Sunday, January 4, 2015

Low Penetration Rounds for Defense

Low Penetration Rounds for Defense

Generally you will not see many ammo reviews out there simply because… well they are usually pretty boring when compared to reading about the gun you shoot the ammo in. Hopefully I can make this relevant enough that you will keep reading by asking this critical question. Would you find it acceptable for your kids, wife or friend to be hit collaterally while defending your life? I would bet most people would answer “no”.

First let me say that this is a discussion around limiting over penetration & maximizing damage, and not around ammo which can shoot through the most complex imaginable barriers which fit the FBI Standard.

It is very important to understand the direct need of FBI's ballistic penetration standards. Their standards require that they have the ability to penetrate obstacles such as car doors, car glass, and typical structural barriers, while providing enough penetration for across the body shots where arms or shoulders may get in the way and still have penetration reach vital organs during a worse case barrier shot. In reality FBI really wants 18" of penetration but they think 12" is a minimum. Obviously the dynamics of an attacking shooter will not always present a flat center of mass torso shot, however this is the most statistically typical shot/target opportunity that occurs. The problem, from my perspective is that rounds delivering worse case penetration depth have proven to easily overpenetrate flat center of mass torso  and even angled torso shots.

Another point I would like to make is that “Your Performance May Vary”. Real-world testing of your favorite ammo fired from YOUR gun will vary from the performance manufacturers specs and testing. FBI Spec ammo may not perform to FBI spec in your gun, or it may overperform and be a super-overpenetration round.

Winchester Ranger
 .223 Round
The reality is that most ammo used these days are designed around the FBI’s 12”-18” penetration standards which I believe are totally irrelevant standard for civilian defensive situations. I am not alone in a perspective that 12”-18” of bullet penetration is too much in modern defensive environments. It has been shown over and over that rounds which meet these FBI standard tend to overpenetrate the target and deliver deadly force after passing through a perpetrator or barrier. I consider this an unacceptable risk to bystanders even when you do make each shot connect.

The person behind the guy with the gun could be a friend, your wife, kids, or just drywall with any number of unintended targets beyond the wall. In the home, defending yourself becomes a 360 degree shooting environment where bullets can pass through many walls and impact loved ones in other rooms inside the home or even people and neighbors outside the home. Many companies are now offering high expansion low penetration rounds which I am personally an advocate for.

Statistically it is unlikely I will ever need to pull my gun for defense, and would be a statistical anomaly that I would also be required to defend myself in a situation which required shooting through barriers to stop an attacker. Some would ask statistically why then would I even bother worrying about what ammo is in my gun? Wouldn't a more deadly less penetrating round generate more liability? Well that is another perspective and generates another set of questions.

Admittedly Government and Law Enforcement may have a need for these rounds, however I am skeptical of these standards which were based almost solely on a 1986 Miami FBI shootout with 20-year old handgun bullet technology against a .223 Rifle. I personally think these "standards" need updating based on new bullet technology and calibers of today. 

Almost every single ineffective round which hit the shooter during that 1986 Miami FBI shootout was not a top end hollow point of the time, but in some cases semi-wadcutters fired from .38 Special revolvers. In order to answer the need of more power by the FBI, the 10mm Auto round was developed which ultimately proved "too powerful" to shoot for most agents and then the .40 SW was created based on a light 10mm round. It is my opinion that the FBI was looking for a magic pistol bullet to put down any threat when a rifle would be much more appropriate, however the human body does not work that way. Sometimes despite all odds the body keeps going. The FBI penetration test was created based on this event and it specifically includes the need to shoot through barriers or completely across the body.

While training at ITI we had the opportunity to shoot through car doors, glass car windows and a number of barriers with the low penetration/high fragmentation rounds such as Liberty Civil Defense 9mm ammo and Federal Guard Dog rounds. Even with these “low penetration rounds, I was convinced through actual testing that even typical FBI barriers could still be defeated if needed with multiple round shots. My perspective is that high penetration rounds which meet FBI standard loading in civilian guns only net more legal liability once the gun goes off do to high potential "pass through" rates. If you do your own research, testing, and look at pass through shots police have delivered on perps which have harmed or killed bystanders you will certainly rethink using high penetration rounds in defensive guns.

I love the FBI Penetration Standards, heck that is the primary reason we have the gloriously awesome Glock 20 10mm and Glock 29 10mm and other 10mm pistols on the market. Without the FBI backing, the 10mm never would have been a significant round in the industry. With the very bleeding edge non-lead Liberty 10mm rounds, you end up with 2400 freaking FPS and a stunning 770 Foot/Lbs of energy. Well... OK the 10mm in this form could be the round the FBI is finally looking for.

Sounds odd, LP rounds are potentially safer and also more deadly. They are safer because they do not over penetrate and more deadly because 100% of the energy is dissipated within 6"-10" instead of only partial energy delivery due to over penetration. Liberty Ammo, Federal and Hornady all have rounds in both pistol and rifle which fall into this lower penetration bullet model either by design or by the simply physics of their designs. Historically, pistol rounds have proven in testing, to overpenetrate beyond perpetrators and double sided drywall much more than .223 rifle rounds. In most cases typical .223 defensive rifle rounds will deliver some shrapnel, on the other side of the attacker or wall, however pistol rounds nearly always overpenetrate unless the bullets have been specifically designed not to do so. Historically this is one of the primary reasons I advocate for an AR15 for home defense loaded with light hollow points over a handgun or shotgun. The risk of wall to wall penetration is diminished greatly when low weight hollow points are used in AR15 rifles such as .223 40 Gr V-Max or Liberty Silverado 50gr rounds when compared to handgun rounds.
Liberty 55gr Lead Free .223 Round

Liberty Ammo and Federal both have low penetration handgun rounds. The Guard Dog rounds are essentially enclosed Hollow Points rounds which mushroom violently with a design which will not overpenetrate. In my testing, I have yet to have a .45 ACP or 9mm Guard Dog round penetrate more than 10" of ballistic gel, which I love. Previously all my carry and home defense pistols were loaded with Federal Guard Dog ammo simply because the handgun ammo was specifically designed to not penetrate home walls. This total metal jacketed hollow point also feeds unbelieveable well even in guns that are a bit finicky. I personally love this round.

Liberty ammo recently introduced their Civil Defense handgun ammo which delivers the same low penetration features as the Guard Dog ammo, but with a higher 450 Ft/lbs of energy from the 9mm round.  The Liberty Ammo expands and shreds violently within the first 6"-8" and again I never saw over 10" of penetration from this round in ballistic gel. Another attribute of the Liberty Civil Defense ammo is that it is a significantly higher velocity than other 9mm defensive rounds with a very light 50gr 2000 FPS bullet. With this light of a projectile and a speed approaching many rifle rounds, I am very satisfied with how the bullet disintegrated on impact with wood and other materials - thus greatly lessening barrier or body overpenetration. Both of these rounds deliver huge cavitation (wound cavities) in only 6"-8" of gel. Either of these rounds are highly recommended by me for handguns.

Equally important are defensive shots required outside the home. Think of the typical violent crime areas of malls, movie theaters, and restaurants where there are lots and lots of other people around behind an attacker.  It is statically likely that even if you do have a 100% hit ratio (which is unlikely in stress), that those directly behind the attacker will also fall due to your rounds. I never want to be in this situation legally where over penetrating rounds have hit a bystander and have taken measures to reduce that potential situation by selecting low penetration rounds for my handguns carried or used for defense.

Similarly I use Liberty’s Silverado .223 rounds, Winchester Power Point Super X/Ranger, Hornday’s TAP, or 40gr V-Max rounds in defensive rifles because I am satisfied after testing that these rounds do not deliver multi-wall over penetration or more than 10” of ballistic penetration.  My goal for any of my defensive rounds is 6”-8” of ballistic gel penetration with a maximum of 10” of penetration.

If you start doing the research on those autopsies of victims of .223 rounds which have specifically been shot with hollow point rounds (not FMJ military NATO round), you begin to see that explosive expansion of low penetration HP rounds almost always deliver “one shot stop” lethality in .223 even when vital organs are not hit. I encourage you to do your own research and testing, measure the thickness of your own body back to chest and tell me whether you would rather have maximum expansion and round energy delivered fully in the first 8” or the first 12”-18" and then do your own testing on ballistics gel with a layer of clothing over the gel. I think you will change your mind that the FBI standard could create enormous liability for you.

Hornady 40gr VMax .223 Round
Plain and simply the military cannot use hollow point rounds due to a gentleman's agreement dating back to the Hague Convention unless it is specifically to improve flight characteristic of sniper rounds or for special ops folks. They legally can, however they just don't on a wide spread basis. 

This means the military uses only "ball" ammo which is in essence FMJ rounds or steel core penetrator rounds. So ultimately every round they use is totally irrelevant and inappropriate as a civilian defensive round as is any data collected regarding military round lethality. Actually most of the military folks would like to be using hollow point rounds as well. Due to the fact that we as civilians do not need to adhere to the Hague Convention which limits military ammunition to exponentially less lethal "ball" FMJ ammunition, we can use hollow point ammo for defense in both handguns and rifles. Fundamentally, the performance of hollow point ammunition is exponentially different than anything the military can use. So instead of one shot take downs of guys attempting to bomb your battalion, there are reports of having to shoot attackers up to a dozen times. Personally I think the Geneva Convention is outdated for today's wars, but that is all above my paygrade. Just note that any military lethality data is irrelevant to your needs as a civilian.

Many have noted that the military seems to be moving back to the .45 ACP. One of the reasons is that it makes a big hole which is more leather than a smaller hole when the bullets are in essence just FMJ. The only option they have is to shoot bigger bullets or drive them at a higher velocity.  In many ways this is why I think the FN Five SeveN makes quite a bit of sense as a military Geneva Convention approved handgun round.

The 300 Blackout has been reported to perform extremely well simply because the military is not able to use hollow point rounds and a FMJ round in .308 will make a bigger hole than a .223 FMJ round and over penetration I hear is not a huge concern of the military.

The dynamics of gun shots are multi-dimensional. Some doctors say wounds close to the skin deliver the pain required to stop attackers, others note wound cavity has higher incapacitation, or the trauma of vital organ damage. Vital organs are only 4" deep on humans, so a large wound which reaches only 6" deep, is deep enough to deliver the pain of a shallow wound, incapacitation of a large wound cavity with the trauma of vital organ damage. This wound is exactly the type of wound which also prevents over penetration and the ammo I outlined delivered in my testing.

To be clear, I am NOT going to publish photos of my ballistics findings for a number of reasons, however most importantly, I believe this testing is a personal decision and should be done by you with YOUR gun. Also I am not saying that you should opt for a a handgun when you have access to a rifle. By all means please defend yourself with a rifle where possible with the round you believe are right for your particular penetration needs. 

You personally need to feel comfortable about your findings and not the findings of some random editor on the internet. Additionally you need to also feel comfortable with testing the "findings" and resulting penetration requirements of the FBI which most ammo manufacturers follow. My position is that I believe the FBI penetration standard is clearly the wrong requirement for civilian defense ammo and creates a liability, however you need to see this with your own testing. Shoot though wood, drywall, bone, and ballistics gelitan and clay and most of all, talk with local ER docs who have treated gun shot wounds and then make your own decisions. What I saw was constant over penetration, but you may find something different.

Don't take my word on this school of thought, test it yourself and then let me know whether you would feel comfortable being the guy behind the guy being shot with FBI standard ammo. This is an article which lays down the challenge for everyone to start thinking different about the rounds coming out the ends of our guns.


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Unknown said...

Great article! I've often thought about this notion of over penetration, particularly when the old Corbon 115+P with the Sierra bullet was considered, in the 90's, to be an ideal "stopper" but only penetrated in the 8"-10" range.

Major Pandemic said...

This was a comment emailed which I value and is definitely a perspective worth sharing.
by CT Fitzhugh
Hey man, first of all fan of your site. You do good work. I read your article about penetration standards and I’m not a public forum kind of guy when it comes to conversations on ballistics. Bold move on your part my friend!

I find myself very skeptical when it comes to boutique ammo like what liberty is offering with large claims and formerly with an SF logo on the box. That being said I’m open minded and if it works it works.

You present some interesting and logical arguments backed with your own research which I respect. I wanted to contact you simply to engage in an intelligent conversation without all the emotional internet flaming.

I decided long ago to accept the fact that handguns are marginal at best at stopping human beings quickly and that what you get is a permanent crush cavity that amounts to a hole punched through tissue. The lesson is obvious. Hit something important and hit it over and over until you stop the threat. I always break it down into what I call hydraulics and electrical. Hit the CNS and turn out the light switch. Otherwise induce enough blood loss to rapidly reduce blood pressure in order to produce fight stopping shock. Although a gunshot victim may be a dead man walking as you well know “dead men” can still fight back long enough to take you with them.

For these reasons and based on my own research into gun shot victims I advocate the 9mm. More ammo, faster follow up shots, cheaper to practice with so you can hit something important and the average shooter will have less difficulty handling it. Nothing worse than reloading in a time is life situation 10 rounds sooner than you needed to. Now when you get below a 9mm the energy states are such that rounds will not track reliably in human tissue (not good in my opinion) and when you get into the rifle territory the kinetic energy changes significantly enough in the other direction to create a new set of rules.

I say all of this because I agree that light weight fast rounds can be very devastating like what we see in many rifle calibers. I also agree that rounds that effectively expand and dump all of their energy into a target can be very lethal. I am skeptical however with regards to liberty that 2000FPS will actually be achieved and whether or not a 50gr bullet at such velocity will have sufficient energy to put it the rifle category of ballistics (not that you specifically implied that). A 55gr 5.56 round delivers nearly 3 times the energy of what liberty is advertising. I know ballistic gel test and other very much less scientific mediums can look very impressive but if a 50 grain projectile hits at 200fps and fragments what will it really do? I know rifle rounds hit hard enough to expand human tissue with such force as to cause secondary hemorrhaging and thus more blood loss. I wonder if a handgun round can achieve the same or if you will just get several smaller holes that did not penetrate as deep?

I understand your argument is based upon over penetration and legal liability but I think your logic breaks down in two places. As you say misses are a reality and if liberty or other similar ammo is so much more lethal that other modern hollow points as they claim, then isn’t it an equal if not more severe liability? If your misses impact bystanders and those bystanders are killed by this more effective ammunition you are in deep water right?
Continued on next comment...

Major Pandemic said...

Continued ....

The truth is I think you are in deep legal water no matter what if you are involved in any self defense shooting in public and most especially so if you hit someone other than the intended target. This brings me to my second point. The PRIMARY concern is the threat and stopping the threat as fast as possible. If my life and the life of others is in immediate danger then I want the most effective tool for the job to remove the threat. Bystanders and innocents are of course a consideration but accomplish the task at hand first. If left intact that person is still a threat to you, to other and to you family.

Of course you could tell me that you are more concerned with hitting family members in other rooms than anything else. I understand this argument on the surface but again if you fail to stop the threat where does that leave your life and the lives of your loved ones? Maybe a different weapon is the answer maybe its not? I believe that violence is never pretty and there is no perfect answer. The one universal truth, however, is when violence is the answer it is the ONLY answer and you must solve the problem as quickly and effectively as possible. In that moment all else is secondary…as shitty as that is.

Your argument is the first one I’ve seen in favor of such ammo that is even mildly compelling and not based on shooting hams and clay. Curious about your thoughts and keep the blog going! You are doing good work!