Tortoise v. Hare
September 24, 2010
The bullet weight/velocity debate rages on. But is it important?
Slow, heavy rounds provide excellent penetration—too much of it, fast-bullet aficionados claim.
Some few of you may remember Super Vel ammo. It was the first attempt at making handgun ammo "all it could be." Lee Jurras developed the ammo, and the idea was to use then-recent advances in powder technology to get more power out of existing cartridges. By going with lighter than standard bullets and upping the velocity, he wanted to improve performance without having to invent new calibers.
Starting in the 1960s, the common police cartridge was the .38 Special, so instead of a 158-grain lead round-nosed bullet at an optimistic 850 fps (most did, or do, more like 700), Jurras used a jacketed 125-grain hollowpoint going 1,100 fps.
In the .45 ACP, he went from a 230-grain full metal jacket at 800 fps to a 170-grain jacketed hollowpoint at 1,100 fps. The results were spectacular, at least in the marketing. Every gun magazine ran articles, and the letters to the editor flew thick and fast.
And since those days we still have not settled the argument of light and fast versus slow and heavy. We have, however, greatly improved bullet design. In the 1960s and 1970s, even at hyper-speed bullets rarely expanded. Those that did often ended up as a scattering of jacket and core fragments.
Not that we had any standard test media to try them in. Water, soaking phone books, sawdust and cadavers all did their part, but it took Dr. M.L. Fackler and ballistic gelatin to give us a consistent test medium. And yet we're still unable to settle the slow vs. fast argument because we can't come up with a large enough, consistent enough database of shootings to come to any significant conclusion.
The ballistic gelatin crowd points to the consistency of gelatin and how results can be demonstrated scientifically, but they gloss over the fact that gelatin only simulates tissue. It is not the real thing.
The "real-world" crowd points to the results of shootings to bolster this or that approach. However, every jurisdiction in the country reports things differently. And each shooting is subject to legal review, which means none is subjected to an utterly impartial analysis.
What does each say about the other? The slow 'n heavy side claims fast bullets break apart and fail to do more than create a surface wound. The fast-bullet crowd doesn't like the excessive penetration and says low impact velocities aren't great enough to produce temporary cavitation effects.
The dividing line falls with the heavy-and-slow camp on the side of the ballistic gel and the light-and-fast side looking at real-world shootings. And both are basing their opinions on incomplete data, like the blind men trying to describe an elephant.
In fact, real-world results contradict both approaches, and so do ballistic gel tests. One of my law-enforcement contacts reports that his department uses 9mm 147-grain subsonic jacketed hollowpoints--a load that is sneered at by both camps--and yet his department reports an unbroken string of successful shootings with that load. "Successful" in that the bad guys were all dead or immediately incapacitated, none continued their actions, and the good guys went home unharmed.
Fast-, light-bullet proponents like limited penetration and temporary wound cavities; heavy-bullet fans think speedy slugs are prone to breaking up.
On the other hand, I know of more than one shooting with .44 Magnums, with plenty of penetration and expansion, where the bad guys wandered from the scene before they could be apprehended.
So where does all this leave the person looking for a good defensive load? Well, in .45 ACP you could go with a Hornady XTP, Winchester PDX-1 or a Speer Gold Dot, each in 230 grains. You'd get full expansion, full penetration and 825 fps to 850 fps from any of them. Or you could go with Cor-Bon 165-grain jacketed hollowpoint, which means you're getting 1,200 fps, and a bullet that won't go a foot deep but will expand to a fare-thee-well.
Which works better? The one you put through a vital organ, an organ your attacker will miss right away. Sixteen inches of penetration through the gut won't cut it, and asteroid-velocity bullet strikes on the upper arm aren't stoppers.
You see, in all the arguments, everyone glosses over placement. Or they concede that placement matters but then proceed to argue about their favorite bullet. Life is a series of learning sessions, and one I have learned lately comes from Henk Iverson, the defensive trainer of Strike Tactical: You get only one shot.
His course calls for all shots onto a target not much larger than a playing card while moving, communicating, reloading and clearing a malfunction. What does he favor? light or heavy, fast or slow. Answer: Hits in the card.
Henk has seen a lot of people shot, and he's more concerned with placement than bullet design. Yes, some are better than others, but arguing the differences between the best of modern designs is like arguing angels dancing on the head of a pin. Who cares? What really matters is placement, so let's get out there and practice. A lot.