Choosing a Handgun, Part VI: Stopping Power

Before I started down the road of responsible gun ownership, my perceptions about guns were shaped by Hollywood. Like most people that accept what they see on TV or sliver screen as gospel, I thought that guns were guns. You chose one based on the “cool factor” (.50 cal Desert Eagle), a desire to emulate a Tinseltown hero (.44 Magnum/Dirty Harry) or a desire to “go retro” (a wheelgun for Film Noir fans, or a six-shooter for Western buffs). None of this, of course, was useful, practical intel. When it comes to personal defense, you’ve got to choose a weapon that can get the job done. In the pistol packer’s parlance, that’s called “stopping power.” And it’s serious business.

If you shoot somebody, are they gonna be able to keep coming at you or will one shot put them down for the count? In a gunfight, it’s not enough to shoot someone. You have to stop them from hurting you, regardless of what happens later. It’s actually possible to shoot the bad guy and have him die from his wounds—just after he’s killed you. Not good. Nope, you want to fire rounds that stop them first, kill them (maybe) later. Killing the bad guy is a secondary goal to stopping them and eliminating the threat to you and yours.

So what makes one gun/bullet better at dropping the bad guy(s)? There are a large number and wide variety of factors involved. Physics. Anatomy. Biology. Psychology. Pharmacology. Ballistics. And more. When discussing the effect of a bullet on a human being, there’s a LOT of science out there, somewhere. Most of it centers on terms called expansion, penetration, temporary cavitation, and a little something the guys in the white coats like to call hydrostatic shock.

You don’t have to be Mr. Wizard to fire a gun to wound or kill your target. Plenty of people simply notice the fact that paper targets give you more points for some shots than others, aimed for those places and called it good. It may be just as well; there’s a large dichotomy between laboratory tests and real world results. But the basics are worth noting.

Stopping power can be defined by three basic parameters: the bullet’s size, speed (the amount of energy behind the bullet when it leaves the barrel) and on-target behavior (what it does when it strikes a target).

As we’ve learned, a .22 caliber bullet is smaller than a .45. In fact, it’s less than half the size of a .45 round. All things being equal, you’d think the .45’s mass would give it more stopping power than a .22. And you’d be right. Generally speaking, the bigger the bullet, the greater the mass. The greater mass, the greater the stopping power.

The force behind the bullet is determined by how big the cartridge is, and how much gunpowder it contains. Again, all things being equal, the larger the gunpowder-to-bullet mass ratio, the greater the bullet’s stopping power.

So why not just get a big ass gun? The main limitation: recoil.

A .50 Desert Eagle and a .357 Magnum offer devastating firepower, but they kick like a mule on steroids. If a novice shooter misses his target with the first shot (a distinct possibility), he’ll have a hell of a time placing the second shot where it needs to go. The owner of a “lowly” (and low recoil) .22 may have less energy at his command, but he may also be more accurate, more quickly, more often. All of which could make his small gun more effective than he would be firing a big ass gun.

The secondary limitation: gun size.

It’s often said that the best gun is the one you have. You could have a Howitzer in your closet, but a .22 in your pocket would be a lot more effective for personal defense. When choosing a gun – bullet combo, you have to balance size with practicality with stopping power.

But the most important factor is accuracy. It’s not the number of rounds or the size of the bullets that counts the most. It’s where they go.

The way a bullet expands and deforms when it hits something solid (e.g., the flesh and blood human being) will determine how much damage it will do to your target. As we discussed in a previous post on ammo, hollow-point bullets will do one Helluva lot more damage than a FMJ roundball cartridge; the hollow-point is designed to expand into a jagged flower-looking thing that eats soft tissue for lunch.

Unfortunately, “designed to” does not always equate to “does.” There are a lot of hollow-points bullets that, under real-life conditions, fail to expand. When they strike a target, they behave a lot like their much less expensive roundball relations.Which is to say not as effectively/

Combine all these factors and you can end up with some interesting—and unexpected—results. A number of police officers have told me that, if given a choice, they’d rather be shot with a 9mm or .45 than a .22 round. The .22 tends to enter the body with just enough velocity and energy to hit bones and ricochet around, damaging a whole buncha internal organs. A 9mm or .45 general goes in at a straight line and either stops or exits the body.

Ever wonder why cops don’t all carry .44 Magnums or .50 Desert Eagles? It’s because when you’re in law enforcement, you want a round that’s gonna hit your target, penetrate, and then stop. What you DON’T want is your round to hit your target and keep on going without losing at least some of its energy.

A .44 Magnum is perfectly capable of putting a nice-sized hole through an engine block. Imagine what that kind of power would do if someone shot a bad guy standing in front of you. And the guy behind him. And behind him. Not pretty.

I’ve also learned that a 9mm round doesn’t have as much stopping power as a .45. The .45 ACP is sub-sonic. It travels more slowly than the 9mm; it will do more damage at that comparatively leisurely pace than the faster 9mm round. The advantage of the 9mm: smaller cartridges allow for magazines that hold more rounds. It also has slightly lower amounts of recoil when compared to a .45.

Yes, but, Smith & Wesson sells a .40 round for a .45 weapon that splits the difference between the .45 caliber bullet and the smaller 9mm round. It offers the greater stopping power of the venerable .45 load in a less, uh, dramatic fashion. There are reports of misfires but . . . ain’t capitalism grand?

A majority of professionals shoot 9mm because they have to (department regs.). Many holster a .45 because they can and it works (with a growing number moving to the .40 S&W round). More law enforcement guys favor semi-autos over revolvers because they allow for more rounds and faster reloading. For those that do shoot wheelguns, the .38 Special seems to sit in the sweet spot between firepower and recoil.

Confused? We’ll, lets leave it at this: the best caliber is the the one you have in the gun in your hand when push comes to shove. Stopping power is not an insignificant factor, but if you’re facing a bad guy with a little .22 in your mitt, the answer isn’t “get a better gun.” It’s “stop the bad guy from hurting you.” Or, more precisely, be precise. And that means practice. Practice. Practice.