Fackler, Marshall and Handgun Stopping Power Tests

By Chuck Hawks

One of our e-mail correspondents wrote to Guns and Shooting Online wondering if the stopping power argument between Martin Fackler and Evan Marshall is framed by their perspectives. He opined that Fackler is at heart a scientist, comfortable with set methodology, whereas Marshall essentially started his compilation with a theory to prove. And he went on to suggest that Guns and Shooting Online embark on a handgun stopping power test regimen. The latter is a frequent request, so I decided to answer in the form of the article that you are now reading.

First of all, I'm not so sure that Marshall and Sanow started by attempting to prove a particular theory. I think it more likely that the results of his study led Marshall to certain conclusions.

We have considered doing a series of handgun stopping power tests for a long time. G&S Online Technical Advisor Jim Fleck and I have talked about it for years. The main problem is that people like Fackler, Marshall and Sanow, and the FBI have the resources to do it better. If you want to look at the results of handgun bullets hitting various test media, they have already done that and the results are widely available.

I think that, regardless of the flaws in their statistical analysis, Marshall and Sanow 's basic approach is far more realistic: examine what actually happened when real bullets hit real people. Police shooting statistics provide a data base that is far more valuable than all the ballistic gelatin ever mixed. It represents real world results as opposed to theory.

The other study that impressed me was the Strasbourg goat shoot. Unlike the Marshall and Sanow study it did not involve actual human beings. However, living, bleeding animals the same size and with the same lung capacity as humans were shot under carefully controlled (and instrumented!) conditions. The results of that grizzly series of tests tended to verify the results of Marshall and Sanow, not the theoretical work of Martin Fackler and the FBI.

An example: the FBI's analysis of their famous shoot out in Miami was so flawed that they blamed the 9x19 and .38 Special cartridges and ultimately concluded that they needed a 10mm pistol. On what basis? There were no 10mm pistols involved, and the agent who ended the gunfight by killing the final perp did so with a .38 Special revolver.

His crucial contribution was that he aimed his .38, concentrating on the front sight while he squeezed off the round that ended the fight. His testimony afterward makes that very clear. The other agents were in "pray and spray" mode. They could have been praying and spraying with 10mm pistols and it would have made no difference: you can't miss fast enough to win a gunfight. The obvious conclusion should have been that the .38 Special revolver will win gunfights if it is aimed properly and high capacity autoloaders will not win gunfights if they are not aimed properly.

The best way to have solved the problem for future gun fights would be to have drastically raised the standards of FBI marksmanship training. But the FBI brass did not want to acknowledge the flaws in their training program, and many agents would have been unable to qualify if the standards were raised to gunfight winning levels, so they took it out on the equipment the agents used to miss the perps.

Tests in ballistic gelatin were very useful in helping the FBI reach their desired conclusion. A perfect example of impeccable scientific methodology totally divorced from reality.

The bottom line from my perspective would be that if you want to know the penetration depth and permanent crush cavity created by a given bullet in 10% ballistic gelatin, read Fackler. (If I ever feel threatened by a block of gelatin, I will become a serious student of Dr. Fackler's research results.) If you want to know what bullets have actually done to real, living people (and animals of similar size under controlled conditions), read Marshall & Sanow and the results from Strasbourg. In any case, though, I don't think that Guns and Shooting Online has the resources to make a meaningful scientific contribution to this debate.

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Copyright 2006 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.