More bullets are valuable, but not necessarily the answer

Continuing the series of posts I’ve been putting up about firearms issues in response to reader comments and questions, I’d like to go a little further into the capacity-versus-capability question.

I said on Wednesday:

… my preferred concealed carry pistol is chambered in either .45 ACP or 9mm. Parabellum, with the .45 my cartridge of choice.  I know that modern 9mm. ammunition is almost as capable as .45, but the latter still makes a bigger hole and delivers more felt impact on the receiving end.  The old Taylor Knockout Formula is derided these days as unscientific, but I’m an old African hand.  In Africa, we know the Taylor formula works, because we’ve seen it at first hand, against both animal and human targets.  I have no problem adding it to modern, more scientific test results, and letting it condition my cartridge selection based on that experience.

A couple of readers pointed out, in e-mails, that this appeared to conflict with my advice a few years ago, in which I said:

The odds of having to deal with multiple assailants are now much higher than in the past; therefore, it pays to select a handgun with a large magazine capacity. This, in turn, implies selecting a caliber that permits such a capacity. A bigger cartridge such as the .45 ACP may be very effective, but it’s too large to permit the same handgun magazine capacity as a smaller cartridge such as the 9mm. Parabellum. With modern high-performance ammunition … the smaller round now develops 80%-90% of the energy of the larger round, and has proven almost as effective in actual shooting incidents. I submit that for the average shooter (not necessarily for highly-trained experts), giving up 10%-20% of bullet energy in exchange for greatly increasing a handgun’s magazine capacity may be a worthwhile trade-off.

Well, the two viewpoints don’t conflict with each other – rather, they address different issues.  In terms of dealing with multiple assailants (or one assailant who just won’t quit no matter how many times he’s been shot), then obviously, the more rounds in the gun, the better.  However, all too often, shooters (including trained police officers who should know better – see, for example, here) spray their larger quantity of ammunition all over the surrounding landscape without hitting anything!  To illustrate the reflex action of pulling the trigger and keeping on pulling it, even after the attacker/evader is down, watch the brief video excerpt below.  GRAPHIC VIOLENCE ALERT:  You’re about to see a man shot to death.

Would fewer shots have done the job?  Almost certainly.  I’d guesstimate, based on what the bodycam video showed, that 2-3 well-placed shots would have been sufficient.  However, the officer didn’t stop at that point, but kept on shooting.  (I’d like to know how many of his rounds actually hit the suspect, particularly in vital areas.)

In the “old days” (the 1970’s and 1980’s), when I learned to shoot, hollowpoint ammunition was still relatively unreliable – it often failed to expand, and didn’t deliver the performance that modern, more technologically advanced bullets do.  Therefore, larger, heavier rounds were favored, as they tended to work reasonably well whether or not the bullet expanded.  Smaller bullets might work if they expanded, but also might not, even if they performed as intended.  I described one such incident here.

An acquaintance was attacked by a machete-wielding man who was hopped-up on marijuana and alcohol. The defender drew his 9mm. Browning Hi-Power pistol and put no less than six Federal 9BP hollow point bullets into a five-inch circle in the chest of the attacker. The bullets performed as intended, mushrooming impressively and penetrating adequately. They shredded the attacker’s heart – this was proven at autopsy – but they didn’t stop him immediately. He had enough oxygen in his brain to close the (short) distance to my acquaintance and swing a wild blow with his machete, which chopped open his victim’s head, slicing deep into his brain. Both the attacker and the defender died at the scene while waiting for medical attention.

If my acquaintance had only shifted his point of aim after two or three shots (by which time it should have been clear to him that they weren’t producing the desired result – stopping the attack), and put the remaining three rounds into the “target triangle” in the attacker’s head (see the first image above), things might have been very different. After all, the attacker was getting closer all the time, making that small target a practical proposition for a skilled shooter (as my acquaintance was). The three people with him (including myself) were all busy dealing with other problems at the time; so we weren’t able to add our fire to his, which might also have made a difference.

I had the dreadful task of informing his wife, later that night, that her husband was dead.

During those years of violence and unrest, I had all too many opportunities to witness that a few larger, heavier bullets tended to get the job done, most of the time.  I saw this with rounds such as .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .455 Webley and others.  I also observed good to very good performance from smaller-caliber rounds that were shaped to deliver a full-diameter blow, such as a wadcutter bullet in .38 Special, rather than a pointed or round bullet that slipped more easily through flesh.  This observed reality has naturally biased my approach to the selection of a self-defense round.  I fully accept that modern hollowpoint ammunition is far better than it was three or four decades ago;  but the fact remains that if, for some reason, the bullet does not expand (for example, if its cavity is clogged by clothing material), then a larger, heavier round will usually do more damage and get better results than a smaller, lighter one, all other things being equal.  (They seldom are, of course.)

I do believe that in contemporary urban environments, carrying more ammunition in the gun and on one’s person are worthwhile.  However, the corollary to that is that one mustn’t “spray-and-pray”, but use that ammunition accurately, conserving it to deal with multiple threats if necessary.  The wild burst of fire shown in the video clip above – go count the number of rounds for yourself – didn’t conserve much, and was probably unnecessary if the first two or three bullets had done the job.  If they didn’t, it was probably more a problem of marksmanship than a failure of the ammunition.  If you shoot me ten times in the foot, I’m not going to be walking anywhere, but you can bet I’m going to be extremely peeved at you – and returning fire!

The late Louis Awerbuck described armed encounters in very succinct terms (and he knew whereof he spoke – he came from South Africa, as I did).  This excerpt is taken from a SWAT Magazine article he wrote titled ‘How many rounds?’  It was republished in his book ‘Plowshares Into Swords: Musings of a Different Drummer‘, which I highly recommend.

It is ugly, it is brutal, it’s at halitosis distance, and all your neato audio-instigated range commanded dog-and-pony-show Mister Cool orchestration goes out the window. At seven or eight feet in a gunfight you will have about six degrees of peripheral vision, your auditory system will be distorted and your biochemicals will pump enough juice into your system to keep a crack addict wired for a week.

You will lose mathematical track of rounds fired, distances, and passage of time. And if it’s that close and violent – and you live through it – you will swear blind that your buddies dubbed and photo-shopped the video of the fight, because you know damn well that you didn’t actually do what’s portrayed on the video screen during later viewing. Except that you did. Even down to the ongoing foul language during the encounter when you never do that, you fine upstanding church-going gentleman, you. Nothing like a close-up gunfight to bring out your evil, abrasive, foul-mouthed clown twin….

So what can you derive from the post-analysis?

All the “hold the trigger to the rear and then ease it forward after firing to feel the sear reset” trigger manipulation goes out the window. You still need trigger control, but it will be quick shooting – so you may as well practice the same trigger operation during close-quarters range training that you will employ in the street.

You probably won’t be shooting “two body, one head shot” drills, unless you’re very, very lucky and it’s offered to you on a rare occasion. Not in a violent six-to-ten-foot confrontation you won’t. You’ll be moving, the shootee will be moving, and you’ll be delivering multiple rounds to the biggest piece of meat and bone you can acquire until the threat stops.

Why so many rounds? Because (a) you don’t have the time to shoot a couple of rounds and then take the time to assess the results at this distance. If the initial BBs didn’t work, it’s too late. And (b) What Doctor Lewinski terms “stop reaction time” is the same as your personal reaction time. In essence, even if your cognitive processes have realized your enemy is dropping, another three or four rounds will be fired before your finger detaches itself from the gas pedal – which is why you lose track of the rounds-fired count.

So the gist is do you – or can you – carry a large format large caliber high capacity pistol, do you carry a smaller-calibered high capacity pistol, or do you pack a low round-count handgun and forsake multiplicity availability of ammunition IN THE GUN? Because even though this is a rhetorical question for the reader to decide, nobody is getting a reload executed under the above-mentioned circumstances. If you need a dozen quick sequential rounds and your pistol contains only six, you need either at least two guns or it’s all over unless you’re Rambo, Bruce Lee, and Miyamoto Musashi combined.

What’s the ideal answer? There isn’t one, because of the legal and societal restrictions and ramifications mentioned above. But forewarned is forearmed (no pun intended), and you can at least apply some rational thought to the problem before it occurs.

No, it’s not a perfect world, but a battle without a prior battle plan is a battle lost before it’s started. And it’s unlikely that Hell is about to undergo an Ice Age in the foreseeable future…

I’m afraid I can’t wave a magic wand and give you a short, concise, always-and-everywhere accurate answer.  Your salvation is in your own hands in a defensive situation, and you have to equip and train yourself to deal with the circumstances of your own life.  For myself, in a high-density urban setting, I’ll carry a high-capacity 9mm. pistol, stuffed full of the best ammunition on the market today, and be confident in my ability to defend myself with it . . . but I’d still prefer it to be a .45!  I’ve also trained myself not to fire large quantities of rounds downrange in the hope that some may connect.  If at all possible, I’ll slow down and try for accuracy over speed (although having both would be better!).  However, as Louis Awerbuck points out, in the heat of the moment, that may or may not happen . . .

Your mileage may vary, of course.



  1. Good points, Peter. I expect this will generate some discussion.
    When I was a pup, choices were limited: Silvertips, CCI flying ashtrays and HydraShoks.
    Defense/duty ammo has improved in recent years- 9mm is now on a par with .45ACP. Capacity is still an issue. 20 years ago a double stack 9 might have been judged equivalent to a .45 cal 1911. Nowadays I would probably give the 9mm the edge. But only with modern expanding ammo.
    Storage, transport and use of hollowpoint ammunition is restricted in some jurisdictions. With this in mind it may be worthwhile to examine alternatives.
    .380 and 9mm roundnose hardball ammunition have a reputation for overpenetration. A flatpoint bullet profile would limit this, and cause more tissue disruption as well.
    A few years ago I worked up a .45 ACP load using Oregon Trail 200 gr LRNFP (.45 Colt) bullets and W 231 powder. This functions in all of my 1911s, and also in my brother's XD. Recoil and POI is very similar to hardball.
    Speer offers a 200 gr JRNFP in .45 ACP at 970 FPS which looks like a good bet for factory loaded ammo. I have not tested this yet.
    Factory loaded flatpoint .380 and 9mm is bit harder to find.
    Federal GuardDog is worth a look- it features an expanding projectile but is not a hollowpoint.


  2. Excellent article. In Hawaii its simple. You can only have a total of 10 rounds in a handgun. My choice is the biggest 10 rounds I can have. Why 45? I can't afford a .50.

  3. When I hear the 9mm fans crow about how much improvement there has been in 9mm bullet design, I say to myself; "Self, .45 bullet design has improved just as much….. So I'll stay with making that MUCH bigger hole thank you."

    The bigger the hole, the faster all the crazy leaks out.

  4. I keep a 17+1 shot Taurus 92AF near me at night. I carry a 12 shot Glock 26 in warm weather and a Glock G37 45GAP when I can layer to conceal a full size in cooler weather. I have never found a 1911 or poly framed 45ACP that I really like but the 45 GAP takes care of a couple of big wants in a pistol. But then again I shot my buddy's 357 Sig; That is a very nice round, especially if you reload (I don't need another caliber). But I also need to take the .41Mag out of the safe and give it a good workout. They all work…

  5. I counted 14 rounds fired. Must have been a Glock 17 or 19. And I'm betting he had NO idea he shot that many times. Concur on wondering how many hit where…

  6. It's all true. I'm not disagreeing with any of you. But let's be realistic. The best gun is the one you have with you. And a full size handgun sometimes is simply impractical.

    I can not carry at all while at work. It's not because of the workplace rules – though I subscribe to the fact that it is better to be fired than killed – it's because I work around very large magnets – MRI machines to be precise. And you haven't seen panic until you see someones carry piece sucked into an MRI magnet at a hospital full of hoplophobes.

    No, it wasn't mine. It belonged to a cop who was there as an outpatient. It was his backup gun in an ankle holster that he forgot to remove before going into the machine. It was actually quite comical.

  7. Can someone explain what happened in that video between the guy turning and the cop shooting him?


  8. I'm also guessing that the lesser the penetration from the bigger bore also causes more 'concussive energy' to be expended into the target.

  9. Antibubba…it appears that the officers attempt to gain physical control of the suspect, and the gun comes into play. From comments made by the officer (reffered to from herein as John Law #1), somehow John Law #1 (camera carrier) got ahold of the suspect's gat, either because the suspect drew it, or the officer took it out of the suspect's right front pocket (John Law #2 points it out early in the interaction). At that point, as Tam so succinctly states "They'alls got a gun.", and immediately there is either an accidental or purposeful discharge. Mere instants later, the weapon is in the hands of JL #1, who unloads said piece into the suspect from short range, while retreating, at which point the picture is of something other than "contact distance".

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