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The Myth of Handgun "Stopping Power"

Firearms Legal

disassembled handgun

There are a lot of myths in the shooting world, but perhaps one of the most common myths involves handguns. The myth is simply that a bigger handgun bullet equals more stopping power. I’ve heard people say that their .357 magnum will stop someone with one shot (apparently no matter where they shoot them). Others have said that a .45 will literally knock someone on their rear-end. Surely a bigger bullet is more deadly than a smaller bullet, right? If it has more recoil in your hand then it must produce more deadly effects downrange...right?

Shooting a person is nothing like what you have seen in the movies. In real life, they don’t fly back out the window as in wild west films. Think about the laws of physics for a second. For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. If my round caused someone to fly backwards I would fly backwards as well. If my handgun round were to “knock someone down” it would knock me down as well. Several demonstrations have shown that you can actually shoot flesh with a fully automatic weapon and multiple shotgun blasts and the rounds just tear right through it; the flesh barely even moves.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. No matter what caliber you are using, if it is a handgun, it’s not a great “man-stopper.” Your chance of dying if you are shot with a handgun in a non-vital organ is only 30%. However, your chance of dying if you are shot with a rifle in a non-vital organ is 70%. Why is that? Why is the rifle so much more devastating? Well, the rifle round is often going almost 3x as fast as a handgun round and it creates greater ballistic shock and a bigger permanent wound cavity. This leads to more organ damage and also quicker blood loss. You don’t get this with a handgun. So the debate over which handgun is more deadly is somewhat moot.

2. Most people are shooting too much gun. A bigger bullet does not equal more stopping power statistically. It equals less magazine capacity, it equals more recoil, it equals more money to buy rounds, but it doesn’t equal more stopping power. What is the most common round used by those who have to use guns professionally? Answer: 9mm. The U.S. military (including special operations) have used 9mm since the 1980s. Army Rangers use 9mm, Navy SEALs use 9mm, U.S. Marines use 9mm. With just a few exceptions almost everybody uses 9mm. It is also the most common caliber used by law enforcement. Ballistics testing done by the FBI shows that a 9mm bullet penetrates equally as well into ballistics gelatin as does a .45 and a .357. The FBI recently switched from using .40 cal rounds to using 9mm. You would think that if a bigger bullet equaled more stopping power then everyone would be using a Desert Eagle .50 AE, but they are not. They are using the small, but practical, 9mm.

3. Accurate shots stop assailants, not big bullets. Shot placement is the most important thing in stopping an assailant. The bad guy won’t stop until bullets hit something that makes him stop. With that in mind do you want a bigger bullet with more recoil, more shot anticipation, and that takes longer to get your sights back on target for a follow up shot or do you want a hot, fast, accurate round that allows for fast and accurate follow up shots?

4. Some Police officers miss up to 80% of their shots under stress and it usually takes multiple shots to stop an assailant. This means that your big-caliber semi-auto or your revolver has fewer rounds and you’ll have to reload more often. A smaller round that can double your magazine capacity can come in very handy in a real gunfight.

Ultimately the whole debate over what caliber handgun round you are using really doesn’t matter. If you’re not using a rifle or a shotgun, then (unless you get a psychological stop or hit the central nervous system) you are going to have to fire upon the person multiple times. However, for most of us that have to use a handgun as a primary weapon system it is helpful to know the limits of our firearm.