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Handgun Stopping Power. . . 


You must hit your assailant with well placed shots in a vital area. Specifically, two shots in the thoracic cavity, preferably high in the thoracic cavity. Even if you shoot first and you are shooting a more powerful weapon, if you miss or hit in a non-vital area, you will not stop your assailant and you will get hit or be killed in the process.


You must hit your assailant before he hits you. Even if you are a more accurate shooter and you are shooting a more powerful weapon, if he hits you first, you lose.


You must hit your assailant with enough power to cause enough damage to incapacitate him immediately, thus stopping the fight. Even if you shoot first and hit in a vital area, if your weapon is not of sufficient power to cause an incapacitating wound, you will not stop your assailant.


Therefore: Accuracy, Speed, and Power are a triad that must be balanced. Shoot the most powerful weapon as quickly and accurately as possible.


Speed and Accuracy are improved with training and practice.
Power is what you choose to buy and carry.


For the sake of this discussion we will make a general comparison of the Stopping Power of a Rifle, Shotgun and Handgun to illustrate the inherent deficiency in power of handgun cartridges.


The unit of measurement is foot pounds which is the amount of energy required to move one pound, one foot.


A practical rifle cartridge such as the .308 delivered out of a standard 20” barrel delivers 2,340 fl/lbs of energy focused on a very small (30 caliber) impact point. Add to this energy, the fact that the bullet is traveling faster than 2,200 feet per second, causing a hydrostatic shock to the body and you have a devastating and incapacitating effect. Hydrostatic shock occurs as the bullet meets the fluid inside the body. Fluids do not compress, so the fluid itself is pushed and propelled by the bullet. This turns the fluid into a weapon against the body and creates even more internal damage.


Buckshot from a shotgun delivers approximately 1,700 fl/lbs of energy. Coupled with the fact that the body is hit with nine, 30 caliber pellets simultaneously, a much greater shock to the nervous system and vital organs is created through multiple wound channels creating an equally effective incapacitation.


Major caliber handgun cartridges deliver 350 to 400 ft/lbs of energy with bullets traveling at speeds that approach hydrostatic shock effect. Handguns are significantly deficient in stopping power.


If you knew in advance that you would face trouble, you now see why you would be better served to have a rifle or shotgun in your hands. Rifles and shotguns serve the role of an offensive weapon. A handgun serves the role of an emergency, defensive weapon. We carry handguns because they are light, portable, and easily concealed. The trade-off for convenience is reduced stopping power and it’s more difficult to use. The shooter must deliver two, well-placed shots to the thoracic cavity of his assailant and then be ready to respond if those hits did not stop the assailant. The appropriate response then would be one well-placed shot to the brain.


Handgun cartridges are divided into three categories:

Sub Caliber: .22 long rifle, .22 Magnum, .25, .32, and .380
Minor Caliber: .357 Magnum from a  3” or shorter barrel, 9mm, .38 Special
Major Caliber: .357 Magnum from a 4” or longer barrel, 10mm, .40S&W, .41, .44, and .45ACP


What is the best choice for a defensive handgun cartridge?
Any of the cartridges will kill. The goal is not to kill, but to stop your assailant. In terms of stopping power, major caliber cartridges are best, minor caliber cartridges are the next best, and the sub caliber cartridges are the lowest choice.


The energy delivered by a sub-caliber cartridge at best is no more than 150 ft/lbs. Studies of shootings reveal that when sub-caliber cartridges are used, one-shot stops occur only 6 times out of every 20 shootings— even with a hit to a vital area. What this means is that you must continue to shoot multiple times and all your hits must be in a vital area. This makes the task much more difficult and requires much more training and practice. Why do people carry sub caliber weapons? They don’t know any better or they are not aware of the limitations, but want or require the ease of concealment.


Minor Caliber cartridges produce one-shot stops approximately 8 times in every 20 shootings and Major Caliber cartridges produced one-shot stops approximately 10 times in every 20 shootings.


Bullet shape, caliber, and the Hatcher formula

General Julian Hatcher, a noted forensic pathologist in the early 1900’s developed a formula to determine the theoretical stopping power of a cartridge. His formula has stood the test of time and validation from other studies and data related to stopping power.


The formula is as follows: M x A x F. Momentum x Cross Sectional Area of Bullet x Bullet Factor.


M = Bullet weight in pounds divided by 64.32 x Velocity in feet per second.
A = Area times radius of cross section, squared.
F = (see below) -

1 for round nose lead bullet
.9 for full metal jacket round nose bullet
1.1 for flat nose on bullet less than 1/3 the caliber of the bullet
1.2 for flat nose on bullet greater than or equal to 1/3 the caliber of the bullet
1.25 for wad cutter or semi-wad cutter bullet


No consideration for hollow points as we factor worst case scenario in that the bullet does not expand.

The general recommendation is you want a defensive cartridge that has a Hatcher value of over 50 for the best stopping power. Values over 55 have diminishing returns in that you don’t gain any significant increase in stopping power for the extra recoil and control that you must manage.


Hatcher values are listed for the following cartridges using standard loads and the highest bullet factor known to function reliably in the weapon type.


Major Calibers
• 45 ACP = 60.7
• 44 Special = 76.5
• 44 Magnum = 136.8
• 41 Magnum = 80
• 10mm = 62.1
• 40 S&W = 59.4
• 357 Magnum (6” barrel ) = 55


Minor Calibers
• 357 Magnum (3” barrel) = 48.5
• 38 Special = 39.7
• 9mm = 39.9


• 380auto = 18.3
• 32auto = 11.1
• 25 auto = 3.7
• 22 = 4.2


What is better? A lighter-faster handgun bullet or a heavier-slower bullet? Mass (weight) times Velocity equals Momentum. Momentum is what gives a bullet penetration. The deeper the bullet penetrates, the more tissue damage. Assuming the Mass x Velocity of both bullets (while the bullets are traveling in air) is balanced, the heavy-slow bullet and the light-fast bullet have the same momentum. As soon as the bullet strikes the body, it loses velocity quickly and what remains to keep the momentum and penetration is the bullet weight. Therefore, a slower heavier bullet penetrates better, causing more tissue damage.


To Summarize
In terms of stopping power, the practical rule of thumb it to shoot the heaviest bullet, in the largest caliber, with the most efficient shape for tissue damage, loaded as hot as you can effectively control it to deliver two well placed shots in the quickest possible time.


Also remember – it is the man and not the gun (or cartridge) that does the stopping. The Unconsciously Competent operator with a sub caliber weapon is a great deal deadlier than the Unconsciously Incompetent operator with a major caliber weapon…unless you have something like a M60 machine gun!