U.S. Department of Justice
Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness
Special Agent UREY W. PATRICK
FIREARMS TRAINING UNIT
July 14, 1989
"Physiologically, a determined adversary can be stopped reliably and immediately only by a shot that disrupts the brain or upper spinal cord. Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time.
The often referred to “knock-down power” implies the ability of a bullet to move its target. This is nothing more than momentum of the bullet. It is the transfer of momentum that will cause a target to move in response to the blow received. "Isaac Newton proved this to be the case mathematically in the 17th Century, and Benjamin Robins verified it experimentally through the invention and use of the ballistic pendulum to determine muzzle velocity by measurement of the pendulum motion."29
Goddard amply proves the fallacy of “knock-down power” by calculating the heights (and resultant velocities) from which a one pound weight and a ten pound weight must be dropped to equal the momentum of 9mm and .45ACP projectiles at muzzle velocities, respectively. The results are revealing. In order to equal the impact of a 9mm bullet at its muzzle velocity, a one pound weight must be dropped from a height of 5.96 feet, achieving a velocity of 19.6 fps. To equal the impact of a .45ACP bullet, the one pound weight needs a velocity of 27.1 fps and must be dropped from a height of 11.4 feet. A ten pound weight equals the impact of a 9mm bullet when dropped from a height of 0.72 inches (velocity attained is 1.96 fps), and equals the impact of a .45 when dropped from 1.37 inches (achieving a velocity of 2.71 fps).30
A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years.31 The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball.32 Tissue damage is the only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e., instantaneously.
The human target can be reliably incapacitated only by disrupting or destroying the brain or upper spinal cord. Absent that, incapacitation is subject to a host of variables, the most important of which are beyond the control of the shooter. Incapacitation becomes an eventual event, not necessarily an immediate one. If the psychological factors which can contribute to incapacitation are present, even a minor wound can be immediately incapacitating. If they are not present, incapacitation can be significantly delayed even with major, unsurvivable wounds.
Further, it appears that many people are predisposed to fall down when shot. This phenomenon is independent of caliber, bullet, or hit location, and is beyond the control of the shooter. It can only be proven in the act, not predicted. It requires only two factors to be effected: a shot and cognition of being shot by the target. Lacking either one, people are not at all predisposed to fall down and donâ€™t. Given this predisposition, the choice of caliber and bullet is essentially irrelevant. People largely fall down when shot, and the apparent predisposition to do so exists with equal force among the good guys as among the bad. The causative factors are most likely psychological in origin. Thousands of books, movies and television shows have educated the general population that when shot, one is supposed to fall down.
The problem, and the reason for seeking a better cartridge for incapacitation, is that individual who is not predisposed to fall down. Or the one who is simply unaware of having been shot by virtue of alcohol, adrenaline, narcotics, or the simple fact that in most cases of grievous injury the body suppresses pain for a period of time. Lacking pain, there may be no physiological effect of being shot that can make one aware of the wound. Thus the real problem: if such an individual is threatening oneâ€™s life, how best to compel him to stop by shooting him?
The factors governing incapacitation of the human target are many, and variable. The actual destruction caused by any small arms projectile is too small in magnitude relative to the mass and complexity of the target. If a bullet destroys about 2 ounces of tissue in its passage through the body, that represents 0.07 of one percent of the mass of a 180 pound man. Unless the tissue destroyed is located within the critical areas of the central nervous system, it is physiologically insufficient to force incapacitation upon the unwilling target. It may certainly prove to be lethal, but a body count is no evidence of incapacitation. Probably more people in this country have been killed by .22 rimfires than all other calibers combined, which, based on body count, would compel the use of .22â€™s for self-defense.
Physiologically, no caliber or bullet is certain to incapacitate any individual unless the brain is hit. Psychologically, some individuals can be incapacitated by minor or small caliber wounds. Those individuals who are stimulated by fear, adrenaline, drugs, alcohol, and/or sheer will and survival determination may not be incapacitated even if mortally wounded.
The will to survive and to fight despite horrific damage to the body is commonplace on the battlefield, and on the street. Barring a hit to the brain, the only way to force incapacitation is to cause sufficient blood loss that the subject can no longer function, and that takes time. Even if the heart is instantly destroyed, there is sufficient oxygen in the brain to support full and complete voluntary action for 10-15 seconds.
Kinetic energy does not wound. Temporary cavity does not wound. The much discussed “shock” of bullet impact is a fable and “knock down” power is a myth. The critical element is penetration. The bullet must pass through the large, blood bearing organs and be of sufficient diameter to promote rapid bleeding. Penetration less than 12 inches is too little, and, in the words of two of the participants in the 1987 Wound Ballistics Workshop, “too little penetration will get you killed.” 42,43 Given desirable and reliable penetration, the only way to increase bullet effectiveness is to increase the severity of the wound by increasing the size of hole made by the bullet. Any bullet which will not penetrate through vital organs from less than optimal angles is not acceptable. Of those that will penetrate, the edge is always with the bigger bullet.44