The quality and variety of police weaponry, especially handguns, has evolved exponentially since World War II. New designs, new calibers and new high-performance projectiles have led to appropriate and lively discussions on the best way to select, train with and expertly employ these new options to protect the public. Informed debate and energetic investigation are a positive part of selecting the “best.”
Freely exchanging ideas among technicians, trainers and officers is a great system, but with an obvious weakness: The operative word here is “obvious.” Sometimes pivotal aspects of a topic stand like elephants in the room—so obvious they are not considered. Discussion of what it takes for your handgun to be an effective weapon is one such topic. Experienced officers from differing venues may have a varying definition of what constitutes an “effective weapon.” Definitions, of some sort, must be part of the basis for reasonable inquiry, but getting wrapped around the axle polishing terms can sometimes block our overview of the evaluation we need to make.
When discussing an “effective weapon” for police use, there are overlapping considerations that can make it hard to maintain perspective—to the point where we exclude new data from a new school of thought. Departments need to cover all the bases before swapping weapons and ammo.
Stopping Power & Round Placement
The first consideration is “terminal ballistics,” or the term de jour. How do we define “stopping power”? Early researchers approached it from different directions. One school strove to reach conclusions by body count—a bullet’s effectiveness was determined solely by how many it had put down. Another school, often termed the Fackler perspective, strove for scientific-method repeatability in compiling data, where any projectile must penetrate 12 inches of soft tissue before it is worthy of consideration—at least when boneless, unclothed felons are shot. Perhaps someday ballistic researchers may find that these two schools of thought converge and meet at the top on common ground, that their conclusions are similar. In truth, we can’t decide the .30-30 is the best deer round because it’s harvested the most deer, just as we can’t consider the lowly .32 ACP cartridge the best because it was the caliber of choice among European police for a generation.
The second consideration is “round placement.” Inspector Callahan’s .44 Magnum at 10 feet could be “ineffective” because bullet performance doesn’t come into play if you miss a vital spot.
But what if considerations one and two—terminal ballistics and round placement—are in fact co-dependent? At best, it’s not a good idea to consider either one of these pivotal topics in isolation. They’re inseparable in a discussion about stopping an active shooter, and they should be inseparable when considering what handgun or rifle to outfit a squad with and what ammo to issue.
I once had a commander whose diplomatic, artful-dodger response when cornered into arbitrating between warring ideas was, “Well, I have strong feelings both ways.” If there is ever final consensus, and it is reduced to a sweeping generality, it may be what highly experienced rustics knew all along: “big bore” and “brainstem,” and that the overriding idea is to select weapons and calibers, and train, to achieve this. Training and weapons testing are vital—they should be standard procedures for LE departments.
The truth is that bullets do strange things and most law enforcement officers have experienced this firsthand. There are infinite variables in every officer-involved shooting. Even with an “adequate” round and “acceptable” shot placement, cops must play the lottery every time they are forced to draw their service weapon. The good news is that it is a lottery where the LE operator has some prior control over the odds—both by using a round that has demonstrated its adequacy and being able to accurately place those rounds on target, under great stress, so they have an immediate effect. When it comes to choosing which weapons are effective and worth duty use, we need to weigh all the considerations at the same time.