Self defense, stopping power, and caliber: Part 7

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There Is No Such Thing as a Magic Bullet

What does that mean, you ask?

One of the last bastions of the snake oil salesman is in the field of ammunition promotion. Claims that would make Professor Harold Hill blush are the norm, and are repeated in gunstores, shooting ranges, and deer camps across the country. They sometimes even make their way into magazines and the internet – though the latter’s instant exchange of information has helped to quell the worst of the hyperbole.

Still, many hold on to their belief in “magic bullets” hoping that there really exists something that will transform their .25ACP into an elephant killer. (I exaggerate, of course, but one ammo maker used to claim that their product for the little .25 had the same “one shot stop” percentage as a .45. That, my friends, is a true belief in magic.)

Like many fables, the legend of the Magic Bullet has its roots in reality. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In the bullet world, that advanced technology is the hollowpoint bullet.

The hollowpoint, as we’ve learned, is a good mechanism to control the penetration and wound profile of any given cartridge. Sometimes, it can work what seems like a miracle – transforming an otherwise unremarkable cartridge into a respectable “stopper.”

One of the best examples of this is the .30 M1 Carbine cartridge. Many servicemen had experience with the little Carbine in World War II and Korea, and they either loved it or hated it. Those that hated it often complained about a lack of “stopping power” – enemies who were hit often didn’t go down with alacrity. (Some even claimed that the rounds “bounced off” the heavy wool coats worn by the opposition. That wasn’t true, and was easily shown as such, but when someone is running toward you screaming his head off a lack of convincing ballistic effect makes the distinction unimportant.)

The .30 Carbine, as it turns out, is a penetrator. Its sleek bullet usually went straight through the target, making a quick-closing wound and doing little damage along the way. (Sound familiar?) After the war, one of the ammo makers got the bright idea of stuffing a semi-jacketed hollowpoint into the casing. When they did that, the entire complexion of the carbine changed.

The penetration was now more controlled, and the expanded bullet had a much larger frontal area that did more damage along its path. So changed was the round that Jim Cirillo, the famous member of the New York Stakeout Squad, proclaimed it one of the two most effective weapons in their entire arsenal – the other being the formidable 12 gauge shotgun. High praise indeed!

He wasn’t the only one who made note of the “enhanced” Carbine. The late Gene Wolburg, wound ballistics expert and one of the most knowledgeable people in the field, once said that his home defense weapon of choice was the M1 Carbine loaded with that semi-jacketed hollowpoint.

It may have seemed like magic to the servicemen who had bad experiences with the round, but the effect of the hollowpoint loading was simple physics. It did its job better – it just happened to be a lot better.

A “magic bullet”, in contrast, appears to violate the laws of physics, or so skews its sales copy that you think it does. For instance, magic bullet purveyors play up the “energy” of their load, to the exclusion of everything else.

Energy is the result of multiplying the mass of the projectile by the square of it’s velocity. Without boring you with the math, what that means is that a small change in velocity makes a big change in the energy of the projectile. In other words, if you drop the projectile weight you can up the velocity, which will make a big increase in energy figures. Sounds great, right?

As we’ve already studied, energy isn’t everything. A light projectile might be moving very quickly, but when it contacts solid matter it loses velocity quickly. That translates into shallow wounds. (Remember the last installment, where we looked at the .357 Magnum? Same thing, only worse.) A projectile needs weight as well as velocity in order to penetrate well, and if you sacrifice enough weight for more speed, you’ll fail at the First Task: reaching something important.

Exotic bullets that claim to do something others can’t should set off your B.S. detector. Any cartridge that proclaims a “massive energy dump” as the wounding mechanism or pushes velocity over everything else is probably vying for a magic bullet award. Personally, I’m not going to trust my life to that kind of ammo!

What I’m getting at (and have been for this entire series) is that there is nothing mysterious, nothing magical about the way a bullet works. It has to get to something important, and it has to do rapid and significant damage when it gets there. That’s it. Any claims that seem to skate around the topic should be looked at with great skepticism, for there is truly no such thing as a “magic bullet.”

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

-=[ Grant ]=-

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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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