What Is Acceptable Handgun “Stopping Power”?

Well now isn’t that a loaded term. “Stopping power.” Right now, I’ve got my Glockblaster on my hip, loaded with 16 rounds of Speer 124 grain +P Gold Dot rounds. These are commonly held to be ‘good’ handgun rounds. Let’s look at why, and what we mean by ‘good’.

First, let’s get some things out of the way. Handguns are terrible at stopping people. All of them. Long guns are way better, but I can’t concealed carry an M4 around all day, and I’m not guarded by a battalion of Marines. Pistols are concealable, and we have to deal with that. I’m using the colloquialism “Stopping Power” because it’s convenient and fun to say.

Second, no, I do not want to get shot by any of the rounds discussed here. Or any others. Getting shot sucks. Lots of people will say “I wouldn’t want to get shot with…” about all kinds of rounds. And that’s true. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to get shot by a rubber bullet or a paintball gun either. That shit hurts. And yeah, the rubber bullet has a chance of killing you if it hits you wrong.

But all of this is missing the point. Yes, some people will stop whatever they’re doing when they’re shot. With anything. Yes, some encounters between concealed carriers and would-be criminals are ended without a shot fired. Would you just carry a convincing fake gun, and figure most problems will be solved with brandishing?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Third, stopping power is not kinetic energy. Don’t let idiots try to convince you otherwise, regardless of what unrelated degrees they have. As an example, consider a 230 lb lineman, sprinting at 25.5 feet per second. That works out to 2,020 ft-lbs of energy. Now, consider a 7.62 mm, 190 grain bullet fired from a Remington 700, moving at 2,200 feet per second. That’s also 2,020 ft-lbs of energy. One of these is a lot more likely to kill an elk (or a man) than the other. Can you spot which?

If you said the bullet, you’re right. Energy is merely the capability to do work. We’ll need energy so that the bullet can function as designed, but energy alone is not the answer.

For a stop to work here in the real world, we need to get the brain to shut up and stop working. There are a few ways to do this. Obviously, we could hit the brain and ruin it. We could hit the central nervous system, i.e. the spinal cord, and that would get the brain to be unable to send instructions to the body. Or, we could disrupt blood flow enough for the brain to be unable to function. This is nominally done with blood loss, which comes from tissue damage.

When a bullet strikes living tissue (or a similarish medium like calibrated ballistics gel), we get two kinds of damage: the temporary wound cavity (this is the big thing that blossoms dramatically in the high-speed video) and the permanent wound cavity. For handguns, the temporary wound cavity doesn’t matter, because there’s not enough energy in the handgun bullet for the tissue disrupted by the temporary cavity to matter, so only the permanent cavity matters.

Note also that this is why long guns are so much better at terminal ballistics. In general, long gun bullets have enough energy for that temporary cavity to actually damage tissues enough to matter. The temporary cavity is much bigger than the permanent one, so this means more blood loss.

So if only the permanent cavity matters, how can we measure that, and what is ‘good’? Let’s look at a case study. On April 11, 1986 the FBI engaged in a shootout in Miami with two felons, Platt and Matix. Platt was an ex-Ranger who had served in Vietnam. He was a hardcore guy with a lot of will to win. Two FBI agents would lose their lives in that gunfight: Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove. Five other agents were wounded. Both Matix and Platt also perished.

The shot that would eventually kill Platt was fired by Jerry Dove. It hit Platt in the upper right arm as he attempted to climb from his car, and penetrated the chest. This shot collapsed his right lung, damaged the blood vessels of the right lung causing the chest cavity to start filling with blood, but stopped an inch from his heart. Despite this wound, Platt was able to keep fighting and moving, and was able to subsequently kill agents Dove and Grogan after advancing on their position. During the course of the battle, Platt was wounded 11 other times before succumbing.

Let’s look at that shot by Dove, scored relatively early in the fight. Dove’s gun was the FBI SWAT issue gun, a Smith & Wesson 459 9 mm semiautomatic. The FBI 9 mm duty round of the time was Winchester Silvertip, 115 grain. At the time, a big concern was overpenetration–that a round would go through a criminal and hit a kindergartener playing somewhere behind him. So, the Silvertip was designed for good expansion and limited penetration. It worked as intended, though not as Dove would have desired.

So the FBI did a number of things to try to fix the problem. One of them was to try to come up with a repeatable way to test bullets. Let’s get scientific. So they worked up a test protocol involving calibrated ballistics gel1, and a number of initial barriers, including four layers of denim and auto glass. They wanted to simulate different things in the human body, like bones, not just muscle, and also simulate clothing or cars that agents might have to shoot through. The minimum acceptable amount of penetration, even with barriers, was set at 12″.

Why 12″? Shades of Platt. You don’t know that the criminal will obligingly square up with you, arms at his sides, like a B27 silhouette target. Maybe he’s moving. Maybe he’s turned. Maybe his arms are up, with a gun of his own, and maybe your bullet has to go through those. Remember, there are very few areas that will actually make a person stop if he doesn’t want to.

Ok. So the FBI, with it’s big juicy federal budget, developed a test protocol. And we now have plenty of rounds developed that will pass this protocol. Clearly, I won’t even consider a round that the FBI hasn’t tested and given a passing grade to.2 I also look for the round to be issued to some police departments, preferably large ones, and I want no complaints from its terminal performance on the street.

Offhand, three rounds come to mind as having passed the FBI protocols, being in common use amongst police departments, and having a good record in street fights: Winchester Ranger-T, Speer Gold Dot, and Federal HST. Since I mentioned the Gold Dots in my pistol before, I’ll talk a little more about them here. The 9 mm 124 grain +P load is used by a whole bunch of large police departments, including the NYPD and Las Vegas Metro PD. Both departments have used it in plenty of Officer Involved Shootings, and it has performed very well. And it passed the FBI testing. I can’t really ask for anything else from a round. I also mentioned the others, because sometimes I can only get one of the three, and that’s ok. I currently have a bunch of Gold Dots, but I’d also be happy with 9mm HST or 9mm Ranger-T.

I don’t really deal with other chamberings for defensive ammo. I don’t see the point. I see no reason to deviate from orthodoxy on the matter. There’s lots of snake oil out there marketed to concealed carriers because it’s rare that we’ll be able to prove them wrong.

If you’re looking for other brands of good defensive ammo, look up the work of Dr. Gary K. Roberts, who has done a lot of ballistics testing. He’s got a list of good ammo that has passed the FBI test protocols.

  1. It is paramount that the gel tested is properly calibrated, or else the test is not relevant. Lots of internet bullshitters shoot at “gel”. To the best I have been able to determine, only Shootingthebull410 shoots actual calibrated ballistics gel, i.e. only he conducts tests properly. 
  2. I tend to carry guns with plenty of barrel length. As does the FBI. They issue Glock 19s and 17s in 9mm. If you carry a gun with a barrel length of 4 inches or more, you’re fine with reading the FBI test protocol results and calling it good. If you carry something with a very short barrel, like one of those new “Pocket 9mm” subcompact single-stack guns, check the performance of your round from that sort of short barrel length. Again, Shootingthebull410 is a good source for short barrel tests. Rounds that do well from longer barrels often don’t work as well from short barrels. 

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