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The Truth About Handgun Ballistics

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One of the most intense gun battles in U.S. police history was the North Hollywood shootout, between two heavily armed bank robbers and members of the Los Angeles Police Department.

By the end of the shootout, the robbers were dead, 12 police officers and 8 civilians were injured and numerous property was damaged by the nearly 2,000 rounds of ammunition fired by the robbers and police.

That day, responding police officers carried 9mm and .38 caliber handguns, along with shotguns, which did little to penetrate the body armor being worn by the criminals.

As the two robbers continued to engage police at will, one of the police officers shot one of them – Larry Phillips Jr. – in the head, severing his spinal cord and killing him instantly.

The reality is, that day police officers’ rounds were ineffective at penetrating the robber’s body armor.

Thankfully, one of the police officers was able to deliver a precise shot the immediately incapacitated the bad guy, which should be your goal if you are ever involved in a self-defense shooting.

In the late 1990’s, many police departments around the country began arming their officers with .40 caliber handguns, because it was widely believed that 9mm’s failed to penetrate in shootings.

However, as bullet technology increased, police departments reverted back to 9mm handguns because they are shown to be as effective as .40 calibers.

When it comes to handgun ballistics the leading agency in this research is the FBI. Whatever you do, don’t believe the tons of YouTube videos of Bobby and cousin Eddy shooting a watermelon to test ballistics.

This is not scientific and the information they share is not accurate. The problem is many of the methods for testing ballistics aren’t done with substances that actually act like our body.

What I mean is, a handgun round that hits body tissue will penetrate the tissue, but the body tissue will stretch, and then close back up as the bullet moves.

The FBI has the ability to research and test ballistics in ways that other law enforcement agencies or citizens cannot.

In 2014, when the FBI released data about their reasons for going back to 9mm handguns they highlighted two major factors when it comes to handgun ballistics, shot placement and shot penetration.

Shot placement. If you are ever involved in a self-defense shooting your goal should be to (obviously) quickly incapacitate the threat. You never want to aim to shoot someone in the legs or arms to stop them. You want to “turn their computer off,” which is why shot placement is critical.

There are two main places to focus to achieve immediate incapacitation: The heart and the head around eye level. A wound to the head or central nervous system at the neck or above is a reliable way to cause immediate incapacitation.

Remember the saying, “aim small, miss small,” this is what you should focus on when aiming for the area around the heart or the head.

The truth is, you might be able to shoot someone 20 times in the legs and that may not stop them because there is no turning off of their computer system.

In police officer involved shootings, officers often miss their target 70%-80% of the time. One of the reasons the FBI went back to 9mm is because Agents are able to shoot faster and more accurately with 9mm handguns, which achieves better shot placement.

Shot penetration. According to the FBI, the lighter the bullet, the faster the gun can “drive” the round into the target. During FBI testing it was determined that 12 to 18 inches of penetration into the human body is necessary to reach the large vital organs such as the heart, lungs and aorta, in order to cause rapid blood loss.

It’s important to remember that we typically imagine a potential attacker will be directly in front of us, much like the paper or cardboard targets we usually shoot. But that’s not real life.

We have to account for a human target that may be turned slightly toward or away form us at an angle or with arms partially blocking the body. The fact is, with improved bullet technology, a 9mm caliber can provide the necessary penetration to cause rapid blood loss.

When it comes to ballistic wounds, the FBI has done thorough scientific research that proves a 9mm bullet can be just as effective as larger calibers at stopping a threat.

The key to remember is that the FBI has done the research with ballistic gelatin, in a controlled environment, where they can see how different bullets and calibers perform with the same variables.

For this reason, carrying a 9mm handgun is plenty of firepower in a self-defense shooting.

Lastly, when it comes to my favorite round, I use the Speer Gold Dot 124 grain jacketed hollow point in my self-defense handgun.

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