Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Nice Little Bullet That's Just Terribly Misunderstood

It’s hard to avoid jacketed hollowpoint bullets these days.  (Stop ducking; nobody's shooting at you!)  The difficulty arises not because of any ballistic qualities inherent to these projectiles, but rather because of their frequent appearance in the news.  In fact, there are more than a few writers, actors, comedians and commentators who would give their eye teeth to have just a fraction of the press coverage allocated to the perpetually prominent projectiles.  To cite just a few examples, going back more than a decade:

The first question brought to mind by the chronic attention devoted to these bullets is “Why?”  More specifically, what’s behind the fascination with hollow point ammunition? 

Winchester Black Talon Ammo
In large part, the interest which this ammunition seems to hold for the media stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the way bullets work when used for personal defense.  If you can, recall the brouhaha when Winchester’s Black Talon line of defensive ammunition was introduced to the market in 1991.  Mainstream media went into a frenzy, as did many anti-gun groups.  The sharp tips produced when the bullet expanded in a controlled manner upon hitting a human target were compared to insidious industrial machinery of torture in a manner that would have made Kafka jealous (or blush, for that matter). 

Unfortunately for those engaged in the frenzy, the reality is a bit more mundane; the only places that things that wreak the sort of destruction described when fired from a handgun exist are in science fiction.

This of course brings us back to the original question of “Why?,” but from a different vector.  Specifically, “Why would there be a need to produce handgun bullets that expand when they strike a person?”  Well, there’s an answer, but to paraphrase A Few Good Men’s Colonel Jessep, it might not be a truth you’re able, or willing, to handle.   


In a nutshell, handguns aren’t very good at what they’re designed to do.

(I’m going to wait a moment while you pick yourself up off the floor…)
SWAT team.  Note holstered pistols and ready rifles.
I know what you’re thinking.  “Adam, you’re nuts!  There’ve been huge numbers of people killed by handguns!”  In that, you’d be correct. However, the problem comes from the incorrect assumption that the purpose behind  handgun design (with respect to use in anger, as opposed to, say, target shooting) is to kill.  The purpose of a handgun, the reason for its invention, is to defend.  That’s right. Handguns are defensive arms.  Think about it.  When you see police or soldiers going into a known bad situation, they’re carrying rifles, shotguns, machineguns or grenade launchers.  Their pistols are holstered – to be used for personal protection in the event that something goes horribly wrong with the plan.
Personal protection means neutralizing or otherwise making an immediate threat or danger go away.  Effective personal protection means neutralizing the threat in a timely manner; that is to say before you’re hurt or killed.  And this brings us back to the uncomfortable truth.  Handguns aren’t especially good at providing effective personal protection.  Let’s look at an illustrative example:

Alice, our innocent victim, is walking her dog.  Bert the Baddie appears and threatens Alice with a knife from about ten feet away.  Alice produces her pistol, a 9mm Parabellum Glock 19.  Bert comes toward Alice to attack her.

Question:  How much time does Alice have?

Answer:  About three quarters of a second.
(The average man can run 21 feet in about 1.5 seconds.)  

Alice has, in all likelihood, time for a single shot.  If that shot does not, nearly instantly, incapacitate Bert, Alice is going to get very badly hurt, if not killed.

It gets worse, by the way.  The average person can run seventy yards – that’s most of the way across a football field, folks – after being fatally shot with a handgun.  Given that, in the above case, Bert may very well die after Alice shoots him, but not before he carves Alice like a Thanksgiving turkey.  From the example and the timing (all of which is real, by the way), we can equate “effective personal protection” with “near instant incapacitation.”

I know.  You’re still shaking your head.  “But Adam, do we really need those horribly destructive hollowpoints to  incapacitate the bad guys?  That seems like overkill.” The answer to your question (which, admittedly, I put in your mouth) is an emphatic “YES.”  To understand the reasoning behind the answer, we need to explore a little bit about the physics and physiology of handgun gunshot wounds.  Some operating facts are necessary to set the stage:

  • There are only two types of handgun gunshot wounds that will, 100% of the time, immediately incapacitate an attacker.  Specifically, these are a) a wound to the central nervous system or b) a wound that breaks a major structural support bone.  In more direct terms, unless the bullet scrambles the bad guy’s brains or spinal column or shatters a femur, there’s a good chance that he’s still going to be able to come after you before he passes out from blood loss.
Anatomy of a Gunshot Wound.
  • The vast majority of handgun wounds are a combination of two types of tissue damage: Crush and stretch.  Crush damage occurs when the bullet punches its way through tissue, creating a permanent, tunnel like cavity.  The crush wound is usually limited in size to the outside diameter of the bullet.  The stretch damage is disruptive in nature and occurs when the tissue is temporarily displaced due to the sudden and localized application of a large amount of energy (think of the way a placid pool reacts to a stone being tossed into it), creating a large temporary cavity (and, sometimes, a smaller permanent cavity where the disrupted tissue didn’t flex back to its original shape). 
  • The speed of incapacitation is proportional to the size of the permanent and temporary (stretch) cavities.
  • The size of the temporary and permanent cavities is directly proportional to the amount of energy deposited INTO the target. 
Let’s see how these apply to the real world.  Remember Alice?  She had a little less than three quarters of a second to aim and shoot before her assailant was upon her.  Given that, the odds of her being able to carefully line up a central nervous system shot on a moving target are, well, negligible.  The overwhelming probability is that her round, like those in most defensive uses of handguns, would impact in the assailant’s torso.  In the case of a solid nosed bullet, the likelihood is that the high velocity 9mm round will punch a .355” hole in, crush a .355” tunnel through, and then, barring any bone impact, punch a .355” hole out of her assailant.  Could that be fatal to her attacker?  Sure.  But given that the bullet takes most of its energy with it when it exits the body, the stretch cavities, and resultant disruptive injuries, will be very small.  Net result is a comparatively small chance of instant incapacitation; Alice remains in danger.