Bullet testing in flesh and bone

You see a lot of articles about testing bullets in ballistic gelatin, using it as a simulacrum of human tissue.  It’s not an ideal medium from which to extrapolate bullet performance in human flesh, because flesh differs in density (e.g. fat, muscle tissue, internal organs, etc.);  and bones are much harder to penetrate than flesh, but this factor isn’t present in ballistic gelatin.  Nevertheless, gelatin is a worthwhile medium to compare bullet performance against other bullets.  Its uniform consistency, and the ability to place barriers between the firearm and the gelatin, means that we can compare offerings from different manufacturers to see how they perform.

Sometimes the results are surprising, and tend to disprove a lot of manufacturer hype.  Greg Ellifritz published an interesting article last week in which he compared bullet performance from small ‘mouse gun’ pocket pistols and revolvers – and found almost all of them wanting.

You’ll notice that I didn’t provide any expansion data.  That’s because NONE of the .380 or .38 special rounds expanded at all!  All of the bullets except for the two 9mm rounds could have been reloaded and fired.  They had no expansion whatsoever.

. . .

Many knowledgeable handgun instructors have noted that there really isn’t much significant difference in stopping power between most of the rounds people shoot at criminals.  Is there any wonder?  Look at the .38 and .380 rounds we tested.  All penetrated the same distance and remained .35 caliber.  Bullets with identical performance in gelatin should have similar performance in human bodies as well.  It just doesn’t make much difference what round you carry in your “mouse guns.”

. . .

The bottom line learning point for me was that one should not rely on a bullet’s expansion out of a short barreled pistol.  When shot through clothing, all the bullets remained remarkably unchanged with no expansion whatsoever and penetrated to a similar depth.

There’s more at the link.  (I noted much the same thing in two articles published earlier this year, which also make interesting reading.  Mr. Ellifritz’s article confirms my thinking on the ammunition recommendations I made in the second of those articles.)

A few days later, Mr. Ellifritz published an even more interesting article, this one comparing defensive ammunition performance in hog tissue.  Here’s an excerpt.

The human body is not a consistent medium.  Muscle, fat, organ, and bone all have different mass, density, hardness, and flexibility.  In general, a bullet will penetrate much deeper in gelatin that it will in human flesh.

The primary reason for the diminished penetration in an actual body is the presence of skin and bone.

Skin is very elastic.  A bullet uses up a lot of energy stretching the skin before the skin actually breaks.  Most ballistic experts believe that the skin itself is equal to one to two inches of gelatin penetration.

Bones also tremendously slow bullets and limit their penetration.

We want a bullet that penetrates 12″-18″ of gelatin.  That translates to roughly 6″-10″ of human flesh, depending on the structures hit.

. . .

Ten days ago, I participated in a ballistic laboratory of a different sort at the Paul-E-Palooza Memorial Training Conference.  Instead of shooting gelatin, we shot (dead) pigs instead.  It gave us the ability to actually see how bullets performed in real flesh and bone.

Keep in mind, all of the pigs were less than twelve inches across.  Every load tested penetrates deeper than twelve inches in gelatin.  How many rounds do you think penetrated through and through on the pigs?

If you guessed NONE you would be correct.  Not a single round (including the rifle and shotgun rounds) fully penetrated the pigs.  Most wound channels were six to eight inches deep.  Those that hit larger bones terminated even earlier.

Again, more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.

I continue to recommend a larger, heavier-caliber handgun as a better defensive platform than a small ‘mouse gun’ or pocket pistol.  It’s worth the extra effort to ‘dress around the gun’ to carry it concealed, in exchange for the better performance available from it.  Larger handguns are typically easier to control, hold more ammunition (an important consideration when multiple attackers and/or mob violence may be a factor), and fire a more effective round.  (Shotguns and rifles are even better performers, but they’re a bit difficult to carry concealed!)

I’ll continue to carry small pocket pistols and revolvers, but almost always as a backup to a larger primary weapon.  I’ll also load them in accordance with my earlier recommendations, to maximize their effectiveness in a defensive situation.



  1. I'm headed downtown to pick up my CCW license today. I just got it renewed, and the Sheriff's office called to tell me it was ready.

    The endless argument about defensive pistol calibers has gone way beyond repetitive and entered into some kind of weird Möbius circle, and it ignores the main point: you, the victime du jour, have seen fit to plan ahead and are armed. When Pookie and his crew decide to relieve you of your valuables and well-being, do you really think they're going to weigh the odds of success while factoring in the sort of firearm you're carrying? They aren't. Once they see you're armed, they're going to yell obscenities at you and take to their heels. They, you see, don't want to get shot.

    Which brings me to my next point. Anyone who thinks the .25 caliber pistol is completely unusable for self-defense hasn't given much thought to being shot with one. My dear old Uncle served with the OSS in WWII, and was busy organizing the French resistance. He carried a .25 pistol in his hat, was captured several times, but was never incarcerated. He had no complaints about the .25, and he'd field tested it on several occasions.

    I'm not disparaging the latest test or the results. Nice job and all that. What I'm saying is not to lose sight of the target – arm yourself and avoid confrontation.

  2. Back in the late 70's and early 80's, I had a friend who was deputy
    sheriff and a master reloader. When he was on patrol he carried different loads he was working up, and would test them on the road kills he had to remove from the hi-way. His rounds were what most of the people in his circle carried in their defensive weapon.

  3. The US Army tested bullets in various loadings in (mostly anesthetized) goats in the 1940s or 1950s. This tests were reviewed by the Warren Commission when they were evaluating ballistics information in the Kennedy assassination. Years later they were broadcast on PBS was part of their look into the Warren Commission. It was a fascinating look at not just bullet performance but at how a body reacts when shot. The reaction was particularly important given Kennedy's movement backwards from the head shot.
    Almost as interesting was the political posturing being done by then current politicians over the goats in ten and twenty year old tests.

  4. I have the acquaintance of a Chicago cop who had extensive experience of a.) actually shooting people, and b.) an awful lot of experience investigating shootings by both cops, citizens, and the criminal element.

    From that experience, he extrapolated several lessons, the chief one being that ballistics is really only a predictable science within the confines of a laboratory setting. Out in the real world, weirdness prevails because of all the different variables that come into play. Sure, that dead hog may be a more realistic test medium than that block of gelatin, but would you be willing to lay your life on the line that it is a fully valid comparison to match that dead domestic hog carcass up against a live, enraged, and highly motivated feral pig you are faced with on the ground?

    As the wits have it: "Adrenaline is a helluva drug…". What works reliably when taking your victim unaware and by surprise (and, I note, you can't find a less aware target than a hog carcase…) may not demonstrate similar efficacy when up against a target which is aware, aggressive, and hopped up on adrenaline. Engage someone's survival instincts, and you may find that even dumping a magazine or two of the latest and greatest wunderwaffen cartridges into their upper bodies still isn't enough to keep them from closing with you and providing a lesson in why we have established the Tueller Drill as a standard.

    Accounting for all these variables is a fool's game; carry the most powerful gun you can, shoot it as accurately as you can, and keep in mind that a gun is not a magic wand that works every time you need it to. Arguing about what round is or isn't adequate is a waste of time–My acquaintance could cite case after case where people went down without a fuss to a single .22 Long Rifle fired out of a Saturday Night Special, and just as many where cops emptied their service weapons, including 12 gauge shotguns, into criminals who went on to lead long, healthy lives in prison. He showed me a medical examiner's report from the height of the 1980s PCP epidemic that documented a case where the subject was hit solidly in the upper chest at least 8 times by police handguns, a myriad of other hits all over his body, and at least three shotgun blasts that actually tore parts of his shoulders and arms off. The subject was still able to close with, grapple, and bite a police officer badly enough that the officer was offered a medical retirement. Subject eventually succumbed once they got enough tranquilizers into him to counteract the PCP, and then bled out almost immediately.

    What works in one case may or may not demonstrate similar results in another. Friend of mine stalks deer and handloads his own ammo. He has discovered that the loads he works up for use when stalking his game the way he prefers, which is almost like bowhunting, don't always work as well when he has to take shots at spooked or panicked deer that are fleeing. He has pictures of the effects, using the same loading, on both quiescent, unsurprised deer, and ones that were shot "on the fly", after they were spooked by another hunter. You can damn near see the difference in response, between the relaxed muscle tissue and the muscle tissue from one of the deer that were in flight–The relaxed tissue tears more easily, suffered more damage, and had a lot more bruising and blood pooled in it. His interpretation is that it takes "less gun" to kill a stalked deer than one that is "in flight", and I think I agree with him.

  5. Ballistic gelatin is extremely useful for comparing how different bullets, at different velocities, react in ballistic gelatin. There, unfortunately, is no reliable analogue for performance in ballistic gelatin to performance in flesh.

    A firearm is no more, or less, than a portable machine designed to convert the chemical energy of gun powder into the kinetic energy of a moving projectile at the direction of and under the control of the machine's operator; it should be obvious to even the most casual user that more energy is better, that it is not possible to have too much energy, and that successful transfer of sufficient energy to a target to obtain behavioral changes to that target, first, depends on the amount of energy available, and second, is dependent upon so many variables at the point of interaction as to be quite problematic and, consequently, unreliable.

    It remains, then, for the citizen interested in his or her own defense to honor the words of Nathan Bedford Forrest in regards to the ballistic performance of one's chosen projectile & expeller combination, to wit: "Firstest with the mostest," which seems to indicate that larger diameter projectiles which have more surface area available for energy transfer and more mass with which to retain the energy created through velocity, are reommended, and that more energy – in the form of multiple projectiles with the maximum manageable energy applied serially – is better then fewer.

    As Mad Jack (above) points out, the probable response of miscreants confronted with a well-managed muzzle will be to rapidly seek geographical relocation, but "probable" is in no way "a guarantee." Probability and wishful thinking is no substitute for the learned and practiced capability to reliably and rapidly create numerous large, deep holes.

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