Valid Handgun Stopping Power

Bullets lined up in a row.

Ralph Mroz

There are endless debates – in magazines, on the Web, and in just about any discussion among gun people – about “stopping power.”

We are all legitimately concerned about it and many people have some pretty vigorous opinions about it. They cite gelatin studies, cadaver studies, animal studies, statistical analyses, and experience. In the end, of course, only actual experience counts, but the anecdotes which describe experience are as flawed a means to arrive at conclusions as any of the other methods. The reason is that no one has shot enough people in a controlled way with all of the thousands of variables controlled and normalized to arrive at a valid conclusion. 

We have bullet weights, caliber, construction, materials, and velocities to consider in just the bullet itself. We have shot placement and the thousands of permutations that it and the damage it causes in the body takes. Of course, you have to also account for the differences in body type, composition, age, sex, health…and endlessly so on. Don’t forget to also account for blood chemistry –adrenaline, drugs and the like. Then we have intermediate barriers like clothing to factor in. Do the math and the physical factors alone multiply out to an astronomical number of permutations. And, we haven’t even considered the unmeasureable mental factors which vary by person: aggression, rage, attitude, willingness to fight, etc. 

In short, it’s impossible, from the physical evidence, to determine what constitutes “stopping power.”

And did I mention that no one seems to completely agree on just what “stopping power” means? Does the bad guy stop immediately? If so, can you put a time definition on “immediately”? One tenth of a second? Two tenths? And what do you mean by “stop”? He takes no more steps? Moves no further forward? Takes only one more step? What’s a step, by the way? Also, how many bullets do you have to fire to achieve this result? And fire them in how much time?

Like I said, stopping power is impossible to define; impossible to agree on; and impossible to measure, both in theory and in practice.

But, we all know that “stopping power” means something. It means, I think, to most of us that, if we shoot a bad guy, he becomes incapable of hurting us. “One shot stops” are desirable, but I think we all also know that handgun rounds are pretty anemic and that one shot stops will be the exception rather than the rule – no matter what caliber or round we pick.

The Magic Bullet Approach

Currently, there are two popular methods taught to achieve maximum stopping power from a handgun. The first is what I call the “magic bullet” approach. Following this method, we pick the biggest caliber gun which we can manage to control and we pick the “highest performance” round that we can to load into it. Adherents of this approach like big bore guns, preferably .45s. They pour over the latest studies containing the most arcane minutiae from non-reproducible and unauthenticated sources and draw hugely important dubious conclusions from it. If a certain round is somehow “rated” by some methodology to be two percent “more effective” than what they’re now loading, they scour the Earth for caches of it.

Unfortunately, the “magic bullet” theory is more or less a waste of time because we all know as a matter of common knowledge that no handgun bullet is an effective stopper – they are all ineffectual! There are simply too many stories of people being shot by .45s to trust that picking the right bullet is the answer. The “magic bullet” theory is belief in magic, indeed.       

If you want to stop someone right there right now, you need a rifle. Bullet considerations do make sense at small caliber rifle velocity and energy levels (such as a .223) because, at those levels, some rounds do function well and some rounds don’t. But, once you get past a certain energy level, again, bullets really don’t matter, because they all work. No one has debates over which .50 cal rifle round is a better man stopper than another.

The Shot Placement Approach

The alternate popular approach to stopping power is shot placement. Hit ’em in the head or the high upper chest, so the theory goes, and you have a real good chance of stopping your adversary…maybe. High chest shots, while usually hitting high-value anatomical targets, are certainly not sure stoppers. Ditto with head shots – the cranium is very thick and there are too many stories of bullets traversing the circumference of the skull under the skin to even trust head shot placement. The real problem with the shot placement theory, however, is that truly precise shots are all but impossible in the dynamic, chaotic seconds of a gunfight and everyone is often moving, making shot placement even more difficult. The shot placement theory seems to break down a bit in actual practice.

Note that I’m talking about responding to sudden, spontaneous attacks or, in any case, attacks your attacker initiates. Gunfights which are the result of something like entries by a SWAT team, in which the action is initiated and largely controlled by the good guys, do allow for precise shot placement in many cases.

So, What’s the Answer?

Where does that leave us? Well, there are only three ways in which a bullet can stop an attacker: 1) It can destroy central nervous system function, but that requires very precise shot placement. 2) It can cause the blood system to depressurize, but that also requires either precise or lucky shot placement and, in any case, it happens slowly at best. 3) It can cause so much shock to the body that the body shuts down. How could a bullet cause a lot of shock to the body? It’s actually pretty simple: Put a lot of bullets in a short amount of time into the bad guy. In practice, this translates to a multiple shot burst with hits anywhere on the torso. The good news is that you may get lucky with one or more of these shots and also cause some pressure loss.

Now, I’m not advocating that we spray and pray. I still believe in good, solid fundamentals and practicing center mass shot placement because we will perform worse under extreme stress in real-life situations.  These conditions are often much more complicated and difficult than the static range drills which constitute most of what is practiced. An “A” performance on the range might give us “C” performance for real, but “C” is still passing! And I’m not advocating shooting so fast than we can’t assess what’s going on in front of our muzzle, as I’ve written many times before.

I’m just saying that we put as much hurt on the bad guy as possible until he stops trying to kill or maim us…at which point we have to stop immediately.

What I don’t like to see in training, though, is an emphasis on the “all but impossible to make in real life” head shots or an overemphasis on a too small group size. If your groups are the size of your fist, I’d suggest that you are shooting too slowly, with too much emphasis on seeing your sights. You are doing what I’ve best heard described as “intellectual shooting” which for sure you won’t be doing on the street. I’d suggest that you shoot faster or with more target focus until you achieve consistent six or eight inch groups at normal handgun defense distances. You still need to practice good marksmanship, though, because you may not have a full profile target available to you, or you may, in fact, have to make a distance shot. So, practice shooting at small targets and at a distance with your handgun, too – just don’t make it your only practice.

On the street, any bullet which hits anywhere on your assailant is a good hit. They all cause some shock and even extremity hits – the leg, arm, head, or foot – will cause both some shock and some incapacitation. And, any shot which hits will cause some sort of  reaction ­– buying you a half a second or so to assess and maybe make a better shot, if need be. Of course, I’m not advocating that you aim for the extremities; you should still be aiming for center mass. But, on the street, it’s only misses which do us no good and, in fact, cause us harm because of the liability they represent.  

So, do pick a high performance bullet to carry in your handgun. I’m not saying that hardball is as good as modern hollowpoint designs. Take advantage of the studies and shooting results out there. Use that information to pick one of the top four or five rounds you feel performs best under the conditions in which you will have to fight…and then forget about it. Don’t get your knickers all in a twist every time some new opinion surfaces. Recheck your logic and data every couple of years to take into account new shooting results and new designs and you’ll be making very efficient use of your time. 

You can use the time you used to spend on the Web looking for that magic bullet to practice true survival shooting. If you can’t help but bear down on your front sight and getting anything more than an inch spread drives you crazy, then learn to shoot in a more street realistic way. If, on the other hand, you keep ’em all on the target – but also all over it – at five yards, then learn to make a head shot at 25 yards. That skill isn’t likely to be needed, but neither are you likely to win the lottery. But, someone does, every day.

Ralph Mroz was a police officer (part-time) in Massachusetts for 20 years, seven of which he was assigned to his county’s drug task force. He has taught at a number of national, regional and international law enforcement conferences. Ralph now has three books available on Amazon: Street Focused Handgun Training (Volumes 1, 2 and 3), as well as two republished books, Defensive Shooting for Real-Life Encounters and Tactical Defensive Training for Real-Life Encounters.

The Bad Guy with Body Armor Problem

The mass killer in a Buffalo supermarket was wearing a bullet-resistant vest. The store’s security officer attempted to halt his progress and managed to strike the gunman with one of his shots. However, it proved ineffective in stopping the lethal spree due to the gunman’s use of body armor. This raises the question of how an on- or off-duty officer can best deal with this situation. The issue is that, if their rounds are stopped by the bad guy’s armor, then he can continue to kill until 1) the good guy figures this out; and, 2) goes to Plan B. So, we have two issues. How do we figure out that the bad guy is wearing armor?  I’ve written a lot in these pages about the fact that we shouldn’t shoot any faster than we can assess what’s going on in front of our muzzle.  If a good guy is adhering to this tactic, then they should notice if, after a round or two to center mass, the bad guy hasn’t dropped his gun or gone to the ground, this is a pretty good clue that body armor may be stopping the rounds. So, the answer here is to only shoot as fast as you can assess and to make sure you assess after each shot, both of which we should be training to do all of the time anyway. What’s new here is to recognize the signs of body armor.

What is Plan B? The traditional answer is the Mozambique tactic (two to the body/one to the head) or transition to head shots if center of mass shots aren’t working. I’ve never been a fan of this tactic. While the Mozambique drill has value on the range as a target and target-size transition drill, I’ve always thought it had little application in the real world for the vast majority.* The head is too small a target and, in the real world, it’s moving around. It’s an even smaller target at angles, smaller still at distance and, in an active killer situation, you will probably be shooting at a distance. Because these things by definition happen in crowded spaces, if you miss the head, you are likely to strike an innocent person because a head shot will be aimed at head level…where a lot of other people’s bodies will be, right behind the bad guy. That bullet’s going to stop somewhere after all.         

The second answer I hear is to simply shoot whatever piece of the bad guy you can get to, thus diminishing him (or her), and use that opportunity to get closer or to take the time for a neutralizing shot. This is a great strategy, but recognize that it requires running towards the shooter. You have to make that mental commitment before you consider anything else.

Now, hits anywhere can diminish the shooter and all hits are good. Hit him anywhere you can – given his exposure, the distance, your weapon, your skill, and your composure. Even hits on the vest will have some effect (taking a round on a vest feels like a hard punch). But, to the extent that you can manage to have some sort of aiming focus, I suggest that the pelvis is the place to aim. It’s likely to be the largest exposed, unarmored piece of real estate; in other words, the pelvis likely becomes center of mass once you discount the armored chest.

Yes, many people dismiss pelvic shots as ineffective, but they also do have a record of success, especially in pairs or threes. It’s going to be hard for someone to take two or three pelvic shots and remain standing. As an atypical example, LAPD officers aimed at the exposed foot of one of the bad guys who was behind cover in the infamous North Hollywood bank robbery shoot-out and was successful in diminishing him to the point where they could close and neutralize him. Compared to the head, the pelvis is much easier to hit at distance: It’s bigger and doesn’t move around as much. Also, if you miss a pelvis shot, it’s probably less likely to kill an innocent person because of the more likely downward angle (misses still represent a very real danger, of course). If you are aggressively closing with the bad guy as you shoot, you may be able to make more precise shots if you wish, including the head.

The way to train for this might be a reverse Mozambique drill – let’s call it the Buffalo Drill. Two to the body / assess / two to the pelvis / assess. I’m suggesting that a controlled pair instead of a single shot before assessing would be perfectly justifiable in this kind of extreme situation.

* Of course, I do believe that it has real application for highly trained shooters who have also had a lot of experience in realistic simulations. We’re talking in the realm of 50,000+ rounds per year coupled with serious force-on-force simulations. We’re also probably talking rifles with optics.