The subject of stopping power is often brought up when discussing defensive caliber and ammo options. But, what does it mean — and how important is it?
What is stopping power and does it matter?:
Before we go any further, let‘s make one thing clear: We are discussing lethal threat encounters. I’m not talking about a fist fight at a backyard BBQ, unless you live in a place where those things commonly turn into gunfights. We’re talking a lethal threat, situations that fulfill the legal requirements for “I feared for my life, your honor,” and nothing else.
The requirements differ, depending on the jurisdiction in which you live or find yourself at the moment, whether or not you are a sworn law enforcement officer.
Before we can even begin to try and wrap our heads and hands around a stopping power theory, we must have a grasp of what goes on in a situation where we might use a firearm.
An understanding of the word “anecdote” is important to our discussion. An anecdote is a story, lesson or event that stands alone. A bad guy gets shot with a given cartridge, and he does or does not stop doing bad things. That event is an anecdote. It’s important to keep in mind this important point: The plural of anecdote is not data.
In order for the event to be a piece of data, we’d have to know everything about it: the victim’s mindset, chemical state (if any), plans and determination; the caliber, velocity and construction of the bullet; and the exact path of the wound track. Lacking all of the above, we cannot do more than call it an anecdote. The more of those variables we have, the better we can assign confidence in the information we have, and place it with the thousands of others we’d need to plot a reasonably accurate graph.
A theoretical example: A given police department issues two types of 9mm ammunition. One is a lightweight, high-speed bullet, the other a full-weight moderate-velocity load. The department tracks the results in shootings and finds that the X load is more effective than the Y load. This is useful if the ammunition is evenly distributed in the department and if it is evenly distributed in lethal force encounters. However, if the X load is issued to the SWAT team and the Y load is for general use, then to misquote the Spaniard in The Princess Bride: “I don’t think that information means what you think it means.”
If the SWAT team has a more frequent range schedule and is composed of officers who have demonstrated greater firearms proficiency, then the difference in effectiveness might be a matter of marksmanship and not terminal ballistics. If you don’t know the differences between the two groups, then the information is anecdotal at best, and not data. This makes it difficult to measure the effectiveness of load X used in one department compared to load Y used in a different department.
Here’s a conundrum for you: Modern medical knowledge and physicians’ skills are so good in the 21st century that four out of five people shot with a handgun survive the encounter. In fact, it’s a much greater percentage if the victim arrives at the hospital with a pulse. Think about that.
But, it’s the potential for lethality that defines the tool you will use, not the actual. Your neighborhood kids, playing baseball, are doing so with objects that could, in different circumstances, be lethal weapons. However, that does not in and of itself mean anything. The bad guy who just demanded your wallet, and upon receiving it is still winding up to strike you, has a lethal weapon.
We are not, however, concerned with lethality. Lethality is not our goal. A .22 LR can be lethal. Indeed, people have died from lesser projectiles. We are not interested in lethality. However, in defense with lethal force, we use force that may well be lethal itself. Until phasers set on stun are available to us, the only option remains the use of tools that are potentially lethal by their very design. That, or surrender.
I thought not.
So, if stopping power is a myth, why do we search for it so enthusiastically? Because in a bad situation, we want every assurance that things will work out all right. And that leads us to the first step in understanding stopping power: Most of the time it’s mental.
The Two Sides Of Stopping Power
There are two aspects to a fight: mental and physical. If someone is mentally prepared and psychologically attuned, they will be able to bring all their physical skills to the process. Those skills might not amount to much, but they can bring all of them to the table.
On the flip side, someone unprepared and/or psychologically untrained will react quite differently, regardless of physical capabilities. There’s also the matter of prior conditioning. Mental state and expectation play a big part in the results of conflict.
On the physical side, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that your opponent has, through evolution, been created as a difficult opponent. Key parts of his anatomy are armored, he has redundancy in critical systems. His body will adapt to injury and, if given even a short time and minimal care, he can heal and rebuild. He’s equipped with fast reflexes, an adaptable central processing unit and the decision-making processing power to change plans in mid-stream. He has strength, stamina, adaptability and agility.
The good news? That also describes me. And you.
Physically, there are two ways to stop an opponent. You can deal a damaging blow to the central nervous system. You can cause sufficient blood loss that blood pressure drops below the operational level. Those are it, physically.
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Let’s take a look at a statistically significant number of lethal threat encounters. We’ll start with a nice, round number — one thousand.
A thousand times, lawfully armed citizens find themselves in a situation where a firearm is needed. Of those thousand times, somewhere between 500 and 900 will be defused by simply showing the gun. This is a subject and a number that has been greatly debated. The pro-gun side posits that the number is large, and perhaps unknowable, simply because most people in that situation do not report it.
Nine hundred incidents never happen, simply because the gun was there. Of the remaining 100, another 50 actually required it be handled. Of those 50, shots were fired, and 40 times everyone involved missed. I kid you not, people miss. They miss a lot. And that’s usually not a bad thing.
The Dilemma Of Stopping Power
Quiz time. In the 950 incidents, how important was stopping power? Anyone who gave any answer other than “not at all” ought to go back and start over. The stopping power of the firearms used, or not used, was utterly immaterial.
Stopping power may be of importance in the remaining 50, but then again maybe not. Of those 50, with shots fired, 30 of the bad guys run away as soon as they’re hit. Hit anywhere — with anything. Twenty left. Ten of them take solid hits and flee. They will need serious medical attention, but they still have enough strength to get out of Dodge.
Ten are left of our original thousand, and they fight. Some not so well, others with ferocity and tenacity. Those are the 10 we will spend the most time discussing, but they’re also the highlights that define our dilemma.
In another situation, relayed to me by a friend with decades of experience in a big city with a whole lot of crime, a bad guy breaks into the home, the homeowner phones the police and calls out, “I have a gun.” Bad guy starts up the stairs, the homeowner the whole time shouting, “I have a gun,” which is pointed at the bad guy.
Homeowner decides enough is enough; he shoots. The bad guy takes a full-power factory .44 Magnum underneath the left eye. Bad guy tumbles down the stairs, gets up and walks out of the house. When the police arrive they begin a search and find the bad guy around the corner, next to his car, keys on the ground, dead.
A council of experts could argue the question, “Was there enough stopping power?” on this one until the cows come home. On the “yes” side, the bad guy stopped doing what he was doing. On the “no” side, he decided to do something else instead, and could have spent that last minute fighting instead of fumbling with his car keys. And by the time we’re done, you’ll agree with both of them.
The dilemma of our situation, our life’s work in firearms is this — statistically speaking, caliber doesn’t matter. In 990 times out of 1,000, caliber didn’t matter.
You can quibble with the actual numbers, but the point is this: The subset of potentially lethal encounters where stopping power becomes the determinate factor is very small. You are better served with proper situational awareness, having a plan, knowing the law and being proactive than in obsessing over a few percentage points on a theoretical scale of “stopping power.” Put your effort where it will deliver the greatest return.
Also, if we were going strictly by statistics we wouldn’t be carrying a gun. It’s the job of the police to deal with crime, with violent people, and to be in harm’s way. And there are departments full of officers who have not killed anyone with their sidearm. It’s not unusual to find many departments where there’s only one officer who has been in a shooting incident. The rest? They will wear a sidearm for their entire career and might, a dozen times, point it at someone, but never discharge it in their official capacity and retire having never been in a gunfight. If that’s the police, what are the statistics for those of us who do not seek out danger as a professional requirement?
But, the third side of this two-sided coin is this: If you’re one of those 10 in 1,000 — and you do not have a gun — there and then statistics mean nothing.
So, what is stopping power? When you find a final, true, convincing answer, let me know.
Editor's Notes: This article is an excerpt from Choosing Handgun Ammo: The Facts That Matter Most for Self-Defense by Patrick Sweeney.