Does Caliber Even Matter?

I’m planning on doing a series of tests to explore the question of whether and/or how much caliber matters when choosing a firearm, but until then, I wanted to take a moment to explore the bigger question…

Does The Caliber Of Your Gun Matter?  At All?

I have spent an absurd amount of time, and money, and effort, on testing ammo, trying to find what performs best from my various firearms, especially the little guns, and sharing that info for anyone else who may be interested in the same.

And I’ll be the first to tell you — obsessing over caliber and hunting for “magic” bullets is the least important factor in armed self defense. I do consider it a factor, but it pales in comparison to the other more important factors.

There are no reliable statistics out there, that I know of, that assess the question of whether or not the caliber of a gun made a difference in any specific defensive encounter.  Specifically, there’s no comprehensive data on a failed defensive gun use where a medical expert could point out a particular gunshot wound and say “see, if this person had been shot with a .40 or .45, that would have ended the fight right here and now, but because they used a 9mm the perpetrator wasn’t stopped.”  Singular incidents exist, definitely — perhaps the most famous being the 9mm bullet used in the ill-fated 1986 FBI Miami Shootout.  In that case, the 9mm was on a path to hit Platt’s heart, but stopped just an inch short.  Had it hit his heart, it may have incapacitated him much quicker.  That was a clear case where using a different type of bullet may have changed the outcome of the fight, or using a more powerful caliber may have changed the outcome, but — we don’t know that it would have changed the outcome.  And the fact that I had to go back to a case that happened 29 years ago, just to bring up an example, should point out just how huge the lack of data is on this subject.

What Factors Do Matter?

Not all defensive gun uses result in shots fired.  Not all shots that are fired hit the target.  And not all shots that hit the target, do any significant damage.  There are many instances where the caliber of your gun won’t matter at all.  Really.

Here’s how it breaks down, as far as I have been able to ascertain:

1) A large percentage of encounters end as soon as the bad guy sees that you are armed. Merely brandishing your firearm is frequently enough to convince the bad guy to leave you alone.  Exactly what percentage this is, we don’t know and will never know accurately, because many of these encounters are never reported. It’s impossible to gather accurate data if someone won’t share their experience, and if no shots are fired, sometimes folks don’t feel like sharing that story with the police. John Lott has done extensive research and conducted surveys on defensive gun uses, and he estimates that 95% to 98% of defensive gun encounters end with no shots being fired at all; just the sight of a gun causes the bad guy to change his mind and disengage.  There are other surveys out there that put the number lower; I’ve seen estimates of 70% to 80%.  Now, there’s no real way for us to know for absolutely certain what the number really is, so I’m going to take a wild guess at the middle ground and use 90%.  I’m not asserting that this number is accurate, only that it represents the middle ground between the high and low end of surveys that have been taken, and because no hard data actually exists, we cannot truly know what the true number is anyway.  So, for purposes of continuing the discussion, I’m going with 90%.  If we use this 90% figure, we could conclude that in at least 90% of defensive encounters, caliber doesn’t matter at all and makes no difference in the outcome of the encounter.  The bad guy turned and ran whether the crime victim was using a .22lr mini-revolver or a .44 Magnum.  Just the sight of a gun was enough to end the encounter.  Heck, odds are pretty good that the gun wouldn’t even have needed to have been loaded!

2) For the remaining 10% of encounters, the crime victim needed to do more than just show that s/he had a gun.  This means the trigger was pulled and  a shot was fired.  Now, presuming that a shot was fired towards the bad guy, we know that some percentage of those encounters will end immediately whether the bad guy is hit or not. As far as I know, we have no way of knowing what that percentage is, but surely there is some percentage of the bad-guy population who, when faced with the sight of their intended victim brandishing a gun, might think “oh, that’s not a real gun” or “no way this guy will have the guts to actually shoot me” or whatever.  For whatever reason, the sight of a gun is not enough to deter this particular crop of bad guys, and they may continue to attack — right up until their intended victim pulls the trigger. At that point, some percentage of the bad guys will turn tail and run, even if they weren’t hit.  Now, what percentage of bad guys will see a gun, but continue to try to mug/rob/rape/kidnap/etc you anyway, but will turn tail and flee when that gun gets fired? I have no earthly idea.  I haven’t seen any data on this, I haven’t seen any studies that have broken it down to this degree.  Simply put, I have no idea at all.  I just presume that it is logical and reasonable to think that there must be some percentage of bad guys who are dissuaded by the flash and noise of a gunshot, and will disengage because of it.  But there is no data (that I know of).  So, even though I am loathe to do it, I am left with no choice: I simply must make a random number up off the top of my head.  Let’s go with 1/3. Now, I have no idea whatsoever if that’s right, or close, or wildly wrong. I just know that we need some sort of number in order to continue exploring this question, and — even if this number is wildly wrong, I think you’ll see by the final conclusion that it really doesn’t matter all that much.  This final conclusion won’t and can’t be a a proper scientific conclusion because we simply do not have the data to go off of, so — we’re taking wild guesses here. So, in this hypothetical, wild-guess narrative, maybe 1/3 of the bad guys who didn’t flee at the sight of a gun, would indeed turn and flee when someone takes a shot at them, even if that shot misses. Which, for purposes of this discussion, means (once again) caliber doesn’t matter in these scenarios.

Adding together the 90% of bad guys who disengaged at the sight of a gun, with the 3.3% (1/3 of the remaining 10%) who were dispelled at the sight and sound of the trigger being pulled, that puts us at 93.3% of potential defensive gun uses ending with caliber not mattering at all (even though, again, these numbers bear no basis in reality, because we cannot know the true statistics, because they are not reported).

3)  That brings us to the third class of encounters — ones where the bad guy actually gets shot. Now, in our (admittedly inaccurate) tally here, only 6.7% of armed encounters are going to get this far, because in the other 93.3%, no shot needed to be fired. So what happens when a bad guy gets shot, by ANY bullet, of ANY caliber, whether it’s a hollowpoint or a frangible or an FMJ, whether it’s from a .500 S&W or a .22LR or something in-between? According to my evaluation of Greg Ellifritz’s “An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power“, the numbers are pretty consistent — approximately 60% of people who get shot, give up immediately.  According to Ellifritz’s data, approximately 60% of the encounters ended with one shot being fired, almost regardless of what handgun was used.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s 9mm or .357 Magnum or .40 S&W or 10mm or .44 Magnum or .22LR; the numbers were always in the general ballpark of 60% (ranging from 47% for the 9mm, up to 72% for the .32 ACP, but most calibers came in between 51 and 62%).  It doesn’t matter if the bullet was a hollowpoint or an FMJ or a frangible.  People apparently don’t like getting shot.  Apparently it doesn’t feel good and apparently it’s enough of a shock that they just plain stop right then and there. Now, what we DON’T know, from the data, is how they stop — whether those approximately 60% all drop dead from that one shot, or they faint, or they turn tail and run, or they calmly walk away, or if they put their hands up. Certainly some of this 60% of shooting incidents included all of the above. The data we have doesn’t discern among them. We don’t know WHY they stopped, we just know that they did stop. Updating our statistics, and using 60% as the approximate number of people who were discouraged or forced to stop after a single hit, that means that of the 6.7% of bad guys who actually needed to be shot to stop, 60% of them stopped after one bullet of any kind, so that’s 4.02%. If we add that 4.02% to our prior 93.3%, we’re up to 97.32% of armed defensive encounters where caliber basically did not matter and did not make a difference.

That leaves 2.68% of the encounters where caliber may or may not make a difference.

Stunning, isn’t it?  And, yeah, my numbers may be off — in fact, I guarantee they’re off.  But how far off do they need to be, before it starts to make a difference?  If we used John Lott’s assessment that 98% of encounters ended just by brandishing a weapon, then (keeping all our other numbers the same) that would mean caliber didn’t matter 99.53% of the time.  Or, taking the low end of the estimates (that 70% of encounters ended by brandishing), that would mean caliber didn’t matter 92% of the time.  So, take your pick — caliber mattered either 8% of the time, or 2.68%, or 0.47%.  Whichever you go with, I’m sure you can see we’re basically picking nits at this point.  I’m reasonably comfortable with my middle-of-the pack estimate  of 90%, and that leaves us with 2.68% of the incidents where the caliber of the gun might matter.  But in any of the described scenarios, it should be obvious that the caliber of the gun is not the most important factor when discussing a successful defensive gun encounter.

So let’s look further into those shooting scenarios where caliber may have mattered (meaning, in those 2.68% of encounters, the person didn’t stop just because they were shot with some bullet somewhere in their body, they continued their attack, and needed to be shot multiple times to force them to stop.)  How do we determine whether the caliber mattered or not? Once again, there’s no real way to know.  A person shot with a .22LR through the brain stem will drop instantly; one shot through the thigh with a .45 ACP FMJ may not even show any reaction.  Or they might — they might faint right away.  Here’s the tricky thing: even though we know (from Ellifritz’s data) that there were people who stopped after being shot multiple times, we don’t even know whether or not multiple shots were necessary.  Maybe the first shot was a .22 that hit them in the thigh and didn’t force them to stop, but the second shot went through the brain stem and dropped them immediately. Or, maybe they were shot 21 times by a .40 S&W and wouldn’t stop, and the 22nd shot they were hit with went through their brain and forced them to stop (it’s happened before). Or maybe they were hit with a quick double-tap — maybe they would have stopped after being shot just once, but the good guy hit them with a second shot so quickly that the bad guy didn’t have a chance to stop before being hit with the second bullet.  This might be the case in many police shootings, where multiple officers might unload on a suspect simultaneously — perhaps the suspect would have quit after the first hit, but we can’t know because he was hit with multiple shots before even getting the chance to stop. We don’t know, the data doesn’t specify.  It’s entirely possible that the earlier estimate of about 60% (of people stopping after being shot once, regardless of caliber) is low, because perhaps some percentage of multiple-shot scenarios would have ended after the first shot.

What we do know is that for this last 2.68% of defensive encounters, we’re probably past the point of wondering whether our super-duper-magic-frangible bullet had enough mystical “stopping power”, and we’re into the category of “the bullet had better damage the bad guy’s body enough that they cannot continue to threaten you.” And here’s where we really need to focus on shot placement first, and caliber second.

Shots That Will End A Gunfight

A perfectly placed shot on the central nervous system (one that hits the upper spine or brain stem, or through the major circulatory system organs) WILL, without a doubt, bring a fight to an immediate stop, guaranteed (but if, and only if, the bullet has sufficient power to reach and destroy those organs). If your ammo falls short, there’s nothing that your shot placement can do to make up for that, but as long as your ammo penetrates deep enough to hit those targets, shot placement on those areas will result in an immediate cessation of hostilities.  No human being can continue to attack you if a bullet has damaged their brain stem or upper spinal column.

Additionally, a perfectly placed shot on the major circulatory system organs will absolutely bring the fight to a stop, in short order but not necessarily immediately.  If a bullet damages a major circulatory system organ (such as the heart, or a major artery), blood loss will, sooner or later, cause the bad guy to drop unconscious.  However, once again, the bullet needs to penetrate deep enough to do its job.  A perfectly placed shot that stops 3″ under the skin will likely not force a stop. A deep-penetrating bullet that misses the vital organs and only zings through a shoulder or thigh, will likely not guarantee a stop. A .22LR or 9mm FMJ through the brain may or may not cause a stop. A 9mm JHP through the heart will cause a stop — maybe not instantly, but within a dozen seconds or so the bad guy absolutely will stop, as blood loss causes them to lose consciousness — and in this case, a .45 hollowpoint will probably bring about unconsciousness faster than a .22LR roundnose, even though both would likely eventually cause unconsciousness; bigger holes will result in faster bleedout and a more rapid loss of blood pressure. Shot placement matters a lot, and bullet performance matters, but amazingly enough they only really seem to matter in this last group of 2.68%.

Now, truth be told, the data is inconclusive and unreliable. We don’t know that the group is really 2.68% (even if we assume that the 90% figure for no-shots-fired is accurate, or the 1/3 wild guess for shots-fired-but-missed is accurate). In that last 2.68%, all we know is that they weren’t stopped by being hit by only one shot. What we can’t know is whether they may have chosen to stop after two, or three, or four shots — even if none of those shots were true incapacitating shots! There may be a tough guy out there who takes a 9mm to the shoulder and shrugs it off, but after three or four of them he may decide to throw in the towel. What % of bad guys would this involve? No way of knowing, other than to say it seems reasonable to assume that there is SOME % of them out there.

Here’s the thing — will YOUR defensive gun use be part of that first 90%? Or will it be part of that last 2.68%? I don’t know. You don’t know. Caliber may be irrelevant in your situation — or it may matter. It might. We just don’t know.

Wrapping It Up

After years of studying this subject, these are my conclusions: in a majority or even potentially the vast majority of potential encounters, caliber will not matter. But sometimes it might. And sometimes, it will. What kind of encounter will YOUR defensive encounter be? The odds say caliber won’t matter, but the reality says that if it’s MY life on the line, I want the best chance of surviving I can get. And that’s why I’ve spent so much time testing ammo from a wide variety of guns: because I cannot control what type of bad guy I will encounter, I cannot pick and choose what scenarios will cause him to flee or stop, but I CAN control what goes in my gun, to at least verify that IF I end up in the worst-case scenario, at least I know that my ammo will be capable of doing the job that needs to be done.

Better shot placement can take years of training and effort and, sometimes, luck. Better ammo performance? That’s a matter of just spending $20 and picking up the right box of ammo for the type of gun you’re using. You may or may not be able to control your shot placement, but you definitely can control your ammo choice. In the end it may or may not matter, but if you encounter one of the rare instances where it does matter, then — seems like such an easy thing to fix, why not use stuff that performs properly and gives you that little extra edge?  And that’s why I test for deep-penetrating, proper-performing hollowpoints from even the smallest of pocket guns.

We also know that there’s such a thing as physics.  Larger bullets lead to larger holes.  A smaller bullet (like a 9mm) can be made to expand to a larger size, but there’s always a chance that an expanding bullet might not expand.  It happens.  As fans of the .45 say, a 9mm might expand, but a .45 will never shrink.  Also, bigger bullets can carry more momentum and smash through bigger bones and stay on course better, but that’s not to say that smaller bullets can’t get the job done satisfactorily.  Smaller bullets (9mm for example) can give you greater capacity in your magazine than larger bullets (.45 ACP for example) will — and that may mean you have more chances to put shots on target before the gun runs dry.  These are some of the things that we do know.  But how important are these factors, in the overall scheme of things?  It seems like in 97.32% of the cases, not important at all.  But in 2.68% of the cases, it may matter some.  I doubt it will ever matter a lot.  To what degree it does matter, that’s why I carry a .45 or 10mm whenever possible. Even though I know it won’t matter most of the time, I cannot predict when it will matter, and I want to be as prepared as I can be.  As has often been said, nobody who’s ever been in a gunfight has ever said “man, I wish I’d brought a smaller gun.”

But knowing how little it’s likely to matter, that’s why I also feel plenty adequately armed with even a 9mm pocket pistol, and why I have on occasion carried only a pocket .380.  Because in somewhere around 97% of the potential scenarios that I’ve been able to identify, caliber doesn’t seem to matter.  Being armed, however, does seem to matter very much.  Remember, depending on the estimates you use, between 92% and 99.5% of all defensive gun confrontations were settled just by having been armed at all.  Given those numbers, it seems prudent to reiterate Rule 1 of Gunfighting: Have A Gun.

My advice: carry the biggest, most powerful firearm that you can comfortably conceal and accurately shoot.  If, for you, that means a 10mm, then you will be well prepared to meet any threat that a handgun can be expected to meet.  If, for you, all you can handle is a pocket .380, then go for it — you’ll still be prepared to handle a huge majority of potential defensive gun encounters (if the data is to be believed).  Don’t use this article as justification to carry less gun than you know you should, but do take from it that the first and second priorities are that you should be armed, and that you should be skilled with your firearm.  Everything else (caliber, capacity, particular ammo, draw speed, etc) pales in importance with those first two priorities.  They’re still important, but don’t ignore the bigger picture by getting caught up in the minutia.

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.357 Magnum? Check. “Center Mass” hit? Check. Instant Stop? Er…

If there’s one thing that drives me batty, it’s the insistence upon certain folks that there’s such a thing as a “best” caliber, or that certain bullets or certain calibers have a higher percentage of “one shot stops” than others.  And the one that gets talked about most often is … the .357 Magnum.

It seems like the .357 Magnum has become lionized as this incredible, unbeatable, instantaneous, immediate “stopper.”  And perhaps it’s earned its reputation fairly, or perhaps it’s been exaggerated, it’s hard to say.  But what we can say, definitively, is that there is no such thing as a guaranteed one shot stop.  And anyone who relies on that notion, may very well be putting themselves in jeopardy of serious injury or death.

I’ve previously written about the case of Richard Blackburn taking a shot at Trooper Mark Coates with a .22 mini pistol, and Coates responding with five (count ‘em, five) shots of .357 Magnum to the chest of Blackburn.  Did that put Blackburn “out of the fight”?  Hardly.  Blackburn subsequently fired another shot from his .22lr, which managed to enter the armpit hole of Coates’ vest, find his heart, and killed him.  Blackburn is alive today, serving his prison sentence.

Today I’ll bring another case to your attention, the case of LAPD Officer Stacey Lim.  Officer Lim was followed by a gangbanger wanting to steal her car.  When she pulled into her driveway and exited the car, he shoved a .357 Magnum at her from about five feet away and pulled the trigger.  He didn’t miss.  In Officer Lim’s own words, the .357 bullet hit her “just left center of my chest, it went through my chest and out my back, nicked my diaphragm, my liver, my intestine, shattered my spleen, put a hole in the base of my heart, and left a tennis-ball-sized hole in my back as it exited.  It knocked me back into my car door.”

Now, folks, let’s think about that.  If you were in a defensive encounter and had to shoot a bad guy, hitting them left-center in the chest, punching a hole in their heart, shattering one of their vital organs, and blowing a tennis-ball-sized hole out of their back … not to mention the .357’s vaunted “hydrostatic shock” effect, if such exists…) You gotta think that’s an absolute manstopper right there.

Well, a manstopper maybe, but not a woman-stopper.  Ms. Lim was hit bad, yes, but she wasn’t stopped.  Far from it.  She transformed into a handgun owner’s worst nightmare: a determined combatant.

In her own words, she said “I think I was just more mad than hurt at the time, I figured ‘I could feel it later.’ ”

Just like in previous articles where I wrote about Officer Jared Reston who took a .45 to the face which shattered his jaw:  that didn’t put him out of the fight either — it just made him more determined to win.

Officer Lim fired at the gangbanger and as he ran she pursued him around her car and fired three more shots at him, hitting him in the shoulder, the back, and the base of the neck.  And that ended the fight.

Now, consider — she’s had a tennis-ball-sized hole blown through her.  She’s got a hole in her heart, and holes put in vital organs.  She’s rapidly bleeding out.  And yet she maintained her composure, built up determination, went out and killed her attacker, then made it back to the front of the car, leaning on the hood, then started walking up her driveway, and then fell to the ground before finally passing out.

That’s a lot of time for her to be able to continue walking and consciously acting.  Long enough to defeat the attacker, definitely.  And while her injuries were potentially fatal (I’m sure she would have died without immediate medical treatment; in fact, her heart did stop while she was being treated)… but — again, the point of using a gun in a defensive encounter is not to eventually kill a person, it’s to stop them immediately from their aggressive actions.  And in this case, even a well-placed shot with the legendary .357 Magnum was not only not enough to stop a determined policewoman, but she retained control of her body long enough to kill the shooter with four shots, before succumbing to blood loss and passing out.

Still want to buy into “one shot stops” and “hydrostatic shock”?  Still think that a good solid hit of .45 is enough to put anyone down?

I don’t.

Now, understand — I’m not bagging on the .357 Magnum — it’s a superb cartridge, a very powerful cartridge, and the more powerful the gun you have, the higher the likelihood that your bullet can do more damage than a less-powerful gun.  I think anyone carrying a .357 Magnum is very well armed indeed.  But here’s the point — if you think that you’re going to be fine simply because you’re using a .357 Magnum, you’re fooling yourself.  Especially if you’re using a snubbie 2″ barrel .357 (the .357 round loses a lot of velocity when it’s fired from a short little barrel; the reputation the .357 developed was from a 4″ barrel.)

The fact is, when you’re facing a determined attacker, they sometimes can and do shrug off shots from .357 Magnums, .45 ACPs, or whatever else you try to hit them with.  Even with a tennis-ball-sized hole blown through them.

You cannot rely on “hydrostatic shock” to knock someone down or out.  The whole concept of whether “hydrostatic shock” even exists from handgun rounds is debateable, but even if the effect does exist, it does not happen reliably enough that you can rely on it.  Neither can you rely on a big bullet to knock someone out of a fight.  I’ve had commenters on my ammo tests say things like “realistically, you hit someone with one or two .45’s and the fight is over.”  Well, Peter Soulis hit Tim Palmer with 22 rounds of .40 S&W before Palmer finally stopped.  Jared Reston was hit with 7 rounds of .45 ACP and never did stop, he won that fight.  Richard Blackburn was hit with five .357 Magnums and still managed to shoot and kill the officer who he was fighting with.

These may be exceptions, yes.  They may be unusual.  But they can happen, and if you’re going to rely on a handgun for personal defense, you should be aware of what can happen, be aware of how a determined attacker may possibly react, and be prepared to take action to ensure that you emerge triumphant from the fight.

It’s been said before, it needs to be said again.  Handguns are lousy fightstoppers.  Use the biggest, most powerful gun you can comfortably shoot, and shoot until the threat stops, and forget the whole concept of a “one shot stop” — keep pulling that trigger until the threat you face is no longer facing you.  Stay alert and be careful.

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What about Kinetic Energy Transfer? Does It Cause Psychological Stops?

Ah, the old “energy transfer” question.  You knew I had to address it sooner or later, didn’t you?  Turns out it was later.  But, I just ran across an interesting article that I think may prove quite illuminating on the subject.

What subject?  Psychological Stops.  As in, why does someone who’s shot superficially, or non-mortally, choose to drop their gun and stop attacking?

It’s an important subject because, while we typically deal with the concept of “incapacitating wounds”, the fact remains that a large percentage of gunfights seem to be ended due strictly to psychological factors, rather than physiological factors (i.e., the person voluntarily decides to stop attacking, instead of being forced to stop attacking.)

How many cases are of psychological stops rather than physical incapacitation?  I don’t know of any definitive study that has attempted to classify it.  I do know that there are doctors who say that (with treatment) six out of seven people shot by handguns will survive.  In a case of true incapacitation (where the person’s body has been so damaged by the bullet that their body itself shuts down and therefore removes their capacity to continue acting voluntarily) the odds would seem to be drastically lower, since true incapacitation usually relies on either the death of, or paralysis of, or the rendering unconscious of the attacker.  And rendering them unconscious usually happens through blood loss so substantial that their blood pressure drops below that necessary to keep them conscious and acting.  And if they’re losing blood that fast (through a damaged artery or circulatory system organ) then it doesn’t seem likely that emergency responders would be able to get there in time to prevent a total bleed-out.

As such, it seems that a very high percentage of people who are dissuaded from their actions via gunfire, do so not because their body has been so damaged that they cannot continue, but rather they choose voluntarily to stop.  (I offer as food for thought my prior articles on just how much damage a human body can sustain and still keep attacking; Peter Soulis put twenty-two rounds of .40 S&W in Tim Palmer and Palmer didn’t stop until the twenty-second round hit him.  It can at times be quite difficult to force a determined attacker to stop just through the use of gunfire.)

Incapacitation vs. Psychological Stops

Before continuing, I want to point out one of my prior articles, “An Alternative Look at ‘Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power‘.”  In that article, I attempted to evaluate the data collected by Greg Ellifritz and put some context into it, as far as how the data could not necessarily be used to draw the type of conclusions that people are wont to draw about data like this (such as “the .40 S&W is the best manstopper, and the .32 ACP has a higher one-shot stop percentage than the 9mm”, or any other such conclusions.)  The crux of my argument there was that there was no real delineation in the data between what was a Psychological Stop (i.e., the person shot just gave up) vs. true Incapacitation (which, by my definition, means that the bullet damages the body to the point that the person is no longer capable of voluntary action).  And if we don’t know that distinction, we can’t attribute the performance to the bullet alone.

I believe that in my prior article I laid out some good reasoning for how we couldn’t tell which were Psychological Stops, and which were true Incapacitation.  Accordingly, I think the percentages listed simply cannot be relied upon as a predictor of how effective any particular caliber will be in causing an attacker to stop.

However, I’d like to revisit this subject because of a follow-up article by Mr. Ellifritz (who, generally, I do agree with on almost everything else in his articles).  Ellifritz published an article on the use of his data to evaluate the .22LR as to its effectiveness for self defense, especially in context with answering some questions raised by readers of his prior articles.

I think Ellifritz’s data sheds some excellent light on a subject that’s been the source of many questions for many people, and that is:

Does Kinetic Energy Transfer Cause Psychological Stops?

So here’s the crux of the matter, in a nutshell: there are two different schools of thought on handgun bullet performance, the Light & Fast vs. the Slow & Heavy.  The Light & Fast group typically use terms such as “energy transfer” or “hydrostatic shock” to talk about how a bullet affects a person’s physiology; the Slow & Heavy group generally ignores all that and focuses on what actual tissue was destroyed by the bullet itself.  The Slow & Heavy school (of which I am a member) say that if you poke a hole in someone’s vital organs, they’re going down.  And if you don’t poke a hole in their vital organs, they won’t have any physical reason for stopping.  They MAY choose to stop, but there isn’t necessarily any anatomical reason for them to have to stop.

The Light & Fast group, on the other hand, focuses on the size of the temporary cavity created, and some argue that the faster the bullet “transfers its energy to the target”, the more likely the person is to stop their attack.  The idea behind this philosophy generally involves the notion that a “rapid energy transfer” will cause incapacitation.

I don’t know about that; I know of zero studies that have been done that show that there is any increased likelihood of a psychological stop due to energy transfer, and don’t know how an ethical researcher could even begin to undertake to test for such an effect.  Seriously, such testing could only be conducted against human subjects (since only humans have human psychology), and would likely require a very large sample size before you could filter out the noise and start to see real patterns emerging.  Probably at least a thousand data points would be needed, and I think it’s safe to say we aren’t going to see any researchers shooting a thousand people to see what percentage are likely to just “give up” in a gunfight…

So the question arises — is a “Light & Fast” bullet more likely to cause a psychological stop, than a “Slow & Heavy” bullet is?  Does more energy transferred make a person more likely to quit a gunfight?  Would a fast-energy-transfer gunshot be more painful than a Slow & Heavy gunshot?

Again, these are all questions we cannot answer scientifically, without some serious ethical breaches of protocol!  But, using Ellifritz’s .22LR article, I think we can take a good step towards clearing up some of the confusion and sorting through the fog.

Here’s the thing that stood out to me, in Ellifritz’s studies — while we don’t know what percentage of his data subjects were true psychological stops vs. true incapacitation, we do still have a lot of data to examine on people who were shot.  And, in Ellifritz’s article on .22LR, he makes some insightful observations, specifically that the .22LR is the least likely of all calibers to cause a true physically incapacitating shot.  Due to the small diameter, light weight and low velocity of the .22LR, its penetration capabilities are less than the other calibers are, so the likelihood of it having caused substantial body damage sufficient to cause true incapacitation is reasonably presumably lower than other calibers.

And yet — a whole lot of people in his study stopped attacking after getting shot with a .22LR.  According to his data, 60% of the people who were hit with a .22LR round, stopped their actions.  Only 31% didn’t, regardless of how many rounds they were hit by.

What does that tell us?

Well, it tells me that people don’t like to get shot, and getting shot is frequently enough to get a person to give up.  Even if the bullet doesn’t mortally wound you, the sheer shock and horror and fear of being hit by a bullet (any bullet) and the attendant pain, blood, and fear of imminent death that all can be expected to occur in gunshot recipients, is very likely enough to get that person to say “screw this, I’ve just been shot, I’m not sticking around to get shot again.”

Going by Ellifritz’s data, the percentage of people who stopped after getting shot by a single shot of a .22LR, is about the same as the percentage of people who stopped after getting shot by a single round of .380, or .357 Magnum, and it’s even higher than the percentage of people who stopped after getting shot with a single round of .38 Special, 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP.  Seriously, that’s what the data shows.

How many of those stops were psychological?  We cannot know, the data was not gathered in a way that would tell us that, but seeing as the percentages are relatively quite consistent (from 47% for the 9mm up to 62% for the .22), and knowing that the .22LR is the least powerful of all the cartridges tested and therefore (as Ellifritz eloquently reasoned) the least likely to be doing true physical incapacitation to the attacker’s body, I think it’s fairly safe to say that a whole lot of these 47% to 62% of “one shot stops” were strictly psychological.  Again, this is supported when we look at other shooting scenarios (see my prior articles referenced in this article) where five hits of 9mm or .38 Special, or 7 hits of .45, or even 22 hits of .40 S&W, were not enough to bring an attacker or an officer to the point of incapacitation, it seems unlikely that a single .22LR bullet is likely to drop an attacker through sheer force of incapacitation (without a direct hit on the central nervous system or circulatory organ, that is).

So now we return to the central question of this article — how much of a role is Energy Transfer likely to play in psychological stopping?  Again, and sorry to repeat it so many times but it’s important to be clear on this: we don’t know, and we cannot truly know definitively.  We can only look at the information in front of us and try to draw what conclusions we can.  And the conclusion I draw is: “Energy Transfer” doesn’t necessarily mean squat as far as causing an increased likelihood of a psychological stop.

The reason I say this is specifically because of Ellifritz’s .22 data.  If you think about it, if higher levels of energy transference were going to cause people to be more likely to quit attacking, then shouldn’t the percentage of one-shot stops be much higher for the high-energy rounds (like .40 S&W or .357) than they would be for the tiny-energy .22 round?  Or, let’s put it another way — the .22 doesn’t really have much energy to transfer at all.  From a handgun, the .22lr is usually going to deliver less than about 90 ft/lbs of energy, as opposed to the 300 to 500 ft/lbs one is likely to see from a 9mm, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP.  So – if the amount of energy transferred was a strong indicator of the likelihood of a person to psychologically stop, then shouldn’t the 1-shot stop percentages be much higher for the higher-energy rounds?  And yet, they’re not.  The highest-energy round on Ellifritz’s list, the .357 Magnum, has a one-shot stop ratio that’s practically identical to the lowest-energy round on his list (the .22LR).  It’s 61% vs. 60%!  How can those be the same, when a .357 delivers 430 ft/lbs or more, and the .22LR delivers less than 90?  The leading theory to me is: because “energy transferred” doesn’t matter as much as people may like to think.

Surely the .357 creates a much bigger temporary cavity.  Surely the .357 delivers more pain and transfers more energy — heck, it’s got about 5x as much energy to transfer.  And yet… according to the numbers, the (fundamentally) same percentage of people hit with the low-energy round stopped attacking after one hit, as those who were hit by the high-energy round.

One could argue that a higher percentage of the .357 bullet recipients were incapacitated overall than the .22LR bullet recipients.  While we cannot know for sure, the data does show that while the one-shot-stop percentages were fundamentally the same, the % of those who “would not stop no matter how many times they were shot” is much higher for .22LR than it was for .357 magnum.  In the shootings Mr. Ellifritz evaluated, 31% of those shot with a .22 did not stop, whereas only 9% of those shot with the .357 didn’t stop.  Does that prove that the higher energy round was the more effective stopper?  Yes indeed — as you’d expect.  But — I don’t think it proves it to be any more effective for psychological stops.  I think the .357 should obviously be expected to be a more potent physical incapacitator than the .22, and I think the “% that did not stop” field shows that perfectly well.  However, I think that same field also demonstrates the point I’m trying to make — those that DID stop from the .22, are more likely to have CHOSEN to stop.

Because the .22 is less likely to have caused the type of damage that forces someone to stop than the .357 is, it leaves the question open: then WHY did those who were shot just once by the .22, stop at all?

And the answer can only be — they were mainly psychological stops.

What about the .357 then — it had the same % of one-shot stops (61% vs. 60%) — can we say that it had the same percentage of psychological stops?  Again, I don’t think we can draw that conclusion from the data, because it’s clouded by the “% that did not stop” field.  I think a decent hypothesis would perhaps be — in any given group of people, regardless of what bullet they’re shot with, a certain percentage is predisposed to giving up right away.  Since all the categories showed generally similar one-shot-stop percentages (generally 47% to 61%), I think that is a hypothesis that, while unproven, could still reasonably be inferred.  However — what percentage of those who would have given up, were in fact instead incapacitated?  That may be the difference — if someone was forcefully incapacitated (as would be more likely from the more-damaging .357 bullet) then we can’t know whether they would have been a psychological stop or not, because the choice was taken away from them due to true incapacitation.  And that may be the answer we see, between the “% stopped after 1 shot” and “% that did not stop” fields.

So that brings us back to — does the higher energy transfer of a high-energy round like the .357 make it more likely to cause a psychological stop than a low-energy round?  While we don’t necessarily know, I think that if we stand the question on its head we can draw an inescapable conclusion — those who chose to stop psychologically, from the .22, weren’t doing so because of high energy transfer!  The .22 doesn’t have much energy to transfer, and its temporary cavity is positively tiny compared to the high-energy rounds like the .40 or .357.  And yet, 60% of those shot by the .22 either chose to stop, or were incapacitated (and, again, the likelihood of those who chose to stop would reasonably be higher for .22 than for the other calibers, because the likelihood of true physical incapacitation would be lower from the .22 as compared to the other calibers).  So if (hypothetically) high energy transfer is what causes someone to psychologically stop, then why would anyone who was shot with a .22 psychologically stop?  There’s no high energy to transfer!

Therefore, it seems safe to conclude that the level of energy transferred is likely not as significant a factor in causing a psychological stop as it may at first seem.

My guess?  Folks who have been shot get scared, and getting shot hurts, and seeing your blood leaking out of you hurts.  Plus we’ve been programmed by decades of Hollywood movies to “know” that just the very fact of getting shot means that you are supposed to drop on the ground and die right away.  Those factors all weigh on the psychology of someone who’s been shot, and I believe they are the contributing factors that cause a psychological stop, far more than the caliber of bullet or the amount of energy transferred by that bullet.  Accordingly, I don’t think that adding more energy or higher velocity is a good predictor for increasing the likelihood of a psychological stop.  Now, let’s back up and say — I think more energy, more power, bigger heavier bullets, and more shots on target are all good things — if you could do any one thing that would increase your likelihood of stopping an attack, I’d say more shots on target would be the most important thing.  But I’d always advise to carry the most powerful weapon that you can comfortably and accurately shoot.  Just because data has been correlated that show a .22LR has been able to cause 60% of the people shot by it to stop attacking, doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for self defense.  The more powerful the weapon, the bigger and deeper-penetrating the bullet, the more likelihood you have of causing a true incapacitating wound — and if you do that, then it takes all the guesswork, all the hypotheses, and all the questions and flings ‘em right out the window.

First and foremost, place shots properly on the target to cause hits on the vital organs.  Second, place as many of those shots on target as you can until the attack stops.  Third, place them with the most powerful firearm that you can comfortably and accurately control.  Do that, and your likelihood of success in a defensive encounter will skyrocket, far more than worrying about whether your bullet transfers enough kinetic energy or what some one-shot-stop study says.

 

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Warning Shot? Shoot To Wound? Shoot To Kill? Or Shoot To STOP?

If you read a lot of gun forums, or ever speak with anyone who’s anti-gun, sooner or later you’re going to run into the question of “Shouldn’t you just shoot to wound?  I mean, I don’t want to kill anybody.”  Or, from the anti-gun crowd, whenever a successful defensive gun situation is discussed you may frequently see them question “Why didn’t they just shoot him in the leg or something?  Did they HAVE to kill him?”

This usually leads to a discussion on the inadvisability of warning shots, “stopping power”, and, eventually, someone invariably will bring up something on the order of “Dead men can’t testify against you.”

Wow.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that (or something like it) posted on a public forum, or said at a gun store or gun show.  It’s been repeated so many times that I fear new shooters may be getting indoctrinated with it and may actually think that’s “normal”.  And, obviously, the anti-gun side uses statements like that to paint otherwise lawful and rational firearms owners as “bloodthirsty.”  So, I’d like to go through all these scenarios and provide some hopefully clarifying commentary so that we can get to the bottom of these various questions.

Firearms Are Instruments Of Deadly Force

Let’s start with the first and most obvious fact that we simply have to address: Firearms are not toys.  They are not symbols.  They are not warning flags, or status symbols, or penis-measuring devices.  They are instruments of deadly force, and they are only to be used when deadly force is necessary.  You should only ever pull your firearm out when it is necessary to protect your life, or other innocent life, as your local and state laws and statutes allow.  You should never use it for any other purpose (such as waving it out the car window to intimidate another driver; that in and of itself may be a crime known as “brandishing.”)  You should never pull your firearm unless you are prepared to use it.  A firearm is capable of inflicting deadly force, and it should always be considered in that context.

You Will Not Be Tried In A Court Of “Right” And “Wrong”, You Will Be Tried In A Court Of Law.  What Is LEGAL Is What Matters There

Now, before going any further, let me say that I strongly advise you to discuss these issues with your lawyer.  Only a lawyer in your state who is versed in your state’s firearms laws can truly, really answer your questions.  And if you don’t have a lawyer, and you carry a firearm, you should seriously consider getting one.  It doesn’t even need to be a situation where you pay big bucks for a one-on-one meeting; something as simple and comparatively inexpensive as a prepaid legal service like USLawShield would be vastly better than having nothing (and getting all your advice from strangers on a gun forum or a blog like this one.)

If you use a firearm, you can expect to deal with law enforcement officers, and perhaps a Grand Jury, be arrested, and perhaps face a trial.  Firearms are serious business, and you need to understand that whatever your fears or motivations were, you will be tried on the LAW, not on your emotions.  And your intentions matter very much.  So let’s look at some examples:

Warning Shots

Why are warning shots a bad idea?  Folks who don’t know anything about guns frequently seem to think that hey, you should just fire a warning shot to scare the bad guys away.  Even the U.S. Vice President gave that advice!  But it is terrible, terrible advice.

Why?  First, because of the law of gravity.  What goes up, must come down.  A firearm is an instrument of deadly force, and if a potentially-lethal bullet is propelled from that firearm, it’s gonna go somewhere.  If you shoot up in the air, that bullet is going to come down, somewhere, and if it’s from a rifle or a pistol, that bullet will almost certainly still be potentially lethal when it hits.  Of course, if you didn’t fire up in the air, but instead fired horizontally, well, that bullet’s going to hit something — and it could be an innocent person that it hits.  And depending on what it hits, it could ricochet, and hit someone who wasn’t anywhere near where you fired at!

Firing a warning shot is an incredibly irresponsible thing to do, and may subject you to all the drawbacks and penalties of having used deadly force, while offering none of the benefits (i.e., the ability to actually stop the attacker).  A “warning shot” can be thought of as another name for a “missed shot”.

So why does the fascination with warning shots persist?  I think it’s because people really, really want a way to discourage someone without having to resort to potentially lethally injuring them.  I understand that wish, and I sympathize with it.  All I can say is — don’t use a firearm to try to do it.  A firearm is for using deadly force.  If you want a non-lethal deterrent, then hey — use a non-lethal deterrent!  Use pepper spray or mace or some other non-lethal defensive approach, if what you really want is just a way to say “I’m serious, leave me alone.”  If it’s legal where you live, you can carry pepper spray or mace in addition to your firearm, and if you decide that the situation warrants a non-lethal warning, you could use it.  But don’t go negligently firing deliberate misses, because that bullet is going to be potentially deadly to someone.  A “warning shot” is the wrong way to use a firearm.

Secondly, a key concept to understand here is: firearms are to be used to protect your life when you are facing an imminent deadly attack (or you fear that you are in imminent danger of substantial and grievous bodily harm).  If you have the time to think about and conduct a warning shot, were you really in imminent danger?  Probably not — because if the situation was that imminent, you’d have shot AT the attacker, instead of trying to shoot randomly in the air.  Which means, once again, that use of a firearm in that scenario is probably not warranted and may not be legally justified.

There are other ways to discourage an attacker.  Just holding your firearm at the low-ready position may frequently be enough to discourage the attacker.  In responsible firearms management, there really isn’t a place for a “warning shot”.

Shoot To Wound?

Getting past the ill-conceived notion of a warning shot, let’s move to the next bad idea: shooting to wound.

Why is shooting to wound a bad idea?  I mean, we don’t actually want to kill anyone, do we?  Can’t we just disable them and then run away?

Again, I understand the desire here.  The idea of getting away safely is always the paramount concern.  The question is: is shooting to wound a good idea, and is it a proper use of deadly force?  And the answer is a resounding no.  Because shooting to wound means you’d be deliberately trying to avoid hitting important targets, in order to try to focus on hitting an inordinately small target (like a forearm or a thigh, instead of a big broad chest).  Defensive shooters are taught to shoot for the “center of mass” or, more specifically, the upper center of the chest.  Among other reasons, it’s the biggest and slowest-moving part of the body, and therefore the easiest to hit.  Arms are much smaller, and they move much faster, and are a potentially much more difficult target to hit.  Legs, while bigger than arms, are still vastly smaller than the chest and much more subject to quick movement.  And, heck, both arms and legs have arteries in them, and shooting someone in the arm or leg could indeed cause them to die if the bullet hits those arteries, so — it’s still deadly force that may still result in the person’s death, even if you only intended to wound.

Remember the central premise here: a firearm is an instrument capable of inflicting deadly force.  You should only use it if you absolutely must, to save your own life or the life of an innocent person.  You should be very, very, very hesitant to pull that trigger, and you should only pull it if there is no other way.  And if that’s the case, and you’re in a situation where the law authorizes the use of deadly force, then you should obviously not be screwing around trying to take low-probability “wounding” shots, you should be following your training and taking deliberate shots that have the highest likelihood of forcing the attacker to stop.

Shoot To Kill?

Which brings us to the central question — should you shoot to kill?

If you follow internet gun forums long enough, or listen to enough guys at the gun store or gun show, sooner or later you’ll run into someone who insists that “dead men tell no tales” and “dead men can’t sue you” and “if you kill him, he can’t testify against you” and other such statements.

Frankly, I find that horrifying.  I mean, seriously, think about it — killing people to keep them from testifying against you is something the mob does, not something that law-abiding citizens do!

Look — if you find yourself in a defensive gun use, and you shoot an attacker, and the attacker dies from his injuries, you can expect that you may find yourself on trial.  The purpose of the trial, largely, is going to determine the facts of what happened, and to determine your INTENT.  What was in your mind when you pulled the trigger?  Did you WANT to KILL the person?  Or were you solely trying to protect yourself?

In the smallest possible nutshell, that’s really the crux of the matter: the difference between self-defense and murder can largely be attributed to what your intent was.  If, by pulling the trigger, your intent was to ensure that the person you shot dies, then that’s murder.

There have been examples of this in the news; the Byron Smith trial is probably the most noteworthy because he actually recorded himself during the shootings and you can clearly hear how he told investigators that he “fired a good clean finishing shot.”

The facts of the case are well-known, and you can read up on them if you want, but in general Smith may have felt that he was defending his home against intruders, and in fact two intruders did break into his house.  But Smith didn’t just shoot at them to drive them away.  His intentions were clear; he wanted them to die.  And, once the facts were heard by a jury of his peers, Smith was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

I’ll say it again — just because you have a license to carry a weapon, does not give you a license to kill.  The law does not justify or sanction civilians killing people.

So What Should You Do?

If you’re in a situation that is so dire that you need to employ legally-justifiable deadly force, you should shoot until the threat stops.  You cannot and should not try to shoot to wound, or fire some vague warning shot, or fire just one bullet and then stop to see if maybe the bad guy will drop, or anything else.  Follow your training, put the shots in the center of mass, and shoot until the attacker stops threatening you.  And immediately after the attacker stops threatening you, you STOP SHOOTING.

It does not matter how mad or indignant or offended you are, you do not have the legal right to summarily execute someone.  And you most definitely do not have the legal right to kill someone just to avoid the inconvenience or expense of a trial — again, that’s mobster activity, not the kind of thing a law-abiding citizen does!

Shooting to stop means placing the bullets where they have the most likelihood of forcing the attacker’s body to immediately discontinue its ability to attack you.  That usually means destroying or damaging a vital organ such as the circulatory system or central nervous system, so that the attacker will fall unconscious or be otherwise incapacitated.  And, yes, that MAY mean that your attacker may die as a result.  That, however, should not be the desired or intended outcome, that would instead be an unfortunate but unavoidable result of a chain of events set in motion by the attacker’s decision to assault you.  However, once they stop attacking you (i.e., they drop their gun, they turn to run away, or they fall unconscious) then you must stop shooting.  If you continue to shoot them, you then will likely have crossed that line between “lawful self defense” and “unlawful murder.”

A defensive gun engagement can end in several ways — the attacker may break off and flee just at the sight of your gun, or you may fire and miss a vital structure but hit him somewhere else and he decides “ouch, that hurts, I’m not doing this anymore” and he breaks off.  Both are effective, non-lethal ways to end a defensive encounter.  But if he continues to attack you, you may have to force him to stop in order to save your own life.  An effective shot that damages an attacker’s heart or major circulatory system can result in a rapid loss of blood pressure which causes the attacker to fall unconscious, thus rendering them unable to continue attacking you.  That would be a nonlethal way that the encounter could end, although the person would need immediate comprehensive medical care to avoid dying from such a wound.  The thing is — whether he lives or dies is, at that point, out of your hands and out of the equation.  You would have legally and lawfully used deadly force to defend yourself.  Your conscience is clear.

I’ve seen some people argue that “shooting to stop” and “shooting to kill” are the same thing.  I would contend that there is a significant, substantial, and crucial difference, and that difference is in your intent, and your intent is one of the major things a trial will be attempting to uncover.  Someone shooting to kill and someone shooting to stop, may in fact hit the attacker in the same place, and do the same damage.  But one of these shooters is preoccupied with the idea of making sure that the attacker dies, whereas the other one is not attempting to make anyone die, they are merely attempting to avoid death themselves.  There is a difference, and while it may sound overly dramatic, the law may find that it’s the difference between a finding of “lawful self defense” and one of “murder”.

I hope you and I never find ourselves in a scenario where we would need to employ deadly force.  But if you do, remember what the law permits — there are certain scenarios wherein you are permitted to use deadly force to save yourself or other innocent life (or perhaps for other reasons, depending on your local laws).  If you are forced to use deadly force, use as much of it as necessary, as quickly as you can, to immediately stop the threat.  But don’t go one step further.  And consider your intent — if you feel like that you really need to “finish” someone off (to keep them from testifying or suing you or whatever else) — I sincerely doubt that the law will agree with you on that.

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The Best Ammo Test Ever

This is a total departure from my normal blog articles, but I just found this video (even though it’s over two years old at the time of this writing).  But not only is it informative, and (unfortunately for the host) quite entertaining, it also really illustrates a very important point, so I’d like to call attention to it.

The test under discussion was a test of the Kimber Pepper Blaster II, a pepper-spray gun.  This is a less-than-lethal alternative for self defense, as compared to using a firearm.  While few serious self defense advisers would recommend pepper spray over a firearm, there are certainly some reasons why one might want to consider something like pepper spray, including:

  1. Depending on your local laws, it may be legal to carry it without any additional licensing;
  2. In a home defense situation, it is nearly inconceivable that it could pose a threat to occupants in nearby rooms or adjoining apartments or condos;
  3. Depending on local laws, it may be legal to carry a device like this into places that prohibit firearms (some places can legally prohibit licensed firearms carriers from carrying their firearms into them);
  4. For those who simply cannot or will not accept the possibility that they, through using a firearm, might cause another person to be seriously injured or die, maybe they would be more comfortable with a less-than-lethal option; and, finally:
  5. It’s gotta be better than nothing, right?

And so it is that I did a little digging into the current state of pepper spray devices.  Pepper spray, when employed properly, can be quite effective in discouraging a person from doing whatever it was that you didn’t want them to be doing (i.e., robbing or assaulting you), but how effective are they, really?

That’s when I found this test, by YouTuber “TheLowBuck Prepper“:

It’s a long video, over 22 minutes long, so if you want to save some time and jump to the relevant parts, here’s an overview:

In this test, the host (an intimidating-looking gent, to be sure) acts out a scenario wherein he attempts to rob someone of their purse, and gets shot with pepper spray, right in the face.   Accordingly, due to language, let me say that this video is most definitely NSFW!

Now, before we go any further, I just have to say — that took cojones, to volunteer to get hit with what must certainly be an extremely unpleasant experience, in the name of science and to inform us all as to what the experience is really like!  It was manly, it was bold, and I’m sure I speak for many when I say “thank you” to TheLowBuck Prepper for quite literally “taking one for us.”

Skipping to the most interesting bits, here’s what I observed:

03:00 – the initial test shot, where the host attempts to grab the purse and gets shot in the face with the first shot.  In this first test, the host was shot in the chin at extremely close range (looked to be no more than about a foot away). The results were completely and utterly ineffective — the host was not incapacitated, he wasn’t slowed down, and while he admits that the impact of the pepper cartridge on his chin didn’t feel good, it certainly didn’t stop him from doing anything that he wanted to.  The pepper itself didn’t do much of anything to him; he could feel a little bit in his mouth and said it basically felt “like eating some hot wings”.  He classified this as a total fail.

08:30 – they decide to test it again, this time at a distance of about 12 feet.  And in this test, the pepper disperses in the attacker’s face, and it drops him to the ground nearly instantly.  And then he goes on an epic 14-minute rant describing the pain, the incapacitation, dousing himself with gallons of milk, having his friends douse him with a hose nearly continuously.  The language is harsh, as you may imagine, and the description of the pain is extremely educational, and the visuals and the description may lead you to giggle like a schoolkid, (especially when he describes what happens to “Roscoe”).

I find this test fascinating for two main reasons: first, because this brave man put his body on the line to get us some legitimate real-world answers, and secondly, because we get to see two real-world examples of how ammo (bullets or pepper spray) may work.  Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.

And that’s the real takeaway here.  The exact same weapon, the exact same attacker, the exact same defender, and two entirely opposite outcomes.  It happens.  Pepper spray could turn out to be worthless in defending you, or it could turn out to be an absolute manstopper.  TheLowBuck Prepper wasn’t killed, he wasn’t permanently injured, but he was STOPPED.  He dropped to the ground, and he couldn’t see.  He would still have been very dangerous if he had been within contact distance, but if the defender was out of reach when firing that second shot, he/she could easily have gotten away and there’s pretty much zero chance that TheLowBuck Prepper could have continued his attack — or would have wanted to.

As I’ve pointed out in prior articles, this is the exact same type of scenario that may happen with a firearm.  Maybe you’ll hit your attacker and they’ll immediately stop.  But maybe you’ll hit the attacker (like the first pepper-spray shot in this video) and the attacker will not even give any evidence that they noticed or cared that they’d been hit.  Either scenario is possible, and your particular choice of caliber or handgun won’t really make that much of a difference — it’s really up to the attacker and to where the shot was placed.

In the first example, the defender placed the shot fairly decently — it did hit the attacker in the face, after all — but it had little to no effect, and it had zero effectiveness in FORCING the attacker to IMMEDIATELY STOP.  Zero.  Bullets can be the same way, whether they’re little .22’s or great big .45’s — just because you hit the attacker somewhere, doesn’t guarantee that the attacker will be FORCED to STOP.  Read my recent articles (such as this one or this one) for case studies of attackers (and defenders) who took repeated, multiple hits from major calibers (9mm, .40, and .45) and simply were not stopped.  In this first shot, even though the attacker was hit in the face, nothing VITAL was hit — the projectile impacted with his chin, bounced off, and leaked pepper spray into his beard.  He was able to ignore all that.

In the second example, the defender placed the shot perfectly, and the attacker’s vital organs were hit (his eyes and nose).  The pepper dispersed properly and brought his actions to a screeching halt.  He was incapacitated — literally, his body was incapable of continuing the voluntary actions of attacking or pursuing the defender.  He wasn’t inconvenienced, he didn’t choose to stop attacking, he was literally forced to stop attacking because he could not keep his eyes open and he could not even stand up.  If you’re ever involved in a defensive gun use (or, for that matter, a defensive pepper spray use) that’s what you would really want to be able to do — cause your attacker to immediately stop their attack.  And the only way to guarantee that is to incapacitate their body so that they simply cannot continue, no matter how much they may have wanted to.

In pepper spray, it’s obvious from the results of this test that:

  • you have to hit the eyes and/or nose with spray, and
  • it has to actually disperse.  You can see in the video how the cloud of pepper disperal made it pretty much impossible for the attacker to avoid getting swarmed with the spray, whereas in the first test it looked like there really wasn’t any cloud of dispersal.

With a firearm, the obvious and unavoidable conclusions are that:

  • You have to place the shot such that it will hit a vital organ, and
  • the ammo has to perform properly.  It has to penetrate deep enough, and expand big enough, that it is capable of doing enough damage to the vital organs that the attacker’s body is incapable of continuing his attack.

A shot that doesn’t hit a vital organ (such as a major artery, or circulatory system organ, or brain or brain stem or upper spinal column), cannot force the body to stop immediately.  It may hurt a lot, and the attacker may choose to stop, but they might not choose to stop either (see the aforementioned articles for examples).  But a hit on a vital organ gives the attacker no choice — their body will be rendered out of their control.  Even so, be aware that the effects may or may not be immediate — even in the case of a major circulatory system hit, the attacker may have enough oxygen in their system that they can control their body for up to 10 or maybe even 15 seconds.  That’s a long, long time when you’re engaged in a life-or-death struggle; someone could easily empty the entire contents of a pistol’s magazine in less than 10 seconds.

Similarly, a shot that is placed to hit a vital organ, but doesn’t have the requisite destructive power to actually destroy or substantially damage that organ, may not do you any good in bringing the fight to a quick stop.  It may eventually even cause the attacker serious complications or even death, but that’s not your concern — your concern is and should be to bring the fight to the quickest possible stop.  If you use ammo that doesn’t penetrate deep enough, or doesn’t expand big enough, it may not damage the organ sufficiently (or even at all!)

Finally, multiple shots increase your chances of scoring a hit on a vital organ.  Shoot until the threat stops threatening you (whether voluntarily or through incapacitation, it doesn’t really matter; as soon as the attacker breaks off their attack, you legally must stop shooting them).  But as long as the attacker remains a threat, and deadly force is a legal and appropriate response, many self defense advisors and instructors would tell you that you should continue shooting until the threat stops being a threat to you.

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Another Case Study on Bullet Effectiveness

Winchester Black Talons.

Is there any bullet out there that has sparked as much hysteria, fear, dread, and media coverage as the legendary Black Talon?

Just how deadly was it?  If you shot someone with a Black Talon, was their ticket immediately punched?

I don’t know of any comprehensive studies on Black Talons, but I do know that Winchester pulled them off the market, and subsequently introduced Ranger SXT, which has been characterized by pundits as standing for “Same eXact Thing” as the Black Talon… just not “black” (the Black Talon bullets were covered in a Lubalox coating, which gave them a distinctive black appearance).

So let’s examine another case study of how real bullets performed against real people in real shooting situations.  The idea here is not to prove or disprove any particular aspect of bullet performance; rather it’s really just to provide another example that will hopefully enlighten the self defense community as to what MAY happen in a shooting scenario, and what you should be prepared to face.

There are cases where a single shot stops an attacker; the case of George Zimmerman vs. Trayvon Martin comes to mind, where a single shot of 9mm resulted in Mr. Martin’s death.  That one incident, however, must not be taken as representative of what a person is likely to encounter if they use a 9mm pocket pistol for defense — it would be unwise (if not downright insane) to conclude that a Kel-Tec PF9 (the pocket pistol used by Mr. Zimmerman) was a “one shot stopper” or that “if you use a Kel-Tec PF9, you only need to shoot once.”  The only reasonable conclusion we can draw from this scenario is that, regardless of the gun, a gunshot through the heart is very difficult to survive.

The Case of Officer Soulis vs. Tim Palmer

So, let’s go on to today’s incident, which didn’t take place today, it’s actually from several years ago.  The writeup I’m using as the basis for this article is from a 2008 article on lawofficer.com.  And in this incident, officer Peter Soulis used a .40-caliber Glock 22 in a protracted gunfight against Tim Palmer, who (unknown to Soulis) was wanted on a murder charge in a neighboring state.

So, to set the stage — Officer Soulis is armed with a Glock 22, a full-sized handgun (no pocket pistol here!) chambered in the quite-powerful and large .40 caliber, and loaded with Winchester Ranger SXT ammo (which is, as said before, basically the Same eXact Thing as the vaunted Black Talon).

Would you say that Officer Soulis was well-armed?  I certainly would!  A Glock 22 holds 15 rounds of .40 S&W, and Soulis was using premium ammunition that was so feared that it was literally hounded off the market for civilians.  I don’t know about you, but I would gladly trade in a pocket pistol with 6 rounds of .380 or 9mm, in favor of carrying a Glock 22 with 15 rounds of .40 S&W.  That would be a huge upgrade in firepower!

And, being a well prepared officer, Soulis also had spare magazines on hand.  It would be hard to imagine how someone could have been better armed for a handgun fight.

If you’re unfamiliar with this story, I recommend buckling your seatbelt, because over the course of the gunfight Soulis hit Palmer with 22 rounds of .40 S&W!  Twenty-two hits… and 17 of those were to center-of-mass!  And yet, Palmer just Would. Not. Stop.  Palmer lived for over four minutes after the last bullet hit him, and over the course of the fight Palmer would hit Soulis at least five times with 9mm bullets.

One shot stop? Don’t be a fool.

Was Palmer amped up on drugs or booze?  No, an autopsy showed nothing more than a small amount of alcohol in his system.  What about Officer Soulis?  He ended up receiving multiple gunshot wounds, including one that may have hit his leg’s femoral artery.  Palmer used a 9mm handgun and hit Soulis at least five times, although Soulis’ vest stopped one of those.  Soulis wasn’t amped up on drugs or booze either.  Both men were just exceptionally determined: Palmer was determined to avoid going to jail and facing that murder charge, and Soulis was determined that Palmer wouldn’t kill or hurt anyone else.

22 hits with a .40 S&W?  And he kept fighting?  Think about it.  If you were to be involved in a self-defense scenario, would you really be comfortable firing just one bullet and then looking to see what the effect would be?

Where can we lay the blame for this failure to stop?  On the gun? I don’t think so, the Glock 22 is among the most superb and powerful weapons.  On the ammo?  Maybe, maybe not.  SXT was Winchester’s premier hollowpoint at the time, and even if it was failing to expand and just passing through, 17 hits has to add up sooner or later.  Shot placement?  Well, yes and no; Officer Soulis hit his target 17 times in center-of-mass!  How can you get better than that?  Yet Palmer kept coming.  We can only conclude that while Soulis did his best to get the shots where they would matter, it seems unlikely that any of those shots actually damaged vital circulatory system organs or vessels that would have caused rapid incapacitation due to the blood pressure dropping below the level necessary to sustain consciousness.  The one thing we do know is that an attacker cannot continue to attack if their arteries are severed or their heart has a hole blown through it and they’ve bled down to the point where not enough oxygen is getting to the brain.  And seeing as Palmer kept coming shot after shot after shot, it seems safe to assume that that situation had not occurred.

I haven’t seen any info on Palmer’s autopsy, which might answer some questions; until then I can only speculate.  It seems like either the “Black Talon”-like SXT either failed to expand, in which case it would perform like an FMJ and would have comparatively little actual terminal performance, or Palmer was the luckiest guy in the world in that the bullets just managed to keep missing his vital organs.  And if a bullet doesn’t hit vital organs, then the aggressor may very well not be stopped — even after absorbing 22 rounds (more than a full box!) of premium .40-caliber hollowpoints from a full-size handgun!

What Will Your Shooting Scenario Be Like?

If you are ever unlucky enough to be involved in a defensive shooting, what will yours be like? Will the aggressor brown his shorts and run away at the mere sight of your gun? Or will you have to empty the magazine, pop in your backup mag and empty it, and he’ll keep coming at you?  I don’t know.  And you don’t know.  There’s no way to know in advance — heck, if you knew for a fact that you were going into a gunfight, you should go somewhere else instead!  And if you can’t go somewhere else, you should bring something better than a handgun — a 12-gauge shotgun, or a .308 rifle, would be two good places to start.

I hope none of us ever has to face that situation again.  But if you do… use the most powerfun handgun you can accurately control, and the best-performing ammunition that works properly from that handgun, and put your shots on target, and don’t stop shooting until the threat is neutralized.  It MAY happen after one shot, but you would be very unwise to expect it to happen after just one shot.  Ideally you would have a spare magazine on you, and shoot until the threat stops.

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