Massad Ayoob: The Dangers of Over-Penetrating Bullets

FBI Load

Cops have long understood that hollow point ammo is safer for all concerned. This is “FBI load,” 158-grain +P lead semiwadcutter hollow point, in a 4-inch Model 15 S&W service revolver. This was the bullet that “made” the 38 Special into a fighting handgun in the early 1970s, and is still a good choice except in ultra-light snubbies.


Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from The Gun Digest Book of Concealed Carry, one of the finest books on the subject. Click here to continue reading by ordering the book.

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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.

Hollow Points are No Dummies

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 hollowpoints as wicked “dum-dum bullets.”

9 mm full metal jacket

Full metal jacket 9mm ammo like this has been known to be an impotent man-stopper for a century. It also horrendously over-penetrates living tissue. After many innocent over-penetration casualties, the New York Police Department dropped this ammo in favor of hollow points.

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 by the officers.

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-1100 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.”

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. Forty-two percent passed through the bodies of the intended targets after the bullets struck the people they were aimed at.

3 thoughts on “Massad Ayoob: The Dangers of Over-Penetrating Bullets

  1. SemperFlyBoy

    As a loyal follower of Mas Ayoob, I am disappointed by the uncorrected reference to the Geneva Convention and the related assumption that it has anything to do with the use of hollow point, aka “dum dum”, bullets. Mas knows better than most folks that the reference should be to the Hague Convention of 1899 (to which the US was not a signatory, by the way) which dealt with the weapons of war. The Geneva Convention dealt with the treatment of combatants and non-combatants. Point being that perhaps the foremost expert on self defense law was misrepresented here.

  2. wfluit

    Not only is hardball an excessive penetrator, its also a poor stopper. I’ve never been impressed by FMJ performance on the scenes I’ve investigated, even the fantastical .45 ACP “FMJ manstopper.”

    There’s been a fascination in recent years with bullets penetrating an auto’s front windshield. I don’t have the stats but I believe very few police shootings involve shooting thru the front windshield. Civilians IMO are even less likely to be in situations where they have to stop a BG thru the windshield.

    I’ll take a fast moving and fast expanding bullet. When I was still on-duty I would have gladly traded the Glock .40 for a Smith 66 .357 mag with 125 HPs.

  3. SmithKoWitz

    Thanks for reprinting this piece. There are still a lot of people out there who think a lot of these newer HP’s and especially Flextip rounds are insufficient. When I read about these bullets, they talk about 12 inches or better of penetration in gelatin. Yet here M.A. says that 10 inches is the average human front to back. Technically, you don’t need a bullet that penetrates more than 10 inches, on average you should be able to reach a vital organ in about 5 inches and 10 inches even in much larger subjects. As in hunting of animals, the same would hold true in self-defense; shot placement is the key. Now, for self defense against a wild pig, bear or mean goat, you might want something with a little more penetration; I’m guessing about 15 to 18 inches, but it would depend on the angle you were to the creature when shooting. The same would hold true with a human subject; a side shot could penetrate 12 to 14 inches without exiting most adult people, but 10 inches would still be sufficient if placed reasonably well. You could argue if an arm was in the way, and the clothes they are wearing, especially if winter. I suppose the answer then is: two mags, one with heavier penetration ammo than the other by about 3 to 6 inches. And you can stop and determine which one to load while the perp shoots at you . . . . nah, I’ll go with the safer ammo; I’ll stick with my Flextips in 45colt or acp and 357 or 40, depending on which weapon I am packing. For the big creatures, the 460 S&W mag.