I hate to bring this up again, but I recently read a posting on the Internet about this topic, and I couldn't help but scratch my head. The author made an impassioned plea for the superiority of the .45 ACP cartridge over all others, claiming "ball .45 will stop a man nine out of 10 times with a well-placed hit." He based his assertion on testing that took place 100 years ago and was by no means scientific by today's standards. It was quite clear the author wasn't stating fact, but was trying to shape what fact should be based on his opinion.
Alarmingly, less informed individuals were thanking the writer for this "timely information." There was a time when I would have wanted to choke this guy because he wasn't offering useful information—only rhetoric based on his beliefs. The sad thing is, people were accepting his words as gospel for no other reason than they read them on the Internet, which led me to think about the car insurance commercial in which a young woman exclaims, "You can't put anything on the Internet that's not true!" Yeah … right.
For many years, I was deeply involved in the stopping-power debate. I read everything I could, talked with trauma surgeons, coroner investigators and medical examiners, and even collected my own shooting reports.
In 1987, I wrote my master's thesis, "The Incapacitation Effectiveness of Police Handgun Ammunition," on the topic and based my conclusions on shooting data supplied by law enforcement agencies across the country. My agency allowed me to use its letterhead to solicit shooting reports, and the response I received pleased me. By the time I finished, I had a kitchen table stacked with reports from all over the U.S. with so much data I could hardly process it. One thing did stand out, however. For every shooting in which a particular caliber and bullet style performed well, I also received one in which it failed. In truth, I couldn't really draw a conclusion based on the shooting data I received.
I decided to bolster my thesis by testing popular police ammunition in duct sealant, water-soaked "undertaker's" cotton and ballistic gelatin because all three were commonly used in the gun magazines of the time. The three test mediums resulted in different performance, which shouldn't have surprised me, considering the three mediums are really nothing alike.
The Winchester 147 Grain OSM Hollow Point
I became fascinated by the report from the FBI's 1987 Wound Ballistic Panel, a group formed after the tragic April 1986 shootout involving a team of FBI agents and two hardcore bank robbers in Miami. Although the robbers were killed during the confrontation, so were two FBI agents and several more were seriously wounded. An extensive study resulted, with ballistic experts from across the country coming together to try to determine what went wrong and what could be done to ensure such a tragedy never happened again.
The panel determined the FBI-issued 9 mm load, the Winchester 115 grain Silvertip hollow point, didn't have sufficient penetration power and that a bullet that could push deeper, especially when shooting through other objects to get into the torso, would be the right solution.
I poured over this report when it was issued; it made so much sense. I lobbied my agency hard to get it to adopt the new Winchester 147 grain OSM hollow point, even though we had received good performance from the 115 grain Silvertip. Hey, science was science and couldn't be disputed—until it proved to be wrong.
As it turned out, my former agency had one of the first shootings in the nation with the Winchester 147 grain load, and it failed miserably in a scenario that would seem to be perfect for its "enhanced" penetration capability.
One of our deputies responded to a report of a child kidnapping. This wasn't a domestic situation or a child custody battle. A real bad guy snatched a kid off the street with who-knows-what intent, and our deputy was able to stop and confront him in a parking lot. The deputy was about 10 feet from the suspect when he confronted him, pointing his Smith & Wesson Model 669 semi-auto through the open passenger window of the suspect's vehicle. The child was sitting in the passenger seat, while the suspect sat in the driver's seat with his hands on the steering wheel. When the suspect tried to flee, the deputy fired one round of 147 grain hollow-point ammo at him, hitting him in the right arm, which blocked the bullet's path to his chest cavity.
This should have been no problem because this was a penetrating round. It should have passed through the arm and entered the suspect's chest. Too bad it did nothing of the kind. It stuck in the suspect's elbow allowing him to flee and resulting in a high-speed chase involving multiple agencies and several crashed cars.
Once the suspect was in custody, he was taken to the hospital, where it was determined the bullet didn't do sufficient damage to the arm to warrant removal. To the best of my knowledge, this suspect still has the bullet in his arm to this day.
The remaining rounds were chronographed at the crime lab and determined to have an average velocity of 630 feet per second. The ammo that I had lobbied so hard for was immediately removed from service, and the Silvertip load was reissued.
It took a long time for me to recover any credibility within my agency, and I became an outspoken critic of the 147 grain load. Is it hard to understand why? To be fair, the current generation 147 grain 9 mm loads have proved to be quite good, with the Federal 147 grain +P HST leading the pack, but I consider ballistic gelatin tests to be an indicator of potential performance and not what a bullet will do once it enters the body.
Gelatin testing, however, does give us some ability to measure one bullet against another and see what its wounding potential might be. In this apples-to-apples environment, one will note the best .45 bullet will create a 15–18% larger wound cavity than the best 9 mm. This is certainly encouraging and would lead one to believe a bigger bullet is a better bullet. I think that would be a fair statement. Now for the harsh reality. That 15–18% is measured in millimeters, meaning it isn't enough to make up for poor shot placement. To stop someone with a handgun bullet, you need to either hit an important organ (e.g., brain, spinal column, heart) or create rapid blood loss by severing a major artery, and any of the commonly used law enforcement rounds, regardless of caliber, will do this. It might take multiple hits because a drugged or determined adversary can be tough to stop with any small arm.
In my classes, I have a drill in which each student shoots to see if the gun/caliber they carry is compatible with their level of skill. I call it the two-second drill. Students shoot four rounds at 20 feet into an 8" square. The square represents the high chest region where many vital organs are located. Twenty feet is the length of a common living room, and four rounds fired in two seconds is a reasonable time limit based on the history of armed conflict. The first round hits in one second from a ready position, with the final three spread over an additional second or in splits of .33 seconds. To me, this shows the student can control the recoil of their chosen pistol and caliber. It's amazing how many people can't accomplish this simple drill because they're shooting "too much gun" for their individual skill level.
These days, I pay little attention to the stopping-power debate unless I happen to stumble across something like I did here. Although confidence in a particular gun and caliber is important, it's more important that you be able to control the gun and caliber in accurate rapid fire because multiple, accurate shots will likely be what ends a pistol fight.
After all these years, I've come to understand that the secret to handgun stopping power is where you shoot your adversary and how many times you can shoot him. This requires training, practice, skill and a level of ruthlessness that permits to you stand up and exchange deadly rounds with another human being. No amount of new gear and no "wonder" gun will change this.
In the end, what will a person be doing after you shoot them? Probably the same thing they were doing before you shot them—harsh reality indeed.
Dave Spaulding was the 2010 Law Officer Trainer of the Year. He's a 28-year law enforcement veteran who retired at the rank of lieutenant, and then went to work for a federal security contractor. Spaulding currently runs his own training company that focuses on the combative application of the handgun. His website, www.HandgunCombatives.com, contains information on his courses.
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