Handgun Stopping Power:
A Question and Answer Dialogue

By Chuck Hawks

Q: First of all, why distinguish between handgun bullet performance for self-defense and big game hunting, where large caliber, heavy bullets seem to be preferred?

A: Because they are different scenarios with different requirements, particularly in terms of terminal ballistics. If you could get a deer to come within 7 yards and stand on its hind legs facing you (the typical civilian self defense frontal shooting situation), I bet that the 125 grain .357 JHP load would be an extremely reliable one shot stopper, just as it is on criminals in that position. However, I have never seen a deer do that, have you?

Q: Chic Gaylord made a powerful argument in the late sixties for the large caliber round. He was a former ad man who became advisor to NYPD cops and was an expert on handgun fighting and holsters. Chic was no-nonsense and certainly influenced me.

A: Mr. Gaylord's frame of reference was from a time when it was widely asserted (and believed by most experts) that it was impossible to achieve reliable expansion from any handgun bullet. The reasoning of the time was that since the bullet was only going to make a 1x caliber hole, the bigger the hole the better. IF that premise about handgun bullets not expanding had been true, he (and Jeff Cooper, et al) would have been right.

As a point of fact, in the middle 1960's I was going out into the desert with a small group of shooters on a weekly basis with my .357 Magnum revolver (and sometimes a .45 ACP pistol with 230 grain FMJ factory loads) and shooting jacks, foxes and coyotes. I found that the 146 grain Speer JHP bullets I was using would expand on raking shots at these light animals. I could observe first hand that a bullet that expanded had much more killing power than a broadside lung shot with a .45 or a .357 that went clear through without expanding. I knew then that the big bore "experts" were wrong in at least some of their assertions. I reasoned that if I could get a JHP bullet from a .357 to expand in a jack rabbit, it was very likely to expand in a man (or a deer, which we also demonstrated with a one shot in-the-tracks kill). It just took about 20 years for the scientific community to catch up with and verify what we had learned out there in the Mojave.

Q: Gaylord advocated a 4-inch revolver in .41 or above, without adjustable sights. I cannot find such a gun today.

A: Not a bad defense tool at all, particularly with JHP ammo. S&W did in fact offer such a revolver, the Model 58 in .41 Magnum, but very few people bought it. It was eventually discontinued. The recoil was really fierce and practical accuracy was better with the similar Model 57 that came with adjustable sights.

Q: Gaylord dismissed the .357 but preferred .38 Special in 200 grain. The idea was the brute impact of the big slug hitting the assailant in the shoulder, etc.

A: Bad mistake! ANY .357 load is more effective than the old 200 grain .38 load. It is a pretty dangerous assumption that you are going to hit heavy bone with every shot. What if you don't? Most of the human body is soft tissue, not bone. Non-expanding bullets like that lead 200 grain .38 slug do comparatively little damage to soft tissue. Even in a vital spot like the lungs they may be quite slow to stop a criminal's actions. However, a 125 grain JHP from a .357 in the lungs will put the bad guy away pronto. If you miss the lungs and hit the shoulder, the 125 grain JHP will dump up to 580 ft. lbs. of destructive energy into his body, instead of the maximum 236 ft. lbs. of the 200 grain .38 Spec. load. Think about it and decide which you'd rather be hit with.

Q: You must admit that if the big bore guys are wrong they are ok, if the others are, they are not.

A: I don't follow your logic here at all. If the big bore guys are wrong in a real gunfight, they are just as dead as anyone else! What difference does it make whether a big bore pistol fails to achieve a stop and a criminal blows you away, or a smaller caliber fails to achieve a stop with the same result? Either way you didn't stop the bad guy from hurting you.

Back in the 1960's the big bore fans asserted that .45 ACP 230 grain ball ammo would achieve 90% one shot stops. (This was pure speculation with no research at all to support it, but gee, the big slug looked so impressive.) Well, subsequent research has shown that the .45 ACP provides about 60-64% one shot stops in actual shootings, while the .357 with a 125 grain JHP bullet actually provides 93-97% stops. Those numbers are supported by a huge data base and several different researchers working independently have discovered essentially the same thing.

Yet, the big bore "true believers" persist in ignoring reality, childishly insisting that a .45 bullet just has to be more effective than any smaller caliber. It appears to be impossible for these folks to admit even the possibility that they may be wrong. These people are no longer seeking the truth, if they ever were. Their unshakable faith is more religious in nature than scientific. Their minds are not inquiring, they are closed and have been since about 1960.

Q: Personally I like the idea of a 200 grain bullet in the .357, especially as I don't know where to get the .38 in that weight.

A: It would probably be a good choice if you had to shoot a bear or an elk with a .357 revolver. I have never done that. (A good friend of mine did shoot a bear at close range in self defense, up in Alaska and a factory loaded 158 grain JSP load did the job.)

Q: You say the .357 JHP in 125 grain is the most effective . . .

A: Actually, I don't say that, that is the published result of a lot of research done by folks who know far more than I do about the subject. I am just reporting the results; you are free to make up your own mind.

Please understand that I don't have a horse in this race. I used to pretty much believe everything that the late Jeff Cooper, the big bore guru, wrote. He was a gentleman and a very persuasive writer for whom I have great respect. No one, however, is infallible. By the time I was in my 20's and Mr. Cooper was a middle aged man (as I am now!), I began to realize from my own experience that some of his theories simply did not square with reality.

Much later, really good JHP bullets became widely available and a number of ballisticians, writers and others (including the FBI) started research projects to analyze the results of actual shootings and fully explore the subject of handgun terminal ballistics. I am inclined to believe the results of that mass of research, because it does square with my own observations, and because it is an attempt to gather factual evidence, not just rely on speculation and unsubstantiated theory. If at some point in the future the latest research results point to some alternative conclusion, that is fine with me and I'll report it in my articles. After all, while I own .22 LR, .22 WMR, .380, 9mm, .38 Special and .357 Magnum handguns, I also own and shoot .44 and .45 caliber handguns. I enjoy and appreciate them all.

Q: The stopping power studies by Evan Marshall and Edwin Sanow have been criticized by some writers, particularly online. Does that influence your opinion?

Marshall and Sanow have published three entire books on handgun stopping power. I would suggest that anyone with an interest in the subject read those books and decide for themselves.

M&S have recorded the results of thousands of actual shootings, which is a heck of a research project that I find pretty impressive. Mas Ayoob and others have also analyzed similar (but different) shooting data from other police sources with similar results.

I find that a lot more impressive then the "theoretical" analysis done by most of their detractors. Frankly, I find it hard to understand how anyone could ignore all of that collected data and insist that their theoretical stopping power "model" is superior. Dead men may not talk, but they also don't lie.

Lastly, my own hunting experience tends to correlate with the basic findings of M&S. This is not definitive, by any means. Jacks, coyotes and deer certainly are not the same thing as human beings. However, in terms of bullet terminal performance in living tissue, I have known for a long time that much of what the big bore guys were saying was wrong. That, in fact, a bullet that expands quickly and violently (as long as it reaches the vitals) generally causes an animal to collapes faster than a bullet that sails through the vitals with little or no expansion. Either will kill, but the expanding bullet generally works quicker.

This would certainly not be news to most hunters and in my opinion the burden of proof should be on anyone who disagrees with that basic proposition. Attacking the research results of others does not contribute anything to proving their contrary theories. Where is their hard data?

Q: What about the Strasbourg experiments where they shot instrumented goats of similar size and with a heart/lung capacity similar to humans under carefully controlled conditions?

A: The Strasbourg goat experiments, another practical foray into handgun incapacitation, pretty much tended to support the results of M&S, not their detractors. Strasbourg was the closest approximation to reality that we are going to get, short of instrumenting and then executing several hundred adult male human beings. At Strasbourg they achieved what the infamous Hatcher experiments totally failed to do and again the results of M&S were vindicated.

As I said, I am not personally invested in this argument. As soon as better stopping power data is available I will gladly accept it and report it, with thanks to whoever develops such data. The idea is to save lives, not ride some personal hobby horse.

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Copyright 2003, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.