Firearm Stopping Power – Fact, Fiction and Anecdotes

By Don Kates

Bathroom Self Defense
Firearm Stopping Power – Fact, Fiction and Anecdotes
Don Kates
Don Kates

Washington State – -(  Some years ago I saw a movie (I forget the title?) in which “Dutch” Schultz is in a restaurant men's room and knows that killers lurk outside.

He prepares himself, opens the door and steps outside to shoot it out. I doubt that Dutch actually did this but the one accurate thing is that had he done anything so stupid it would have gotten him killed.

TACTICS: Defending A Room

  1. Retreat as far from the door as leaves you a clear view of it. Let him come to you.
  2. Fall flat on the floor w/ your extended handgun aimed to face the door. Aim to the center of your opponents’ mass and shoot until he goes down.

By assuming this position you have both minimized the target you present and maybe avoided your attackers’ gaze momentarily.

You know that he must come through the door peer around it) so that is where you are aiming.

Why not shoot for his head? A more difficult target than the center of his chest and attackers are often moving their heads. A shot to the face inflicts a grievous wound but unless you penetrate the brain incapacitation is not immediate.

[what follows is something I wrote for a gun magazine of which I was one of the editors. They never printed it because it punctured too many of their illusions about the defensive value of guns:]



Stopping power is the term often used to describe the capacity of a firearm to incapacitate an attacker when he is shot. For at least 50 years gun writers have been absorbed with the issue of which handgun has stopping power or superior stopping power. My conclusion from researching the subject and consulting physicians and other experts is that no ordinary firearm has dependable stopping power.

Before proceeding to address this, it is important also to clarify that I am talking about real physical stopping power not mere psychological stopping power. Physical stopping power means that being hit makes the assailant physically incapable of continuing his attack. Mere psychological stopping power is when the attacker says to himself, “oh God, I’ve been shot” and lies down to die or be taken to a hospital.

Psychological stops are probably more likely if the hit was with a .45 ACP than with a .22 short, but can happen with either or any caliber in between.

Massad Ayoob has autopsy photos of an offender who tried to outrun two Illinois state officers who were armed with 15-shot 9 mms. The photos show the offender having been hit 37 times between his head and his crotch. But he only stopped running when he bled out.

Numerous comparable incidents may be cited. Of course advocates of the .45 ACP will dismiss them all as just proving the 9 mms.’ ineffectiveness. Well, I am aware of an incident in which an officer survived being shot in the forehead with a .45 because the slug bounced off it.

Or, consider the following case from my career as a lawyer. The offender was a skinny man of ordinary height who was neither drunk nor on drugs. But he was very, very angrily engaged in a neighborhood dispute. When my client and other officers attempted to search him he drew a Llama .380 which he picked up again after one officer knocked it from his hand. Unbeknownst to anyone, when the Llama fell it struck a rock which actuated its Colt-type magazine release, ejecting the slide and rendering the weapon inoperative because of its magazine safety. My client shot him eight times in the torso with a .45 ACP (1911A1). My client then took cover because the offender was still standing, pointing the Llama and vainly pulling its trigger. Eventually he lay down and died, having bled out.

“Well,” you say, “your client should have been using hollow points.” He was!

Massad cites the following incident: NYPD, having reason to believe that a certain store was going to be held up, planted a shotgun-armed officer in a concealed position in the store. When a robber entered the store and pointed a handgun at the proprietor, the officer appeared from hiding and ordered him to drop the gun. Instead he turned thereby pointing his gun at the officer from a sideways position. The officer fired and the 12 gauge slug entered the robber's body through the arm pit, transited his chest (missing the heart) and exited from his other armpit breaking his arm. The robber got back up and ran two blocks, stopping only when the pursuing officer tackled him from behind. Incidentally, the robber survived.

An account of conduct for which the Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded provides the ultimate refutation of the idea of physical stopping power. A WWII soldier stepped on a mine which blew his feet off. He nevertheless advanced on his stumps, killing Germans until he eventually bled out.

WWII also provides an ultimate proof of the concept of psychological stopping power. On autopsy, from one to three percent of deceased soldiers were determined not to have been wounded at all. They had apparently died just from the effects of psychological stress.

“Knock-down” power is a term also sometimes used to describe a firearm’s capacity to incapacitate an attacker. But, we know that no firearm has literal “knock down” power. Given Newton’s Law about “equal and opposite reaction”, if a firearm had power enough to knock someone down, discharging it would generate a recoil which would knock down the person firing it.

My conclusion that no handgun is powerful enough to physically stop an assailant comes from Col. Martin Fackler, M.D., a battle surgeon and world class expert who until his retirement headed the Armed Forces’ Wound Ballistic Laboratory. He cites an instance in which a victim shot at short range with a shotgun had his heart shredded yet managed to run 60 feet before collapsing.

Now technically there is a place on the body where a bullet strike should immediately physically stop an assailant. A bullet that penetrates through the eye and into the brain will shut everything down immediately. Note that that is ANY bullet. A .22 will do it just as reliably as a .45. The problem is that no one is trained for that kind of shooting because it just isn’t practical. The brain is a very small and difficult target and people engaged in violent confrontations are liable to be moving their heads around.

If you strike the head area and do not penetrate the brain, a terrible wound is likely, but not an immediately incapacitating wound.

So defensive gun training emphasizes shooting for “the center of mass.” i.e. the torso. Well, you may ask, a shot in the torso can strike the heart and won’t that immediately incapacitate the attacker?

No, it will not! A person hit in the heart has as much as 30 seconds to live which is enough time to get off multiple aimed shots – and there are many incidents in which this has been done.

And, of course, many times shots to the torso miss the heart even though penetrating the lungs or other vital areas. That means that the shot inflicts a possibly mortal wound. Yet that may do you no good if he retains the capacity to inflict a mortal wound on you.

Col. Fackler cites the experience of hunters that often animals shot through the heart nevertheless remain able to run for hundreds of feet. Attesting to his own experience he writes:

“I live on a 90 acre farm. I lease 75 acres to a farmer who has about 30 breeding beef cows and one bull. Two years ago, coyotes killed two of his newborn calves. So I put my 6mm PPC bench rest rifle on a sandbag just inside the glass door of my glassed-in back porch. Happened to spot a coyote walking across the pasture, I opened the door and she stopped long enough for me to get off a shot. She ran for about 30 yards and then collapsed. It was a 35 lb female, shot in the heart at 230 yds.

“Some years ago I hit a deer just forward of its heart with a .30-06 165 gr. This is 4-5 times the energy of a potent handgun round. It severed all the blood vessels from heart to brain, and left about a 2” exit hole. The deer still ran about 30-40 yds before collapsing.

“I was told some years ago that FBI had a training program of some manner, one focus of which was ‘just because you're shot doesn't mean you're dead.’ It was an effort to counteract by training the natural response to being hit, which is to collapse regardless of whether the wound is physically incapacitating or not.”



In late 2009 wrote I an essay supporting an heretical (to many gun owners) theme: “My conclusion from researching the subject and consulting physicians and other experts is that no ordinary firearm has dependable stopping power.”

[NOTE: This does not mean that handguns are useless for self-defense. Criminals are looking for the vulnerable and the helpless. In the great majority of cases when a victim pulls a gun, criminals flee. They have no interest in a gunfight. It puts them at two terrific disadvantages: 1) gunfire brings police attention; 2) if criminals are wounded they either forego medical attention or go to a hospital and then to jail.]

My negative conclusion about stopping power and many of my facts came from the research of retired Col. Martin Fackler, MD, an experienced combat surgeon who after Vietnam went on to found and head the Armed Forces Wound Ballistics Laboratory. He has now written me correcting some of my statements. Here is his letter:

First, your 12th paragraph (ANY bullet in the head will incapacitate, etc): If you write “most center-fire rifle bullets that enter the central area of cranium, at a range under 100 yards, will immediately incapacitate”; you come a lot closer to the truth. If you wish, I can possibly find the reference, in the medical literature, to collected head shots — as I recall it was from a source in Europe, in the past two decades I think –in which more than a few shots, from handgun bullets, that penetrated the cranium did not cause immediate incapacitation.

Recounting instances of multiple-shot-outcomes misses the point: which is what structures were disrupted by the shots? Go to an anatomy text and find a view of the human body from the front — in which all the organs, bones, blood vessels, etc. are shown. Then note how much of the body's frontal area a bullet could hit and pass through without hitting any significant blood vessels (the heart is a modified blood vessel), the brain, or the spinal cord (or bone of the spine within an inch of the cord). Certainly it is more than 75%. All those shots through loops of bowel, lungs. The liver, kidneys, spleen, various muscles, etc. can't be counted on to cause the determined assailant to stop his aggression in the next few minutes. Even shots hitting big blood vessels, with the possible exception of putting a large hole (at least half the diameter of the vessel) through the aorta in the chest are unlikely to stop aggression in less than a minute.

I would add to the FBI doctrine: “if he still has a gun when he hits the ground you might want to continue firing; and certainly if he points it at you while on the ground – fire!

Better than Newton, simply ask how many deer get knocked down by rifle bullet hits? In my meager experience of shooting six of the small German Reh deer through the big blood vessels just north of the heart (German hunters sell the meat — and the heart is meat) with a .243 Winchester –all just ran off giving no indication of being hit –to be found dead within 100 yards. In no case was a deer's body displaced noticeably by the bullet.

Suggest any doubters prove it to themselves by filling a large sack with 160 lb of dirt, hanging it from a tree limb, noting how easy it is to move with a shove from your hand, steadying it, and shooting it. They will observe the lack of significant movement.

Pete Kasler shows photos of shots into a 170 lb free swinging bag shot with a 10mm handgun bullet at a distance of a few feet: the max rearward deflection was “about 3/4 inch.” (Kasler PA, Business Partners, Paladin Press, 1991, pp 12-13).

The Am Rifleman demonstrated this lack of movement, as I recall, in 1906. They cut out two frontal outlines of a human body from plywood; spaced them about 8 inches apart, and put in some side walls; filled it with sand, and glued it to a small platform which had roller skates on its undersurface. Hits from a 30-06 moved it about two inches.


Here are some stories that I collected from the former Chief of the CA Narcotic Bureau.

In one shootout, a .38 special round passed through the offender’s neck w/o harming the offender; he was also shot in the chest and through the mouth knocking 5-6 teeth out. When the chief arrived some minutes later the offender was standing up conversing with the cops.

One narcotics officer managed to shoot himself in shin w/ a .45. The bullet broke his shin but did not immediately disable him and caused no permanent damage.

In another incident an offender drew a gun and fired at an officeer in the front seat, hitting him in the back but not stopping him. Another officer managed to shoot the offender through the eye w/ a .45. This did not stop the offender who had to be subdued. He lived to go back to prison.

Two incidents w/ my friend: In 1970 two offenders who belatedly realized he was a cop shot him four times, twice w/ a .45 and twice w/ a .38. None of the shots stopped him and he noticed no difference between the .45 and .38 wounds.

In 1974 he and several officers shot it out w/ three offenders. None of the .45 wounds the officers inflicted stopped the offenders. One of the offenders did not even realize he had been hit until he saw blood – at which point he collapsed. (Psychological stopping power.)

About Don Kates
Don Kates is a retired American professor of constitutional and criminal law, and a criminologist and research fellow with The Independent Institute in Oakland, California.

  • 13 thoughts on “Firearm Stopping Power – Fact, Fiction and Anecdotes

    1. There are also accounts of people being hit by cannon ball and getting back up to fight. The thing is not many people hit by a cannon ball are going to do that. Knock down is a balance of a lot of factors. Where you hit, what you hit them with, their psychological and biological state, even the weather in some circumstances. No weapon is a sure knock down. While yes there are accounts of people getting hit with 12 gauge full loads, though many were probably actually birdshot.

      The majority of people shot in the chest with a 12 gauge shotgun at close range will trouble one no more. A magnum hitting bone is going to do nasty things to people. Any bullet not hitting bone is unlikely to stop an opponent. Even when you hit bone that is no certainty. The wider the wound channel, the more mass it has and the faster it is traveling all equate to potential shock value and the chance of hitting something vital. Unlike Hollywood people do not swing from trees doing ninja flips shooting from the hip at people 1,000 yards off with a semi-auto handgun and having them drop like flies. In most gunfights it’s relatively close range and the opponents are ducking and dodging and otherwise moving around. 30 seconds is more than close enough in most gun fights.

      Cops tend to have a slightly different experience because they so often shoot people at point blank ranges and are often shooting people in altered states.. The suspect is almost always cornered which reduces their ability to dodge considerably. One shot stops do happen even then. A recent vid making the rounds as “police brutality against Blacks” shows an older male lunging at a cop with a screwdriver. The cop puts one deadly shot in and hits a couple more times. Suspect took one step after being hit and dropped dead. The same shots on a different person might not have been enough. On a cold day it might not have been enough. Still heavier calibers and magnums are far more likely to produce a stop and produce one faster than lighter calibers. Light caliber slow moving bullets are the worst of both worlds, but even they can produce a lucky kill. It is just far less likely.

      One obvious proof of this is the lower survival rates despite dramatic gains in medical care upon the switch to smokeless from black powder. Surviving a gunfight was reasonably common, though infection often killed survivors. Despite extremely unsanitary conditions, primitive care if any many survived. Today with trauma units minutes away, very advanced medical care, the mortality rate is much higher. Especially among those hit with heavier calibers or magnums. A .357 is sending a bullet nearly twice as heavy as a 9mm 100 fps faster. A .45 ACP is firing a bullet that’s nearly 3 times heavier at almost the same speed as a 9mm. In both cases they are simply going to do significantly more damage. More damage equals better probability of a stop and a faster stop. A .44 magnum is sending a bullet 3 times the weight, with a wider circumference at a considerably higher speed than a 9mm round flies. Logically this is going to produce a much wider wound channel, penetrate far deeper and disperse more shock energy to anything it hits. The reduction in calibers when going from black powder to smokeless is in large part because one didn’t need the sheer heft as much with the greater velocities. Slow moving big still stops quite well. Many a Grizzly was taken with a black powder rifle. If it will stop a Grizzly before the shooter is eaten it will stop a man.

      If there was no such thing as stopping power as this article suggests then Grizzlies would still rule parts of the US. Mr Kates correctly demonstrates that stopping power does not equate to an instant kill. People don’t just fall over and die. They often writhe, fight back, run away or continue to act even when mortally wounded. A stop is when they are no longer capable of being a threat any more and such shots do happen and some calibers are more likely but no caliber is a sure thing. If we shot enough people with anti-aircraft weapons we’d eventually find one that got back up and shot back for at least a few seconds. Maybe even 1 in 100. That exception does not negate the probabilities which formulate the rule.

      Stopping power however is only one consideration. Recoil, risks of over penetration, accuracy, cost and type of ammunition all play major roles. Rate of fire however is not a significant consideration. In most instances that just lets you miss more often.

    2. There are so many myths about this shit. Here is the bottom line shots that destroy the central nervous system or heart, stop and kill, period. The CNS is the brain and spinal cord. It’s is true that people survive head shots but they cause devastating results when the bullet rips through the brain.

      I’m not going to play Hollywood and pretend that the majority of gun fights present the opportunity to place a shot in someone’s heart. Most self defense gun fights are at a distance less than 7 feet and occur between 1 to 10 seconds, before someone disengages. Add the incredible stress and adrenaline of a gun being fired at point blank at you and you get whatever results from a gross motor functions and training you can manage.

      Bottomland, don’t get in gun fights. Avoid areas and situations that might cause gun violence to be used against you. Secondly if you must get in that situation like that , then present your gun first. Hold the situation and exit or call the police.

      If you must shoot, close the distance and put your gun barrel as close as you can safely get to the offenders head and fire repeatedly until your gun ceases to fire then run to cover in a zig zag pattern and reload.

      But, again avoid gun fights, you should only shoot if you are going to be killed, not because you think you’re “justified” and can’t be prosecuted.

    3. This is why you aim for center mass. More chances of spinal cord damage, especially if the round grenades/splinters when it hits tissue.

    4. For what its worth, by any modern standard, the .38 long colt was just a dreadfully anemic round. The standard load fired a .36 caliber 125 grain bullet at a leisurely 725 feet per second. From personal experience, that’s actually slow enough that under good lighting conditions you can see the bullet flying with the naked eye!

      Those kind of ballistics made the .38 long colt not only less powerful than ANY standard .38 special combat load (a round most people already consider a bit light), but even a bit weaker than a typical .38 target wadcutter load.

      As another comparison, the 9mm NATO load, which is standard for most Western military and police, fires a highly similar 124 grain .355 caliber bullet 65% faster, at 1200 fps, for more than 2.5x as much kinetic energy.

      So there is no real need to invoke use of narcotic drugs or “body binding” to explain why the .38 long colt wasn’t effective on Filipino Moro fighers. . .that round isn’t particularly effective, period!

    5. What a great post! I had a lot of fun learning about guns between 1980 and 2008. I also learned that I had fallen for lots of hype “transitioning” from revolvers to semi automatic handguns and in going from one semi auto caliber to another.

      So I am stuck with some inventory all of which I like and will retain cheerfully.

      Knowing what I know now, I was asked to recommend a carry handgun. I said an SP101 with .38 ammo and four speed loaders. Then dry fire and practice.

      The mask is off, you “experts.” There is no substitute for practice and decent instruction from someone who does not have a vested interest in selling you a product line.

      Thank you, Mr. Kates.

    6. Greetings:

      Back in my infantry days, I used to tell my new soldiers this parable.

      Two young riflemen were having the age-old philosophical discussion about where to shoot those who would oppose them. One was a “head-shooter”; the other preferred the “center-mass” (torso). The head-shooter asserted that if you hit him, he’s done. The center-mass guy liked the larger target area. As they were going back and forth, their Platoon Sergeant came by. “Hey, Sarge,” called out the head-shooter, “where do you like to shoot the bad guys?”

      “In the back,” he replied.

      As many as you can, as often as you can, anywhere and any way you can.

    7. “The .38 Special was introduced in 1898 as an improvement over the .38 Long Colt which, as a military service cartridge, was found to have inadequate stopping power against the frenzied charges of Moro warriors during the Philippine-American War.” Wikipedia

    8. Anecdote, barely remembered.

      US soldier turns a corner in an Iraqi building to find an Iraqi pointing a pistol at his head.

      He flinches back and the gun is fired.

      After the smoke clears, he is still standing and thinks, “Hey! He missed!” And smiles.

      The Iraqi faints.

      Going back outside, the medic grabs him.

      He had been shot in the mouth, the 9mm impacting his teeth. He lost two teeth and had lacerations.

      No wonder the poor guy fainted. Americans smiled after getting shot in the face.

    9. I perceive the difference between the 9mm and the .45ACP where the .45ACP is subsonic. The bullet is heavier than the 9mm which adds to the “knockdown” hit. Of course the size of the one shot has a great deal to do with the “knockdown” like the HUK guerillas in the Phillippines in early 1900s or after when the .45ACP was used. The word was the HUKs would use narcotics to boost their courage, I guess, but the Army .38 special would not stop the average HUK who, if they were same as the Phillippinos I know, were small men as most Asians are, but the .45ACP was used to great effect on this group where “knockdown” was imperative to stop the agression of the individuals. I hope this made some sense. We must remember the “knockdown” depends on the fella that is shot. There are some tough people, and as an old Vietnam Vet, perhaps the 5.56mm round of the junky M16 could be noted here by the experts. It was reputed to “tumble” and hitting a man’s finger would kill him from shock….that is if the junk didn’t jam and get the shooter killed by an AK47 that didn’t jam.

      Great article, thanks.

    10. The bottom line is, if you get shot, don’t get scared and give up, get pissed off! This SOB tried to kill me! I’m going to take him out! That gets people through battles and wars more than anything. Works in everyday life too.

    Comments are closed.