wound mechanic of a pistol bullet is the permanent crush cavity, which is the actual path of tissue destroyed by the bullet. For the crush cavity to be significant, it must damage the central nervous system, or cause sufficient blood loss to shut down the body.

Don’t believe the nonsense.

Legendary stopping power

Everyone who’s ever been on the gun section of the internet knows two things. The first is that you carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46, and the second is that you carry a .357 Magnum because shooting twice is silly.

Sorry, I know you probably caught the derp from that opening statement, but bear with me here. A forum thread got me thinking about something, specifically the “legendary stopping power” associated with the classic 125 grain .357 Magnum loads. If you’ve read the internet, these are very well regarded for producing rapid incapacitation in badguys, and truth be told do produce some pretty impressive wound trauma in obstructed shots. But the question that ran though my mind this morning was whether or not the .357 Magnum did anything in those situations that a modern JHP wouldn’t have done?

cougar magnum (300x225)

This is the problem when we talk about “stopping power” because what causes a human being to stop can be complicated. Physically, there are only two ways to actually stop the human body: make it stop pumping blood, or disrupt the central nervous system. However, there are lots of document cases of people being “stopped” whose wounds were not incapacitating in any way. Similarly, there are lots of documented cases of people with serious wounds fighting well past when conventional logic says they should have stopped.

One of the more interesting areas of self-defense shootings is the concept of the “psychological stop” – where the person who has been shot realizes they’ve been shot, and decides that regardless of the severity of the wound, it’s time to rethink their life choices up to that point. I’ve seen gun articles that suggest that this could be part of the reputation of the .357 Magnum for putting dudes down – the tremendous muzzle blast and concussion associated with cooking off a 125 grain magnum out of a 4 inch gun makes it somewhat difficult to ignore the fact that you’re being shot at.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the legend of the .357 Magnum’s “stopping power” is just that: a legend. Yes, there are tales of it producing incredible one-shot stops, but you can find those with any round. There are also plenty of stories about it failing to stop badguys, which are also common with plenty of other rounds. It seems that the common thread in all of these stories is simple: marksmanship matters.

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. Continue reading “Let’s Talk Terminal Ballistics: The Confusion of Anecdotal Data”