Self defense, stopping power, and caliber: Part 6

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“What would I want with a reputation? That’s a good way to get yourself killed!”

– Jason McCullough, as played by James Garner, in “Support Your Local Sheriff” (my favorite movie of all time!)

What about “reputation”? Some cartridges or loadings have reputations for better effectiveness than others. Sometimes that’s valid, but other times it may not be.

Let’s take the mighty .357 Magnum, one of my favorite cartridges. The 125 grain semi-jacketed hollowpoint loads have the reputation of being superbly effective; some believe that they are the “best” manstoppers ever made. I’ve talked with people who have actually used them in real shootings, and they were generally very happy with the performance.

But there are also instances of stupendous failures. For those who hold that energy is everything, this may come as a shock. How could all that power possibly fail? Simple – if it doesn’t do both of the Twin Tasks!

Let’s consider what happens with the 125 grain Magnum loads. Leaving the barrel at nearly 1500 feet per second, the bullet enters the target with a huge reserve of energy. As the hollowpoint fills with fluid and starts to expand it uses up some of that energy to grow dramatically in diameter. The increase in diameter means more resistance in the tissues, which uses more energy and further slows the bullet. Because the relatively light weight of the slug doesn’t have great momentum, and thus not a lot of stored energy, it doesn’t travel very far before it finally runs out of steam. The result can be a shallow wound – one which doesn’t reach something the body finds important.

This is the “ugly secret” that proponents of the .357 125 grain JHP don’t want to talk about. Shallow wound profiles with these “barn burner” loads are not unheard of, and occasionally prove to not be as effective as expected. As one noted trainer once told me, when they work they’re superb – but when they fail, they fail spectacularly!

Suppose you’ve decided that you’d prefer something a bit more predictable, but want to retain the performance level of the round – what’s the solution? Simply go to a slightly heavier bullet, one which carries a tad less velocity and a bit more momentum. Winchester, for instance, has the 145 grain Silvertip bullet, and Speer is now making a 135 grain Gold Dot Magnum load. Both are obviously designed to retain the Magnum’s reputation as a fight-ender, but do so on a more consistent basis.

This is a good illustration of the tradeoffs involved in cartridge selection. Speed isn’t everything; bullet size isn’t everything; bullet weight isn’t everything. It’s a combination, a concert of all of those (plus good handling qualities as defined by the shooter) that make a round effective. One can’t simply say “I’ve got a Magnum” or “I carry a .45” and smugly claim that one has the “perfect” self defense gun. While it may work, there is always the chance that it may not; handguns, after all, are underpowered things.

Through intelligent selection, you can dramatically improve the performance envelope of your chosen gun, regardless of the cartridge it shoots.

(Remember to click the “Stopping Power” tag to see all the articles in this series!)

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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