JHP bullet expansion stopping power
Dan Z. for TTAG

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By DrF

I’m not sure what would happen if there were no more internet discussions about “stopping power” as applied to handguns. What would we talk about? I am sure that it would be a better world, and there would be lots more available bandwidth.

The stopping power of the brakes on my car is easily determined, as is the (absence of) my power to stop eating chips and salsa. But when it comes to handgun stopping power, things get a little trickier.

What is “stopping,” exactly? From a physics point of view, we could say “stopping” is taking the momentum of an object to zero. In the case of the FAA standard 170 pound man walking three miles an hour, his momentum is 68.8kg*m/sec.

A .45 ACP round has a momentum of 8.3 kg*m/sec meaning that if you can put every shot where it counts, you can stop your standard guy from moving forward after more than eight shots. I guess there’s a reason for 8+1 pistols, huh?

Of course, that’s pretty meaningless. What we want to know is what is best for stopping threats or attackers, commonly expressed as “stopping power.”

We want to protect ourselves and our own. There are lots of ways to do this. Simply producing your weapon, of any sort, may discourage your opponent and that may be all it takes.

A hammer to the head might do it, and pepper spray can take a lot of grown men to their knees. If you are skilled, there are all sorts of things you can do with your hands and feet, but if you’re close enough to put the hurt on the bad guy, he’s close enough to return the favor.

Of course, you can always run. Even if the law allows you to stand your ground, that isn’t mandatory. Running might be the best option. You’re not trying to prove anything, you just want to sleep in your own bed tonight with all of your people secure.

Handguns are wonderfully…handy. But that’s their only functional advantage. In every other way, they are inferior to long guns. The mighty .45 ACP is a pop gun compared to most any deer rifle or a 12 gauge shotgun.

Barnes Vor-Tx bullet expansion test
Handgun calibers don’t hold a candle to rifle ammunition. (Dan Z. for TTAG)

An AR with 30 rounds of 5.56 is a lot more useful than anything you can carry easily and shoot with one hand. But you’re not going to have any of that in your IWB holster as you pick up the dry cleaning or run out for bread and milk. So when it comes to guns for defense, we’re mostly left with (relatively) wimpy handguns, the weak sister of the firearm world.

So comes now the day you’ve been dreading. The fight has come to you. You draw and fire, and you get it done. The bad guy gets one right in the breadbasket. Or maybe three or five. But you might not be done yet.

Unlike the movies, your shot will not lift the guy out of aisle 4 and fling him into the dog food. He may not react at all. Now the question of “stopping power” is entirely relevant. What can your trusty heater actually do to end a fight?

Shooting deer at 100 or 300 yards with my trusty .270 is easy. I’ve done it a number of times and all of the deer ended up with two holes in their chest and died promptly.

Hitting things with a handgun is comparatively difficult. And you can be sure that your skill will drop off considerably if you find yourself actually fighting with your handgun.

I am aware of a situation in which law enforcement officers fired north of 50 rounds at a bad guy, and they all missed. Skill with a handgun is not easy to develop and skill in shooting while moving at people that are moving and who are shooting back isn’t generally available without a 4-year commitment and a trip east. WAY east.

Leaving aside the interaction of you with your weapon, there are two variables to consider as to the “stopping power” of a gun. The first is bullets.

Love and beauty aside, the function of guns is all about the projectiles. The point is to send little bits of metal downrange to a predetermined place to do a specific thing. In the case of self-defense, the object is to eliminate the threat.

How can this be done? You are going to launch a bullet — probably hollow point, not FMJ — into a bad guy (you hope). Maybe more than one. And perhaps more than one bad guy. What can your handgun bullets do to help you get home that night?


There are lots of personal defense rounds out there. Lots of testing have been done shooting walls and car doors and FBI standard gelatin blocks, with and without clothing, wet phone books…you name it. What hasn’t been done is shooting angry people of identical build in exactly the same place with the same projectile at the same velocity a few hundred times.

Until Dr. Moreau does that experiment a few hundred times, it’s all speculation. Till then, we’ll be shooting Jell-O, which can tell you a lot about what to do if you get attacked by a dessert.

Is all this testing useless? Who knows? It seems reasonable to think that more energy is better, or that bigger and faster is better than smaller and slower. But we don’t really know what the difference is, and how much.

Add to that all of the possibilities that we’ll peek at below, and I maintain that no one knows which bullet at what velocity is best for a given situation, let alone what’s best for all situations. Reasoned speculation is often correct, but it isn’t the same as knowing.

Likely as not, we’ll find out in five years that tissue stretch at a certain high velocity causes the release of massive quantities of vital fluids, causing rapid incapacitation and we’ll all be shooting phonograph needles at 121,000 fps and knocking ‘em down.

Shot Placement

So what can you do with your handgun cartridge (whether it’s .380 ACP, 9mm, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum) to get the bad guy to lose interest quickly? You have the gun out, and he’s still in the game. The first and best thing is to take out the brain.

The brain is what tells the rest of the body what to do. If you can put out the lights, that will incapacitate the person and he will no longer be able to hurt you. KO, you win.

human range target paper

But the brain is relatively hard to hit. It’s surrounded by thick bone that can deflect bullets and your bad guy might just move as you draw a fine bead on him. So brain shots are tough.

Bleeding is generally how game animals are brought down. It’s the most reliable effect of a bullet. Bullets make holes. Holes in people bleed. If there is enough bleeding, weakness will come, followed by unconsciousness. It’s just applied physiology.

Bad guys bleeding is a good thing, but it may take a while. Some holes bleed more than others, and exactly what’s bleeding matters.

If you can blow the heart apart, blood pressure will go to nothing pretty quickly. Well done. Lots of points. But your bad guy still can have a functioning brain for maybe 10 more seconds.

Ten seconds is a very long time in a real fight. During those 10 seconds, muscle function will be pretty normal, so your guy can still do lots of damage. People do Bill drills in two seconds. If your bad guy is a pistolero, he might get two or three of those on you before he passes out. You may both die, but you get more points for drawing first blood.

Next up are the long bones of the leg and the spinal cord. Take out the cord and you paralyze your bad guy at that level. And to do that, you will be shooting at the chest or neck. There is lots of stuff that bleeds in both of those places. Two ways to win.

If you paralyze your assailant, he can still shoot, but you are way ahead on points. You’ll probably win. But of course, he isn’t always going to hold still for that, and you probably don’t know exactly where it is in every posture, do you? I sure don’t, and I’m a doctor.

The human spinal cord is an inch or less in diameter. Try hitting that in someone who is attacking or fighting you. Long bones in the leg are pretty good also. Hopping around on one leg isn’t an efficient way to fight, Karate Kid aside. But long bones in the leg are also tough to hit.

Courtesy Ballistic Dummy Lab

Last, but in my opinion not least, is the psychological effect of being shot. If someone notices they have been shot, it can change their attitude. They may not want to fight any more, no matter how wounded they really are.

This effect may be greater if some real visceral damage has been done. They may sit down, wave the white flag, and wait for EMS. Then again, they may not. If they quit, great. If not, well….

The second factor is who you’re shooting at, and under what circumstances. People are variable. Grown men can weigh anywhere from 100 pounds to well north of 300.

Not only that, people are built out of a variety of tissues in varying amounts, including bone, and are full of things that are more or less important to the ability of the person to keep giving you a bad time. So your bullet may have wildly differing performance requirements depending on the circumstances of your fight.

Anatomy can also ruin your day. An inch or less this way or that may be the difference in your future. People are not homogenous, and no one is good enough to shoot the heart on a fighting person reliably. It’s luck. And it gets worse.

Your bullet may absolutely shred the heart, or it may not. No bullet is perfect. Throw in a few inches of fat or muscle, some bones, varying positions, and it’s all, pardon me, a crapshoot. No telling what will happen. If I find myself in a gunfight with you, I’d prefer to put some holes in you first on general principle, but there is no guarantee of any particular effect.

And it gets still more difficult. People wear clothes and hide behind things. They have stuff in their pockets. They sit in cars. They might be standing over you ready to deliver the coup de grace when you get off your first shot into the pelvis from below. Then you’ll be wishing for a lot more than 12 inches of penetration in gelatin.

Add to that the variation in the determination of your assailant, what he is wearing, how far away he is and how good you are in the worst moment of your life. Add it all up, and you will have to shoot until there is no need to continue, (or you run out of ammo) and hope for the best. There is no guarantee of winning even if you shoot first and best with the most.

Handguns are wonderful things. They’re excellent for concealed carry. I own them, carry them, and have been pleased to have one handy in bad times. It is nearly always better to have a handgun — any handgun — if you have to fight. But trying to predict what will happen or which one is best is a fool’s errand.

There is no way to quantify “stopping power” and way too many variables to make anything about this predictable. The correct answer to most “stopping power” questions is “Who knows?

My advice (or reasoned speculation) is get a gun that you like and will carry around with you. Since what little data there is suggests that guns usually stop the festivities without the need of pulling the trigger, don’t get too lathered up about what caliber it is. More important is that it’s comfortable and that you like it, and will actually be able to use it effectively.

You’ve heard it before: a .22 in your hand is better than a .45 at home. View the advice you receive at the gun store or from cops and other counter commandos with healthy skepticism. I was the kid behind that counter at a really good gun store back in the day, and I can assure you that we didn’t know the answers. Some of the biggest, most egregious whoppers I’ve ever heard floated across counters at gun stores. And cops…well, never mind.

More importantly, get your mind off of stopping power and onto fighting. That’s what your gun is for, and it’s what you’ll be doing even if your gun doesn’t work. They don’t always. Most of us would be safer with some generic training in tactics and strategy for everyday life instead of blasting away at hanging paper on a square range, fun as that may be.

If you want to become a shooter, do it! It’s great fun and the people are wonderful. Play around with different guns and calibers and bullets. Learn about tap-rack-bang and headspace and DA/SA or SAO. Then log in and let us all know what you think is best.

No hurry. That debate will go on forever. No one can prove they are right, so no one ever has to be wrong.


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