Backwoods Home Magazine

Choose your ammo… police style

Choose your ammo…
police style

By Massad Ayoob

Issue #93 • May/June, 2005

One of our greatest modern gun experts, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, USMC, Ret., once made the observation that the bullet is more important than the gun. The gun, he explained, is merely the launcher. It is the bullet that actually does the job.

This is true for an armed citizen’s home defense gun, as surely as it is for the battle weapon of one of Col. Cooper’s brother Marines. Ditto for the police officer’s ammunition. And ditto again for the bullet a rural American citizen uses to harvest game for the family table.

Modern ammunition testing. Paul Nowak of Winchester (left, with Springfield Armory pistol) fires over a chronograph (on tripod) which measures the bullet’s velocity, and into the block of ballistic gelatin set on steel holder at right.

The military is bound by the codes of international warfare, going back to the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Accords, all of which predated napalm, chemical warfare, and the concept of thermonuclear war. Interestingly, the Judge Advocate General’s office has already determined that these restrictions apply to declared wars between recognized nation-states, not things like the current “war on terrorism,” but that’s another story.

The Geneva Conventions and Hague Accords require that the bullets used not be designed to expand. Essentially, they call for full metal jacket projectiles that just punch neat, clean holes through the bodies of enemy soldiers. Ironically, in the name of human decency, virtually every state in the union forbids the use of such ammunition against deer, bear, or other big game. The reason is that it tends to result in slow death and is not humane.

In warfare, the bullet that wounds an enemy soldier becomes a greater “force multiplier” than the one that kills him. A dead soldier means one less enemy. A wounded soldier means at least three less of the enemy: one down, and two more to carry him off the field of battle.

I am sure that this makes good sense to the generals behind the lines, and the bean counters behind them. However, the soldier who is bad breath distance away from an Al-Qaeda fanatic with an AK47 doesn’t just want his opposite number wounded, he wants him instantly out of the fight at the moment the bullet hits him.

Bullet has lodged in the translucent gelatin, leaving a “wound path” clearly visible behind it. Note that damage is greatest early in the path, before resistance has slowed the bullet and reduced its energy.

At this point, both the semantics and the ethics of the matter start to become complicated. No young man fighting for his country wants, when he thinks about it, to end the life of another young man fighting for his country. However, that young man desperately wants the other young man not to kill him or one of his comrades. Therefore, the job of the bullet he launches is instant incapacitation.

This may cause death. When you get into it deep enough, you realize that the righteous combatant does not shoot to kill, he shoots to stop. A mortal wound is not enough. Many an American soldier who was mortally wounded went on to kill so many of the enemy before he ran out of blood and died that the majority of those on the sacred list who won the Congressional Medal of Honor won it posthumously. Every combat soldier who fought in heavy battle can tell you stories of enemy soldiers who, wounded unto death, still took one or more Americans with them. These men had been killed, but not stopped.

In the big picture, the firearm is a tool. We homo sapiens are the tool-bearing mammal. We are also, ipso facto, the weapon-bearing mammal. We have become the dominant species—the alpha, the top predator if you will—because we have learned to tailor our tools to the given task.

Therefore, Logic 101 tells us, if we must tailor the tool to the task, and if the tool is the gun and we know that the gun’s bullet is more important than the gun itself, why, we realize with our superior human brains that selection of ammunition is absolutely critical.

The history of law enforcement ammunition selection is a good one to study because it encompasses all four of the basic models of selection that the civilian will have available. It is from experience that common sense is born, and the police sector has that experience.

Four models

There are essentially four models that police used for selection of ammunition over the years. They might be described as the Traditional Model, the Advertising Model, the Laboratory Model, and the Experiential Model.

Police calibers today, in order of popularity. .40 S&W is far and away the most used. .45 Auto and .357 SIG are increasing in popularity. 9mm use is waning greatly in law enforcement.

The Traditional Model was used for the first two thirds of the 20th Century—longer by some of the more institutionalized departments—and it failed miserably. The .38 Special revolver was the standard then, using 158-grain round-nose lead ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 755 feet per second, generating some 200 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.

This ammunition, from the beginning, performed dismally at its intended purpose. The rounded tip of the bullet slipped through flesh with a wedge effect, leaving behind it a dimpled channel similar to an ice pick wound. It would kill, but slowly. However, it had little “stopping effect.” The round became known on the street as “the widow-maker,” because you could empty your gun into your attacker and he could still make your wife a widow before he went down. Because the bullet tended to go through and through, there was great danger of striking an unseen bystander behind the intended target with the exiting projectile. Because of its low energy, this same bullet that penetrated too much on humans penetrated too little on hard barriers, such as car doors and windows, often bouncing off a felon’s windshield.

In the late 1920s and the ’30s, efforts were made to find something more powerful. These included the .38/44 round, simply a high velocity 158-grain .38 Special; the .38 Super Automatic from Colt, with a pointy nose 130-grain full metal jacket bullet at some 1200 foot per second, generating perhaps 420 foot-pounds of energy; and the .357 Magnum cartridge jointly introduced by Smith & Wesson (the gun) and Winchester-Western (the cartridge). In the Magnum, the 158-grain bullet was retained, but with a flat point and much greater velocity and energy.

These hotter loads were better man-stoppers if heavy bone was struck and shattered, or if the bullets hit a liquid part of the body, such as the brain or a full bladder. Otherwise, they simply zipped through the body with even more exit force than a .38 round nose, and most police chiefs banned them for fear of their corollary damage capability to bystanders.

The .38 Special round nose stayed dominant for the first two thirds of the 20th Century, simply because of tradition. “It’s what we’ve always had.” “We’ve always done it this way.” Not until the 1960s did things get better. Lee Jurras in Shelbyville, Indiana, founded the Super Vel ammunition company and produced a line of light weight, high velocity hollow point rounds. With these, the .38 Special now had an expanding bullet that would open up or “mushroom” in the body. It delivered much more “shock effect” and was much less likely to exit. It was also much less likely to ricochet, which round nose bullets were and are infamous for doing.

Accuracy is usually a welcome side benefit of purchasing premium ammunition. 230-grain Federal Hydra-Shok .45 Auto round has given author a 13/8″ group at 25 yards with compact Glock 30 pistol.

Now was born the Experiential Model. Police departments that took the bold step of adopting the new ammo were inundated with queries from other agencies as to how it had performed. When learning of its highly satisfactory results, the inquiring agencies adopted it themselves.

With widespread adoption came more collective experience. Police had at last fallen back to their core competence—being trained investigators—and applied it to equipment selection. The result was much better ammunition and a quantum leap in both officer safety and public safety.

In the mid-1970s we saw the first large-scale application of the Laboratory Model. In what is now recognized as a classic example of junk science, the National Institute of Justice spent seven figures on a study to determine RII, or Relative Incapacitation Index, of handgun ammunition. Using an old formulation of ballistic gelatin as flesh simulant, the testers went on the assumption that whatever bullet created the greatest temporary cavity in the substance would deliver the greatest “stopping power” in living tissue. They then set about quantifying stopping power value, with tables that indicated the old .38 round nose might be a better stopper than the Army .45, and that a 9mm automatic with ball ammunition would be more potent than the .45. “Softnose” bullets received the same value as hollow points.

The expensively funded study had the prestige of the U.S. Government behind it, and departments flocked to buy ammunition that rated well in the RII studies. Unfortunately, they were doomed to disappointment.

The RII results flew in the face of three quarters of a century of observed reality. The first test of junk science versus real science is, “Do the results from the laboratory correlate with known factors from the field?” If they do not, we know something went wrong in the lab. Many of the hypothetical conclusions that the RII study put forth as written in stone were in fact 180 degrees off from a large body of observed reality. That early warning signal was ignored, and the results were tragic.

High tech bullets in premium ammunition are what most cops use today, and most hunters are going in the same direction. Top: Remington brass jacket Golden Saber, and Winchester’s SXT. Below: Federal’s proven .45 Hydra-Shok and Speer’s popular, effective Gold Dot bullet with bonded jacket and core.

Many of the quick-expanding bullets favored by the RII study would not penetrate deeply enough into a human body to reach the vital organs of a large man from certain angles. In Michigan, a policewoman fired two light, fast .38 hollow points into a gunman’s chest, and apparently believing that this had done the job, lowered her service revolver. Instead of collapsing, however, the assailant raised his gun and shot her in the head, killing her instantly. He survived to stand trial. In Miami, a bullet that had done well in the RII tests was fired into the chest of a gunman who, unfazed, then shot and killed the man who shot him and his partner, both FBI agents, and wounded several more agents before being killed by bullets in the head and neck.

This resulted in the FBI Wound Ballistics Workshop of 1988 in Quantico, Virginia. Among those present were Dr. Martin Fackler, head of wound ballistics research for the US Army’s medical training center, Letterman Institute. Fackler had developed an improved ballistic gelatin model that he had scientifically correlated to swine muscle tissue, which in turn is comparable to human muscle tissue. He hypothesized that wound depth was much more important than previously thought, and recommended ammunition that could send a bullet at least twelve inches into his ballistic gelatin.

The FBI agreed. By this point, the 9mm semiautomatic pistol had ascended to dominance over the six-shot service revolver in the police world, and the FBI adopted a heavy, slow moving 9mm bullet that weighed 147 grains and traveled at a subsonic velocity of less than 1000 feet per second.

Even this did not work terribly well. The bullet often went deep, but also frequently failed to expand reliably, and penetrated too far. Most departments that adopted it were so disappointed in the street results that they either changed ammunition or went to more powerful pistols.

Once-traditional 158 grain round nose lead .38 Special ammunition is now recognized as obsolete, and a poor choice for anything but target shooting.

Meanwhile, in a classic example of the Experiential Model, Detroit homicide detective Evan Marshall had begun a collection of thousands of police gunfight reports, and attempted to rate the stopping power of the ammunition used based on what actually happened in gunfights. He was soon joined by ballistic researcher Ed Sanow. In a separate study commissioned by the Police Marksman Association, Richard Fairburn analyzed gunfights submitted to his data base by various agencies, and his results were almost identical to those of Marshall and Sanow in identifying the best performing police handgun rounds.

Meanwhile, the Advertising Model—taking the manufacturer’s grandiose claims for having the newest and deadliest ammo at face value—had quickly failed. Winchester’s early Silvertip performed dismally in most handgun calibers, though it would later prove itself in subsequent generations of improved ammunition. Federal’s Hydra-Shok series worked superbly in .45 caliber, but performed less effectively with some smaller diameter bullets. The police soon learned to trust only the Laboratory and Experiential Models, preferably in combination.

Combined models

Experience has taught police that what actually happens on the street is more important than what happens in the artificial environment of the laboratory. The 9mm round now acknowledged to work the best is a 124-grain to 127-grain high tech hollow point at a velocity of 1250 feet per second. NYPD, with some 30,000 officers carrying this type of ammo, the Speer Gold Dot +P 124-grain, is happy with the performance of its 9mm service pistols. Ditto the Orlando, Florida, Police Department, which uses the Winchester Ranger 127-grain +P+ in their standard issue 9mm SIGs.

Tailor the tool to the task. Both of these hunting cartridges are .308 Winchester. The 165 grain Federal Premium at left is ideal for large deer, while the 125 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip at right is better suited for smaller animals like pronghorn antelope.

Most other departments have gone to more powerful rounds. The .40 S&W caliber is the overwhelming top choice of police departments today, followed by the .357 SIG and the .45. Created to duplicate the best ballistics of the .357 Magnum revolver in a semiautomatic pistol, the .357 SIG spits a 125-grain jacketed hollow point at 1300 to 1400 feet per second, delivering 500-plus foot-pounds of energy. Departments which have adopted it are delighted with the performance, reporting a high frequency of one-shot stops. The Virginia State Police, who issue the .357 SIG Model P229 pistol, told me that they were particularly pleased with the number of felons who dropped and stopped fighting after receiving non-fatal wounds in non-vital parts of the body.

In .40 caliber, the original 180-grain hollow point at subsonic velocity has worked better than expected, but the star performers in .40 ammo tend to be high tech bullets such as the Winchester SXT or Ranger T, the CCI Gold Dot, and the Remington Golden Saber with 155-grain bullets at 1200 foot-seconds or 165-grain bullets at 1140 to 1150 feet per second. Using the 165-grain Ranger in their .40 caliber Glocks, the Nashville, Tennessee, Police have amassed a long series of impressive one-shot stops.

In .45 caliber, the matured Federal Hydra-Shok design is something of a gold standard, and the Winchester SXT, Remington Golden Saber, and CCI Gold Dot also have delivered impressive performance in the field. These bullets reliably open up and get the job done. In .45 Auto, the 230-grain bullet at some 880 foot seconds has become standard in police work. Note that all of these are high-tech projectiles, what is known in the trade as “premium ammunition.”

Premium ammo

High tech bullets are more expensive to manufacture. The bonded core of the Gold Dot, the interlocked bullet body and jacket of the SXT, the post in the center of a Hydra-Shok’s hollow point, and the driving band that surrounds the base of a Golden Saber bullet are all more expensive to manufacture and therefore cost more. Why do police departments that buy on bid specify this premium ammunition? Because it works better, and with human life on the line, they cannot afford to economize.

America’s most popular police service pistol today is this Glock 22. It holds 16 rounds of .40 S&W ammo like this Black Hills EXP, which delivers 485 foot-pounds of energy per shot.

The same is true for the hunter, to a degree. Life may not be on the line, but performance is still important. If you are shooting a small deer at relatively close range with a high-powered hunting rifle, conventional hunting ammo bought in a “value-pack” at Wal-Mart will probably be good enough. However, if you are aiming at a thousand pound moose, and winter meat for the family hinges on the bullet performing its job, it’s more than worth a dollar a cartridge to have a high-performance bullet designed for this particular task.

This is why hunting rounds like the Federal Premium and the Winchester Supreme sell so well in gun shops. This ammunition is bought by the serious hunters. Their research, and the anecdotal experience of their friends who have used it in the game fields, has convinced them to pay a few dollars extra to guarantee as much as possible the best performance when there is an opportunity for only one shot and the results are critical.

In the end, the smart hunters have done exactly what the cops did. They went with the reality of what worked in the field, in a way that was quantified and given credibility in the laboratory. This approach mirrored the collective, institutionalized learning experience of law enforcement in ammunition selection.

Some call it a combination of the Experiential Model and the Laboratory Model. Some might call it Reality Based Selection Protocol.

And some just call it common sense.