By Connor Hayes
If you work in firearm sales like I do, then you’re bound to cater to plenty of new shooters. And when you do, you’re going to encounter a particular question very quickly: “Which is better? X MM, XX S&W or XX ACP?” My initial answer is usually short and while it may be confusing at first, most customers find it liberating.
I look at them and tell them “It doesn’t matter. What is important is the gun itself, how it feels in the hand as well as your ability to manage it and shoot it accurately.”
Usually I encounter some resistance to my advice at first and the customer will tell me about their brother/cousin/uncle who’s a law enforcement officer/veteran/self-proclaimed gun expert who has told them that their preferred cartridge is better because it has more stopping power and can therefore stop a threat more efficiently.
Then I explain that stopping power, while an interesting theory, is not very significant or, more accurately, doesn’t even exist.
To begin, let’s look at physical concept of stopping power. Simply put, the stopping power of a cartridge is measured by its ability to stop a threat. There it is, that’s all stopping power is. It makes a lot of sense that many shooters would be concerned about their cartridge choice and its ability to protect them since putting your trust in a firearm and its chambering can literally be the difference between life or death.
This idea, however, can be debunked by considering several possible self-defense scenarios. To begin, let’s consider a single caliber and loading as a control group. Let’s start with the Federal HST 147 grain 9mm round. All things equal, this particular round should perform nearly identically each time it’s fired.
Now let’s consider a self-defense scenario: It’s a poorly lit alley, an individual dashes out from behind cover holding a weapon attempts to assault you. You draw and fire while following all of your training and appropriate firearm handling rules. The shot was successful and the threat has been stopped meaning that the round had an appropriate amount of stopping power.
Now let’s change the scenarios a bit and look at two of them side by side. Keep all things equal, setting and shot placement, except that in one scenario your assailant is 5’2” and 120 lbs. In the other, your assailant is 6’4” and 260 lbs. The cartridge remains the same.
Will be there a difference between how successful the round is against each attacker? I would absolutely think so. Now let’s make a couple more changes and say that the 5’2” assailant is only wearing a T-shirt whereas the larger assailant is wearing a leather jacket over a hoodie and sweater.
Does the gap between effectiveness of the round grow again? It sure will.
Let’s consider one last change and make some alterations to the physical health of the assailant. Imagine the 5’2” attacker is sickly and fatigued whereas the 6’4’ individual is enhanced by a narcotic such as PCP. Your gap grows yet again with the round performing drastically better on your shorter, weaker, less protected assailant.
At that point I receive more discontent from those I am speaking with. They say something along the lines of ‘I can understand how one cartridge can perform differently against targets but as a rule of thumb, shouldn’t XX ACP perform better than Xmm Luger or XXX ACP?’
Sure, it definitely can. However let’s head back to our scenarios. Keep the 5’2” assailant and 9mm 147gr HST round, however in the scenario with the larger attacker let’s replace the 9mm round with a Federal HST 230 grain 45 ACP +P round. The situations have now evened out more with the heavier bullet moving at a similar speed and having more energy. Now switch the scenarios with the 5’2” assailant going against the 45 ACP round and the smaller round against the larger perpetrator and the effectivity of each cartridge changes yet again.
Explained more simply, the idea of stopping power is the attempt to apply quantitative data to an event instead of scientific figures. This is an exceptionally difficult task since it’s hard to quantify the merits of a cartridge when your potential targets are always changing.
Countless more scenarios can be run using many cartridges and sizes of assailants, even considering wild animals as small as dogs or charging grizzly bears. In one situation, one caliber will perform better and in another situation their success may be flipped. More in depth tests can be done using scientific formulas to determine the exact amount of energy of both projectile and charging attacker and factoring in Newton’s laws of motion.
My point remains the same; stopping power as a measurable characteristic of a self defense cartridge simply doesn’t exist because it continually changes and cannot be quantified. How can you state that one cartridge has more stopping power than any other when you consider all possible self-defense situations and realize that different calibers will perform differently with different levels of success in different situations?
Once I’ve said what I need to say, I explain that what’s more important is how comfortable the gun feels in your hand and how comfortably and accurately you can shoot it. Once a quality, reliable handgun platform has been selected, then you can make your determination on caliber choice and select a reliably performing hollow point that has a tested penetration between 12” and 18″.
Once those choices have been made, I always remind the customer what”s just as important — investing plenty of time at the range practicing and in training courses taught by good instructors.