Self Defense Ammunition
The purpose of this guide is to relay information that may assist the law abiding citizen select the best ammunition for a defensive firearm. “Best” is a very subjective attribute, and any recommendations given should be viewed in the context of the gun owner’s personal knowledge and experience.
Empirical data regarding one shot stopping capability of a particular cartridge have contributed to the formulation of the following ammunition performance recommendations. This information is derived primarily from the real world shooting experiences of law enforcement agencies.
“One shot stop” refers to a cartridge’s ability to make an aggressor immediately cease their threatening behavior when shot once in the torso. Head, neck, and multiple shootings are not considered in the data. “One shot stop” does not necessarily infer that a mortal wound was inflicted. It merely means that the shooting created physical injury or psychological trauma sufficient to result in cessation of aggressive or violent behavior. Death may or may not have resulted.
In addition to “one shot stop” statistics, keep in mind that a bullet striking the torso of one’s adversary ideally must penetrate deeply enough to encounter and disrupt vital organs, arteries and blood vessels. Penetration, indeed, is paramount.
You will find that the penetration characteristics of various bullet calibers complement the “stopping” information obtained from actual shootings. Penetration data are largely developed from shots fired into a ballistic gelatin designed to approximate bodily tissue. Such data also serve as the basis for the recommendations that follow regarding ammunition for personal protection.
It cannot be overstated that proper shot placement under stress is the single most important skill brought to bear in a self defense situation. Proper shot placement involves shooting the attacker in the head, the cervical spine, or the torso.
A head or spinal neck shot will immediately incapacitate. The goal of a torso shot is to produce hemorrhage by rupturing the heart or any of the major blood vessels. This will result in relatively quick cessation of hostilities. Forced collapse from blood loss will take several seconds to occur; even when primary blood vessels such as the aorta or vena cava have been destroyed. When the blood supply is disrupted in this manner, the brain of one’s assailant is deprived of oxygen needed for conscious function.
Vital organs and cardiovascular structures reside deep within the human body. Hence, in addition to proper shot placement, one must possess a caliber of bullet capable of reaching them. Under favorable conditions, 6 to 8 inches of penetration will incapacitate an assailant. As a degree of insurance, the bullet should be capable of plowing through tissue into the attacker’s bodily core from any angle of engagement, considering that vitals may be obstructed by an arm, extremely heavy clothing, or large body mass.
For this reason, ten to twelve inches of penetration potential is regarded to be the acceptable minimum for a caliber chosen for self defense. Eighteen is the maximum, considering the danger to innocent bystanders represented by a stray bullet that exits the assailant’s body. “Over kill” is unnecessary. One gains little from enduring the blast, recoil, and potential loss of control necessary for accurate follow up shots that are associated with excessively large “hunting” calibers.
Under identical conditions of shot placement, a larger caliber bullet with a penetration of 10 to 12 inches will inflict more damage to an attacker’s vital organs and structures than will a smaller caliber bullet capable of the same penetration.
Keep in mind, however, that disabling hits from a small caliber firearm, inflicted with deliberate accuracy by the intended victim, will devastate an unskilled, erratic attacker possessing a more powerful weapon.
Mentally review and practice the “double tap” drill: two quick shots to the chest in rapid succession. Follow up with a shot to the head if hostilities haven’t abated.
Be aware that people can move very quickly, covering in excess of twenty feet within one and one-half seconds. In any event, be sure to fire multiple shots at your attacker.
Tactics and marksmanship will save lives of potential victims and diffuse or terminate violent encounters. Using the “best” cartridge for one’s caliber of firearm merely gives the armed citizen a technological edge in any defensive situation.
When compared to rifles and shotguns, handguns are not the most potent form of self protection. In fact, the vast majority of people shot with handguns, in excess of 80 percent, survive. Hence, seek to incapacitate an attacker with a combination of skilled shot placement and proven ammunition.
Choice of Caliber
Any gun, chambered for any caliber of bullet, is better than nothing in the horrific event that you are ever confronted by an assailant intent on inflicting bodily harm. The obvious thus stated, you will find that smaller, less effective calibers may not possess the capability of empowering their users with the means of taking control of a criminal encounter when the application of superior physical force is required. They may not provide the “stopping power” needed to deter a determined aggressor.
At worst, smaller caliber handguns may inspire a false sense of security in the mind of their owner, and let them down when most needed. At best, the same gun may defuse an attack because many criminals are thwarted by the mere presence of a firearm in the hands of the intended victim, often without a shot being fired.
Selection of a specific caliber for self defense is a function of a variety of factors, including ease of carry, portability, recoil tolerance of the shooter, and bullet performance.
Ideally, a caliber would be selected which is capable of penetrating deep into the core or vital area of an assailant’s body, without exiting. The benefit of this attribute is relatively easy to visualize. With too much penetration, a bullet will put a hole in the assailant, passing through the body. Still possessing considerable energy, the bullet will continue on its course until its energy is dissipated by collision with subsequent objects, or worse, with innocent bystanders. All the energy of the bullet, once it passes through the assailant’s body, is wasted.
Conversely, with not enough penetration potential, a bullet may get impeded by clothing and exterior tissue or bone, failing to disrupt the brain (computer) or the circulatory system (hydraulics). Such a shot might merely serve to further enrage one’s attacker.
In a manner similar to the fairy tale of the Three Bears, some rounds are “too hot”, some are “too cold” and some are “just right”. The ideal round for personal protection will dissipate all its energy within the core area of the assailant’s body. It will not exit to endanger others. Such a round will have the ability to penetrate from between ten and twelve to eighteen inches of human tissue.
When faced with an assailant, the purpose of your handgun and the cartridge it was chambered for is to protect you and your loved ones by “stopping” the aggression. A measurement of the cartridge’s ability to accomplish this is provided by real-world statistics that document actual street shootings, primarily by police in the line of duty.
The term “one shot stopping power” refers to a bullet’s ability to cause a criminal to immediately cease aggressive behavior when shot one time in the torso. It does not infer whether or not the criminal was instantly killed, was mortally wounded and died later, was wounded and recovered, or was psychologically as well as physiologically overcome and thus capitulated. It merely means threatening conduct ceased once the criminal was shot once.
To immediately stop an aggressor, it is necessary to disrupt the central nervous system, achievable by a shot into the brain, base of the skull, or upper spine in the neck area. Nervous system trauma will result in instantaneous loss of consciousness. Damaging the circulatory system of one’s attacker through a torso shot will result in gradual loss of consciousness, achieved by shock due to blood loss.
Effective wounding of an attacker, therefore, is a function of shot placement, which produces the path of the bullet through the body, and penetration, which determines which critical and non-critical tissues are disrupted. Critical tissues include the central nervous system and cardiovascular organs and vessels vital to the assailant’s immediate survival. Rapid hemorrhage deprives the brain of oxygenated blood required for consciousness.
Use of deadly force as a means of stopping aggression requires that, at a minimum, a person be in fear of losing his or her own life. Laws vary among states, so it is important for a person to ascertain what constitutes legal use of deadly force in their particular jurisdiction. This should be one of the initial activities conducted by a person who elects to purchase a firearm for self defense.
Some states expand the right of personal defense to include one’s family, and other states include strangers in danger as well. Be prudent. Remember, your objective is to cause the assailant to desist in their aggressive behavior by the effective application of superior force on your part. There is no legal justification for a “coup de grace”. Likewise, a shot into the back of a fleeing attacker will be frowned upon in a court of law. Don’t be a peasant. Do your legal and statutory research.
Practice what some term the “double tap”: the rapid fire of two successive shots. Ideally, the double tap would consist of two quick shots to the assailant’s chest, followed, if needed, by a shot to the head. With either a revolver or an autoloader, sufficient ammunition is held in reserve to counter multiple threats, or to disable a criminal who, though wounded, continues their aggressive behavior. Keep shooting vital areas until you have dissipated or terminated the threat.
Conventional wisdom with regard to handgun selection suggests that an individual purchase the largest caliber that can be handled comfortably and accurately. Many advise that the minimum caliber for self protection be at least .38 Special in a revolver and 9 mm in an autoloader. These two calibers are currently the most popular rounds in the United States for self defense. Ballisticaly, they are somewhat similar, with the 9mm having the edge in terms of performance.