Practical measurements of defensive ammo effectiveness

A police officer’s recommendation for self-defense against an attacker hopped-up on the latest generation of synthetic marijuana generated some discussion.  I was struck by how many of the comments ignored the point of the police officer’s advice, which was:

… typical deep-concealment (i.e. small, lightweight) pocket revolvers and pistols are simply not adequate to deal with people under the influence of this stuff.  His personal opinion was that .32 ACP, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and even 9mm. Luger or .357 Magnum rounds, if fired from smaller weapons whose barrels aren’t sufficiently long to give high velocity and promote bullet expansion, are not going to get the job done against a hopped-up addict who won’t even realize he’s been shot.

His advice was specifically limited to small, deep-concealment firearms, the kind of thing many of us drop into our pockets rather than worry about putting on a holster and carrying a full-size firearm.  It was not intended to discuss the latter at all.  However, a number of commenters ignored that caveat, and responded as if he were making a general statement about all defensive handguns and ammunition.  That was not the case.

Let me offer a few observations, based on approximately 18 years in military and civilian combat situations, unrest, insurgency and instability in Africa.  I think the hard-won lessons I learned there apply to just about anything we’re likely to encounter in the USA.  Those with actual real-world experience (rather than just theoretical knowledge) of the field are invited to respond in Comments.

1.  Bullet performance against people can be generally predicted from its performance against similar-sized animals.

If a round, and/or the firearm(s) that fire(s) it, do well against animals of equivalent size, weight, etc. to human beings, it’s likely to do well against the latter.  If a round doesn’t deliver good performance against deer, or antelope, or hogs, or whatever, in the 150-250 pound weight class, what makes you think it’ll improve when used against people in that weight category?  If animals don’t drop to it, people probably won’t either.

2.  Absent a central nervous system hit, blood loss and broken bones are the main incapacitating factors in both hunting and self-defense.

When hunting, a hit in the target’s brain or spinal cord is likely to prove decisive, right there.  However, they’re hard to hit (particularly when the target is moving or at longer range), and they’re also well armored by bone structures (the skull and/or the spinal column).  If they aren’t hit, the object becomes to stop the animal moving (and thereby either getting away or attacking you), and/or to cause the maximum possible blood loss, which will lead to incapacitation sooner rather than later.  To stop an animal moving, you have to break the bone structures that allow it to move;  this usually involves shooting through the shoulders or hips.  Again, those targets are harder to hit, and may not be available at all target angles.  Therefore, one tries to make as big a hole as possible in or near vital organs, so that blood loss will be rapid, depriving the animal of the oxygen its vital organs need to continue functioning.  Shooting through an animal is a preferred solution in Africa, where two holes are regarded as better than one for the purposes of blood loss.

Again, apply this to human beings.  If you take out a major bone in the legs or hips, it’s likely to at least slow down an attacker, no matter how hopped-up on drugs he or she may be.  If you inflict rapid blood loss upon them, that will also produce a reasonably rapid change of status.  Both objectives are more likely to be achieved by larger, heavier bullets than by smaller, lighter ones.  Modern ammunition, with its more technologically advanced design, can make up for smaller bullet size to some extent (as evidenced by the resurgence of the 9mm. round in police work).  However, if a smaller bullet fails to expand or drive deep enough, it still won’t get the job done, whereas a non-expanding bigger bullet is still just plain bigger!

If you apply those considerations to your selection of handgun calibers and cartridges, it simplifies matters enormously.  It was my experience, during the 1970’s through the 1990’s, that larger, heavier bullets were much more effective than smaller, lighter ones.  I don’t care about theory;  I’m talking about actual practice.  In Africa, if a bullet proved effective against antelope such as bushbuck, impala, nyala, sitatunga and springbok, it generally worked well against people too.  In the USA, where my hunting experience is much more limited, I’d presume the same applies to bullets that work against black-tailed deer, mule deer, pronghorn and white-tailed deer.  In all cases, we’re talking about bullets that bring down a running deer within a reasonably short distance, allowing the hunter to recover it easily.  We’re not talking about shooting it in the ear with a .22LR solid at spitting distance (although that’s certainly effective, it’s an unlikely defensive scenario, after all!).

I’m hardly the world’s most experienced hunter – far from it!  The animals I shot in Africa during the 1970’s and 1980’s were all taken for food, not for trophies, and I hunted only when I didn’t have access to other supplies.  Whenever possible, I used a rifle, because longer-ranged shooting demanded it;  but I sometimes used a handgun at closer ranges, or to finish off a wounded animal.  It was my experience (and that of most of my colleagues and friends at the time) that bigger, heavier handgun rounds worked a lot better, and a lot more often, than smaller, lighter ones.  The .44 Special, .44 Magnum.45 ACP, .45 Colt and .455 Webley all did pretty well.  The more commonly encountered .38 Special, .357 Magnum and 9mm. Parabellum (using the bullets available in the 1970’s and 1980’s) did not.  All too often, animals shot with the latter rounds simply ran off and were lost.  They may have died later, but if we couldn’t find them, we couldn’t tell.

Unsurprisingly, when the same rounds were used for self-defense against human opponents, the same results were encountered.  Bigger rounds usually (albeit not always) did better than smaller ones, and produced faster, more effective results.

I accept that today, bullet technology has improved to the point that smaller rounds are more trustworthy than their less sophisticated predecessors.  That’s why I’m willing to carry a high-capacity 9mm. pistol when round count is likely to be an important factor.  Nevertheless, that same technology has improved for bigger rounds as well as smaller ones.  What’s more, if that technology is defeated by “street conditions” (e.g. a hollowpoint cavity is plugged by material from a thick, bulky outer jacket, so that it no longer expands in flesh), smaller rounds will be less effective.  Bigger rounds, on the other hand, don’t get smaller if they’re plugged!  They still make a larger hole.

In a situation where I have limited ammo capacity (for example, in a smaller pocket pistol or revolver, or in a state that mandates magazine capacity limits), I’m going to carry the biggest, most effective rounds I can, because I’ve learned the hard way that they generally work better than smaller ones.  If I have a choice between a 5-shot snub-nose revolver in .38 Special or .44 Special, and my pocket is big enough to accommodate either, guess which I’ll carry?  And if I can carry a Springfield XD-S with either 8 rounds of 9mm. or 6 rounds of .45 ACP, I’m sure you can figure out my preference.

No handgun round can come close to the effectiveness of a good rifle or shotgun round – that’s a given.  (We discussed this with reference to projectile weight and energy levels in a previous article.)  Nevertheless, I want the best possible defensive performance I can get, subject to all other limitations that may apply.  That’s why I took Mike’s advice to heart.  It squares with what I learned the hard way over many years in Africa, as discussed above, and it squares with what I’ve heard from a number of experienced US hunters and shooters.  Therefore, I take his advice seriously.



  1. Cannot disagree with either your reasoning or your real world experience.
    But the fact remains that in a life or death situation any gun is better than the next best alternatives such as pepper sprays or bladed weapons.
    If for whatever reason one is restricted to lesser calibers then one must choose the best possible ammunition for what they can carry, and practice until they can reliably and consistently hit very small targets within at least a seven meter zone. They must also learn enough about human and animal anatomy to know the most likely disabling points on a potential attacker.
    One caveat, if, as I've been told by more than one precious snowflake, "I could never bring myself to shoot anyone, I just want a gun to scare them" then for the sake of all that's Holy do not own a firearm. All you would be doing is handing a weapon over to your attacker.

  2. "Nevertheless, that same technology has improved for bigger rounds as well as smaller ones."
    THANK YOU. I really tired of all the 9mm fanbois proclaiming that the new designs have made 9mm as good or better than the bigger rounds, and that they can ignore that the same technological design advancements have also been applied to the bigger diameter bullets.

  3. Here is a question for you; full metal jacket or hollow point?

    Until I read your post i always thought (because I had been told) that hollow point would be better to stop a human criminal. But we tried to kill a 320 lb. male pig with that .45 hollow tip round and it just got him angry; my husband had to flip him and slit his throat with a knife, and it wasn't pretty because the pig was onto him. I don't want have that experience with a criminal human; should I ditch the hollow point for full metal jacket?

    Thanks for any advice you might have.

  4. @Lori Gattuso: It depends on your environment. If your area is filled with don't-shoot-them targets (i.e. passersby, homes, apartments, etc.) you need to use a bullet that will stay in the body, if possible. Thus, a hollow-point round is the most effective for that situation. It's not guaranteed to stay in the body, but it's more likely to do so than most other types of bullet. In .44 Special, I use this round, as being among the most effective out there:

    If you don't have to worry too much about shoot-throughs, a large-diameter wide-meplat flat point is the way to go. That's my preferred load in .44 Special, in the form of Buffalo Bore's 200gr. full wadcutter:

    Those are by no means the only choices out there, but I've tested both rounds thoroughly, and they meet my requirements. YMMV, of course.

    I'd say for critters, a solid round that will shoot through-and-through is the most likely to be effective; and, if that works on critters, I'm willing to bet it'll work on two-legged critters as well, with the obvious caveat about being aware of what's beyond your target and not hitting it!

  5. "Bigger" rounds of course also improved with better bullet design – but they're still slower. And reliable expansion is still tied to the impact velocity of the round.

    I carry my 9mm with advanced hollow points and I do carry my 10mm for hunting with hollow points – but in bigger but slower calibres, .45 ACP or LC, I would not trust them to expand reliable. That does not make them a bad choice, but it limits the usefullness of modern bullets in old and slow calibres.

    If a customer wants a sidearm for hunting and "critter control" *winkwink*, I'll always recommend a high capacity 9mm with modern rounds or a 3-4" .357 with full power loads. But keep in mind that sidearms are only for killing a wounded animal in Germany, not for hunting. If that is not enough then a 10mm or a .44 – one is fast and the other ist simply the .44 πŸ˜€
    But I always oogle one of these break top Webleys and would have no problems relying on a solid flat .455 to go up against a wounded boar. Not that I wanted to, of course πŸ˜‰

  6. What would be your view of the 10mm Auto as a walking-around defensive caliber? I see that commercially it is loaded to a wide range of power levels. With a 180 grain bullet at 1070ish, it has the same momentum as .45ACP ball.
    Part B, I'm looking at the Springfield XD(M) in 10mm. I shot a friend's XD(S) with an aftermarket trigger spring set, and I was startled at how nice the trigger was. And 15 rounds of diplomacy is not a handicap.

  7. @Rich P: I like the 10mm. I don't carry it myself, because I'm getting old and slow, and its recoil can be hard to handle in an effective round: but that applies to .44 Magnum as well. It's a great all-rounder. With solid bullets, I'd rate it up there with .41 Magnum as protection against four-legged critters, and with a hollowpoint, it's at least as good as any other common defensive round, and better than most of them.

  8. Thanks for sharing the benefit of your experience, Peter, and that of your friend 'Mike' as well. And I appreciate the way you handled the comment from Daniel Barger in the previous thread on this topic – some people just can't resist showing their poor upbringing and lack of wisdom. I am fortunate enough to know some very 'experienced' people as well, and I always consider carefully what they say.

    As to how much punishment a human body can take, I remember seeing photos that Mas Ayoob showed in my LFI-I class many years ago of a criminal in Chicago back in the 80's or early 90's who absorbed 33 rounds of 9mm (ball, IIRC) and was still functional, until a 12 ga slug put him down for good. Turns out he was not on any drugs or booze, just motivated, to say the least. And obviously the 9mm wounds were not in any place that would incapacitate, which goes to bullet placement.

    So having a gun is the first priority, having it be reliable enough to go bang is the second, and placing the shots where they'll do some good is third. Caliber is fourth, but I definitely agree that bigger is better up to the point where it negatively affects priorities 1-3.

    1. You make a great point.

      To quote a guy in another similar conversation:
      β€œThree most important components of stopping power? Bullet placement, bullet placement, and bullet placement. I went to the morgue on countless occasions during two separate tours at Detroit Homicide to see countless folks dead from a .22 long rifle but never saw anyone shot in the knee with a .44 Magnum and the hydro static shock blew his brains out of his ears!β€œ

  9. many years ago, I consolidated my weapons calibers. .308 .223 .22 and .45apc…and of course 12gaX3inch.
    the .45 is more than most would consider adequate for self defense, but then some people bitch about hollow point or solids? I load 235gr ball and alternate the mag with 235gr hollow point. if one won't work well than the other will. ballistically the same. and the mag holds fourteen. the xd45 fills the hand well and is quite controllable. so double tap to my hearts content.
    one should remember that the weapon you select depends on the target and range but, the weapon you use is the one in your hand. pocket trinkets just don't work for me.

  10. Colonel Thompson chose the .45 ACP after testing the effectiveness of various pistol rounds upon goats. He determined that a large, heavy, relatively slow round caused more damage and incapacitated the subject more quickly than smaller, faster rounds. They also have the advantage of crushing bones and passing through, rather than bouncing off of them.

    But in a defensive engagement, shot placement is key. When seconds count, you can't count on blood loss incapacitating your opponent a few minutes from now. So the best pistol to carry is the one with the largest bullets that you can comfortably and consistently hit your intended target with. Personally, I practice one to center chest, one to center skull. Ride the recoil and use it to your advantage.

  11. Every so often, we see reports of some new drug that turns people into the Incredible Hulk. And again and again, it turns out that the early reports were heavily exaggerated. Police come upon someone in the midst of a psychotic episode, which can and does turn people into the Hulk, and assume that drugs are responsible.

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