The Truth About Handgun Stopping Power

The Truth About Handgun Stopping Power

The myth and reality behind what it takes for a handgun to stop an assailant 

During the time I worked in law enforcement I pointed a handgun at a lot of people. Except on just a few occasions, that never failed to make those people stop doing bad things. Also, during that time, I investigated numerous incidents where good and bad people were shot with a handgun. In every case, the person who was shot was stopped. By “stopped” I do not mean that they were killed. What I mean by “stopped” is that they were no longer actively involved in the fight; they stopped being a threat or a problem for the person who shot them.

Fear Factor

Granted, this is only the experiences of one person, but by and large it is the norm as opposed to the exception. When you point a gun at someone, more likely than not they will cease being a threat. The same thing is true if you must shoot someone; getting shot has a way of changing people’s minds. This generally applies no matter what cartridge the handgun you point at someone or shoot someone with is chambered for. The fear of getting shot and actually getting shot is an immensely terrifying event. This is partly because we’ve seen hundreds of people getting fake shot on TV and we understand it to be a traumatic and deadly experience.

The truth is that with a fast response time and modern emergency response services, many wounds caused by handguns are survivable. The potential to survive a gunshot depends more on where someone has been shot than what they have been shot with. Still, countless hours and research have been expended in an effort to determine which defensive handgun cartridge, load, or bullet, might be best at stopping bad guys.

Disagreements Among the Experts

A study in 1904 determined the .45 Auto was twice as effective as the 9mm. In 1985 the National Institute of Justice said the opposite. Then in 1990 the FBI claimed the .40 S&W was better than both. A year later another study claimed high velocity violently expanding handgun ammunition was best. At the same time the Naval Weapons Support Center claimed that slow 147-grain 9mm loads were even better. Half a decade later, the Secret Service was singing the praises of high velocity 9mm loads. Two years after that the Canadian Mounted Police claimed they’d found that some 9mm and .40 S&W loads outperformed the .38 Special. (This of course surprised no one.) Now the FBI has reverted to the very cartridge that in 1986 they claimed was insufficient for law enforcement application.

Playing the Odds

More than anything else, all of this should tell you that there’s no real consensus on what handgun stopping power really is. However, in the real world, without the assistance of complicated experiments or detailed studies, there are a few things we can be reasonably sure of:

  1. If you point a handgun at someone doing bad things there is a good chance, they will stop doing bad things. Based on my experience the chances of this well exceed 70 percent.
  2. If you shoot at someone doing bad things, there is an even better chance they will stop doing bad things. The chances of this happening are probably higher than 90 percent.
  3. If you shoot at and hit a bad guy the chances that that bad guy will stop doing bad things climbs even higher. Probably 95 percent or even more.

The X-Factor

Of course, none of this takes into account villains who are under the influence of mind-altering drugs where they do not have the ability to conceive the fear of getting shot, or the pain if they are. If you’re in a situation where you’re feloniously attacked by such a person, you cannot rely on pointing a gun at them, shooting at them, or even hitting them when you shoot at them, to stop them. In such a situation you’re going to have to shoot them and hit them – in the right spot – with a bullet that’s capable of penetrating deep enough to seriously damage their vital organs, their support structure, or their nervous system.

Rethinking Stopping Power

Handgun stopping power does exist, but not in the way most think of it. The fastest and most reliable means of handgun stopping power is the fear that getting shot or having been shot induces. When you start having to rely on perfect shot placement and the ability of a bullet to create enough damage or pain to cause immediate incapacitation or the cessation of hostile activates, your chances of instantaneously stopping a threat are drastically reduced. Real, though unmeasurable, handgun stopping power comes from fear. Beyond that the best thing you can do is shoot well and take cover.

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Joel
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45 ACP is waaaayyyyyyy better than 9mm when it comes to stopping power. Just Sayin'
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matt
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I go for personal feel, (recoil) I don't like 9mm in a handgun good in sbr.. I like my 45 acp and my 44 revolver yep just my opinion.
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Donn
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Articles like this are interesting, but change very few, if any, minds. People usually get sufficient affirmation on line regarding their personal favorite round and stick with it thru thick & thin.
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Neeko
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I hope more people will read this very interesting article. From the silver screen to broadcast television, the glamorization of gun fights has desensitized us as a society and even have some convinced that shooting the bad guys is the only way to stop them. However disregarding the few outliers mentioned in the article, I believe this psychological approach is fairly accurate in its portrayal and attempt to quantify how the fear of being shot is an excellent motivator for one to cease and desist. Taking deliberate actions to provide loud, clear verbal warnings while drawing our sidearm to point at a perpetrator should be refreshed in our minds so it’s not to be overlooked. Hearing warnings and then suddenly looking down the barrel of handgun held by someone who is aware, confident, knowledgeable, and proficient in using the handgun may be all it takes to defuse a situation. In that case, the handgun regardless of what round it is chambered in possesses a lot of “stopping power” without firing a single shot. But before I get crucified regarding my comment, I know of situations when brandishing a handgun and yelling verbal warnings will have no affect, or there will no time to do anything else but react. The adrenaline is pumping, mind is racing trying to assess the situation, and with things happening so quickly any bit of hesitation could be all the difference in whether the bad guy or the good guy remains. Thusly, I will revert back to the four adjectives I used earlier to describe the good guy: aware, confident, knowledgeable, and proficient. One who possesses these characteristics will know if or when lethal action is necessary in a “self-defense” situation. Think about those four adjectives along with what and how they apply to many other factors outside of just using the handgun.
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