For as long as there have been pistols, there have been arguments concerning the efficacy of their projectiles. Sadly, these types of arguments seem to be rooted in folklore and anecdotes, rather than a practical application of terminal ballistics and adversarial psychology. The aim of this article is not to lay to rest which one is better, but which is most suited for tactical applications.
I’m going to propose a novel idea; the caliber of the round is completely irrelevant to it’s tactical utility. People will cite studies concerning wound channels and foot pounds of energy absorbed into ballistic gelatin. These. Facts. Do. Not. MATTER. If you want these types of scientific details skip to the end and take a look at the infographic.
For the tactical professional, there is only one goal when shooting at a human, make them stop what they are doing. I don’t care whether this is a firefight in Baghdad or a traffic stop gone wrong in Ohio. You are trying to stop what they are doing immediately, and there are only two methods to do that. Destroy structures in your adversary’s body leaving them functionally dead, on the spot, or induce the psychological fear of an agonal wound, or imminent death. Let me explain these two methods:
Method 1: Functionally Dead
This is most commonly thought of as a wound to the brainstem or central nervous system, above the neck. These types of wounds are very difficult to produce in the real world. If you consider the spinal column, from the neck to the brainstem, in the skull and figure it is a proximately 1 inch wide by 9 inches long, you have a target that is roughly 9 square inches. Related in another way, this is the same as hitting a target that is roughly 3 by 3 inch square. Now I’m confident in my shooting ability, but it is extremely difficult to group rounds of slow fire at relatively close range into that type of group reliably, under ideal range conditions. I propose that there is no one in the world who can reliably hit such a difficult target in a real life or death situation, using a pistol.
Method 2: Psychological Agonal Wounding
This is by far the most common method of stopping a human. Physical damage is a method of inflicting psychological damage such that the individual believes they are in imminent threat of death. Oddly enough, I believe this is a cultural trait from watching too many movies. Its is often a matter of course for the bad guy in a movie to be hit with one round and go flying through the air, only to clutch his chest and slump over dead. While this makes for good entertainment it does not portray reality.
I have found police dash cam footage to be a good example of this.
In this video you can see the assailant moving rapidly around the front of the officer’s cruiser. At one point he is fatally shot in the chest; yet he is able to continue to fight, retreat to his car, until he succumbs to his wounds a few miles down the road. This man had several factors going for him; his dubious mental health and adrenaline which mitigated any physical pain he might have felt. This is a perfect example of not psychologically succumbing to his wounds.
In the second clip we can see two officers conducting a routine traffic stop, only to be confronted by a man wielding a long gun. The police officers do an excellent job of putting rounds on the man, and yet he does not immediately give up. You can see in the video around 1:27 that he starts to succumb to his wounds mentally. He realizes he is close to his goal of suicide by cop and yells, “kill me” at the officers, which they oblige. This video demonstrates the psychology of agonal wounding.
I’m originally from the Midwest and grew up on a farm in the middle of the woods. My mother had cats, but they stayed outside and generally lived under the porch. Their food bowls turned into quite the attraction for the local raccoons; with some growing to enormous size on a steady diet of the finest of Walmart cat foods.
Every now and again I would have to shoot those raccoons, so they wouldn’t injure the cats in a fight over the food. During one such occasion, I shot a raccoon, at no more than ten feet, with a twelve gauge Remington. The raccoon did not die right away, but lived until it was shot in the head. Now I might not be the smartest man, but if a raccoon can survive a hit with a twelve gauge, then there is nothing short of a howitzer that will immediately stop a human; unless you happen to luck into method 1.
This then brings us to the real aim of shooting someone; you are trying to convince their brain that if they continue, they will die. Therefore, we need to look at which calibers, weapons, and projectiles will best allow us to convince our adversaries of this fact.
Recently the FBI has published its findings justifying their switch back to 9mm.
In it, they site several reasons for their switch; increased magazine capacity, increased accuracy, and no real difference in duty ammunition regarding terminal ballistics. For us at Tier Three Tactical, all of these are valid reasons to switch to a smaller caliber. Personally, I’ve always felt that 9mm recoil is very easy to control; however, it is something you have to actively fight with 45 caliber rounds. Some of you will ask why not 40 S&W? I say that is the wrong compromise between the two. You have most of the recoil of a 45 acp, and no more rounds in the magazine, generally speaking. You know what they say, the fastest reload is the one you don’t have to make.
In summary, tactical professionals need not be overly concerned with terminal ballistics, to the exclusion of all else. We must concern ourselves with what calibers, rounds, and weapons can induce the real psychological fear of agonal wounding. The FBI makes a strong case that 9mm does that just as well as any other round and I tend to agree. I want high magazine capacity, ease of control, and power. Those factors will give me the highest likelihood to induce agonal wounding on my adversary. You win by defeating another’s mind not their body.