There are endless debates about “stopping power.” We are all legitimately concerned about it and many people have some pretty vigorous opinions about it. They cite gelatin studies, cadaver studies, animal studies, statistical analyses and experience. In the end, only actual experience counts but the anecdotes that describe experience are as flawed a means to arrive at conclusions as any of the other methods. The reason is that no one has shot enough people in a controlled way with all of the thousands of variables controlled and normalized, to arrive at a valid conclusion.

In the bullet itself, the bullet weights, caliber, construction, materials and velocities must be considered. Other factors include shot placement, and the thousands of permutations in it and the damage it causes in a body. Then there are differences in body type, composition, age, sex, health and so on. Don’t forget to also account for blood chemistry like adrenaline, drugs and the like. Then we have intermediate barriers like clothing to factor in. Do the math and the physical factors alone multiply out to an astronomical number of permutations. And we haven’t even considered the immeasurable mental factors that vary by person: aggression, rage, attitude, willingness to fight, etc. In short, it’s impossible from the physical evidence to determine what constitutes “stopping power.”

No one seems to completely agree on just what “stopping power” means. Does the bad guy stop immediately? If so, can you put a time definition on “immediately?” One tenth of a second? Two tenths? And what do you mean by “stop?” He doesn’t take any more steps? Moves no further forward? Takes only one more step? What’s a step, by the way? Also, how many bullets do you have to fire to achieve this result? And fire them what time?

Simply put, stopping power is impossible to define, impossible to agree on, and impossible to measure, both in theory and in practice. But we all know what “stopping power” means to most of us, that if we shoot a bad guy he becomes incapable of hurting us. One-shot stops are desirable, but I think we all also know that handgun rounds are pretty anemic and that one-shot stops will be the exception rather than the rule, no matter what caliber or round we pick.

Myth #1: Magic Bullet

Today there are two popular methods taught to achieve maximum stopping power from a handgun. First, there is the “magic bullet” approach. Following this method, we pick the biggest caliber gun that we can manage to conceal and control, and we pick the “highest performance” round we can to load it with. Adherents of this approach like big-bore guns, preferably .45s.

They pour over the latest studies containing the most arcane minutiae from non-reproducible and un-authenticated sources, and draw hugely important dubious conclusions from it. If some round is somehow “rated” by some methodology to be 2 percent “more effective” than what they’re now loading with, they will scour the earth for a box of it. These folks spend hours upon hours on Internet forums debating the merits of one round versus another.

Unfortunately, the “magic bullet” theory is more or less a waste of time because we all know as a matter of common knowledge that no handgun bullet is an effective stopper. There are simply too many stories of people being shot with even .45s to trust that picking the right bullet is the answer. The “magic bullet” theory is belief in magic, indeed.

If you want to stop someone right there right now, you need a rifle. Bullet considerations do make sense at small-caliber rifle velocity and energy levels (such as a .223), because at those levels some rounds do suck and some rounds don’t. But once you get past a certain energy level, again bullets really don’t matter, because they all work. No one has debates over which .50 caliber rifle round is a better man-stopper than another.

Myth #2: Shot Placement
The alternate popular approach to stopping power is shot placement. Hit ‘em in the head or the high upper chest, so the theory goes, and you have a real good chance of stopping your adversary. Maybe. High chest shots, while usually hitting high-value anatomical targets, are certainly not sure stoppers. Ditto with headshots. The cranium is very thick and there are too many stories of bullets traversing the circumference of the skill under the skin to trust even head shot placement (a huge headache is not a show stopper). The real problem with the shot placement theory is that precise shots are all but impossible in the dynamic, chaotic seconds of a gunfight, and further, often everyone is moving, making shot placement even more difficult. The shot placement theory seems to break down a bit in actual practice.

Note that I’m talking here about responding to sudden, spontaneous attacks, or in any case attacks that your attacker initiates. Gunfights that are the result of something like entries by a SWAT team, in which the action is initiated and largely controlled by the good guys, do allow for precise shot placement in many cases.

Stopping an Attacker

There are only three ways that a bullet can stop an attacker. One, it can destroy central nervous system function but that requires very precise shot placement. Two, it can cause the blood system to depressurize but that also requires either precise or lucky shot placement and in any case it happens slowly even at best or three, it can cause so much shock to the body that the body shuts down.

How would you cause a lot of shock to the body? It’s actually pretty simple: put a lot of bullets in a short amount of time into the bad guy. In practice this translates to a multiple shot burst with hits anywhere on the torso. The good news is that you may get lucky with one or more of these shots and also causes some pressure loss.

Now, I’m not advocating that we spray and pray. I still believe in good, solid fundamentals and practicing center-mass shot placement because we will perform worse under extreme stress in real life situations, which are often much more complicated and difficult than the static range drills that constitute of most people’s practice on that range.

An “A” performance on the range might give us “C” performance for real, but “C” is still passing. What I don’t like to see in training, though, is an emphasis on the all-but-impossible-to-make-in real-life headshots or an over emphasis on small group size. If you are keeping your groups the size of your fist, I’d suggest that you are shooting too slowly with too much emphasis on seeing your sights. You are doing what I’ve best heard described as “intellectual shooting,” which I’m sure you won’t be doing on the street.

I’d suggest that you shoot faster or with more target focus until you achieve consistent 8-inch groups (on full-profile targets, I’m even fine with groups that consistently stay on an 8×11-inch piece of paper). You still need good marksmanship because you may not have a full-profile target available to you or you may in fact have to make a distance shot. So practice shooting at small targets and at distance with your handgun, too. Just don’t make it your only practice.

On the street any bullet that hits anywhere on your assailant is a good hit. They all cause some shock, and even extremity hits (the leg, arm, had or even foot) will cause both some shock and some incapacitation. Of course, I’m not advocating that you aim for the extremities. You should still be aiming for center mass but hits anywhere are great. On the street, it’s only misses that do us no good and in fact cause us harm because of the liability they represent. You should train in multiple-shot bursts: 1-2-3-4, rather than the 1…2…3…4 that we tend to do in practice.

So do pick a reasonable caliber handgun; however a .22’s performance is not equal to a .45. Like everyone else, I hate to go below .38 in caliber. Also, do pick a high performance bullet to carry in your handgun; I’m not saying that hardball is as good as modern hollowpoint designs are. Take advantage of the studies and shooting results out there.

Use that information to pick one of the top four or five rounds that you feel performs best under the conditions that you will have to fight and then forget about it. Don’t get your knickers all in a knot every time some new opinion surfaces. Re-check your logic and data every couple years to take into account new shooting results and new designs, and you’ll be making very efficient use of your time.

You can use the time you used to spend on the net looking for that magic bullet to practice true survival shooting. If you can’t help but bear down on your front sight and getting anything more than an inch spread drives you crazy, then learn to shoot in a more street-realistic way. If, on the other hand, you keep ‘em all on the target but also all over it at 5 yards, then learn to make a headshot at 25 yards. That skill isn’t likely to be needed, but neither are you likely to win the lottery. But someone does, every day.

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