One fellow caught a 20mm explosive shell in the shoulder

Monday, April 22nd, 2019

I remember a young Marine trying to convince me that a .50-caliber round was so lethal that it would literally rip you apart just passing by. The other extreme seems almost equally implausible, but Dunlap saw it:

The Japs strafed the field a time or two and one fellow caught a 20mm explosive shell in the shoulder. He lived and I believe the arm was saved. Ordinarily a 20mm anywhere in the body is finis.


  1. Kirk says:

    I seem to recall a case where someone took an RPG round to the upper chest, and lived. It’s all about the exact details–A projectile that’s mostly spent is nowhere near as lethal as when it has just left the barrel, and even then, sometimes, the conditions are just right to prevent a fatality.

    There’s a Napoleonic War cuirassier breastplate I saw in a museum, with a pretty significant hole in it from a cannon shot. The wearer supposedly survived, only losing the arm which was torn off…

    The human body is frighteningly inconsistent about what kills it–There are guys who have died nearly instantly from being hit by the pellet from an airgun, and there are guys who survive taking a hit from a 40mm grenade. And, sometimes, it all comes down to that “will to live”–Cop friends of mine have seen cases where they had to shoot a suspect to literal pieces, in order to get him to stop. One report I actually saw a copy of went over a case in Chicago during the height of the “PCP epidemic”, and the number of rounds this guy soaked up was astonishingly high–Something like 18 hits to the central chest with .38 Special, several hits from a 9mm to the chest and periphery, and multiple strikes from a 12 gauge shotgun. They basically had to destroy his skeleton, namely the pelvis, before he was stopped–And, even then, the suspect lived to reach the hospital, only to bleed out as soon as they got him under anesthesia.

  2. Graham says:


    Do you know anything about differences between the effect of large calibre late 19th century revolvers and mid to late 20th century automatics, say 9-10mm, with regard to muzzle velocity, impact speed, size, propellant, and resulting wounds?

    I have it in my head that, on average, with the older weapons, even firing a large round, one could score more hits on a man with less chance of stopping him than with fewer rounds of a higher velocity automatic.

    I am sure I am missing many variables here, but curious if accounts or fictional representations of the kinds of gunshot wounds men could sustain in westerns are at all plausible.

  3. Kirk says:

    Virtually nothing in media during any period of time is at all worthwhile when it comes to describing weapons effects. Period–Even the Romans were fantasists describing the effects of weapons. Get into the modern era, and it is even worse.

    The late 19th Century pistols had a function set we’ve pretty much forgotten: They weren’t meant to kill people, alone. They were also supposed to be capable of taking down a cavalry horse, or providing a humane kill to any one of the many logistics support animals that might be wounded, or worse, have gone mad under fire. Part of the reasoning behind the M1911 series of pistols was that it was supposed to be capable of killing a cavalry horse with a single shot to the head or heart… The cavalry had a lot of impact on what got procured, and one of the other things you have to keep in mind is that the other nations of the world who issued pistols to their cavalry did not envision them doing a lot of pistol work–Their weapons were primarily the lance and saber, with the carbine for dismounted use. The US was really the only major nation with the idea that the pistol was the primary melee weapon for mounted combat, and thus, the .45 ACP. Everybody else gave cavalry pistols, but they were mostly accessory items.

    So… Yeah. There were differences in effect, but the US largely went for the bigger cartridge because they weren’t of the mentality that the cavalry melee called for lances and sabers. The perception of the need case was what drove the whole thing, along with the semi-mystical Moro issue in the Philippines.

    Part of the issue, too, with the period you are talking about is that it was the timeframe that we were transitioning from black powder to smokeless, and going from cast lead projectiles to jacketed ones. The transition was not easy, at all–They were still feeling their way through it all, and the bigger calibers were generally artifacts of the earlier black powder era. What “big ones” were out there in the more modern smokeless powders and jacketed slugs were artifacts of the US fascination with big bangs, and did not get much use outside that realm. I’m hard-pressed to think of a European equivalent to Elmer Keith or the .44 Magnum cartridge development history… It was mostly a US phenomenon, for good or ill. Same with the 10mm–Absent the US, I don’t see that cartridge ever having been developed.

  4. Graham says:

    Thanks for that.

    I admit it’s flippant to pin it just on movies, though that’s part of what formed my impressions. But sometimes I have been struck by accounts of what was survivable in 19th century battles, whether trad musket, cap and ball, or later.

    Presuming the man hit avoided or managed to survive sepsis, the horrible wounds with which men sometimes came out of Napoleonic battles or Civil War battles are remarkable.

    I expect I have just been influenced by what were by definition outlying cases as survivors. That and, as you pointed out, human bodies are inconsistent about what kills them.

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