Observations from Actual Shootings

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

A 16-year veteran police officer who has spent the last few years as a crime scene investigator offers up his observations from actual shootings:

I’m not a researcher, nor an authority on anything. I have, however, investigated conservatively hundreds of shooting scenes where no one was hit, at least one person was hit, and/or at least one person was killed as a result of being shot. Another duty of my position is to observe, document, and collect physical evidence at autopsies — of which I have also participated in hundreds.

My observations are not revolutionary, and in fact have confirmed what many other legitimate studies have stated. I have become concerned, however, with some internet postings that I have seen (not on [Glock Talk] so far) from others who claim to be in the same or similar field but report very different observations. While I do not claim to be an expert, my observations have been consistent enough to make me suspicious of reports so markedly outside of what I have observed.

Nearly all of our shootings are what could be called “criminal vs. criminal”.

Also let me state that this will be a fairly limited in calibers discussed. Where I am employed, shootings are common but calibers seem to be fairly limited. While some claim to regularly observe shootings in every caliber available, the miscreants in my locale seem to be less diversified. The overwhelming majority of handgun rounds I see used are .40 S&W, 9 mm Luger (9×19 mm), and .45 ACP — in that order. .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP (9X17 mm), .38 SPL, .357 MAG, 10 mm, etc. do pop up with some regularity, but the first three probably constitute 80%+ of handgun rounds observed.

I do not have the numbers, but I would guess that more than 25% of our shootings also involve rifles of either .223 Rem (5.56 mm) [e.g. AR-15] or 7.62×39 mm [e.g. AK-47], with the 7.62 mm being the more popular of the two. 12-gauge shotguns also come into play with varying frequency. The only times I have observed the use of “high-power” hunting rifles has been in suicide investigations, perhaps 5 or 6; all were contact wounds and all were, I’m sure, instantly incapacitating — to say the least.

First off, as a crime scene investigator, I investigate shootings where those individuals struck survive their wounds, something I rarely see discussed in these topics. Perhaps my area is just fortunate, but far more people survive being shot than die from their wounds — this includes rifle rounds.

It seems that when people discuss these topics they assume that a hit from a rifle round is assuredly fatal. I’m sure that many of our returning service men who have had the misfortune of experiencing this could point out the error of this belief. Perhaps unfortunately so could many of the “legality-challenged” that roam America’s streets.

What I have observed is that a miss with a .22 short is just as effective as a miss with a .30-06, or rather, a miss with a .30-06 is no more effective than a miss with a .22 short.

Only hits count.

I learned to shoot pistols with my father’s .45 ACP Colt 1911A1 when I could barely hold it up by myself. By my mid-teens I was competing with custom 1911′s and believed that this was the only “real” handgun and caliber. I also became acquainted with the writings of Col.Jeff Cooper, who further reinforced this belief.

In my mid-twenties, when I went nuts and left a very good white-collar desk job to answer the call of the wild and became a police officer, I was appalled to learn that the department issued 9 mm handguns. I was given the option of providing my own handgun if it was from a short list of quality makes in 9 mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP — at which I began to carry my beloved late ’80′s vintage SigSauer P220.

Over the next few years I would see many, many shootings that would begin to challenge my belief about terminal ballistics in the real world. Most of the shootings that occur in my jurisdiction do not involve anyone actually being struck. We joke about how high our homicide rate would be if the miscreants could actual hit anything!

The vast majority of “hits” we see are superficial and usually to the extremities. I don’t know how common this is, but here many, if not most of our “shooting victims” are struck in the feet, legs, and/or buttocks — especially the buttocks. This goes for both fatal and non-fatal shootings.

Contrary to what I have seen posted elsewhere, there is no difference in effect between 9 mm, 40 S&W, and .45 ACP in these strikes. All do equal soft tissue damage and all break struck bones (including the femur) with equal ease.

I read a posting where it was said that 9 mm will glance off of, or be deflected by, bones. Certainly it will, as will .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 7 mm Remington Magnum if they hit at the right angle. I have never seen 9mm fail to penetrate or break bones where either .40 S&W or .45 ACP would not have.

Also, soft tissue damage in these areas with both .223 and 7.62×39 mm is indistinguishable from 9 mm, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP, except that the .223 hole is noticeably smaller. (No magical “hydrostatic shock” has been observed.)

When the rifle rounds hit bone, however, it is a different story. Even the puny .223 striking a leg or arm bone can be quiet dramatic — sending sharp bone fragments at high velocity through surrounding tissue. I have on more than one occasion observed such bone fragments deeply embedded into nearby auto body panels, sheet-rock, etc.

As a rule, at anything beyond contact range, bullets cause (more or less) only simple laceration, either directly, or by secondary projectiles.

Proximal or immediately associated death/incapacitation is caused by either physical destruction of or “disconnecting” the Central Nervous System, or rapid drop in blood pressure in the circulatory system.

Every proximal shooting death (as in “now”, not “later” due to complications) I have ever observed was a result of what was actually hit by either the bullet, a bullet fragment, or a secondary projectile such as a bone fragment. The effective hits are either to a major vein or artery, lungs, heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, brain, or spinal cord.

I’ve never seen a miss with a 9mm of one of these structures that would have been a hit with a .45 ACP.

.223 and 7.62 mm have a higher probability of causing bone fragments, but misses with these rounds prove no more effective than with the handgun rounds (again, no magical “hydrostatic-shock” observed to compensate for a near miss).

Side note: While bullet fragmentation and bone fragments can prove fatal, they are also erratic and unpredictable. To say the least, you can not count on a fragment making up for poor shot placement.

In general, lacerating, severing, tearing, puncturing, etc. major veins or arteries, lungs, hearts, livers, kidneys, spleens, brains, or spinal cords with cause a very rapid incapacitation.

Humans, however, can vary quite a bit. I have read in various academic journals and case studies of individuals surviving what are widely medically considered to be “Non-Survivable Wounds” (commonly NSWs). And certainly there are many, many records of people doing great damage and even killing others after they themselves had suffered a mortal wound (the famous FBI “Miami Shoot-out” comes to mind).

I have seen people who were DRT (Dead Right There — instantly killed) with a single hit to the lungs, kidneys, or spleen by a 9 mm, and others all but seemingly unaffected by the same hits with everything up to 7.62 mm.

I have personally worked two cases where individuals were not incapacitated by bullet strikes through the brain. One was a man who was walking around cussing and clutching his forehead where he had been struck by a 7.62×39 mm round — the bullet exiting through the back of his skull. At the hospital it was determined that the bullet had in fact pierced and traveled through the length of the left hemisphere of the man’s brain — yet he appeared to be unaffected. Several hours later he developed complications from this injury and subsequently died as a result. None the less, for several hours after this injury, he was able to “be in the fight”.

The second individual was struck in the side of the head just above and behind the ear by a 9 mm round that exited above and behind the ear on the opposite side. This man also never lost consciousness and was released from the hospital the following day. As far as I know he is still alive today.


  1. Robert Van Elsberg says:

    After reading this, I feel very insecure carrying my .32 ACP FEG copy of the Walther PP. I typically carry European loads (Fiocchi or Sellier & Bellot) for their higher velocities compared to domestic loadings.

    Some 30 years ago when I was in Germany in the US Army. I tested German-made RWS 7.65 mm Browning (.32 ACP) FMJ loads against Winchester .380 FMJ bullets. I simply fired them into a stack of old encyclopedias to compare the results. The RWS .32 did, indeed, penetrate deeper than the .380 and tumbled during the process, creating more damage. However, this is merely academic — it does not reflect how the .32 ACP would work for self defense.

    About all I can assume is that it must work fairly well because so many people carried then for self defense or police work during the 20th Century. My assumption is that people wouldn’t use a gun that wasn’t effective; but then I am not sure what the actual results were.

    Do you have any information or suggestions to help me better understand if my .32 is acceptable for self defense? I would appreciate any thoughtful comments.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I don’t know why you’d feel insecure about carrying a .32 after reading that. (I also don’t know why you’d assume other people who carry know what they’re doing.) Anyway, you might enjoy this alternate look at handgun stopping power.

  3. Robert Van Elsberg says:

    I have regained my confidence in my FEG .32 ACP pistol for defense. I have again tested the penetration vis-à-vis other calibers and find the .32 FMJ, especially the European loads, has excellent penetration while tumbling as mentioned earlier. One thing to consider is that you can damage a lot of tissue with multiple rapid-fire hits with a .32 ACP.

    Also, I think there is something to be said for sustaining a period of shock over say a two or three-second timeframe versus a single, perhaps more intense, shock. Look at submachine guns. The Russians used the PPSH in 7.62×25 FMJ to good effect against the Germans in World War Two. Even though the caliber, essentially the same diameter as a .32 ACP, was smaller that the German 9mm or our .45 ACP, the 7.62 put paid to a lot of German soldiers.

    By the way, the 7.62×25 is an awesome round — not far off the ballistics of the .327 Federal Magnum. I had one of the Czech pistols in that caliber and reloaded it with 85 and 100 grain hollow points intended for the .32 H&R Magnum (resized down the .309). After what I saw in my own tests, a single hit by one of those would cause massive damage and, I believe, instant stopping power. To this day I cannot figure out why American gun makers have not developed handguns in this caliber and hollow point defensive ammunition. I have zero doubt this would be far more successful commercially than the .327 Federal Magnum.

    Anyway, enough of tonight’s ramblings. I will lay my head on my pillow comforted by the thought my FEG is nearby within reach should it be needed.

  4. Robert L. Van Elsberg says:

    For more than two years I have read and researched all I could on the Internet about the usefulness of the .32 ACP for protection. I have particularly looked at the issue of FMJ verses JHP to see if there is an advantage to one or the other.

    I have come to the following conclusions. The .32 FMJ, especially in its hotter European loadings (Sellier & Bellot, Fiocchi and RWS produces energy levels comparable to the .380 ACP when fired from the longer barrels of the Walther PP, PPK or clones such as the FEG AP-MBP (my favorite carry gun). Contrary to the opinions expressed by some, the .32 ACP FMJ does not bore a .309-hole through a human body. What happens is that upon impact the bullet becomes unstable and rotates at least 180 degrees, putting the base of the bullet up front. That flat surface does more damage to whatever tissue it passes through than if the bullet simply penetrated nose-forward. Also, depending on what the bullet hits, it may tumble, increasing the damage to the tissue it encounters. I believe the bullet is also susceptible to veering off from its original course as it strikes muscle or bone and begins to yaw or tumble. I think there is a reason European police departments were fine with the .32 ACP or 7.65mm Browning for most of the 20th Century. Against most criminals it created a serious enough wound that the next item on the bad guy’s agenda was seeking medical care (that is, if they survived. German police did not have the same limitations when dealing with criminals that American police have.)

    It was only when threat of terrorism rose in the latter years of the 20th Century that police departments went to larger calibers such as the 9 mm Luger. There is an obvious reason for that: terrorists, whether driven by a political or religious ideology, are more likely to choose to go down fighting or die for their cause. This is precisely what led to the development of the .45 ACP. American soldiers in the Philippines were fighting fanatical Muslims in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The .38-caliber revolvers they were issued worked well against civilian criminals but failed miserably against the Muslim Moros. Old Colt Single Action Army revolvers were drawn out of retirement and issued to American soldiers as its .45 Colt cartridge proved a better stopper against their fanatical enemies. The Colt 1911 pistols simply improved upon that concept by increasing the firepower and reducing reloading times.

    That said, most of us will not encounter fanatical Muslim jihadis (although, sadly, it looks like that may be changing in America). As such, the .32 ACP. especially in full-size models such as the Walther PP/PPK and their clones. has, in my opinion, a respectable place as a self-defense firearm. It wouldn’t be my first pick for a gunfight in Afghanistan — that would go to the .45 ACP — but for most self-defense scenarios I think it will work. And by the way, I don’t base this on opinion alone. Back in the early 1980s I religiously read the “Armed Citizen’s” column in the American Rifleman. I paid attention to the caliber of the weapons citizens successfully used for self defense. To my surprise, .32-caliber handguns were quite successful. The common thread in those accounts essentially was that the citizen kept on firing until the threat was ended. Ignorant of the arguments on “one-shot stopping power,” they did the logical and rational thing when faced with a threat. Actions, not opinions, are what matters on the street.

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