Category Archives: Ballistic Performance

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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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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NAA .22LR Mini Revolver Ammo Quest Results

I have always been fascinated by the North American Arms mini revolvers, and I’ve been conducting testing from a Black Widow in .22 Magnum.  But, small as it is, the Black Widow is still substantially bigger than NAA’s smallest offerings, the .22 Short and .22LR mini-revolvers.

I loved the size of the .22 Short revolver, but its limited and (comparatively) expensive ammo choices made it a less desirable option to me than the .22LR mini-revolver, and truthfully its size was just barely smaller than the .22LR version.  In other words, the .22LR is only a third of an inch longer, but it gives you much more flexibility in ammo choice.  And, the .22LR mini-revolver is noticeably smaller than the .22 Magnum version (the magnum is about 3/4″ longer, 1/2″ taller, and weighs about 30% more.)  Plus, the .22LR will fit in the NAA Belt Buckle Holster, whereas the .22 Magnum wouldn’t, and … the belt buckle holster is pretty intriguing, so for all those reasons, I went with the NAA .22LR mini-revolver, in the shortest barrel length (1 1/8″).

Why didn’t I go for the longer barrel?  Three reasons, really:

1. I wanted the smallest .22LR revolver.  A longer barrel makes it … bigger.

2. According to NAA’s own ballistic testing, the longer barrel has extremely little effect on the ballistics; the 1 5/8″ barrel delivered (in their testing) only about 2.13% faster velocities, on average, than the 1 1/8″ barrel did.

3. It wouldn’t fit in the belt buckle holster.  And the belt buckle holster is cool.

Accordingly, I picked up one of these mini-revolvers and then commenced trying to figure out what would be the most appropriate ammo to use with it.  But I couldn’t find any sort of standardized test results out there.  There are many tests conducted on .22LR ammo, but many of them have been done from rifles or bigger pistols, and so those results would have little to zero applicability to how the rounds will perform from the tiny 1.13″ barrel… so — as I did with the .380 pocket pistol — I decided to conduct my own testing.

Testing Standards

I set as my standard the guidelines established by the 1987 and 1993 Wound Ballistic Conferences, where wound ballistics experts, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, police officers, trauma surgeons, combat surgeons, and others who worked with street shootings and bullets (and the wounds they cause) day in and day out.  These were the recognized experts in their fields, and they conducted conferences to determine what properties and capabilities caused a bullet to be most effective, and how they could then develop tests that would best and most accurately reflect real-world results, so that ammo designers could then design ammo that would perform most effectively.  Effectiveness was determined to be the ability to penetrate deep enough into the body to reach the vital organs (such as the heart, circulatory system, and central nervous system).  A bullet that can’t reach that far, and can’t be relied upon to disrupt the vital organs, was deemed an ineffective bullet.

When it’s all boiled down to the simplest guidelines possible, the parameters work out like this, in order of importance:

  1. A bullet needs to have enough power to penetrate AT LEAST 12″ of soft tissue simulant.  If it can penetrate through 12″ of ballistic gel, then that means it has enough power to pass through whatever combination of bone, muscle, skin, fat, and organs that it could possibly encounter, and still be able to reach the vital organs.
  2. A bullet should penetrate LESS than 18″ of soft tissue simulant.  Bullets that penetrated more than 18″ of ballistic gel would usually end up exiting the body of the attacker, regardless of how much bone or tissue it had to pass through.  That meant that the bullet posed a very real danger of overpenetration, and also that it was wasting its energy by passing completely through.  This turned out to be a non-issue with the NAA .22LR Mini-Revolver, as none of the bullets I tested could exceed 18″ of penetration.
  3. The bigger the bullets, the better.  The bigger the hole the bullet makes, the more tissue it destroys, and the more likely it is to damage vital structures that a smaller bullet might miss.  In this context, expanding bullets (that penetrate deeply enough!) are much better than solid bullets, because solid bullets tend to pass right through, whereas an expanding bullet grows larger and is more likely to slow down and stop in the desired window of 12″ to 18″ of soft tissue penetration.  (unfortunately, this turned out to be an irrelevant factor, since all .22LR bullets are the same diameter and make the same diameter hole, and none of the hollowpoint bullets expanded in my testing).
  4. Sharper bullets are better than round bullets.  This isn’t the most important factor, but an expanded bullet with sharp petals on it is more likely to cut an artery or other vital structure than a round-nose bullet might, especially at the limit of travel when the bullet is going more slowly.  A round-nose might just push tissue out of the way, where a sharp bullet may still be cutting and damaging tissue.  This is another reason an expanded hollowpoint is a better wounder than a round-nose FMJ (Full Metal Jacket).  Again, this isn’t much of a factor with the mini-revolver; the ammo available is almost entirely lead round nose (with or without copper plating); for purposes of this section I’m including the hollowpoint ammo as lead round nose, since the hollowpoints don’t expand at the low velocities the NAA mini-revolver can produce.
  5. Of all the parameters that matter when evaluating a bullet’s terminal performance, the most important is to achieve sufficient penetration.  Overpenetration is bad, yes, but as Dr. Martin Fackler said, “Overpenetration may get you sued, but underpenetration can get you killed.”

The FBI adopted these requirements for their duty ammo selection, which is only partially related to us in the self defense community; we’re not the FBI and we don’t need FBI duty ammo, but what makes a bullet effective in stopping a criminal are the same factors that make it effective in stopping someone who’s assaulting us.  Of course, none of this matters with .22LR, since the FBI doesn’t issue .22LR guns to their agents, nor do they conduct testing on .22LR ammo.  Even so, the penetration requirements don’t change because the bullet’s smaller!  So — the way I saw it, I was charting new territory here.

I should point out, there are other differences between the FBI testing and self-defense testing.  The FBI requires their ammo to pass additional tests of barrier penetration, including auto windshield glass, plywood, drywall, and other tests.  In the self defense community, those aren’t likely realistic tests that we need our ammo to pass, so I didn’t bother with those tests.  There are two main tests that are most important to self defense shooters: the bare ballistic gelatin test, and the 4-layer denim test.  The International Wound Ballistic Association standardized these two tests as a comprehensive evaluation of ammo performance in best-case and worst-case scenarios, and so that is the testing methodology I normally use when conducting my tests.  But in this case, I didn’t bother with the denim test.  Why?  Because the denim test is designed to evaluate a hollowpoint bullet’s ability to expand even after passing through a lot of fabric, and with the mini-revolver, hollowpoints just DO NOT expand.  At all.  Pretty much ever.  So the denim test would be a pointless and expensive exercise.  Accordingly, my testing here is limited to the bare gel test, using (mainly) ClearBallistics synthetic ballistic gel, and in some cases I used calibrated 10% organic ballistic gel.  I compared the results between them and got extremely similar results, so I believe the results here can be taken as valid regardless of which medium the particular round was tested in.

My goal was to test .22LR ammo from the 1 1/8″ mini-revolver, into ballistic gel test media, and see which (if any) rounds would deliver consistent penetration deeper than 12″.

Now, right here you may think I’m asking too much from this little mini revolver.  And I admit, I am — it would seem absurd to ask that a 4.5-ounce gun be able to deliver 12″ of penetration!  I agree.  However, the standards as set by the professionals seem to me to be a worthy goal to pursue.  Would we be able to achieve it? I didn’t know — but I certainly wanted to see what comes closest.  After all, why settle for something substandard, when it’s possible that there might actually be a round or two out there that actually would deliver the results and meet the goal?

It is also true that you may not NEED a full 12″ of penetration from such a tiny pistol, given that this type of pistol is less likely to be used as your main defensive weapon and is more likely to be used as a “last resort” type of weapon (meaning, it might be used in up-close contact distances where you’re actually shoving the revolver into the bad guy’s body and pulling the trigger.)  In cases like that, you wouldn’t have to worry about intervening arms getting in the way and requiring more penetration to get through them.  In a case of an unobstructed chest shot, it’s possible that an 8″ bullet might be able to get the job done.  But a 12″ bullet would always be able to get the job done.  And since we don’t get to pick and choose our defensive shooting scenarios, I wanted bullets that had the highest probability of delivering deep-penetrating hits in all possible scenarios.  And especially for those who may actually be relying on a .22LR mini-revolver for their main or only defensive weapon, they may very well need the full 12″ of penetration potential depending on the scenario they find themselves in.

With all that said, my final attitude was: I want the bullets to be able to penetrate 12″.  I would find it probably acceptable if they would penetrate at least 10″, that would probably be good enough for many scenarios.  If they’ll only go 8″, that’s pretty shallow and I certainly wouldn’t be happy about that.  But only proper testing can reveal just how far they actually can go.

I’ve blogged previously on the whys and wherefores of ballistic gel (for example, herehere, and here.)  In the simplest terms, it’s a soft tissue simulant that we use to evaluate a bullet’s performance through soft human tissue.  It’s not “jello”, it’s not a dessert, it’s actually powdered and reconstituted flesh.  Professional ballistic gel is made from ground-up and powdered pork skin.  It’s an effective flesh simulant because it actually is flesh.  I used synthetic ClearBallistics gel from www.clearballistics.com for most of the bare gel tests, and I re-confirmed the best-performing bullets’ performance by shooting them into genuine 10% organic ordnance gelatin.  (For reference, I did a comprehensive comparison between the two tissue simulant products before starting this Ammo Quest, and found that the synthetic gel was suitable and quite comparable for handgun bullet testing.)

Testing Procedures

My testing procedure was to fire at least five shots into each block of gel, from 10 feet, through a chronograph.  All 10% ballistic gel was calibrated with a steel BB at ~590 fps, was prepared to FBI specifications using FBI gel preparation procedures, stored at proper temperatures, and shot at proper temperatures, for consistent reliable data.  All bullets were measured for penetration distance while they were in the block of gel.  In some cases I may have shot more than five bullets, to get a higher statistical sampling of that particular ammo’s performance.  This is especially true in the case of the best-performing ammo; I wanted to verify that I wasn’t seeing a “fluke”, I wanted to verify that it was legitimate performance.  In the case of the winning ammo, I shot rounds into the synthetic gel and also into a block of organic gel, to ensure the results were valid.

I tested a total of 25 types of ammunition through bare ClearBallistics gelatin, and retested the best rounds in organic gel. This resulted in a grand total of 32 different tests being conducted (sheesh!)  I didn’t produce a separate video for each, as there really was no need — the bullets don’t expand, they don’t do anything different, there was no need for a bullet exam afterwards, they’re all just solid hunks of lead (or tin or plastic or whatever the bullet was made of).  So the only thing that really mattered was the velocity and the penetration distance.  I have compiled all those results in the following video, and in the tables below.

Results

The results are correlated in the tables below.    Penetration data is color-coded; red is totally unacceptable underpenetration under 9″; yellow is a bad sign (indicating modest underpenetration below 10″), green is considered decent (over 10″ but under 12″), and blue is considered excellent penetration (deeper than 12″).  When looking at these charts, the more blue and green you see, the better that ammo performed.

North American Arms .22LR Mini-Revolver With 1 1/8″ Barrel

Ammunition Test Results

Aguila Colibri

Bullet Weight 20
Bullet Type Lead CB
Average Velocity in feet per second 346
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 1.50
(corrected for bounceback) 2.50
2.50
2.50
2.50

Aguila-Colibri

 

Aguila Interceptor Red

Bullet Weight 40 grains
Bullet Type Lead Soft Point
Average Velocity in feet per second 860
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 10.50
11.00
11.50
11.75
13.75

Aguila-interceptor-red

 

 

Aguila Sniper SubSonic

Bullet Weight 60
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 596
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 6.00
6.00
6.50
6.75
7.00

Aguila-SSS

 

 

Aguila Super Colibri

Bullet Weight 20
Bullet Type Lead CB
Average Velocity in feet per second 509
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 4.00
4.50
4.50
5.00
5.50

Aguila-Super-Colibri

 

Aguila SuperExtra Blue Subsonic

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 648
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 6.50
7.00
7.50
8.00
6.75

Aguila-SuperExtra-blue

 

 

Aguila SuperExtra Orange High Velocity

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 680
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.75
7.75
8.00
8.00
8.00

Aguila-SuperExtra-orange

 

Aguila SuperExtra Yellow High Velocity

Bullet Weight 38
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 685
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.25
7.25
7.50
7.50
8.50
8.50
8.50
8.50

Aguila-superextra-yellow

 

 

Aguila Supermaximum Hyper Velocity

Bullet Weight 30
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 845
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.50
8.00
13.25
13.75
14.25
15.75

Aguila-supermaximum

 

American Eagle Hollowpoint

Bullet Weight 38
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 807
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 9.25
9.00
9.50
9.75
10.75

AE-38gr-HP

 

 

American Eagle Solid

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 823
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 9.25
10.25
10.75
10.75
11.50
12.00
12.00
13.00

AE-40gr-solid

 

 

CCI Mini-Mag 36-Grain Hollowpoint

Bullet Weight 36
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 838
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 12.00
12.00
12.50
12.50
11.50
11.50
11.25
11.25
11.75

CCI-mini-mag-36gr-1CCI-mini-mag-36gr-2

 

 

CCI Mini-Mag 40-Grain Solid

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 752
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.25
8.25
8.50
8.50
9.00

CCI-mini-mag-40gr

 

 

CCI Segmented Hollowpoint

Bullet Weight 32
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 928
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 4.50
5.00
5.50
5.50
5.75
5.75
6.00
7.00

CCI-segmented-HP-32-grain

 

CCI Short-Range Green

Bullet Weight 21
Bullet Type Lead-Free Solid
Average Velocity in feet per second 1005
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 5.50
7.00
7.50
8.50
8.75

CCI-short-range-green

 

 

CCI Shotshell

Bullet Weight 31
Bullet Type #12 shot
Average Velocity in feet per second
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 1 to 2”

CCI-shotshell

 

Eley Match EPS

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Flat Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 721
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.50
8.50
8.50
8.50
9.00

Eley-Match-EPS

 

 

Federal Champion 40-grain Solid

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 808
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 9.50
9.75
10.00
11.00
11.50

Fed-40gr-solid

 

 

Remington Golden Bullet

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 782
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.50
9.50
9.50
9.50
9.75
10.00
10.00
10.00
10.50
11.00
11.00
11.00
11.75

Rem-golden-bullet

 

Remington Subsonic

Bullet Weight 38
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 664
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.25
7.75
8.00
8.25
8.75

Remington-subsonic

 

 

Remington Thunderbolt

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 718
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.00
8.75
9.00
9.00
10.00

Remington-thunderbolt

 

 

SK Standard Plus

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 680
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.00
7.25
7.50
7.75
8.25

SK-standard-plus

 

 

Winchester Varmint LF

Bullet Weight 26
Bullet Type Tin Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 1008
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 6.25
6.50
6.50
7.50
7.50
8.00

win-tin

 

 

Winchester Super-X Super Speed Hollowpoint

Bullet Weight 37
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 774
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.75
8.75
9.25
9.50
10.75

Win-superX-37gr-hp

 

Winchester Super-X Hyper Speed Hollowpoint

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Copper-Plated Hollowpoint
Average Velocity in feet per second 730
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.00
8.00
8.75
8.75
9.00

 

Win-superX-40gr-HP

 

 

Wolf Match Target

Bullet Weight 40
Bullet Type Lead Round Nose
Average Velocity in feet per second 663
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 9.75
9.75
10.00
10.50
11.00

Wolf-match-target

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Why I won’t use or test .380 ACP “+P” or any “+P+” ammo…

In my ongoing series of testing .380 ACP ammo from micro-pistols, I’ve been repeatedly asked to test some of the so-called “+P” loadings.  Various manufacturers including Buffalo Bore, Magsafe, Underwood and others offer .380 ACP ammo in a “+P” version.  And now, with the 9mm Ammo Quest, I’m starting to get requests to test “+P+” ammo.  People want these types of rounds tested, which I can understand, but I’d like to explain the reasons why I think it’s a bad idea.

What is +P anyway?

There’s a standards-setting organization known as the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute (SAAMI).  SAAMI’s been around since 1926, and they establish and publish the standards for ammunition that the gun manufacturers then use to design their guns around.  SAAMI specifies pressure levels that ammo is allowed to obtain, for any given caliber.  For example, for .40 S&W, SAAMI specifies a maximum average pressure of 35,000 PSI.  For .44 Special, they specify a maximum average pressure of 15,500 PSI.

But for a few rounds, they specify a second listing — a listing for “+P”.  These are higher-pressure rounds and are listed separately, as a different caliber.  You can think of them as “+pressure”, as they are all higher-pressure variants of an existing cartridge.  There are four cartridges for which SAAMI has created “+P” categories: .38 Special, .38 Super Automatic, 9mm Luger, and .45 ACP.  That’s it.  There is no such thing as “.45 Colt +P” or “.380 ACP +P” in the SAAMI standards.  There is no general understanding that “overloading ammo makes it +P”; instead “+P” has a very specific, very defined meaning — it is a separate category for specific cartridges.  The differences are relatively mild, in that the +P variants are around 9 to 17% higher pressure than their “parent” cartridges:

Pressure:                 Regular                +P

.38 Special            17,000 PSI         20,000 PSI

9mm Luger           35,000 PSI        38,500 PSI

.45 ACP                  21,000 PSI       23,000 PSI

What About .380 ACP +P?

There isn’t one.  There is no standard, as specified by SAAMI, for .380 ACP +P.  It simply doesn’t exist.  ANY ammo, claiming to be .380 ACP +P, is, by very definition, nonstandard.  We don’t know how high the pressure levels may be.  The only thing we do know, is that the pressure levels are almost certainly higher than what SAAMI has established as the standard.

What About +P+?

Same thing.  There is no SAAMI standard for any caliber of ammo classified as +P+.  And therefore any ammo claiming to be +P+ is, by very definition, nonstandard.

So — Wait — What?

Think of it like this — the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) establishes movie ratings of G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17.  Those are the existing, standard ratings.  Those are all the ratings.  So what would it mean if someone released a move rated “PG-15″?  Well, in terms of the existing ratings, it wouldn’t mean anything — it’d mean they basically made up their own rating, right?  And what standards would it be held to? Certainly not the MPAA’s.

Same thing with ammo — the labels and standards are established, and the organization that establishes those standards has been around since 1926.  So if some ammo manufacturer makes ammo that doesn’t comply with those standards… what should they call it?  Apparently, ammo manufacturers have taken to making up their own names — such as .380 ACP +P, .45 Colt +P, and 9mm +P+.  None of those are SAAMI standards.

So Is It Dangerous?

The gun manufacturers certainly seem to think so.  If you read the owner’s manuals for their guns, as I’ve tried to do, I’ve never found a .380 pistol manufacturer that has said “it’s okay to use .380 ACP +P in this gun.” (edit: except for Kahr and now Beretta! See below.)  And I’ve never found a 9mm pistol manufacturer that has said “it’s okay to use +P+ ammo in this gun”, including Kahr (edit: except for HK! See below.).  Now, obviously I haven’t been able to check every pistol ever manufactured, so I guess it’s possible that there may be some special case out there (such as the Ruger Blackhawk being able to handle unusually powerful .45 Colt loads) but in general, the trend is very consistent and very clear — the manufacturers of the guns simply do not want you to use .380 ACP +P or any +P+ ammo in their guns.  Here are a few example extracts from various pistol owner’s manuals:

Excerpt from Bersa Thunder .380 owner's manual

Excerpt from Bersa Thunder .380 owner’s manual, (emphasis added).

Excerpt from Taurus PT738 TCP owner's manual

Excerpt from Taurus PT738 TCP owner’s manual

Excerpt from Ruger LCP owner's manual

Excerpt from Ruger LCP owner’s manual

excerpt from Ruger LC380 & LC9 owner's manual

excerpt from Ruger LC380 & LC9 owner’s manual

Excerpt from Diamondback DB380 owner's manual

Excerpt from Diamondback DB380 owner’s manual

Excerpt from S & W Bodyguard .380 owner's manual

Excerpt from S & W Bodyguard .380 owner’s manual

But Buffalo Bore Says It’s Okay!

True, Buffalo Bore does have an FAQ answer on their site that says that they believe their .380 ACP “+P” ammo is safe for use in a Ruger LCP.  Buffalo Bore acknowledges that there is no SAAMI standard for .380 ACP +P, but they say (paraphrased) “we’ve tried it and it works and we’ve never heard of any problems.”  They acknowledge that the gun manufacturers warn against using non-SAAMI-spec ammo, and they attribute the manufacturer’s warnings against it as fear of lawsuits, rather than any inherent safety issue.

Is this true? Possibly.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’ll cause a problem, maybe it won’t.  But I’ve never been swayed by the argument that “we’ve tried it and haven’t heard of a problem” — because I’ve crossed the street many times and never been hit by a car, but I would never assert that “people don’t get hit by cars when crossing the street” because clearly they do.  So the question is: who do you believe?  The ammo company that’s trying to sell you ammo, thus assuring you it’s safe? Or the manufacturer of the pistol (who designed the pistol to be in accordance with SAAMI standards)?  It doesn’t matter to me which one you choose, I’m just telling you why *I* won’t test or use it.

But… Isn’t .380 Deliberately Underloaded And I’ve Heard That .380 +P Is Really SAAMI-Compliant…

Okay, I’ve been asked this one multiple times — the thinking goes that in the 1970’s the ammo companies all decided voluntarily to just reduce the power of their ammo (for fear of lawsuits or for whatever reason), and as such no factory ammo really performs to the actual SAAMI specs.  And, the people who advance this theory state that the so-called .380 ACP +P is really just loaded back up to the original standards, so it’s not really nonstandard at all.

Only — that’s just not true, at least according to Buffalo Bore.  I wrote to Buffalo Bore, explained the theory going around, and asked them this specific question: “does your .380 ACP +P ammo exceed the 21,500 maximum pressure levels established by SAAMI?” I received a prompt response which says, and I quote:

YEs our +P 380 auto loads all exceed SAAMI specs. Whomever told you otherwise is misinformed.

That is exactly what I would have expected; they are using the terminology “+P” to inform the customer that their ammo is indeed not compliant within the SAAMI specs.  They assert that it is still safe to use; I leave that to you to determine, but as always I want to provide the facts so that you can make your decision based on actual information, not hearsay and internet rumor.

Summary

Here’s the way I look at it — the manufacturers warn against using it.  There is a standards organization that sets standards, and according to them there is no such standard for +P+ or .380 ACP +P.  It may or may not be dangerous.  It will certainly shorten the life of your firearm.

As a tester of self-defense/personal protection ammo, I don’t think it’d be responsible to use or recommend nonstandard ammo for such purposes.  If there’s one absolute, overriding, unimpeachably important factor with self defense ammo, it is this: it absolutely MUST WORK when you need it to.  To me, all other factors are subservient to this.  As such, I cannot recommend using nonstandard ammo that the manufacturers expressly warn against.

Furthermore, I have a problem with the whole concept of using overpowered ammo in a defensive pistol.  If you’re acknowledging that a given pistol and ammo platform is incapable of delivering the results you want, then you have two choices:

  1. Use hopped-up, nonstandard ammo to try to get better performance, or
  2. Just use a more powerful pistol.

To me, the right answer is simple and obvious (if expensive) — upgrade to a better-performing cartridge.  If you can’t get what you need out of a .380, then it’s time to move to a .38 Special +P or to a 9mm.  To me the answer is never going to be “just run nonstandard ammo in the underpowered pistol”; I think that’s just adding uncertainty (and, according to the pistol manufacturers, potential danger of failure or even injury) to the mix.  And even if there is no failure in the pistol, you’ve almost certainly voided your warranty by using .380 ACP +P or any flavor of +P+.  Is it worth it?  Not to me… I say just get the more-powerful pistol and use the right tool for the job.

You don’t have to agree with me.  You’re free to make your choices based on whatever criteria you want.  I’m just laying out why I won’t use it, or test it, or endorse it for usage.

Edit 3/18/2014: In response to a reader comment saying that Kahr rates their P380 to “+P”, I called Kahr technical support for clarification.  The technical support guy I spoke to sounded knowledgeable (i.e., he wasn’t just reading a printed statement, I spoke to him at length and he was able to explain reasons for his statements). He said that all Kahr firearms are rated for +P except for .40 S&W.  I asked specifically about how they could rate a .380 for “+P” when no such standard exists from SAAMI, and was told that they consider “+P” to be between 17% to 30% higher pressure.  They consider anything above 30% higher pressure to be “+P+” and they don’t warrant their pistols for “+P+”.  I don’t know how they can make this statement about .380 ACP +P, since there is no standards body out there asserting that the pressures will be kept to less than 30% over standard, but — that’s what Kahr said.  So if you want to use .380 ACP +P, apparently it’s okay to do so in a Kahr P380.

Edit 4/26/2014: Another reader has written in to show that the Kel-Tec P-3AT’s user manual sends a mixed message about .380 +P.  The manual says “The P-3AT Pistol is designed and chambered for the .380 Auto cartridge. Do not use any other ammunition. The P-3AT will accept +P ammunition, however, not with continuous use.”  That sure sounds like it’s saying that .380 +P is okay.  However, a couple of paragraphs down, it also says “Never use ammunition where the pressure levels exceed industry standards.”  Which, of course, is the very definition of .380 +P — the organization that sets the standards, has not set any standard for “.380 +P”, only for .380 ACP, and therefore any ammo exceeding .380 ACP pressure would, by this paragraph, be ruled out of consideration.  So, it’s a mixed message.  But I think the proper interpretation is that occasional, infrequent use of .380 +P is considered okay for the Kel-Tec P-3AT.  Still seems curious as to how they can authorize the use of ammo that doesn’t comply to any existing written and codified standard, but — hey, at least there’s another option for those who do want to use that type of ammo.

Edit 3/25/2015: The Beretta Pico .380 pistol owner’s manual says that it is rated to handle .380 +P.  The Pico has an unusual design with a very heavy barrel and two recoil springs, which make it able to absorb the additional energy from the .380+P rounds.  Also, a reader wrote in to point out that HK pistols state in their operating manuals that they are approved for the use of +P and +P+ ammo, although with the usual statement that using such ammo will shorten the life of the firearm.  I verified this by looking at the owner’s manual of the HK USP series (I don’t know what all HK pistols are listed as approving the use of +P+, but I can say that the HK USP definitely is).  As of now I still haven’t heard of any other manufacturer authorizing the use of +P+ in their firearms.

 

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If a Chest’s Only 10″ Thick…

Frequent question I get asked, and one that I’ve tried to address before, is this:

“If a person’s chest is only 10″ thick, then why should a bullet have to travel at least 12″ and up to 18″?  Wouldn’t that just mean massive overpenetration?”

Seeing as I just had to answer that question again, I thought I would put the response here, so that it can be available as a reference for anyone interested.

The question is a simple one, and it has a “common sense” answer: anyone with “common sense” would see, obviously, that since the average person is only 10″ thick, and the vital organs are located in the middle, then obviously you’d only need a bullet that penetrates six or eight inches at most, right?

The problem with this logic, as with all the recent labeling of proposals as “common sense”, is that it’s based on faulty assumptions.  As with an example that I’ve used before, it’s just “common sense” to know that the sun revolves around the Earth, right?  People could see with their own eyes that the sun rises up, and then sets down, and revolves around the Earth, and the ancient church held it as heresy to say otherwise.  It’s “common sense!”  Except for the fact that it was wrong.

So in that context, we have to first dismiss the faulty assumption — and that faulty assumption is, that bullet penetration figures = body penetration.  They don’t.  A bullet that penetrates 12″ of ballistic gel will very likely not penetrate 12″ of a body.  Remember, ballistic gel is not a body simulant, it’s a soft tissue simulant, and bodies are made up of many more types of tissue than just soft tissue.  Some is firmer than others, and there’s of course those pesky bones too — bones won’t necessarily stop bullets, but they will slow them down more than soft tissue would.

So when we discuss bullet penetration, we have to divorce ourselves from the notion that the bullet under discussion will penetrate a body to the same degree that it penetrates ballistic gel.  They’re not the same, nor were they ever intended to be the same.  Now, if you’re asking about a bullet fired into muscle  tissue (such as a big meaty thigh) then yes, the penetration through muscle will be very nearly the same as the penetration through ballistic gel.  And, our bodies are pretty much entirely sheathed in muscle and it’s a fairly safe bet that any bullet impact is going to go through muscle, but even so, that’s not the whole story.  Suffice it to say that the penetration figures do not relate to body penetration, so you shouldn’t directly compare them.

Quit Blathering And Answer The Question!

Okay, with that disclaimer noted and out of the way, let’s go on to the question at hand — and, first, the question is: how deep in the body are the vital organs?  Unfortunately, there’s not a direct one-size-fits-all answer to that, because (especially among Americans) one size most definitely doesn’t fit all! It depends on what we consider “average” for a human.  Skinny small people, obese people, and very muscular people, are all going to have varying depths to the vitals.  In general, the average torso is somewhere between 10″ and 12″ thick.  The vital organs are located generally within the ribcage, and depending on which organ we’re talking about, it could be as close as 6″ for a straight-on, unobstructed shot (meaning, the target is lined up face-on like a silhouette target, and there’s no arms or other intervening obstacles to get in the way).

Right — so now that’s sorted, let’s again raise the question — if the vitals are only 6″ deep, why on Earth would you need a bullet to penetrate 12″?  And if the average person is only 10″ to 12″ thick, wouldn’t a 16″ or 18″ bullet totally overpenetrate right through them?

Again, stick with me and you’ll see that it all does make sense.  These are reasonable questions on the surface, but once you start adding it up you’ll see that in fact the actual situation is more complex.  First, you don’t want the bullet to reach the vital organs, you want it to disrupt or destroy the vital organs, and that means it has to penetrate deep enough and still have enough speed that it’ll be able to damage the vitals and not just come to a stop right in front of them.  So yes, the shallower vitals may be located only six inches deep, but that means you’d want your bullet to go at least 8″, so it has a chance to punch into the organ and disrupt it.

So an 8″ Bullet is All I Need?

No, that’s not what I said.  We’re just getting started!  Let’s do a little simple math — 6″ of penetration to reach the vitals, plus we want at least a couple of inches of damage travel so that the bullet will sink in and disrupt them, so that brings us to 8″, yes.  But we have to factor in that we will almost certainly need the bullet to bust through the ribcage since pretty much all the vital organs are located inside the ribcage (except for the brain stem, obviously), and from a prior study I’ve shown that it takes about 2″ off of a bullet’s penetration capability to get through bone, so add another couple of inches of penetration energy necessary to get through the ribs, and that brings you to needing an absolute minimum of 10″.

Okay, So — A 10″ Bullet Is Good Enough, Right?

Only in the most optimistic possible case — if it’s a straight-on shot — no intermediary obstacles such as arms; no odd angles.  Just you and the attacker, squaring up against each other like some Old West duel, each of you standing square on to the other, exposing your chest completely.  Does that sound reasonable?  Doesn’t sound reasonable to me!  If you get in a gunfight, are you just going to stand there and take it?  Probably not — and if you’re not going to, why would you expect your attacker to?  Hint — he won’t.

So now we have to talk about less-than-perfect situations.  If you have to take a shot from a different angle (such as that the bad guy’s knocked you down, so now you’re having to shoot upwards at someone standing over you) then maybe add another 2″ to 4″ of penetration depth necessary because now you’ll be firing through a longer path to get to the vitals.  And now, let’s add in an arm, because if the bad guy’s pointing a gun at you, the geometry of the situation pretty much dictates that his arm will absolutely be in the path between your gun and his vitals.  Getting through that arm may soak up 5″ of distance, plus another 2″ of penetration power necessary to get through the arm bone.

 Okay, But … Um … Oh, I see…

Yep.  That’s why the recommendation from the wound ballistics conferences were that for a bullet to reach the vitals, it would require at LEAST 12″ of penetration power through soft tissue, and preferably up to 18″ if you want the bullet to be able to perform in all conceivable shooting scenarios and from all angles (which is perhaps more of a priority for law enforcement, but isn’t strictly limited to law enforcement).

Remember, you won’t be able to choose your shooting scenario.  You can’t stop in the middle of a gunfight and say “Excuse me, Mr. Bad Guy, but — see, I’m not a cop, I’m not the FBI, so I didn’t buy that 12″-penetrating bullet.  I just thought I’d only need an 8″ bullet.  So, could you please stop moving and put your arms up so that I can get a clean unobstructed shot at your chest?”

Um, yeah, good luck with that.  I think a better plan is to just follow the advice of the experts who do this for a living, and shop for ammunition that reaches the performance parameters that they identified as necessary: a minimum of 12″ of penetration power through soft tissue, with a maximum of 18″ of penetration.  And make sure that the bullet will deliver that kind of performance from YOUR gun!  Don’t go viewing tests that were performed from a 5″-barrel pistol, and think that you’ll get the same performance from a 3″ barrel, because you almost certainly won’t.  Use ammo that performs to the standards from your gun.  After that, it’s just a matter of placing the shot where it counts — or, preferably, be somewhere else before the bullets start flying.

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