Stopping power is a myth. There, I said it. Every time there is a shooting, some yahoo comes forward to talk about how this gun or that one would be better because stopping power…

It’s bullshit. There are only four ways to stop a determined attacker:

  • A catastrophic hit to the brain or spinal cord (CNS)
  • Lower his blood pressure to the point where his brain is incapable of operating
  • A ‘mission kill’ where his body is so damaged that it can’t continue the attack (for example: damage his pelvic girdle so an attacker armed with a melee weapon can’t close the distance)
  • Convince him that he is out of the fight

Hitting the brain or spinal cord will usually end an attack. A hit to the head that misses the brain will not work. I can think of seeing at least three shootings from my years as a street medic where a bullet hit a person in the head, but didn’t penetrate into the brain. One of them was a suicide attempt. A good example of a head hit NOT taking someone out of the fight is Navy SEAL Matt Axelson. He took a bullet to the head that left his brain matter exposed, yet continued the fight.

Punch enough holes in someone’s vasculature, and they will lose blood pressure to the point where the brain is no longer being supplied with oxygen, and the person is rendered unconscious. Even a lucky shot with a small caliber like a .32 is capable of doing this- say if it hits the aortic arch and causes a transection. Sometimes it takes several hits. I have seen people take multiple hits to the torso from a .223 and stay in the fight.

A mission kill is where you damage a person’s body severely enough that they physically can’t continue the fight. Say, a hit to the pelvic girdle preventing someone from chasing you down. An excellent example of this was Kyle Rittenhouse shooting Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm. The hit not only rendered that arm as incapable of firing shots, but also made it impossible for that arm to release the handgun it was holding.

Then there is simply convincing someone that they are done. This is a well documented phenomenon where a person will be shot, and the wound is far from incapacitating, but the person simply lies down and is out of the fight.

There are people out there, however that still insist in the magical properties of this caliber or that bullet. Bullets are simple tools. They are a tool that delivers the chemical energy stored in the gunpowder to the target in the form of kinetic energy. The force with which a bullet hits the target is equal to the force that’s directed back into the shooter. It’s one of Newton’s laws- every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Any bullet that has enough power to “knock down” the target will do the same to the shooter. It is at this point that many will point to Marshall and Sanow’s work, and I will admit that I was a follower and believer in this study when it first came out.

The Marshall and Sanow “study” was fatally and egregiously flawed. The most basic flaw was “selection bias” in that the study excluded any shooting where it took more than one shot to halt the attack. So if I have a situation where I shoot someone and he doesn’t go down, so I shoot him three more times before he does, that shooting would be excluded from the study, even though that shooting demonstrated a complete failure to stop the attack.

What a bullet does is simple: the chemical energy in the gunpowder is converted to kinetic energy that is transferred to the bullet. That energy is then transferred to whatever that bullet strikes. If the object struck is a person, then physiology takes over from physics there. The damage done is dictated by how much energy was transferred to the targeted person, and what body parts of that person where targeted.

So there are a couple of things that are important in stopping an attack: the amount of energy transferred, and what part of the body that it is transferred to. Suffice it to say, you want a bullet to have enough energy to damage the body system that it strikes, and that means you want it to penetrate far enough to transfer that energy into something physiologically important. You don’t want a bullet bouncing off of the grizzly’s skull or getting stuck in a denim jacket. It does not do any good if that happens. You also don’t want that bullet to over penetrate. What ever energy that bullet has left after passing through the target is useless in stopping the target from doing things that you don’t want them doing.

You also want to work on shot placement. Hitting a right handed shooter in the left arm isn’t going to do you a bit of good.

Buy yourself a gun that you can shoot well, then spend time practicing. Load it with some high quality defensive ammunition, make sure the firearm functions well with that ammo, then practice.

Why? Because you want to keep shooting until the attack is over. That means if you have to shoot him to slide lock to stop the attack, then shoot him to slide lock. Make sure that you can hit a person-sized target 100% of the time at 10 yards, rapid fire WHILE UNDER STRESS. Make sure that you can hit a person sized target 80 percent of the time at 20 yards while under stress. Sounds easy, but studies show that shooting to this level is rare while experiencing the stress of an actual gunfight.

If you do carry a handgun, use a .38/9mm or larger if you can. If you can’t carry something that large, carrying any firearm is better than not carrying one at all.

Put good quality defensive ammo in it. Don’t worry about finding the perfect latest and greatest ammo, but do get something that is modern as well as being accurate and reliable with your chosen firearm.

Practice. A lot. At least 100 rounds per quarter at a minimum. Shooting is a perishable skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

To all of you 10mm or .45ACP fans: If you really believe in stopping power, then provide the physics or physiological basis for stopping power. How does it work, what causes it, why do you think your caliber is different from all of the others?

Categories: FirearmsSelf Defense


Dan · November 12, 2022 at 5:41 am

Stopping power is a euphemism…. But there are some fundamental realities. Shot placement is important. Larger
calibers tend to do more damage. Pistol put holes in people.
Rifles put holes through people. Shotguns will take parts of
people clean off and throw them on the ground.

Been radiating
the public since the mid 70’s. Started out in East LA. Seen TONS of GSW’s. Smaller calibers tend to survive long enough to reach ER. Larger calibers…not so much. Shotguns….unless it’s a hit to an extremity they almost never make it to ER.

Finally….practice is important. When things go south humans rarely ‘rise to the occasion’. They fall to the level of reflex reactions.

DMLMD · November 12, 2022 at 7:03 am

Damn physics – fast but light v slow but heavy. As for the 45 argument, it just makes a slightly larger hole increasing the odds of hitting something bleedy. And history – anything developed to put down drugged up Islamists just brings a smile to me every round down range.

    Jonathan · November 12, 2022 at 7:53 am

    Don’t practice for average; if you do you won’t be ready half the time.
    Either carry a large magazine or practice reloading.
    Your goal is to get the attacker to stop bothering you – you don’t have to kill him (almost always a man). If you’re near other people, the sound can draw enough attention to discourage him; if you’re not, it may be that nothing short of death discourages him – plan accordingly.

BobF · November 12, 2022 at 8:15 am

I carry what I shoot best — primarily aim, secondarily, reload. In the house it’s multiples, but the bedroom, first reach, is the shotgun. I feel comfortable with my odds, but sincerely hope a) I’ll never need any of the hardware, and b) I’ll not hesitate if I do find the need.

At this point in firearms history, I think the caliber argument is more about stoking the fire to sell magazines (the paper type) than anything else. There just doesn’t seem to me to be much unsaid.

Don Curton · November 12, 2022 at 8:49 am

Two things to mention (one already covered above). A .45 caliber hole is bigger than a 9 mm hole, if only marginally. If the hollow point fails to expand, then .45 is better than 9 mm. Again, marginally. Shot placement is key, but a bigger bullet is sometimes better.

Also, from hunting, a bullet clean through provides two paths for bleed out, while a bullet still in the body only has one path. When tracking deer that got hit and ran, more blood on the ground is better. I would think the same applies to goblins, but I guess you gotta think about who’s standing behind said goblin at the time of shooting too.

And then there’s the old saying, I’d rather get missed by a .44 than hit with a .22.

    Divemedic · November 12, 2022 at 9:20 am

    Remember that, with hits to the torso, entrance and exit wounds don’t matter. There are enough places inside of the torso for blood to collect that entrance and exit wounds don’t matter.
    This is the reason why direct pressure doesn’t do a whole heck of a lot for torso wounds. The majority of the bleeding is going to be internal. Punch a hole in a major blood vessel like the renal artery, ascending aorta, brachial vein, or hepatic vein, and the exit wound doesn’t mean a thing.

Mister Two · November 12, 2022 at 9:11 am

Were you eavesdropping on a conversation at the Buckley Exchange gun counter yesterday morning?

JG · November 12, 2022 at 9:53 am

I have a shotgun for the house. If someone is breaking into the house or in it and I hear them. The shotgun shot will go through the wall and force them out, damage them, or kill them.

    Divemedic · November 12, 2022 at 10:41 am

    Shooting at someone or something that you can’t see is a recipe for disaster.

    McChuck · November 14, 2022 at 12:09 pm

    There used to be arguments of gun blogs about which hand to hold the flashlight in, if there wasn’t one on the pistol or shotgun, for when you defended your home from intruders. I ended them by stating:

    Turn on the lights, and announce in a loud, clear voice, “I am armed. Who are you, and why are you in my house?” You are defending your home, no clearing buildings in Fallujah. Your lawyer will thank you later, and you’re less likely to shoot your own teenager sneaking back into the house.

Aesop · November 12, 2022 at 11:12 am

The takeaway is the same: absent a critical hit, bigger bullets make bigger holes, and only hits count.
But watching Crazy Baby Huey in the earlier video soak up 14 rounds of (probably) 9mm and still not be totally out of the fight for long enough to continue being stabby, if one was close enough, should be eye-opening.
Some people really need shooting with a 33-rd. magazine.

Keep shooting until the targets is ragingly on fire, or explodes. True for vehicles, true for people.

joe · November 12, 2022 at 11:23 am

i tried to find the link but damn it, not able…on he recently had a post about this…some doc or nurse did a story about ER gunshot victims…large bullets (pistol) do more damage and the survival rate is lower but in the end, it’s about what organs you may get hit or how much you make them bleed…plenty of videos of people fighting to the end even though a major artery was severed…that’s a good min or 2 they can still kill you or hurt you…shot placement is best bet no matter what you carry…i’m with DM, slide lock until they no longer move and then reload…his buddy may be around the corner…I carry a full sized G17 with hornady critical defense with 2 spare mags every where i go…and for a while there, when antifa and blm seemed to be everywhere, i had a G43X and spare mag for that in my bag also…in case i needed someone to watch my 6 and they weren’t armed…

JT · November 12, 2022 at 11:35 am

Also were you ease dropping on my bud and I when I was at his place just yesterday ? Caliber conversation delved into him believing regular training was unnecessary once familiar with said firearm. I just chuckled and moved on. Good dude but I don’t suffer foolishness.

Matthew W · November 12, 2022 at 2:08 pm

Ahhhh, the “Caliber Wars” and STOPPING POWER !!!!!
Simple fact is that every bullet has magic in it.
A .22 can kill and a .22 might kill.
A .45 can kill and a .45 might kill.
I love the guys that carry a .45 , 6 mags and a 10mm with 4 mags as “backup”
A great read, “The search for an effective police handgun” Allen Bristow.

Jester · November 14, 2022 at 9:45 pm

Couple commenters hit big facts, shot placement is key but what most folks forget is that shot placement is pretty damn tough in a really stressfull moment where you’re fighting for your life. Yeah, you might put that .22 though someone’s eye hole in to their brain. You might have the ability to do that at 100 yards with your scoped target pistol on a range with all the time in the world. Not gonna happen on a life or death situation. More holes in a target increase the chance of the target going down and being removed from the fight. And said holes should create enough damage to hopefully cause shock to hit, but all bets are off if the target is hopped up on some drug. At least assuming you don’t hit the brain pan and spinal area. The only concern you have after the fact of the threat being effectively eliminated is Civil Suits or crazy DAs that will turn on you for “You shot more times than was needed in the moment to eliminate the threat” Which might be another discussion entirely..

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