Sterile lab testing in ballistic gelatin is great, but the ultimate laboratory is the street, the author maintains. Here are the loads that seem to be doing best there, input written in blood from gunfights police departments have experienced with defensive ammunition.
The Dangers of Overpenetrating Bullets
One critical rule of firearms safety is that the bullet must stay in its intended backstop. No responsible shooter would go to one of the older indoor shooting ranges that have a warning poster saying “Lead Bullets Only, Jacketed Bullets Can Pierce Backstop” and then proceed to pump hard-jacketed bullets into that frail backing.
On the street, the only safe backstop for the defensive handgun’s bullets is the body of the offender. Therefore, it is not exactly responsible to be firing bullets that are likely to shoot through the assailant. This is one of the main reasons law enforcement in its virtual entirety has gone to expanding bullet handgun ammunition in this country. It was a lesson written in blood.
Seven Cases Highlight the Reality
In 1999, New York City became almost the last major police department to adopt hollow-point ammunition. They did so in the face of huge, long-term opposition based on political correctness and the erroneous perception of hollow points as wicked “dum-dum bullets.”
One reason they were able to pass it was that the city fathers had been made to realize how much danger the supposedly “humane, Geneva Convention-approved” ammunition previously used presented to innocent bystanders and police officers when the duty weapons were fired in self-defense or defense of others.
From the early ’90s adoption of 16-shot 9mm pistols (Glock 19, SIG Sauer P226 DAO and Smith & Wesson Model 5946) through 1999, NYPD issued a full metal jacket “hardball” round, comprising a round-nose 115-grain bullet in the mid-1,100 fps velocity range. The New York Times exposed the following facts in its startling report on the matter:
“According to statistics released by the department, 15 innocent bystanders were struck by police officers using full metal jacket bullets during 1995 and 1996, the police said. Eight were hit directly, five were hit by bullets that had passed through other people and two were hit by bullets that had passed through objects,” stated the Times.
In other words, in rough numbers, 53 percent of these tragic occurrences were apparently missed shots, while 33 percent were “shoot-throughs” of violent felony suspects. Counting bullets that went through objects to hit presumably unseen innocent victims (13 percent), that tells us that roughly 46 percent of these innocent bystanders were shot by over-penetrating bullets that “pierced their backstops.” Let’s call those victims Cases One Through Seven.
17 Officers Shot Due to Over Penetration
The Times continued, “In that same period, 44 police officers were struck by gunfire using the old ammunition: 21 were hit directly, 2 were struck by bullets that ricocheted and 17 were struck by bullets that passed through other people.”
In round numbers, 52 percent of those “friendly fire” casualties were hit by bullets that apparently missed their intended targets. 42 percent passed through the bodies of the intended targets after the bullets struck the people they were aimed at. Let’s tally those victims of over-penetration as Cases Eight through Twenty-Four.
Why would officers hit more of their own brethren than “civilian” bystanders in this fashion? For the simple reason that while victims and potential innocent bystanders tend to flee danger scenes, the cops are conditioned to “ride to the sound of the guns.”
In a close-quarters situation where a violent criminal is attempting to harm or even murder another officer, cops try to grab him or stop him or even maneuver into a position from which to shoot him. All these actions can put them in the line of fire of brother officers.
Tunnel vision occurs in a majority of life-threatening encounters. This is the perceptual phenomenon of being able to see only the threat and being unable to cognitively recognize other people or objects that might be in the line of fire.
Moreover, the body of the offender may simply block the shooter’s view of the brother officer who is trying to apprehend or restrain the attacker from behind. In these situations, a “shoot-through” is highly likely to kill or cripple one of the Good Guys and Gals.
What does this have to do with private citizens’ use of CCW handguns? Only this: Where the cops jump in to protect their fellow officers, brave citizens may step in to protect their actual brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, or fathers and mothers. Now it is your loved ones who are behind the offender — unseen by you — when you discharge your CCW weapon.
Those 115-grain jacketed ball 9mm rounds will pierce more than 2 feet of muscle tissue simulating ballistic gelatin. So will 230-grain full metal jacket 45 hardball.
By contrast, the depth of the average adult male thorax is probably no more than ten inches, from front of chest to back. Nor is it solid muscle: the spongy tissue and large air volume of the human lung offer little resistance to a bullet. It’s not just about New York City and 9mms.
In Arizona some years ago, a peace officer fired his 45 service automatic at a large male offender rushing him with a knife. He couldn’t see that a brother officer was running up behind the offender to grab and restrain him.
His gunfire dropped the offender…and passed through his body with enough force to deeply pierce the abdomen of the second cop, who had been trying to rescue the one who fired. That wounded officer almost died from those injuries, inflicted unintentionally by shoot-through with 230-grain full metal jacket 45 ACP. Call that incident Case Twenty-Five.
Many years ago in Los Angeles, an Aryan Brotherhood thug took several people hostage in an office. He demanded an escape vehicle and threatened to start shooting hostages if he didn’t get one. A vehicle was provided, and he got into the car with the victims.
At this point, the LAPD SWAT team launched smoke, and two members of the team whom I happened to know moved forward through the gray cloud, their issue Colt 45 automatics up and ready.
When the perpetrator reached for his pistol, the cops opened fire, using department-issue 230-grain hardball. They fired four shots between them, and killed the offender before he could launch a single bullet of his own.
Autopsy showed any of the four hits would have been quickly fatal. However, only one of those bullets stayed in the offender’s body. One of the three exiting slugs struck one of the hostages. Fortunately, the wound was not life-threatening. LAPD quickly switched to hollow points, which is what they use today. Lesson learned. Call it Case Twenty-Six.
Ball Stops Poorly
Particularly in the small calibers, ball ammunition is infamous for its poor stopping power. When the Illinois State Police issued ball for their 9mm S&W pistols from 1967 through the early 1970s, their Ordnance Section told me, they never had a single one-shot stop on an armed felon unless he was hit in the brain or spinal cord.
This led the ISP on an odyssey in search of more effective ammo, which culminated in the famously effective “Illinois State Police load,” a 115-grain jacketed 9mm hollow point at +P+ pressure and 1,300 fps velocity. Today, Illinois troopers carry 180-grain high-tech hollow point in 40 S&W.
In Case Twenty-Seven, NYPD’s last high-profile shooting incident with 9mm ball ammo, four plainclothes officers engaged a young man named Amadou Diallo when he turned on them pulling an object that appeared, in the poor light, to be a small automatic pistol. All four opened fire, and five seconds later they had fired some 41 shots.
Nineteen of those bullets struck Diallo before he went down and dropped the object he was holding, which turned out to be a black nylon wallet. Sixteen of the 19 bullets over-penetrated. Diallo died of his wounds.
After a long and arduous trial, all four officers were acquitted. Had these officers been issued the department’s new 124-grain Speer Gold Dot +P hollow points in time, there is a good chance that he would have gone down with as little as one gunshot wound, giving Diallo a better chance of survival. No such horror stories have happened on NYPD since the hollowpoint ammo has been general issue.
When a bullet goes through a human body, it is not always possible to correctly determine entry from exit, particularly if the gunshot victim lives long enough for the healing process to begin.
Consider Case Twenty-Eight, in which the O.J. Simpson lawyers defending him against charges of murdering his wife and her young male acquaintance tried to impeach one of the state’s medical examiners by bringing up a previous case in which he had mistakenly diagnosed a through and through gunshot wound, confusing back-to-front and front-to-back.
In late 2007, I was involved in a murder case where it was alleged that the defendant had shot his opponent in the back of the neck, with the bullet exiting his face, implying that he was in no danger and therefore could not have acted in self-defense.
The weapon was a Beretta Model 96F pistol, and the bullet was a 180-grain round of full metal jacket UMC 40-caliber practice ammo. In fact, the bullet had entered the face of the attacking man, and coursed rearward and downward before exiting the neck. However, the assailant lived for a week before he succumbed.
During that time, he was lying supine in a hospital bed with his weight pressing the exit hole down against dressings and bed clothes as his body worked to heal the injury. This gave the wound a puckered appearance consistent with an entry wound.
At the same time, doctors and nurses were treating the open wound in the face, debriding it to prevent necrosis, so by the time he finally died, that wound had been cratered outward and mimicked an exit instead of an entry.
The medical examiner determined that entry was in the back and exit was in the front. Not until trial, did treating physicians familiar with gunshot wounds testify that when the “victim” came in, they diagnosed the wound as front entry/rear exit.
Defense experts concurred, and the jury acquitted, as they should have. But Case Twenty-Nine probably wouldn’t have gone to trial if the defendant had loaded his gun with proper hollow points, which almost certainly would have left the mushroomed bullet embedded inside the neck and shown that the attacker was shot from the front.
This article is an excerpt from the The Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry 2nd Edition.