When it comes to handguns especially, “stopping power” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. But it’s an incredibly elusive topic – and there’s little consistency involved.
Exploring Stopping Power in Firearms
To start with, it means different things to different people.
When it comes to hunting, “stopping power” will refer to the firearm’s ability to kill – its “lethality value,” so to speak. But when it comes to defensive shooting, it usually means “prevent the attack from continuing.”
Which makes talking about stopping power more complicated than your local Gun Buddy would have you believe…
What Do We Mean By “Stopping Power”?
First things first: we’re focusing primarily on stopping power in defensive shooting here. This means we need to include the following in our definition of “stopping”:
- Inflicting enough pain to cause your attacker to cease their assault
- Incapacitating your attacker
- Hitting your attacker’s central nervous system
- Causing enough bleeding to starve your attacker’s brain of oxygen
It bears repeating that when it comes to the defensive use of a firearm, you shoot to stop, not kill, or with the intent to injure. This makes things even more complicated, though.
As a quick reminder, you can (and most likely will) get into a heap of legal trouble for shooting with the intent to injure.
A well-placed shot to the kneecap might immobilize your attacker long enough for the police to arrive, but it also gives the impression you weren’t truly fearful for your life. And that means you weren’t legally justified in drawing your firearm.
Killing your attacker is always a possibility. This is especially true considering you should never shoot an attacker with the intent to only injure.
But shooting with the intent to kill equates to murder. And that will bring about a whole heap of legal trouble too.
Remember this: defensive firearm use begins with drawing and presenting your weapon. Ideally, that’s also where it stops.
And if that is enough to get your attacker to back down, then that’s the best possible example of your firearm’s stopping power.
Of course, when we think of a firearm’s stopping power, most people aren’t talking about its visual impact, but its physical impact instead. So that’s what we’ll focus on today.
The Main Schools of Thought
You can generally divide the stopping power debate into a few different camps, those who:
- Believe in high velocity being the key
- Believe caliber size is the key
- Consider deeper penetration to be more important
- Consider dynamic expansion and moderate penetration to be the answer
- Sit on the fence and/or want an all-rounder
Unfortunately, we can’t really settle the debate. For every example of one factor working perfectly, there’s an example of it failing in comparison to its “opposite.”
To put it another way, there are simply far too many variables involved. What works best for one person in one specific scenario isn’t guaranteed to be the best solution for someone else in the same situation.
Ultimately, no matter what the velocity, caliber size, and level of penetration, there’s only so much power you can direct toward a threat while using a firearm.
And that (stopping) power is going to be influenced by things like the firearm size you can comfortably and realistically carry for self-defense and your personal capacity for handling recoil.
What Stopping Power in Hunting Can Teach Us
We know we said we’d be focusing on stopping power as it relates to defensive firing, but hear us out.
Ask any experienced hunter and they’ll tell you it’s not unknown for a deer to run 50 yards after having both lungs perforated by a centerfire rifle shot.
This is because animals die when the brain runs out of oxygen. You could perforate both lungs and the heart, and there’s still going to be a few seconds (or even a minute) before the animal goes down.
The same is true for humans, too. This is why police are trained to fire multiple times, not just pop one or two shots like action movie heroes.
To make the analogy even more concrete, a .223 Remington firing a 60-grain bullet has double the velocity and kinetic power of any defensive handgun.
Now think about this: when someone’s attacking you, even 10 seconds can feel like an eternity. Do you really want to wager your life on the hopes your attacker goes down faster than a deer?
Stopping Power in a Defensive Situation
Let’s bring it back to the different ways we can define “stopping.”
We’ve already established that waiting for their brains to starve of oxygen isn’t an ideal approach.
The next option we identified earlier was “hitting your attacker’s central nervous system.” We can tie this in with “incapacitating your attacker,” too, as both involve aiming for the spinal cord.
Though of course, the central nervous system also includes the brain itself and shattering your attacker’s pelvis is just as effective at incapacitating them.
However, we find similar issues here.
The head seems like an easy target until it’s an actual person, not a printed sheet of paper or a ballistic gel dummy.
Plus, you still have the issue of adrenalin and oxygen. Police shared horror stories of facing an armed attacker who had their skull blown open and were still able to return fire for nearly a full minute.
Successfully hitting the spinal cord is even more difficult because it’s such a narrow target. And if your attacker has a gun and can still move their arm, your problem isn’t solved yet.
The same goes for incapacitating them by shattering their pelvis with a well-placed shot.
This leaves us with “inflicting enough pain to cause your attacker to cease their assault.”
Perhaps the best example is a swift, powerful blow to the groin.
No matter how big and tough you are, you get hit in the tenders, and you’re going to be doubling up in pain.
And when that happens, you’re likely going to be dropping everything you were doing and holding too.
Evaluate and Defend
So when it comes to stopping power, what’s the most effective?
Truth be told, there isn’t any single answer. Even pain isn’t a sure-fire stopping force, especially if your attacker is pumped full of drugs.
As with most things relating to firearms, you need to evaluate the situation at hand, use the gun that works best for you, and train religiously.
What are your thoughts about stopping power? Write them down in the comments section!