A Clear-Eye Look at Handgun Stopping Power

There is no question that the internet is the greatest invention of our time, although Al Gore trying to take credit was one of the sleaziest acts ever.

You wouldn’t be reading this without the internet. Well, actually you probably would as I have made my living for decades as a magazine writer and it would be published on the remnants of a dead tree, but you get the point.

Bullets or boxers, the heavyweight always hits harder Bullets or boxers, the heavyweight always hits harder

Bullets or boxers, the heavyweight always hits harder

The trouble is that there is no filter on the net. I was talking with the editor of a very large gun magazine yesterday about a test I am doing on a defensive shotgun.

“Don’t do like (name withheld to protect the stupid) and test the smooth-bore, defensive gun with sabot slugs designed for rifled barrels,” the editor said with what I hoped was an ironic laugh. Then he told me, “That guy will not be writing for us again.”

The point being that with magazines the writers have a filter and the fools and dumbasses don’t make it into print, at least not regularly. If you are a writer for any of the major magazines you made your bones first. You had to work your way into that position by proving you knew your stuff.

With the internet, not so much. Anybody can start a blog (this one is proof enough of that.) If what they are writing catches the fancy of the reader, it doesn’t have to be true. If that reader has a blog, maybe he repeats it like it was his idea. Then, one of his readers posts it on Facebook, where 1,000 people “share” then all their friends share and so on, until pretty soon people start to believe it’s true.

This is why much of the misinformation about stopping power of defensive handguns is being repeated over and over. I am amazed at the total BS out there.

Let’s take a look at reality. I am a big game hunter and I have been lucky enough to spend up to 150 days a year for decades hunting over most of the world. I have shot a lot of stuff including Cape buffalo, elephant, hippo and hundreds of smaller critters. I have watched other people shoot hundreds more. With the exception of the very big game like those mentioned, we use rifles that are proportionally much more powerful than defensive handguns.

For example, a whitetail deer is similar to a man in size. The .30-06 Springfield is one of the most popular cartridges used to hunt them. With a 150-grain bullet at 2,910 feet per second, it produces 2,801 foot-pounds of energy. A 9mm 124-grain bullet at 1,150 fps has 364 foot-pounds of energy. So in effect we are shooting a deer with a bullet carrying 670% more energy than that popular self-defense cartridge carries to stop a bad guy the same size.

Contrary to what you see on television, big game rarely just falls down when it’s hit. For television, most are using a high shoulder shot that shocks the spine and causes the animal to fall. It’s great for the camera, but is not the best shot from a hunter’s perspective. The more common and less risky shot is to double lung the deer by shooting behind the shoulder; center of mass, if you will. It’s always fatal. But the deer will almost always run before they die. Even when hit with a powerful rifle bullet that does an incredible amount of damage.

If a .30-06 doesn’t drop a deer in its tracks every single time, how can we expect a 9mm or even a .45 ACP to drop a man instantly?

2We can’t.

The elephant or Cape buffalo is perhaps a better comparison. We use big guns with about 5,000 foot-pounds of energy, but they are big critters. So in the case of a big buffalo we are hitting them with about three foot-pounds of energy per pound of body weight. With an elephant it’s about one to one or even less. Shooting a 200 pound bad guy with a 9mm is hitting him with 1.8 foot pounds of energy, per pound of body weight. With a .45 it’s just over two foot-pounds of energy per pound of body weight. So, this is a fair comparison.

Big game hunters after dangerous game know that a big, heavy bullet is the key to stopping a fight.     Big game hunters after dangerous game know that a big, heavy bullet is the key to stopping a fight.

Big game hunters after dangerous game know that a big, heavy bullet is the key to stopping a fight.

Heart shots are effective as is a double lung for buffalo. They run away, you follow and in a short distance you find them dead. But, nobody with a brain messes around with dangerous game and little guns. That’s because when an elephant or buffalo charges, you need to stop them before they turn you into a bloody puddle. You shoot for the brain, to take out the control center, but it’s a tough shot on any charging critter. That’s why we use big, heavy bullets with as much horse power as we can get behind them. The idea is, if you miss the brain or spine, you want to break bones, take out the structure so they can’t keep coming. A big bullet also does more tissue damage, which is what ultimate kills anything being shot with a firearm. But you need to stop them long enough for that to take effect. So you take out the structure.

No handgun is going to be an instant stopper 100% of the time on any bad guy. If a .30-06 is not an instant stopper, a 9mm or even a .45 ACP will not be either. But, a .45 will do more tissue damage and break more bones than a .380 or 9mm. Bigger bullet mean a bigger hole and more energy. That’s simple physics.

4

 The only shot that will be an instant stop on a bad guy is one that shuts down the central nervous system, even temporarily. Always shoot for center of mass because it’s much easier to hit in a stress situation. Forget head shots, they are Hollywood bullshit. The brain is small and easy to miss. The skull is tough and with a glancing blow can deflect a pistol bullet. Besides, the head is usually moving. High, center mass puts you into important tissue to damage and a bullet with enough penetration may hit the spine for an instant stop. If not, just as with the hunting TV’s high shoulder, it may cause enough tissue displacement to disrupt the spinal cord’s function long enough to stop the fight. Remember, the bone structure is all connected and a big, heavy blow to the sternum or ribs is going to have effect. You are playing the odds with any shot, but with a bigger bullet and more energy the odds are swayed in your favor.

The laws of physics still stand and a more powerful handgun with a bigger bullet carrying more energy is always going to be a better option than a smaller cartridge. There are other considerations when choosing a defensive handgun. But, shot for shot, bigger is always going to be better. We can distort the argument with anecdotal evidence, emotion and other non-scientific arguments, but it doesn’t change reality. The laws of physics remain intact.

5Granted, a .380 in your pocket is better than a .45 at home on the kitchen table when it comes time to fight for your life, but nobody can argue that the .380 is a better man stopping cartridge than a .45 ACP. Choose what works best for you in a carry gun, but when choosing look at terminal ballistics as well as magazine capacity, recoil and what the newest internet expert is spouting as “fact.”.

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