Monday, April 17, 2006

Esoterica Ballistica

I'm asked this question a lot. Some people try framing it different ways, but it all boils down to the same thing.

My first tours of combat were an education in the effects of terminal ballistics upon man-sized targets, and there were two ways to dispatch an aggressor. Light and fast such as a .308, and especially the .223, or slow and heavy such as .45 caliber sidearms. Fast and heavy is something else entirely, but we won't get into .50 caliber terminal ballistics just now.

Military rifle bullets began their existence as cousins of the hunting round. You take a hunk of lead, coat it with copper to allow it to penetrate more deeply, and get it moving as fast as you can. Until fairly recently, handgun bullets USED to be slower facsimiles of the rifle round, and lo and behold, unless you went to at least a .45 caliber it wasn't possible to induce the much sought after one-shot-stop.

Then along came a company called Super-Vel. In the late 60's and early 70's, they were experimenting with small-arms munitions and the idea was to create a bullet that mushroomed to a much larger size upon impact. The idea being that a handgun round can only go just so fast and remain controllable, so in order to make the things more lethal having them plow a wider hole would be a good thing.

But this never sat well with the military establishment. First of all, when firing at targets behind barriers you WANT a bullet that will retain as much of it's original shape as possible in order to punch through to whatever it was you were aiming at. And the Hague Conventions specifically forbade hollow point, or Dum-Dum bullets because, well, they really weren't thought to be all that humane and the converse is actually the case but again that's another story for another time.

So my first tours consisted of knowing someone was down and would stay down when struck by a .308 M-14 bullet, or hoping someone was down and would stay down with the much smaller .223 M-16 bullet. The M-16 itself was lighter, had a much higher cyclic rate of fire, and spray and pray became all the fashion.

Then came Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Sure, there were brushfire engagements here and there, but this was the big magilla. And some of us were lucky enough to have small arms ammunitions that were specifically developed to stop people rather than animals. There were .38 Special hollow points and .357 hollow points, and 9 mm hollow points, and the granddaddy of them all, the .45 hollow point.

Now, that's not to say that the .45 acp was a better man-stopper than the .357, au contraire. The .357 magnum has just the right balance of speed and weight to stop a man as good as any handgun round ever created, and for reasons too detailed to get into, that includes it's larger brothers such as the .41 and 44 magnums. .454 Casulls and .500 magnums are really rifles with short stocks & barrels so we won't count them either.

In all the time I saw such things transpire in front of my very eyes, what I never saw was a man get back up after taking a .45 or .357 direct to the sternum at close range. Ever. And with the new hollow points it was sometimes downright creepy. One-shot-stops aren't supposed to be possible with handgun bullets, but the right bullet in the right place works so very often that it's fair to say that for all practical purposes the phenomena does indeed exist.

Forget what you see on TV and in the movies. Bullets don't lift people off of their feet, don't slam people down into the ground, and to be honest, at first most folks don't even know they've been shot unless it's in an un-survivable part of their anatomy.

But here we had bullets that were designed specifically to make up for the shortcomings of the relatively low velocity of handgun-sized weapon systems. A deer isn't a man. You can shoot one with a 30.06 and it'll scoot away for a few dozen yards or more before expiring. Shoot a man and he just might shoot you back, but if the bullet you hit him with is the size of a quarter and punches in 12-14 inches or so, then even if he CAN return fire the chances are it isn't going to be all that accurate.

Something akin to, but not exactly like hydrostatic shock DOES happen. And it can happen from a sidearm. And it happens because of the marvelous engineering that goes into modern self-defense ammunitions. A full metal jacketed rifle round has just as much chance of going straight through the target as it does of killing the target. And by killing I mean stopping hostilities first then making certain they stay stopped. A man can live for a time with a .30 caliber hole in his heart, but it becomes next to impossible when the hole is three times as large, and a military rifle round isn't going to do that. It's faster, will distribute a lot more energy, but if it doesn't deform or tumble it's going in then out and the target will have a time to return fire. Might be 10 seconds, but 10 seconds is long enough to cause a great deal of damage.

Now, some folks will tell you that accuracy is all important, and that you should always strive to place your rounds close together in the areas they'll do the most good, but I'm here to tell you that it ain't gonna happen. A gunfight is like a fistfight from a distance. One punch follows another, then another, and it's take 'em and give 'em until one side can't do it anymore. There's smoke, shouting, things getting knocking over, you can't see, hear, or think very well. You're most likely not going to be accurate. At all.

Which is why I tell myself to use the biggest caliber I can handle. Size DOES matter when the shit hits the fan. Perfectly placed 9 mm rounds make impressive little groups at the range, but try it with someone shooting back and you'll wish for a howitzer, a tank, and as much air support as can be mustered.

Modern handgun bullets are designed to stop a fight as quick as humanly possible. Same goes for their rifle-loaded brethren, only more so. Do NOT use ANY munition design that's over 10 years old, and here I'm specifically speaking about Hydra-Shoks. Golden Sabers, Gold Dots, Ranger-T's, Federal HST's, PMC Starfires, Hi-Shoks, and some of the all-copper bullets are the way to go or don't go in the first place. Yes, there are generic rounds from Remington and Winchester and Federal and Speer that are far better than full metal jacketed bullets, but ask yourself how much your life is worth the next time you get the urge to skimp on top quality ammunition.

Aim high center of mass if you haven't been trained to go for the brain-housing-group. Fire, and keep firing until the threat has ended. Movement is your friend, as are concealment and cover. Most gunfights end after 4 or 5 rounds have been fired, so you don't need a wonder-nine or a hi-cap .40, and a straight-shooting revolver can be as good if not better than anything else out there. Use as much gun as you can handle.

And always, ALWAYS remember that if at all possible you SHOULD be using a rifle or a shotgun instead of a handgun, but never, ever, sell a handgun short. Practice until you can't stand even the thought of practicing anymore then practice some more anyway. Keep your gun in good condition, and don't shortchange yourself by buying the latest fad in weaponry or ammo.

It AIN'T your daddy's day, so don't use your daddy's gear.


Lemuel Calhoon said...

Do you have any experience with the Springfield Armory XD in .45 ACP?

I saw one in a gun store a while back and remember thinking that it fit the hand very well. However I have heard nothing about its reliability or accuracy.

It would be nice to have a polymer framed .45 that fits my hand.

Fits said...

Funny you should ask. I'm shooting one tomorrow or Friday. One of the kids at the range raves about his. I'll check it out and let you know.

Lemuel Calhoon said...

I will await your evaluation.

The thing looks great, but looks ain't everything.