by Raphael Hickmann Pontes
Currently, in the world of shooting, terminal ballistics has become a recurring topic of discussion among professionals in law enforcement, shooters, instructors, and technical experts in the field.
It is worth mentioning that this subject is of fundamental importance since, in Brazil specifically, for many years, legacies have been professed as absolute truths, leading to a lot of misinformation and false confidence among operators using outdated calibers and ammunition. This has also created archaic technical understanding and jurisprudence regarding terminal ballistics and its deleterious effects.
Therefore, the text written by me, in a completely humble manner, after extensive studies on the doctrine of the illustrious Vincent DiMaio (Gunshot Wounds – Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques), as well as the extraordinary scholar on the subject, João da Cunha Neto, a Civil Police Delegate from the State of Santa Catarina (Ballistics for Legal Professionals), bring modern concepts of terminal ballistics to our shooting world.
Applied Terminal Ballistics
When we approach the subject of incapacitation by firearms, the core issue is the theory of incapacitation. It is important to understand that the main factor is the relationship between the projectile and the medium it hits, therefore, the theory of velocity of incapacitation.
In this regard, it is known that in order to incapacitate a person through a gunshot, various factors come into play, including psychological and physiological variables, lethality of calibers, and the weapons in question.
According to SWEENEY, there are two ways of immediate incapacitation, either by a shot to the notorious “T of death,” or in technical terms, the central nervous system, which is referred to as the brainstem or upper cervical spine of the aggressor.
Moreover, the rate and grouping of shots in highly vascularized areas can cause massive bleeding, leading to a sudden drop in blood pressure and hypovolemic shock that incapacitates the aggressor.
Perhaps, this is the crux of the matter under discussion, especially in urban combat situations, mainly for civilian citizens carrying short arms, or low-energy firearms. In a real-life confrontation, even a trained operator may waste up to 87% of their shots, making it extremely difficult to hit a single headshot that would immediately stop the aggression.
It is not hard to understand that shots in other areas of the body are a real “lottery” since even if major blood vessels are hit, the person attempting self-harm has enough time to complete their mission. In technical terms, until the massive bleeding decreases the oxygen supply to the brain, the aggressor has enough time to empty a magazine of 15 rounds against you.
Psychological/Deleterious Effects of Combat
Continuing with the discussed topic, the psychological effects of combat bring some highly undesirable consequences to the fighter, particularly the sudden surge of cortisol, adrenaline, and antithrombin released into the blood, leading to the well-known “tunnel vision,” loss of fine motor skills, hearing, and sensory issues. Hence, it is clear that in combat, 87% of shots are wasted.
The consequences of shots suffered in a human body will mainly depend on the location of the gunshot, the effects of drugs the subject might have consumed, survival instincts, and combat mentality.
Specifically, regarding the combat mentality, there are specific training methods focused on this relationship, such as scenario-based training (Murray), which prepare the operator to react more effectively to the deleterious effects of combat. Proper training also creates muscle memory, a crucial factor in combat, but this might be a topic for another text given its complexity and extensive approach.
Lethality (Temporary Cavity vs. Permanent Cavity)
It is important to emphasize that projectiles do not function like blades that cut through tissues. Instead, they may cause damage by breaking tissues due to their energy, which is referred to as the Permanent Cavity. Furthermore, they may change their trajectory, lose mass, and consequently lose speed when they encounter hard barriers such as bones, vehicle doors, or walls.
In the case of secondary damage caused by the temporary cavity, it is a result of the projectile’s velocity upon “entering” the human body.
Therefore, the larger the diameter of the projectile, the greater the tissue damage in the body, which leads to incapacitation caused by massive bleeding. For example, projectiles designed to expand, such as hollow points, will have more energy dissipation within the body, theoretically increasing the extent of damage. However, they will have lower penetration, as they expand in hydro-solid mediums, increasing the area of affected tissues.
By curiosity, the FBI considers penetration of 12 to 18 inches as a satisfactory result. However, at least in the case of national expanding ammunition, due to its erratic results, it does not provide satisfactory feedback, leading to undesirable outcomes, such as hollow point bullets that deform and lose all their energy upon hitting a winter jacket.
For instance, 85% of shots to the chest hit a bone, but given the poor results of national expanding ammunition, it is unlikely that these projectiles will hit major vessels or highly vascularized organs. Therefore, they are not the most suitable for defense, thus demystifying the infamous “stopping power” myth.
In high-energy calibers such as 5.56x45mm or 7.62x51mm, given their high incapacitation power due to their primary damage, they also cause secondary damage due to their high energy. This energy can cause secondary injuries by breaking completely through tissues, shattering bones, and fragmenting, increasing the area of the wound. This may even lead the assailant to death from cerebral damage before the bleeding from the affected area does.
Choosing the Right Weapon/Caliber
Today, what is sought is the most balanced ballistics, specifically, we have in evidence the 9x19mm caliber, which is currently used by most police and military forces around the world.
This is due to its very uniform ballistics (velocity and penetration) using ogival bullets, where the lead core is encased in a copper-nickel jacket, making it harder and therefore causing less loss of mass when encountering physical or bodily barriers (bones).
Moreover, due to its higher ammunition capacity, using platforms such as the Glock G19, which can hold 15 rounds plus one or more, depending on the magazine used, and its low recoil, providing better and faster alignment and sight picture, allows for multiple shots in lethal regions, making it easier for the operator to handle the deleterious effects of stress in combat.
However, currently, calibers such as .45 ACP, which have “fantastic” ballistics, are being set aside precisely due to the level of training required to operate them proficiently, their low ammunition capacity in their platforms, and the high recoil generated by shots, hindering a quick recovery of alignment and sight picture, and therefore preventing a good rate of fire.
National expanding ammunition, due to its engineering that promotes fragmentation and expansion, generates concerns and erratic results, as they can “disintegrate” upon hitting bodily tissues, preventing sufficient penetration to reach major organs and cause massive bleeding, resulting in the loss of mass, velocity, and energy.
Calibers of long firearms, such as the aforementioned 5.56x45mm, are equipped with high incapacitation power, both due to primary and secondary damage, precisely due to their high energy.
Based on the presented information, in an absolutely humble manner, as an enthusiast of combat studies, and armed with excellent and modern works, we can conclude that:
- The desired penetration is 12 inches (30 cm), the golden rule of FBI ballistics.
- Police officers hit their targets in only 17% of confrontations. So, what is the concern with excessive over-penetration when the majority of shots naturally miss?
- Penetration – Temporary Cavity – Permanent Cavity, not including the brain and liver, which are elastic tissues. Short firearms do not rupture elastic tissues due to their low energy.
- In cases of low-energy firearms, the golden rule is hypovolemic shock (massive bleeding) caused by a large number of grouped shots.
- The possibility of psychological incapacitation through the body’s response (adrenaline and cortisol) or predisposition to combat.
- The difference lies in hitting the target – .40 S&W has 670J of energy, while 9x19mm has 620J. The difference in energy is practically negligible, but with 9x19mm, you hit the target, whereas with .40 S&W, you may not. After 27 years, the FBI revisited this premise.
- The idea of “stopping power,” which was discussed for 15 years, is now considered invalid. .40 S&W, being the worst of both worlds, lacks the energy of a 10mm auto and does not achieve the ballistic performance of the 9x19mm.
- If you disagree or have additional points to contribute, the Academia Brasileira de Armas, as a force training center, has its study group (Projeto Papyrus), of which I am a part. We convene and discuss various topics, particularly the subject of “Terminal Ballistics,” with colleagues from different technical and tactical backgrounds.
Always train for worst-case sc
enarios, cultivate a combat mentality, leverage modernity and quality materials to your advantage, never stop questioning, and follow the guidance of excellent professionals in Brazil who specialize in this and other related subjects.
Together, we strive for improvement and knowledge enhancement.
NULLIUS IN VERBA!