Handgun Calibers, Ballistics, and Stopping Power

An Overview of Handgun Calibers, Ballistics, and Stopping Power

Trying to put an end to the endless confusion

The subject of Handgun Calibers, Ballistics, and Stopping Power has been a topic of discussion – and often, heated arguments – among firearms enthusiasts for as long as there have been firearms and enthusiasts themselves.

The moment we begin the discussion of caliber and caliber choices, you can hear the age-old rumblings of the ongoing debate between 9mm vs 45, vs 10mm vs 357, etc etc ad nauseum.

We are not going to delve into that discussion; not now anyway. Hopefully, not ever.

In preparation for the day when we do, it's important to first understand the terminology, and second, to have a rudimentary grasp of the physics behind it all: ballistics.

People have devoted entire careers to understanding ballistics. Whole industries are built around the development and production of guns and ammunition that perform to maximum effectiveness for particular situations, and often utilize new handgun calibers. The science behind all this is astoundingly complex, utterly fascinating, and often quite incomprehensible to those of us who are not MIT graduates.

Rifle and Handgun Caliber Comparison Chart

A Sampling of Rifle & Handgun Calibers

Ballistics, Calibers and Other Mumbo Jumbo

Ballistics is the science of mass, velocities, vectors and trajectories, and about a gazillion other factors that influence how far a launched projectile will travel and where it will land. The study of handgun calibers is a subcategory of ballistics.

Ballistics also deals with how that projectile will behave when it impacts a target.

The study of ballistics can include handguns, rifles, shotguns, slingshots, BB-guns, bow-and-arrows, artillery, cannons and rockets, to name a few.

The effectiveness of potato guns and trebuchets also falls under the umbrella of ballistics. We'll leave those alone for now.

For our discussion, we want to know how to maximize the effect of the impact of a projectile on a target. What we want to know is this: What combination of firearm and ammunition will work best for me in a self-defense situation. Ultimately, that is the only question that needs to be answered. This question encompasses, and is larger in scope than, the age-old handgun caliber debates.

Having a basic understanding of ballistics will help to answer the secondary questions: what's the best gun ... how 'big' should it be ... what handgun caliber do I want ... what kind of ammo should I use ... how much ammo do I need ...

All of those questions have one optimal answer: Enough to stop the threat.

In a self-defense situation, our ultimate (and only) purpose is to stop the threat. Unlike hunting, where the hunter wishes for a clean kill, or target shooting where the shooter wants precise bulls-eyes, our goal in a self defense situation is simply to stop the threat.

Not to kill (although sometimes that is a resultant effect); nor to 'wing' or 'wound' or 'shoot the gun out of their hand' (this is not Hollywood); nor to scare them off with a 'warning shot' ...

Our single goal in a situation where we face an imminent danger to life or limb, is to stop the threat. Period.

Medieval Trebuchet

Counterweight Trebuchet:
Long-Range Fortress-Busting Siege Engine Used to Win Prolonged Attacks on Castles in Siege Warfare

Pumpkin Launcher

Modern-Day Spud-Gun:
Used to Win Pumpkin-Chucking & Potato-Hurling Competitions Nationwide

"If you will do your part, any gun will do."

I borrowed the above phrase from Front Sight Firearms Training Academy. What it means is that any gun or caliber you choose can be effective, if you've first done your part as far as training and use of that gun.

Bear in mind, however, that you may need to make some concessions depending on your choices.

For example, a smaller caliber gun may be more comfortable for carrying concealed, but may require that your shot placement be more accurate, or that you need faster follow up shots, in order to stop the threat.

On the other hand, carrying a larger gun, especially concealed, usually requires some modifications to the wearer's wardrobe for effective concealment, and a really good belt and holster.

Carrying a Handgun is a Compromise

If I knew for a fact that when I left home tomorrow morning I was going to be in a gunfight, my first choice would be not to go! But if (for whatever reason) I was forced to go, and if you asked me what gun would I take, my answer would be: A Rifle!

Handguns are woefully inadequate. We carry handguns because they are convenient (or at least less inconvenient than carrying a rifle or shotgun). And they are more effective than a slingshot (mostly).

So the question becomes "what is the best handgun to take to our imaginary gunfight?"

The first answer off the top of my head, (and there are probably better choices), is a Smith & Wesson Model 500 in .50 caliber with an 8-3/8" barrel. Carried in a Galco Kodiak cross-draw hunting holster.

Actually, I'll take two.

Unfortunately, such a rig limits my choice of clothing, upsets other people on the bus and in office buildings (especially in elevators), and it really isn't all that comfortable.

My point is that we must be realistic in our choices of firearms, and then ask ourselves what compromises are we willing to make in order to feel adequately armed in our everyday environments.

Smith & Wesson 500

Smith & Wesson .50 Caliber Revolver with 8-3/8" Barrel

Galco Kodiak Holster

S&W 500 in a Galco Kodiak Holster

What Is the Right Gun for You?

There are many criteria that will determine your preferences in choosing your gun, ammo, and carry methods.

These choices include, but are not limited to, overall stopping power, caliber, comfort of carrying the gun, ease of shooting the gun, ammo capacity, complexity of the gun's manual of arms, and others.

All of those factors are important in your overall choice of a carry gun. But I believe the most critical is Stopping Power.

If I were to define Stopping Power, I would say that it's the ability of a given round to incapacitate an opponent – to stop the threat – R.F.N. (Right Effing Now).

We achieve incapacitation by accomplishing one or more of the following:

  • Disabling brain function or severing the spinal cord, so the body can no longer move on its own. This is an immediate stop. Requires a head or neck shot.
  • Causing massive blood loss, so the brain can no longer function due to lack of oxygen. This may take several seconds to several minutes, depending on the rate of blood loss. Requires a hit on a major artery or vital organ.
  • Disrupting vital organ function (heart, lung, liver, kidney). As above this is not an immediate stop, yet does require a debilitating hit on the organ.
  • Disrupting skeletal function so that the opponent can no longer ambulate. This may cause immediate inability to walk or run (or use one arm, etc), but does not necessarily mean the threat has stopped: if your opponent can still shoot a gun, stab with a knife, or otherwise inflict harm on you, he's still a threat.

Of those, only the first two are virtually guaranteed to succeed in stopping the threat. Just because someone has been shot does not mean that they are not still a threat.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that each year, more people are killed by the humble .22 caliber round than all other calibers combined.

But that statistic does not mean that a .22 is an effective self-defense round. It is reasonable to assume that most of the deaths attributed to the .22 were not immediate nor were they 'one-shot stops.'

It's also interesting to know that sometimes a person who has been shot may not even know that they've been hit, and they may carry on (either offensively or defensively) and still inflict damage. Often, it's not until they realize they've been shot that they cease their aggressive activity.

Our goal is to learn how to stop the threat by inflicting massive damage to vital areas with a tool we are comfortable carrying and can shoot proficiently, and do all this in a rapid yet controlled manner.

So the ideal formula is:

A bigger bullet making a bigger hole, travelling at a higher velocity thus imparting more energy, expanding reliably and not over-penetrating the target, hitting our precise point of aim, all in a matter of a mere second or two ...

Now that is the perfect answer to "which is the right gun for me?"

Simple, eh?

Leave a Reply