HGR 056 - Bullets & Ballistics

Hello and welcome to Handgun Radio! I’m your host Ryan Michad from the wilds of Central Maine, and this is your home for all the news, information and discussion in the handgunning world. This week, I’m joined by regular guest Weerd Beard to discuss ballistic performance and why some bullets are better than others!

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Week in Review:

Ryan: -Got some new cleaning products in for testing, be sure to go check the review & other great reviews over at the Firearms Insider

-Thanks to listener Mark for the care package of deprimed and cleaned .38 Special and 9mm brass! Really appreciated. Mark also included a couple of casings that I had never seen before. They are marked “I.M.T” and have a very large ledge on the inside near the web of the case. Very interesting. Everything I’ve found suggests they come from a company called “Freedom Munitions” and can cause you problems with the reduced case volume.

-Mention the LCP Project!

Weerd: Another Busy week for me.  I still haven’t ordered the gear to get my Walker clone working.   I was looking into ammo shortages from Russia and did find a case of Silver Bear 9x18 for a good price so I ordered that so I can have more ammo for my CZ-82 and Radom P64

Main Topic: Bullets & Ballistics

There is endless pontification in the shooting world about “choosing the best ammo” and people “having the bullet that will give you the best ‘one-shot stop’”. How much of this is straight hyperbole and how much of this can you bet your life on? Does that gimmicky-sounding bullet actually deliver the terminal performance they claim? To understand the limitations of some of these newer “magic bullets” and some of the actual street-proven rounds like the Speer Gold Dot, we first have to understand the physics/biology that go into what makes an effective bullet in terms of terminal performance.

What is “Terminal Performance”?

Humans are not big solid blocks. A great deal of our bodies are made up of water, and therefore, we are very malleable and the effects of hydrostatic shock can be devastating to us. A bullet entering a body generally does it’s damage two ways: Temporary Wound Cavity and Permanent Wound Cavity. Both have their different ways of harming the body, but I recently heard it put in the simplest terms possible: Temporary wound cavity makes you stop what you’re doing; Permanent wound cavity kills you.

Permanent Wound Cavity: Just what you’d expect.  This is the hole left by the bullet as it travels through the target.   If the round is expanding this cavity will be getting bigger as the round penetrates.    Damage caused by this is all tissues cut, crushed, and smashed by the direct impact of the bullet.

Temporary Wound Cavity: This is a temporary hole caused by the bullet pushing material out of it’s way.  Think of it as a boat’s wake in a body of water.   It will move things around, but once the energy has dissipated it will disappear.    Damaged caused by temporary wound channels with pistol bullets it debatable.   With rifle rounds it can dislocate bones and sever nerves and blood vessels.     Certainly with pistol ammo hemorrhaging of smaller vessels is possible, and there is data that suggests that the temporary wound channel can disrupt nerve function for a moment which can lead to stopping power.

Cool video showing what a temporary wound cavity in gel looks like

Stopping Power:  This term has gotten a bad name since many people have over-extended it’s meaning.    Let’s look at what actually will stop an aggressive animal (including humans)

-Stopping Vs. Killing:  While a stopping wound MAY be fatal, that is not the end result.   For example shooting something in the stomach or intestines, and having the bullet hit no other vital structures can very well be a fatal wound, but these structures don’t have enough blood vessels or use in a critical attack,  so the wound may be fatal HOURS or DAYS after the hit.   If you are defending your life from a violent attacker, it will do you no good if he dies hours after he kills you.     Meanwhile most handgun wounds are non-fatal if medical attention is sought, so you may shoot somebody attacking you, and you BOTH may live, this is a success!

All the below points may be talking about fatal or near-fatal wounds, but fatality is NOT the end goal of this discussion, it is STOPPING an attack.    Saving life, not TAKING life.   Sometimes the attacker may die, but that is not the end-goal.

-The A-Zone: This is a frequently taught area for defensive shooting.  It’s a triangle made from three points on the body.  The adam’s apple in the middle of the neck to both nipples.   Inside this “A-Zone” are lots of vital structures.    This is also the center of gravity of the human body, meaning it can’t whip around fast like the head or limbs can.   It will be the most stationary target and inside it are LOTS of vitals that if damaged CAN end a fight quickly.

-Blood Pressure: Our circulatory system requires a certain amount of pressure to force blood throughout our bodies, up and down, and side to side. Without that proper amount of pressure, humans can experience blackouts, dizziness and a host of other unwelcome side effects. Causing a “leak” in this closed system can cause significant problems, including loss of blood pressure and loss of consciousness.

Shots to places like the Heart, liver, lungs, or one of the major blood vessels can cause massive bleeding and incapacitation.     Note that even a person with a hole in their heart will still be able to fight for a few minutes before they are too weak to function,  so while a single hit to the heart, liver, or lungs may be a “one shot stop”, they won’t stop immediately.

-Nervous System: A hit to a major nerve center can cause paralysis, incapacitation, or death.   Unlike hits to the circulatory system, a nerve hit is instantaneous.    The most obvious never center hit is a bullet to the brain which will almost always cause instant incapacitation or death.    A hit to the spinal column will paralyze all systems below it in relation to the brain.   A hit to the neck or spine will likely quickly end the fight.   Hitting the nerves in an arm or leg will render that limb instantly useless.

-Structural Damage:  These type wounds are not generally as potentially lethal as the others, but can do greatly change the dynamics of a fight.   Broken bones, or torn tendons or muscles, can greatly hinder an attacker.    Somebody with a broken arm or clavicle (collar bone) will likely be unable to use the limb affected by the break.   Torn tendons or muscles in the arm can render a hand useless.   A Shattered pelvis or leg can render a person unable to walk.   All of these can greatly affect a fight, but also note that while the guy with the knife may no longer be a threat if his pelvis is shattered and you have a safe place to retreat to,   somebody with a gun may still be able return fire.

-Survival:   Note that any serious wound MAY end a fight.  Nobody likes to leak, and pain is a great motivator.   Even somebody with a superficial wound may CHOOSE not to continue a fight.   Still even a person with a bullet in their heart may continue to fight until they are dead.    The general rule of thumb is if you need to shoot to protect your life KEEP SHOOTING until the threat has stopped.   Also note that as soon as the threat has stopped STOP SHOOTING,   killing somebody who WAS attacking you, but has stopped the attack is MURDER.

Also biology works just as much for the good guy as the bad guy.   If you are attacked you must be determined to continue fighting.   You may be injured in a fight but that neither means you are dead, or the fight is over.   Even if fatally wounded you may be able to save other lives in the time you have left.


-Lead Ball and FMJ:  While the lead ammo may deform a bit on impact, these rounds generally punch holes straight through things.  They’re cheap for target shooting, but overall the wounds and energy transfer they give will likely be considerably ineffective in a defensive or hunting scenario.

-Hollow Point:  Generally are a jacketed round, but there are lead hollowpoints out there, and they can easily be cast by those who make their own bullets.    These rounds are designed to be pressed open when they hit their target.   This accomplishes two things.  #1: The mushroomed bullet makes a bigger wound track, and #2. The round slows down like an opened parachute inside the target.   This gives you energy transfer.   When a round passes through a target the energy that bullet has as it flies on can be considered “Wasted”,  further you’re still responsible where that round goes after it hits your target.      Also the energy dump from an expanded round creates what is called a “Temoporary wound channel”.  We’ll talk more about this in the next section.

Some Hollow point ammo is made of solid copper.   This leads to a lighter bullet in general, but because copper is much harder than lead often you can get close to 100% weight retention in an expanded round.    More on weight retention in the next bullet:

-Frangible Ammo:  These rounds are designed to break up on impact.   This can be anything for sintered metal powder pressed into a ball-type round,  or more complicated rounds like the G2 research RIP ammo.    Sintered frangibles are designed for minimal penetration and zero ricochet.  Generally these rounds are used for training or shooting in indoor ranges where people may shoot things like steel targets or potentially hit concrete walls at close range.      As a general rule frangible ammo will dump all of it’s energy as soon as it hits a hard surface.   With powerful rounds like centerfire rifle, this still MAY be effective for defense, while making overpenetration and wall penetration minimal,  but I am wary of frangible pistol rounds for defense, as they generally will make some very dramatic surface wounds, but these will likely not aid in stopping a determined attacker.

“Defensive” Frangible rounds are designed to break up in the target creating multiple wound tracks.  This may seem like a good idea on paper, but remember every new wound track will be smaller and less powerful than the initial wound track created by the bullet.

-Bullet Weight:  This is an endlessly debatable.  With any given bullet there will be a multiple of bullet weights to choose from.   The lighter the bullet the faster it will go.  They heavier the bullet the more energy it will retain.    Lighter bullets going fast can have better energy transfer, and often with hollowpoints more dramatic expansion and temporary wound channels.   Heavier bullets will retain their velocity over longer ranges, be less affected by wind (hence why long-range shooters prefer heavier bullets...this is less applicable to defensive handgun shooting) and will generally behave less chaotically in their terminal performance.  This is LESS Chaotic, so nothing is set in stone, but you have better chances when say hitting a target in the rib that a heavier bullet will punch through that rib in a straight line, than be deflected.

A cool experiment can be found here.

Name Brand Bullets:  I have my own personal favorites, but as a general rule the most common rounds used by Police and civilians are:

Federal: Hydrashok,  HST, Guard Dog

Speer: Gold Dot

Winchester: Ranger-T,

Hornady: XTP, Critical Duty

Remington: Golden Saber

It’s my opinion that anything from this list, and a few more lesser brands will do you fine.   One thing to note on these rounds vs. buying the bullets and loading them yourself is the company tests the rounds at the expected muzzle valocities,   so a 148 Grain 9x19 bullet will be designed to expand at slower speeds than the 115 gr 9x19 load.   Pushing a low velocity round very fast may result in fragmentation.   Pushing a high-velocity round too slow might result in the bullet not expanding.

While shooting cheaper hollow points might seem like a good idea, the low cost is often because of lack of development research, meaning expansion may not happen in a predictable way.

Obscure/Nonexistent Gun we want:

This is a new segment where we get to pick a gun that is obscure that we want simply because we want it, or a gun that isn’t made that we want to see made. Money is no object and this is purely a thought exercise so have fun with it!

Ryan: Old guns replicated

Weerd: Not so obscure, but a gun on my wish list, is a Remington M1891 Mosin Nagant.  The Imperial Russian Forces put out a few contracts with American Gun Makers for M1891 rifles in the early years of the 20th Century.   I have a New England Westinghouse M1891, and would love a nice condition Remington to join it.    I’ve seen a few in terrible condition, and seen a few priced a bit rich for my blood.  One of these days I’ll have one!


Until Next week, have fun and SAFE SHOOTING!