Shoot Until The Threat Stops

One thing that I keep coming across in gun forums, gun magazines, and bookstore shelves, is this concept of the “one shot stop.”  This concept is frequently mentioned along with “stopping power” or “knockdown power”.  It’s extremely popular, and I can see why: people want to know what ammo will be most effective in stopping someone with a single shot.  They want to know that they’re going to be successful if they ever have to deploy their firearm to stop a threat.

Of course, the concept is ludicrous and doesn’t apply in reality at all!

You cannot, and should not, ever count on getting a “one shot stop”, and it’s easy to prove that handgun bullets don’t have “knockdown power” (i.e., a handgun bullet impact is not going to blast someone through the air and crash through windows, like you see on old Western films or TV shows).  Handgun bullets don’t have the power necessary to knock someone down, and the whole general idea of “stopping power” or “knockdown power” is an inherently fundamentally flawed concept.  It’s an attractive concept, certainly — not unlike the magical 200 mpg carburetor or the perpetual motion machine; we all wish it existed, but it simply doesn’t.

Handgun Stopping Power

The perception of the deadliness and power of the handgun is really quite exaggerated in our society, as versus the reality of just how frequently ineffective handguns are in stopping a threat.  And that means ALL handguns — .22’s, .380’s, .38’s, 9mm’s, .40’s, .45’s, .357 Magnum, .357 Sig… they’re all handguns.  And they’re all poor stoppers, as compared to a rifle or a shotgun.

If you can stand some graphic visuals (and some of the photos are VERY graphic), this presentation by Dr. Andreas Grabinsky does an interesting job of showing just how wide the gap is between the destructive power of a handgun bullet, and the power of a rifle.  It shows actual video of someone being shot by a handgun, and barely even noticing that it happened (at about 14:40).  Dr. Grabinsky also points out some interesting statistics, such as that 6 out of 7 handgun shooting victims survive.

Clearly, handguns are not some all-powerful death ray of one-shot stopping power.  Now — let’s be clear here — in self defense, we are NOT setting about to kill anyone.  If your intention is to kill, then that’s not self defense; there’s a different set of words that are used to describe that: “first degree murder.”  In self defense, the goal is to stop the attack as quickly as possible.  Whether the attacker expires from their injuries or they survive, that’s not your primary concern, that’s a consequence of the actions they took when they decided to attack you.  You do not intend to or set about to cause their death; you set about to stop them from attacking you.  You should call 911 and summon help as quickly as it is safe to do so, for the person that you were forced to defend yourself against.

The key concept here is: stopping the threat does not mean killing the threatening person.  It means that the attacker is either discouraged from attacking, or incapacitated such that they cannot attack.  That doesn’t require killing them, although you should be prepared to accept that it might; that can be one of the very serious consequences of employing deadly force in defense of yourself or innocent life.

It is possible that a single shot will stop someone, but it is relatively unlikely that they will be stopped just by the force of damage that a single bullet did to them.  People stop attacking for many reasons.  Sometimes people stop because they are scared of getting shot.  Sometimes they stop because of the pain of the impact, or the sight of their own blood.  And sometimes, they stop because they have been physically incapacitated.  An example of that would be the case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin; in that fight, a single shot to the heart ended that encounter immediately, and resulted in a fatality.  A one-shot stop can happen, but it would be foolish to think that it will be the likely outcome of any defensive shooting.  You shouldn’t count on it; you should be prepared to shoot until the threat stops.


Let me show you a few examples of defensive shootings situations that turned out very differently (i.e., no “one shot stop”).  In 2013, a Georgia mother retreated with her kids into the attic of her home to escape an invader.  The invader followed, and the woman was forced to empty a .38 revolver at her attacker.  She didn’t shoot just once and look to see what damage was done; she fired all six shots at her attacker, and she hit him five times.  He was hit five times, in the face and in the neck.  It would be difficult to imagine more effective shot placement than hitting an attacker five times in the face and neck!  In this case, the attacker got up, climbed out of the attic, walked away, got in his car, and drove away (although he did crash into a tree before he got out of the neighborhood).  The attacker was hospitalized for a month, has recovered, and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Point is — was he truly “incapacitated”?  He did stop attacking, so she did the right thing and as a result she saved herself and her children, but — if he was capable of climbing down a ladder, walking out of a house, getting into his car and driving, that should certainly imply that he would have been capable of continuing the attack, right?  In this case, it’s hard to argue that the attacker was stopped by the force of the bullets; instead it seems more reasonable to presume that he chose to stop the attack.

Second example: in this case, a man’s house is invaded by three attackers.  They shoot him, he shoots them.  But there was a vast difference in firepower: the home invaders shot him three times with a .38 (hitting him twice in the arm and once in the chest).  The homeowner fired back with — get this — a .22 Short mini-revolver.  Probably the smallest, weakest, lowest-power firearm generally available today — but it was enough to stop the attack.  He hit one of the invaders in the back.  When he started shooting, the invaders all left.  Which means that even though he was vastly outgunned, his little .22 Short revolver was enough gun to stop the threat.  He shot until the threat stopped.  But here’s where it gets interesting — even with three .38-caliber bullets in him, he managed to follow the invaders out to the driveway, write down their license plate number, then get in his car and drive 17 miles(!) towards a hospital, before he found a law enforcement officer and was airlifted to a hospital, where he survived.

Now, let’s think about this for a second — here’s a man who’s taken three .38 Specials (presumably), and .38 Special is a respectable self-defense round and was standard issue for the police for many many years.  He was hit three times, including a chest shot, yet — was he incapacitated?  By no means!  He retained the capacity to shoot back, and he could absolutely have continued the fight, had the attackers not chosen to leave.

Third example: police Sgt. Timothy Gramins now carries 145 rounds of ammo on him, every day, without fail.  Why? Because he was involved in a shootout where the bad guy just Would Not Stop, even though he was hit 14 times(!) with .45 ACP bullets(!)  From a full-sized Glock 21!  In general it would be hard to carry much more gun than a Glock 21.  Now, part of the internet gun banter is that “.45 ACP won’t just kill a man, it’ll also kill his soul”… or, another is to say “.45: because why shoot twice?”  But in Sgt. Gramins’ case, he had to fire magazine after magazine at this attacker, and he scored 14 hits, and at least six of those hits would have been fatal: the attacker was hit in the heart, both lungs, the liver, the diaphragm, and a kidney.  You cannot fault Sgt. Gramins’ shot placement!  And you can’t fault his choice of weapon or caliber; .45 ACP is about as good as it gets in handguns.  But the simple fact of the matter is, the perpetrator simply Would Not Stop.  All in all, Sgt. Gramins fired 33 rounds, hitting 14 times.  The attacker fired a total of 21 rounds from two different handguns.  Gramins finally took the attacker down with three shots to the head — but even then, the attacker was still alive when taken to the emergency room.  He would (probably) have died from any of those six shots before the head shots, but the big question is: when?  Certainly not immediately, and those shots didn’t take him out of the fight — he continued to fire at Sgt. Gramins, and could have potentially killed the officer, even though he would (likely) have eventually died from his injuries.  Again, it’s not about killing, it’s about STOPPING, and in this case the perpetrator simply would not stop, even though he’d been hit with lots of big .45 ACP bullets.

So much for that magical one-shot stop, right?

Fourth example is the murder of South Carolina Trooper Mark Coates by Richard Blackburn.  Blackburn knocked Coates to the ground and then shot him in the chest with a .22, but that was stopped by the Trooper’s bullet-resistant vest.  Trooper Coates fired at Blackburn with a .357 Magnum, at close contact range, hitting him.  Coates then retreated back to his car, calling for help, and continued firing — he hit Blackburn four more times.  With a .357 Magnum!  Blackburn then fired one more bullet from his .22 derringer, which (due to the angle that Trooper Coates was facing him) happened to find a gap in the armpit of the ballistic vest, and the bullet punctured Coates’s aorta, killing him.  And Blackburn, who was hit in the chest five times with the “king of the street” .357 Magnum? He survived, and is now serving a life sentence in prison.

Final example: Officer Jared Reston was shot 7 times, by Joel Abner.  Reston was first shot in the face (a shot that destroyed 3/4 of his jaw).  Abner fired 13 .45-caliber bullets at Reston, who was hit a total of 7 times in his thigh, his chin, his buttock, his elbow, and three times in the chest (which were stopped by his body armor).  Reston fired 14 rounds and hit Abner 7 times with a .40 S&W Glock 22.  The fight continued until Reston fired three Ranger SXT 180-grain bullets to Abner’s head.  Until that point, both had been hit multiple times, and both continued fighting.  There was no case of a “one shot stop” here, or (for Abner) there wasn’t even a 13-shot stop, even though he was using a .45.

The point of bringing up these examples? You cannot expect to fire one bullet, and then sit back and evaluate the situation.  You cannot count on any “magic bullet”, or “street stopper”, or “kinetic energy wave” or “hydrostatic shock” or anything else.

You shoot until the threat stops.

It may not even require firing a single bullet — maybe the attacker will turn and run away at the sight of a gun pointed at them. But it may require firing every bullet you’ve got — and even then, you cannot be sure that the attack will be forcefully brought to an end.

Shoot until the threat stops.

People flying through the air and crashing into tables, or “one shot stops”, those are for Hollywood.  When it’s your life on the line, do as the Georgia mother did — shoot until the threat stops.  And if you want to have the best chance of your bullets forcing the threat to stop as quickly as possible, use good-performing ammo that penetrates deeply and put the shots where they will be most likely to damage vital organs.  An attacker cannot continue the fight if a bullet has severed their spinal column, or their blood pressure has dropped below the level necessary to sustain consciousness.

So what was the common element in all these cases?  It’s simply this: if you don’t hit something vital, you cannot count on the person being stopped.  In the unfortunate case of Trooper Coates, he was hit by the tiniest of bullets, but that tiny bullet hit something vital (his aorta), and caused his death.  In some of the other cases, head shots brought the fight to an end (but, not all head shots will bring the fight to a quick end; remember that the Georgia mother hit her attacker five times in the face, and Officer Reston had 3/4 of his jaw destroyed in a shot to his chin).

The ONLY thing that you can absolutely count on to bring a fight to a quick end, is to destroy the attacker’s vital structures (heart, brain, circulatory system, spinal column, or brain stem).  You cannot count on anything else.

You can put the odds of success in your favor by choosing ammo that penetrates deep enough, and by choosing the most powerful gun with the largest bullets that you can comfortably and accurately hit your targets with.  Big bullets are no guarantee of success; in fact, several of these stories involve .40’s and .45’s failing to stop attackers.  But big bullets will do everything smaller bullets do, but they will also do more damage than smaller bullets do, and therefore they may give you a bit of an advantage in destroying vital structures that a smaller bullet might miss.

Proper shot placement of a deep-penetrating bullet is the only thing you can actually count on.  You may get lucky and your attacker will choose to stop, but if not — you may have to force them to stop.  And that may take a lot of bullets, so…

Shoot until the threat stops.


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8 thoughts on “Shoot Until The Threat Stops

  1. Mike Orick

    I think part of the confusion goes back to Evan Marshal’s famous/infamous data base of one shot stops. In an attempt to quantify “stopping power” he looked at shootings where there was only one shot/hit to the torso, and recorded how many of those were “stops” (aggression stopped, travelled less than 10 ft). So many variables at play, and it didn’t mean what many took it to mean. IOW, just because a load stopped 9 out of 10 times where there was just one hit in the cases he looked at, does NOT mean it will stop w one hit 9 out of 10 times in other cases. Those are two very different things.

    1. Shooting The Bull Post author

      Totally agree. In my opinion Marshall & Sanow set out with good intentions to try to quantify data and give people the answers they were looking for… but unfortunately, the type of conclusions that people want to draw are just not supportable from the data that was collected. Not only that, there are simply so many variables involved in each of the shooting scenarios, that it’s impossible to correlate them and extract truly useful information.

      The IDEA of a one-shot stop, or a bullet that has magical stopping power, is very seductive. It just isn’t reality (unless we’re talking about something like a .338 Lapua or a .50 BMG).

      Interestingly, I think Evan Marshall would agree with me on this article. Just found this post by Evan on his forum:

      In it, he pretty clearly states that you’ve got to aim for the triangle between the nipples and the nose, and empty the mag, and then pull out your backup gun and empty its mag.

      Also just found this blurb from a couple of months ago:

  2. Zog The Primitive

    What’s your feeling on carrying either large knife (like a full size kukri) or a short sword as a backup weapon? It seems to me like such a blade would be able to inflict severe damage to the muscloskeletal system that bullets are incapable of doing.

    1. Shooting The Bull Post author

      Knives are vicious, savage weapons. You do not want to get in a knife fight with anyone. As a backup weapon, a knife has one tremendous advantage — it never runs out of ammo. Knives have their own set of rules as to what’s legal or not legal to carry; they’re really a whole different topic. And they are no joke. In the right hands, a knife is absolutely deadly and knife wounds are horrific.

      1. Zog The Primitive

        I realize that knives are a different realm of weaponry, but in the context of shooting until the threat stops, I think they are a very pertinent topic. If you do happen to run out of ammo with your sidearm of choice you could potentially close the engagement distance with your hopefully weakened opponent and disable him with a blade (or a baton for that matter). While I suppose you could do the same with an appropriately heavy pistol, a weapon solely dedicated to that role is obviously far more effective. Do you feel this is a practical philosophy?

        As a sidenote, I’ve been carrying a kukri of one make or another on a regular basis for the better part of five years now. They’re all proven effective for game dispatch duties among other things. I realize dispatching game animals aren’t exactly the same as defensive encounters, but they are similar in some respects.

  3. Pingback: An Alternative Look at “An Alternate Look at Handgun Stopping Power” | Shooting The Bull

  4. Bret

    Fascinating article…dispelling the myths of many people who keep handguns as personal defense tools (including myself). Thanks for helping to spread a message with no BS. Having to use a gun for defensive purposes is no joke and shouldn’t be clouded by ego or machismo.

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