Handgun Stopping Power: Myth vs. Fact

Tacoma Police Department annual Ammunition Manufacturers Terminal Ballistics Test 2012

 Handgun Stopping Power: Myth vs. Fact

There is much misinformation about the effectiveness of handguns on stopping the aggressive actions of humans.  Let me start by saying that the the notion of a 100% guaranteed “stopper” round is a myth at best and and money-grubbing lie at worst.  Handgun rounds do not blow aggressors off their feet, hollow point bullets do not always expand, and even head shots do not always instantly drop an assailant.  Do not waste your money on silly, exotic gimmick rounds, but buy quality, reliably manufactured defensive ammo.

As a newly minted patrol officer in 1990 my first major crime call was a robbery with two gunshot wound victims.  The first victim was shot in the face, the second was shot in the wrist and extreme upper left chest.  The 9 MM round that struck the first victim traveled around his jaw and lodged behind his ear.  He was able to run about 100 yards to safety and fully recovered.  The second victim, shot in the shoulder near the joint, died nearly instantly; the 9 MM round destroyed several blood vessels as well as the heart.  The round that bounced into his heart could just as easily have bounced the other direction, with less damaging results, but it didn’t.

And that’s the point; handguns are not automatically reliable at stopping an aggressor.  I’ve seen .45 ACP and .357 Mag hits, good chest shots, also fail to stop people with any sort of immediacy. The bottom line is that handgun rounds do not have the kinetic energy of center -fire rifles and shooting results clearly reflect this.  With handguns it is critical that you be able to place repeated shots as necessary on the vital portions of your target.

All that having been said, I have read articles on stopping power which suggest that after the 9 MM, there is really no practical difference in handgun effectiveness.  I’ve also had a number of discussions with firearms instructors who echo this sentiment. When I’ve asked if they could honestly say that given a choice between being shot in the chest with a 9MM or a .357 Mag, they would shrug and say “Whichever,” there has never been a .357 Mag volunteer.

So what is the answer?  There are several:

First is PRACTICE with your personal defense weapon!  A skill that is not used begins to degrade quickly.  This is a skill that may save your life or the life of a loved one, it is worth a range visit every month or two.

Use a quality firearm in good condition. The weapon in your hand will not automatically work, it is a machine that requires maintenance.  A well built handgun, like a well built car, is likely to be reliable.

Use a potent caliber handgun.  Find the “best” caliber and loading you can accurately, rapidly, hit with.  Starting with the minimum, I suggest: .38 Special Plus P, 9 MM, .40, S&W, .45 ACP .357 Sig or .357 Mag.  Unless there is an absolute reason you must use the less potent calibers like .380, .32, or .22, don’t use them. A small gun is better than no gun, but understand they are less effective and reliable than the bigger caliber weapons.

Get some quality training!  My father taught me to shoot, and aside from the general direction the muzzle should face he taught me what he had apparently learned from watching westerns.  Most of us are visual learners, and we see a lot of bad firearm handling on TV and Movies.  Do some research, find a firearm class you can afford that is taught by an instructor who has some practical experience, then refer back to PRACTICE.

Be Safe!


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