Saturday, February 12, 2011

Morgue Monsters & Jello Junkies

I've spoken to this topic before, but since my titles, while sometimes clever, don't always indicate the content of the post, and to save anybody looking from having to scroll through a couple thousand pieces, I'll speak to it again. 

If you are writer who has characters using handguns, you need to know about stopping power. 

There are two main schools of thought, and I won't get into them in depth, but basically, one school uses ballistic gelatin, measures things like stretch cavities and penetration and such, and gives various calibers and bullet types a number. Higher the number, more likely it is to do an instant stop. The other school uses stats from actual police shootings–how many people got shot with a particular caliber and stopped what they were doing right then.

Which is how a "stop" is defined. The bad guy trying to stab or shoot you instantly ceases this activity when you plug him. Drops the gun, falls over, desists all hostile activity, whatever.

Whether he dies or not isn't what matters here. If you were justified in shooting, that's the legal and moral coverage. You aren't trying to kill him, you are trying to stop him killing you.

Stopping power is related to, but not the same as, killing power. More people have been killed with .22s than any other caliber, at least that's what I found last time I did the research. But a .22 LR out of a handgun will only stop somebody cold 30-40% of the time with a single hit to the body. So he might wander off and croak on the morrow, but have plenty of pep to shoot you in the head right now. 

This is what is known as a pyrrhic victory.

If you are an LEO or soldier or civilian protecting the citizens, your family, or yourself, what you want to happen is for the bad guy to not-shoot-not-stab-not-do-anything-lethal after you shoot him. And yes, unless you are using a dueling pistol, you can shoot him more than once, but the odd thing about people is that if the first bullet doesn't do the job, the second or third might not do it, either.  

A lot of police shootings take place on tachypsychia autopilot–once the action starts, it doesn't stop until the gun runs dry, and since this might take all of a second or two when the hormones are roaring, the conscious mind's decision to cease fire might not get there in time:

Gun! Gun! Shootshootshootshootshoot–!

And the brain kicks back on, the tunnel vision clears, the ears click in–after the incident is done. 

The link takes you to a place where you can key in a caliber and even a brand of ammo and see how it fared in actual one-shot stops. Sometimes the total numbers in the sample aren't very big. Not a lot of police use mouseguns. And some calibers don't show any stops, because nobody has admitted to shooting somebody with them. I don't see a lot of .454 Casull or .500 Reeder shootings, though I'm pretty sure that a gun that will drop a charging brown bear or a rhino will cause most people to reconsider their actions, too ...

The best commerical centerfire handgun rounds run to 96% one shot stops, usually in .357 Magnum JHP, or .40, maybe a couple of the 10mm rounds. The worst, usually .25 ACP ball, will do it less than 25 or 30% of the time. Ten guys coming at you, you shoot them all center of mass with a .25 ACP, six or seven of them keep coming. Not so good.

Ten guys, a .357 Magnum, nine-and-a-half of them stop. Much better, but still, the other four-tenths guy might eat your lunch. It has happened.

So even with the best commercial handgun round, your revolver or semi-auto or single-shot pistol is not a magic wand that you can wave and guarantee that all will fall down. 

The surest instant firearm stop is a big fast bullet to the brain or cutting the spine up high, and rifles are better than handguns. A handgun shot to the heart or lung or liver will probably be fatal a lot of the time, but not instantly so, and it only takes a moment for the shot guy to shoot back. 

There are people who fall over dead that fast with a single shot by somebody's nine, or Saturday Night Special in .32, from shock, but they are the exceptions and not the rule. If your good guy is cooking, you need to keep that in mind. 

People can be fragile, but they can also be most durable. 


Ed said...

A a couple interesting things (to me)I saw in the numbers....smaller caliber handguns (.22 and .25) used in a lot, a lot more shootings than others and the 9mm had better stopping stats than I thought it would. Maybe all because they are easier to practice with - less kick and cheaper to shoot and the .22 and .25 generally easier to carry/hide.

Jim said...

There's something else about "stopping power" that's worth knowing.

It's crap. Individuals aren't statistics. Generally, bad guys survive a lot more rounds than cops -- perhaps because cops "play by the rules" and the "rules" say you get shot, you fall down and die. The bad guys are, by definition, cheaters. Cops also have the "stopping power" of their guns pounded into their head, so they believe that getting shot equals getting stopped. Again -- bad guys don't; they know three or four (or more in some neighborhoods) guys who got shot and are just fine, except for some cool scars.

Perfect world: A good person, be they cop or legally armed private citizen, assesses the effect of each round fired, and only fires the necessary shots. Reality, as you said, is "OH CRAP!" followed by a series of shots fired, often until the gun goes dry. Perfect world: One shot, center mass, plenty of hydrostatic shock or massive vascular damage and the bad guy goes down. Reality: They keep coming. Sometimes with truly mind-boggling injuries...

It's worth knowing and looking over the numbers in selecting a defensive handgun. And if you're a writer and you're featuring gun play -- do enough to know what you're talking about. But don't forget that reality isn't a statistical model.

Dan Moran said...

Back when I carried with any regularity, it was a .38 snub nosed revolver. Dunno what the stopping power was, but my only purpose in carrying it was to slow down the bad guys until I could get away. It only had 5 shots -- my general theory was shoot, run -- shoot again if necessary, run some more. And so on.

These days I don't carry, and I don't go into those parts of town where I would feel the need. When I get older and don't feel capable of handling random bad guys, I'll probably start carrying again, but I think I'm still a decade or more away from that day. That said, when it happens, it'll probably be a weapon with more rounds -- I can't run like I used to.

Steve Perry said...

A snub-nosed .38 Special in your pocket is way better than Dirty Harry's hand cannon at home in a drawer. If you know you only have five and that the caliber isn't a rhino-stopper, you train accordingly.

I qualified as an IPSC shooter (had to, to use the combat range at the club) using a S&W five-shot Chief, which is a .38 Special snubnose revolver. I didn't win the match, but I did manage to score higher than two-thirds of the shooters overall, most of whom were using semi-autos holding twice as many rounds. And on the longest stage, which was fifty yards -- same deal.

Sure, the gun matters. But the operator matters more, since most modern handguns will shoot better than most people most of the time ...

The worst .38 Special rounds come in around 40%, according to the Marshall-Sanow scale. But the hottest +P stuff is around 80%. (The .357 Magnum is essentially a .38 round with more powder launching it.