Question of the Day: Are You Scared of Over-Penetration?

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I wonder how Google will rank that question. Anyway, many members of TTAG’s Armed Intelligentsia worry that their self-defense bullet or bullets might not stop inside the bad guy. For good reason? Here’s a defensive gun use from this morning’s miamiherald.com. “Arellano and his two brothers tried to stop the man [threatening them with a wood plank]. The wife and 3-year-old son managed to get in the car, but the 5-year-old daughter could not, [spokeswoman] Coleman-Wright said. Arellano said he was going to call the police. ‘And that’s when the guy lost it, became very agitated and made aggression toward [Arellano’s] daughter,’ Coleman-Wright said. Arellano fired once, fatally hitting the man in the chest. The same bullet hit Arellano’s brother, who was expected to recover.” So it does happen. Do penetration issues determine your choice of firearm, caliber, type of ammo and training?

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About Robert Farago

Robert Farago is the Publisher of The Truth About Guns (TTAG). He started the site to explore the ethics, morality, business, politics, culture, technology, practice, strategy, dangers and fun of guns.

51 Responses to Question of the Day: Are You Scared of Over-Penetration?

  1. avatarEric says:

    Under penetration is more concerning to me.

  2. avatarST says:

    This is why that little rule about “be sure of your target *AND WHAT IS BEHIND IT*” comes into mind. It is not enough to have a clear shot at one’s attacker;one must also ensure the rounds fired do not hit uninvolved parties.

    The good thing for ordinary people carrying in self defense is that criminals usually do not attack people in populated areas, so the risk of hitting bystanders goes down substantially in that event. Ditto a home defense situation where the only ‘bystanders’ are the criminals’ party . This is where training steps into the picture-a shooter who can confidently put the rounds where they need to go has much less of a risk of a miss which hits background , a fact the NYPD would benefit from applying.

  3. avatarCarlosT says:

    It is something I worry about to some extent, but other than using hollow points, I’m not doing anything in particular to address it.

  4. avatarMichael B. says:

    Yeah, it determines my choice of caliber, type of ammo and training.

    I wouldn’t use my K98 as a home defense weapon for a plethora of reasons, but especially not because of the insane overpenetration that would occur.

    When it comes to daily carry, I carry a 9mm. I don’t carry FMJs in it, only high quality JHPs that will still probably overpenetrate in the typical human torso. Hopefully it’ll have lost enough velocity by then to be less than lethal if there’s someone behind the BG and I can’t move to get another angle.

    Finally, I always train for self-defense situations by making a VERY quick assessment of what’s behind the target. The last thing I want to do is harm an innocent person. If I’m in a tight corridor and something does down there really aren’t many good options. I suppose you could yell “GET DOWN!” I wonder if that would work?

  5. avatarsquashpup says:

    I remember my brother once shot 9mm round ball through a 16″ carbine at an abandoned house.

    It went through wooden lap siding and plywood on the outside, through drywall on the inside, through a toilet and a wooden cabinet in the bathroom, through another interior wall of two drywall layers, through two more metal cabinets in the kitchen, through the opposite exterior wall of drywall, plywood and lap siding, and out the other side.

    Of course, a pistol might not penetrate to the same degree, but it was still scary to think about.

    • avatarBuuurr says:

      Actually a 9mm ball is pretty nasty. Those and .45 balls are some of the most over-penetrating rounds there is as far as I knew.

  6. avatarScott says:

    I worry about overpenetration because of the design of our house. Our children’s bedrooms are separated from the master. If I can’t visibly see my children then I’d likely be shooting in their direction if covering the doors.

    Worry actually isn’t the right word, I just assumed that a bullet will overpenetrate. I know if I miss a bullet will definitely go through the drywall. I practice my angles to minimize chances of hitting anyone but the bad guy and then I hope it never comes up.

    I have a double barrel with 04 buck and a .38 as my designated HD weapons. Overpenetration was considered but wasn’t the final decider. Storage safety actually was.

  7. avatarTim says:

    Michael B. says: “I wouldn’t use my K98 as a home defense weapon” I second that. I had a K98 sporter several years back. If I fired a round off inside my house it would probably end up somewhere in the next county. I don’t spend extra money on special SD/HD rounds. I just use JHP. I think shot placement is imposrtant too. Theoretically the better your shot placement is the less rounds you have to fire. Less rounds fired means less chances of a miss or a round overpenetrating. It may not always be possible, but try not to fire in a direction where you know other people are. If the BG is in your home and hasn’t spotted you yet, wait till he’s away from the wall with people sleeping on the other side.

  8. avatarStacy says:

    It’s hard to imagine anything that can penetrate flesh far enough to cause serious harm being also somehow able to stop in a couple layers of drywall. You can push a pencil with your hand through a couple layers of drywall.

    My impression is that the best you can do is use hollow or plastic-tipped ammo in a pistol and have some reasonable hope that it won’t exit the target, or at least not while retaining enough energy to damage anything behind it. Obviously, you have to actually hit the target.

  9. avatarNR says:

    I assume a round will *not* penetrate through both a person and a wall (of pretty much any sort) and still have the energy to cause a fatal injury.

    I don’t know I anyone who is willing to let me shoot them, so I can’t test this theory.

    I also assume that if I miss the bad guy, any round I fire will go through pretty much any wall.

    I can’t test this theory either, since there are an awful lot of different kinds of walls out there, and I’m not likely to know the composition of the wall the BG is standing in front of.

    So I practice marksmanship.

  10. avatarRalph says:

    I used to have a problem with overpenetration when I was younger. Now that I’m an OFWG, underpenetration is more of an issue. But I believe that with a combination of diet, exercise and hair transplants, things will work out just fine.

  11. avatarbontai Joe says:

    “Do penetration issues determine your choice of firearm, caliber, type of ammo and training?”

    Yes, it’s why I DON”T use a .357 mag as my home defense weapon, or my .45 model 1911. My caliber choice like most, is the lowly 9mm with JHP ammo that has been shot enough to prove its reliablity in my Glock. Being avid readers, there are certain walls in my home that have bookcases full of books, making them more resistant to over penetration which also influences what room is safest to hunker down in if needed. I also have the little worry in the back of my mind about my neighbors errant firearms discharges penetrating the walls from outside. My house has not been victim to this yet, but other houses in the subdivision have been struck by bullets fired by some of the mutants that live on the next hill over. They obviously don’t know the 4 rules of gun safety as they can’t count to 4 to begin with.

  12. avatarcz82mak says:

    My wife is scared of over-penetration….

  13. avatarKWAL says:

    My closest neighbors are separated from me by two to three acres, so I often load up with a .357 or hardcast .45 Super in a 1911. If I’m going to be in a more densely populated area I go with a Buffalo Bore loading of the 185 gr Barnes bullet that pushes it between 1150 and 1200 fps. I think that’s about as much compromise in penetration that I’m willing to make. Like many more seasoned shooters I’m more concerned about under penetration.

    I recently acquired a Walther PPK and I’ll be trying that with a hardcast Buffalo Bore round to see if it works reliably. A .380 isn’t known as a big game stopper, but it slips into a pocket nicely and that round should do the trick with proper shot placement.

  14. avatarmacnorfin says:

    “Do penetration issues determine your choice of firearm, caliber, type of ammo and training?”

    For us apartment dwellers, it’s a serious issue. You could be perfectly within your rights to shoot someone who breaks in, but I certainly wouldn’t want to light up my neighbors (and face the inevitable lawsuit).

    If I ever have to, the pistol I would grab in an HD situation is my police issue 9mm (I’m retired). If you use the same type of ammo and the same type of gun that the local police department uses, I think it’s prima facia evidence that this level of force is reasonable, as opposed to putting a 30-06 through three separate apartments.

    • avatarRalph says:

      The average apartment’s walls are so thin that just about anything will penetrate — ball ammo, hollow points, small caliber pistol bullets, a loud sneeze, you name it. It would take two or three layers of bad guy to stop overpenetration.

      • avatarmacnorfin says:

        I don’t know. My building was built immediately post-WWII and has solid plaster walls on steel sheeting (it’s a type of construction I’m told is not done today). I doubt a 9mm JHP would go through (especially if it went through a BG first). That being said, you never know and should be aware of it.

        • avatarRalph says:

          Wow. I’ve heard of plaster over wire lathe (it’s like chicken wire and gives the plaster something to adhere to), but I’ve never heard of plaster walls with steel sheeting. Do you live in an apartment or a bomb shelter?

        • avatarRopingdown says:

          We have a lot of galvanized steel lathe. It doesn’t look like chicken wire, but more like thin sheet steel filled with triangular holes and hot-dip galvanized. It’s common in commercial ceiling applications like hospital lobbies in well-constructed buildings.

    • avatarIdahoPete says:

      Take a look at GLASER SAFETY SLUGS. Wikipedia has a fairly informative entry on them. Basically, they arec artridges loaded with #12 or #6 lead shot compressed into a plastic-tipped capsule, in a regular case, and are made to dump all of their energy into whatever they hit without the overpenetration issues that even hollowpoints can have. Made in pretty much every caliber from .25 auto to .45, plus some rifle rounds.

      • avatarST says:

        It is a wise rule of thumb to assume if the apartment building was built in the last decade that anything launched out of a firearm will penetrate two walls , if not more. At the building I live in it wouldn’t matter if I carried an electric airsoft pistol as odds are even the BB would go through the wall.

        Brick and cinderblock may not be 100% certain backstops either. There was a sad case at the end of last year where a gang banger shot up an older South Side neighborhood in Chicago, and a 4 year old died at her bathroom sink. Round was a 9mm, and the dwelling was an older 1950s era home made of brick and mortar.

      • avatarvirtualjohn says:

        The problem with Glassers and other frangible ammunition is that with ballistic gelatin they have only penetrated two-three inches. With some individuals that wouldn’t even slow them up.
        After the 1986 FBI Miami shootout, the FBI decided upon a penetration of twelve inches as the acceptable minimum for their carry weapons. That led to the adoption of the 10mm. It was then found that many agents couldn’t handle the power so they carried 10mm lite ammo for awhile. Smith & Wesson then developed the .40 cal. which hits as hard, or harder as the 10mm lite with a smaller case, bullet and less recoil.

  15. avatar"Dr."Dave says:

    Doesn’t matter if you’re shooting .22 short or a 20mm chaingun, “Know your target and what lies beyond” is a constant.

    The Firearm Safety Rules are not just for at the range. They apply everywhere, under all circumstances.

    One side step, and one less person would have been in the hospital.

    • avatarAccur81 says:

      It’s safe to say that a 20mm chain gun is overkill for home defense. It’s best to stick with a .458 Win Mag. loaded with solids or smaller…

  16. avatarAaron says:

    I came across something rather surprising at an Army surplus store on Canal Street of all places. Back around 1997 or so, I walked in and saw something very interesting: an olive drab military helmet, probably one of the newer Kevlar ones – definitely not a “steel pot” type. Over its surface were large elliptical gouges, which were circled in crayon and marked, “9mm jhp” “.38 spl 158 gr”, etc. None seemed to have fully penetrated.

  17. avatarKelly in GA says:

    Random aside to the article. Isn’t this a case if SYG potentially saving multiple lives, and it was originally reported by the same paper that reported the Trayvon Martin case? Where are the people marching against SYG legislation on this one?

    • avatarRalph says:

      It reminds me of a scene in “The Magnificent Seven.” Calvera, the bad guy, says: “Once I rob a bank in Texas; your government get after me with a whole army… whole army! One little bank. Is clear the meaning: in Texas, only Texans can rob banks.”

      Is clear the meaning: in Florida, only whites can kill whites, only blacks can kill blacks, and only Hispanics can kill Hispanics.

      • avatarRopingdown says:

        Poor Aleut’s just gonna have to snorkel while he’s down there then. (Though I note the real numbers don’t tally with your quip. Clearly there’s some overlap allowed down there. Hell, a lot of overlap.)

  18. avatarTom says:

    xxxxx
    I have lived mostly in suburbs in my adult life and I am concerned about overpenetration as most houses are really not very heavily built and a bullet fired in one house, may keep going into another house.
    I know we are all supposed to be expert shots; but looking at cops and robbers hit reports, most people under stress are not so swift.
    I have shot rabid animals charging me, and stress aiming becomes closer to skeet and trap shooting.
    I prefer to use a shotgun for defense loaded with pheasant or rabbit loads.
    In spite of what reports say, lighter shotgun loads at room or slightly longer length ranges are very nasty on animals.
    I shot a ground hog in the head with a Model 12 at longer room length and it put a rathole clean through its skull.
    2 3/4 shotgun shells do not penetrate at longer ranges as much as the 3″ rounds.
    I can tell you that a .22lr will penetrate more than what most people think it will.
    .357 is a hot round.
    High power rifle rounds will penetrate through a lot of material at a distance.

    • avatarRopingdown says:

      Tom: I actually agree with you about shotguns. Think we all went to war about this a few weeks back. Light buck or heavy bird shot should work. It can be backed up with 00 in the third and fourth spots. (I honestly load low-brass 00 buck). Much more accuracy whether from the hip or sighted. Much more velocity lost by the time the pellets leave the house, if they do. People really don’t appreciate what a few inches of spread can do to increase vital hit probability, not to mention the ounce of lead doing 1,600 fps (my load). Perp with a vest? I definitely want a shotgun. One low, one high. Of course I’m usually stuck with .45ACP and CorBon 165 +P, the ‘flying ashtray.’ Works for me. To each his own.

  19. avatarTom says:

    I have lived mostly in suburbs in my adult life and I am concerned about overpenetration as most houses are really not very heavily built and a bullet fired in one house, may keep going into another house.
    I know we are all supposed to be expert shots; but looking at cops and robbers hit reports, most people under stress are not so swift.
    I have shot rabid animals charging me, and stress aiming becomes closer to skeet and trap shooting.
    I prefer to use a shotgun for defense loaded with pheasant or rabbit loads.
    In spite of what reports say, lighter shotgun loads at room or slightly longer length ranges are very nasty on animals.
    I shot a ground hog in the head with a Model 12 at longer room length and it put a rathole clean through its skull.
    2 3/4 shotgun shells do not penetrate at longer ranges as much as the 3″ rounds.
    I can tell you that a .22lr will penetrate more than what most people think it will.
    .357 is a hot round.
    High power rifle rounds will penetrate through a lot of material at a distance.

  20. avatarRon says:

    In years past I spent a great deal of time and money searching for the perfect bullet.
    The intelligent one that recognizes it’s intended target and will strike no other.
    The one that always strikes with just enough force to penetrate deeply enough to damage vital organs but never pass all the way through.

    I have purchased many of the “exotic ” ammo brands ( glaser, magsafe ) as well as the” personal defense ” low recoil, controlled penetration loads.

    What I have discovered is that the only sure way to obtain immediate incapacitation is with a CNS hit.
    Next best case is a hit to a vital organ or major artery resulting in a bleed out. Still even with total destruction of the heart, the human brain contains enough oxygen to allow voluntary action for up to fifteen (15) seconds. A hit to a lesser organ takes more time. ( The next time you are shooting see how many aimed shots you can get off in fifteen (15) seconds).
    Finally there is the psychological factor. This is the individual who believes through brainwashing ( TV, movies) that when shot one is suppose to fall down.

    Then there is the issue of the innocents.
    We all know that in a gun fight there are usually more misses than hits.
    We also know that while over penetration is possible, a bullet that over penetrates loses much of it’s energy in the target.
    Therefore the likely hood of someone being struck by a bullet that misses the target entirely is usually greater than being hit by a pass through, and with greater force.
    Also in a gunfight there is usually movement, sometimes a great deal of movement. It is quiet possible for the intended target to move out of, or an innocent to move into, the line of fire after the trigger has been pressed.

    After considering all of the above information, I have come to the conclusion that the perfect bullet does not exist and the only way to avoid the possibility of injuring an innocent is not to fire.
    Therefore my policy is to use my gun only when there is absolutely no other alternative.

    When absolutely no other alternative exist, I believe the best scenario is to end the fight as soon as possible with as few rounds ( by all parties) as possible.
    So I try to choose the bullet that gives me the best chance to do that.

    I never count on the psychological factor, so I will not consider a bullet that will not penetrate enough to reach vital organs / CNS from every possible angle.
    This eliminates all of the frangibles and controlled penetration rounds.
    At this point the possibility of over penetration gives way to the possibility of under penetration.

    My choice is to go with a high quality HP round with a reputation for consistent expansion and penetration of at least twelve (12) inches. Practice regularly, be vigilant and when given no other choice, end the fight as quickly as possible with as little damage ( to all concerned ) as possible.

    .

    • avatarRalph says:

      my policy is to use my gun only when there is absolutely no other alternative.

      That’s not just your policy, that’s the law.

      • avatarRon says:

        True Ralph,
        But what is absolute?
        I have seen many at TTAG post that they would never leave there home to escape a confrontation with a home invader(s).
        They state that it is there legal right to stay and defend there home and they are correct.
        While this may be one legal alternative, if escape is possible, it is not the only option. They choose to stay and fight when they could choose to leave. Therefore by choosing to stay they have not done all that they could have to avoid a gunfight,but they still remain within the law.
        When I say my policy is absolutely no other alternative, I mean there is absolutely nothing else that I could have done legal or otherwise. No other option exist.

  21. avatarBuuurr says:

    No.

  22. Penetration and over penetration are always related to distance. The gun-round combo that penetrates just right at 10 feet won’t do so well at 100 feet. it is my humble opinion that many hand gunners shorten the effective range of guns that already have a very short range to begin with.

  23. avatarEvan Daire says:

    lol all i have is a mosin nagant. (and a marlin 336 but thats my dads and its in a case downstairs while the ammos upstairs so that doesnt count for much in a dgu) with the rest of my family spread out throught the house i think the bayonet on it may be the best choice before firing. A mossburg 500 is next on the list to fix that problem.

  24. avatarArdent says:

    I do worry about over-penetration to a certain extent. My primary carry is a 5″ 1911 though loaded with a good ‘defensive’ hollow point, and I have sized down from +p loads due to concerns about penetration. However I see it primarily as a training issue. I regularly train on the range either crouch or kneel to engage targets at extreme up angles, (which has the added advantage of lowering my target area) or when impracticable or undesirable, to fire low (groin) with the hope of getting the bullet to the ground faster should over-penetration occur. Of course the vagaries of a violent encounter don’t always allow for such. . . and lets face it much ammo may be expended with little aiming and much running for cover under some circumstances. I’d say it’s a concern that will simply always be there, but that wouldn’t stop me from shooting unless it was just plainly obvious that my fire would strike an innocent. That said, (as is such with many lofty ideals) having experienced violent encounters, most of that goes straight out the window in an all out adrenalin fueled scramble to either escape or end the encounter, or both simultaneously.
    However, if I had a clear cut and predictable problem (someone mentioned the location of other family members bedrooms) I’d probably consider barriers. Either in the walls, such as sand bags behind the wall board, or something less intensive such as a full bookshelf strategically placed (and possibly reinforced on it’s back). Even repositioning beds with a room might give a little safety margin.

    In unpredictable places it may be that movement can decrease the odds of an over-penetrating round causing harm to a bystander.

    Violent situations are chaotic. . . over-penetration is simply one variable among a multitude, many of which can only be mitigated against by degree, and often only with trade-offs that may or may not be worth it.

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