Causing immediate death with any firearm is difficult, achievable almost only by a shot to the cranial vault that destroys the brain and nervous system. That is difficult to accomplish in a dynamic situation. It is why law enforcement officers, soldiers and civilians train to shoot center mass of the available target; it increases hit probability. As a result, that is where the debate of handgun stopping power is centered.
What handgun/ammunition combination will do the best job of stopping an attack when a bullet is placed center mass of the attacker? The operative word here is stop, not kill. If an attack is not halted immediately, death might be the ultimate result, but it might arrive too late to matter.
Animals, and that includes humans, die when their brains run out of oxygen. As a law enforcement officer, the first murder I investigated was perpetrated with a .17-cal. pellet rifle, proving to me that about any bullet through any vital organ can kill. But it can take from 10 seconds to 10 minutes to occur. In 10 seconds an attacker can carve you up like a Christmas turkey. What’s needed is a combination that’s very likely to make an attacker stop doing the thing that is endangering you, immediately.
Jim Cirillo, a New York City cop who survived many gunfights, once wrote, “The only one-shot stops I ever saw were a .38 Special Super Vel hollow point and a 12 gauge slug. Both shots were to the brain.” Two other cops, Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, authored three books examining one-shot stops from defensive handguns. Their work is shrouded in controversy for several reasons, but something that cannot be ignored is that they found multiple instances with every common defensive handgun cartridge where one-shot stops had occurred. Keep in mind their study was about one-shot stops, not one-shot kills. It is most important to recognize that Marshall and Sanow did not find a single cartridge that had not produced multiple one-shot stops.
How could that be? How could small caliber, pipsqueak guns stop attacks? The answer is simple; pain and fear. Police officers know that pain compliance is an important tool. They are issued batons and pepper spray to bring that about. But you don’t have to be a cop to know that. Few things control human behavior like pain. Smack your thumb with a hammer hard enough and you’ll immediately stop what you’re doing, and even the toughest cage fighter can be stopped with a solid hit to the groin, kidney or liver.
The key to immediately stopping an attacker with a handgun is either through the conscious fear that you’ll shoot him or through the conscious or unconscious fear and/or pain the shot inflicts. Fear and pain are why things such as pepper spray, batons and less-lethal rubber bullets are effective too. Regardless of how determined someone is to doing harm to someone else, if the aggressor is hurt badly enough he or she will stop. So, the logical approach to handgun stopping power would seem to be to use the combination capable of causing the most pain.
The problem with pain is that there is no way to measure the amount any combination might produce. It would seem that those loads that make very wide and nasty, but sometimes shallow wounds, such as Corbon’s 165-gr., .45 ACP +P load, would hurt the most; it will literally chew up the first 6" of a gelatin block. Loads like that damage a great deal more tissue than those that punch a neat hole all the way through a bad guy like a 230-gr., .45 ACP full-metal-jacket (FMJ) load, which can penetrate 3 ft. in gelatin. The data collected by Marshall and Sanow seem to support that conclusion. So do the results of the controversial Strasbourg Tests, in which multiple goats were shot while being electronically monitored.
That all makes sense, but by itself can be a foolhardy approach because pain is not experienced the same by everyone and pain can be blocked by adrenalin and drugs. Soldiers and police officers who have battled through pain become heroes, bad guys that do the same become wanted. It’s likely that the adrenaline in your attacker will be high and it’s possible he could be under the influence of a mind altering drug. Pain and fear are effective but might not be enough.