What Stopping Power is Enough For a Self Defense Gun

I am a Forensic Pathologist and avid shooter with a particular interest in gunshot wounds. After 15 years and literally
thousands of autopsies, I have come to some conclusions about the business end of shooting people. I have, however, never shot anyone, nor been shot, nor even had to draw my gun. Take my thoughts for whatever you think they are worth.

The sad fact is that *all* handguns are underpowered. This has caused many theories and scientific studies on stopping power to be advanced and debated at length, mostly because it sells shooting magazines. Ive reviewed them all, including Hatchers RSP, NIJs RII, Marshall and Sanows definitive studies, the so-called Strasbourg Tests, etc. All of the theories are, by definition, unproved. All of the studies share one common trait: they are at best junk science; at worst, total fraud.

In the real world, all of the theories and science and statistical rankings for one shot stops are meaningless. Some people will soak up an amazing amount of lead and continue to wreak havoc, others will drop like a rock from a relatively trivial hit. Statistics and percentages dont mean a thing in *your* individual case: for you, its either 100% or 0%.

From a medical standpoint, there are only a few mechanisms by which people are rendered incapable of purposeful action (stopped). Many are stopped when shot anywhere on their body, by any bullet. This cannot be predicted by any formula or theory; it happens when it happens. Leaving aside these unpredictable cases of psychological stops, there are only 2 reliable ways to achieve a physiological stop, defined as rendering your assailant physically incapable of further action. Both ways require good bullet placement. Both of these are also fatal, something that should be immaterial: if he was enough of a threat that he needed shooting, then deadly force was justified. Some gun owners haven’t quite grasped this concept, something for another discussion.

The most certain way to achieve a stop is to disrupt the central nervous system. Sufficient damage to the midbrain, brainstem, or upper cervical spinal cord causes all purposeful activity to cease instantly. These lie in the lower portion of the skull below the level of the eyes. Ideally, your bullet would enter the skull just above where it joins the spine. From the front, the target area is the triangle formed by the eyes and bottom of the nose. Much more easily said than done, however, as the head tends to move about a bit.

The other way is to so damage the vascular system that blood flow to the brain effectively ceases. This is best done by hitting the heart or its great blood vessels. The heart is more centrally located than is commonly thought. The target area (from the front) is the center of the chest. The problem is that the brain has an internal oxygen reserve of approximately 15 seconds before it shuts down. Totally destroy a mans heart, and he can still run a hundred yards or continue to shoot or stab you for another 10-15 seconds. Still, the target area is significantly bigger and less mobile than the head. This is core of true Stopping Power; everything else is voodoo.

Shooters under stress tend to shoot high. If the shots are laterally centered, stringing them upward may also hit the
carotid arteries and cervical spine, both good targets. The ideal target area is, therefore, a 2-3 inch wide band running upward from the solar plexus to the eyes. Some have taken these facts and developed something they term the Zipper technique: Aim at center of mass and fire multiple shots as rapidly as possible, letting recoil string the shots upward.

Much has been made of the superiority of one cartridge or bullet type over another. In truth, everything larger than the .32 ACP works pretty much the same. A more powerful cartridge gives you *a little* more margin for error, but the basic truth remains: Only good hits count.

Stopping Power is really quite simple, once you know the critical anatomy. Use the most powerful gun you can control and get out and practice!

So, What Has the Best Stopping Power for Self Defense

If you travel far enough and wide enough on the ‘net you can find advocacy for almost all caliber handguns. There is a, for example, a poster which says a .22 in the hand is better than a .45 at the house. And, to many, such arguments for any caliber handgun seem to make sense.

But let’s drop the mumbo jumbo here and talk plain sense. If you are going to obtain and use a handgun for self defense, what you want is the ability to stop an assailant with the first, the second, at worst, the third shot. Your odds of doing that skyrocket with two factors. One is your accuracy (which takes practice). The other is the diameter of the bullet and the powder charge behind it.


Bullets of 1/4″ or less (.22 and .25 caliber) serve best as varmint ammo. They are the most lethal to small furry critters considered pests or as game in many rural areas. Make no mistake, they can kill humans as well but it takes either a very well placed shot or a fatal loss of blood. As a predator (or an assailant) is much larger than a varmint, it really takes more than the fire power of a “mouse gun” to stop them when seconds count.

This is not to say there is no place for small guns in regard to self-defense. It is important to be aware there are other choices. Very important. Small guns may simply not be the best first choice. Can such guns kill? Damned right they can. But how many shots will it take? Will you have enough time?

Wait!” So say some. “What about hollowpoint ammo?” Hollow point teeny weeny bullets don’t typically mushroom, they deform. This increases their effectiveness with small moving targets but very little, if at all, with a human assailant. If tiny caliber guns have their place in self defense, it is more as a novelty than as an effective tool in the war against crime. ORthey may be suitable as a backup or second weapon.

So here we reach the border of what the “experts” judge to be calibers which have effective stopping power and necessary lethality. And holding the borderline position is .32 ACP ammunition. Some would no sooner use it than .22 or .25. Others maintain when concealability is paramount, this is as small as one should go. Well, it was good enough for John Dillenger. It has been used for years by European police forces. So, at best, this caliber is a compromise between effective self defense and reliable knock down firepower. It just may not be a good first choice. As a second weapon for special circumstances, its utility becomes understandable.

.380 Stopping Power Click HereIt is more common to see the line in the sand drawn at .380 ACP than at .32. At this caliber, hollowpoints will consistently mushroom and the recoil and the muzzle flash can be handled by shooters of almost any age, any stature, and of either gender. In recent years, small automatic pistols have become available which rival the diminutive size of the .32, .25, and .22 models. And .380 stopping power is documented at such sites as Handguns Magazine. Keep in mind, though, that the ability of this caliber slug to mushroom is significantly affected by barrel length (as is accuracy).


As stated above, in general, a new or novice user’s best first choice for a home defense handgun is very often a revolver. Image of a revolverWhile there are variety of small caliber revolvers available in .22 Magnum and .32 H&R; Magnum, the best stopping power starts at (.380 ACP or) .38 Special.

Small frame 38’s such as the Taurus Model 85 (available new) or the S&W; LadySmith Model 36 (sometimes found NIB, more often, used) provide a good mix of stopping power and concealability at or near the size of sub-par caliber revolvers. And, if desired, easy-to-learn-to-use-and-shoot “wheel guns” are available in calibers large enough to hunt big game.

Revolvers appear to be falling out of fashion. Most gun shops and gun dealers at gun shows carry many more semi-automatic pistols than revolvers these days. Experienced, multiple gun owners ask for them most often. A big reason is ammunition capacity. Small revolvers often carry only five rounds where small automatics typically can carry six or seven in a magazine and one in the chamber putting them at least two up in capacity. And larger autos can carry ten or more rounds whereas common wheel guns are “sixguns” (though 7- and 8- shooters can be found). This focus on capacity is unfortunate because incidents in which guns are used for self-defense seldom involve more than three shots from the defender.

There’s more to self-defense firearms than stopping power.
Handguns used for self-defense and/or CCW need to meet these criteria:

A. They need to be comfortable in the shooter’s hand. This can affect accuracy at the practice range and critically affect accuracy in a self-defense incident when there is little or no time for mistakes.

B. They need to be easy to load, point, to shoot and, if needed, to reload. These matters can almost always be improved by time at a practice range.

C. They need to be large enough to be seen, to make a visual impression. A visual impression on a user pointing at an assailant, a visual impression on an advancing assailant who, typically, can cover the last 20 feet ‘tween ye and he in less than two seconds. Give him cause to reconsider.

Finally, they need to fire ammo of sufficient power to stop the target/assailant, to immediately stop the danger.

An interesting page about CCW and Holsters.



Once one gets past the smaller calibers, ammunition more typically used by law enforcement and the military provides a broad spectrum of choices. These calibers are used by professionals because they do a better job of stopping an assailant or a combatant than less powerful ammo. The problem with these larger loads is that the recoil is very unpleasant or just too much for those with small hands, weak wrists, severe arthritis.

The larger sizes run from .357 to 9mm to .40 to .45 calibers. They are more often much more capable of “one shot stops” than less powerful bullets. Smaller ammunition has its share of single shot terminations of a self-defense event but statistics indicate their frequency is significantly lower.In recent years, big bore handguns are available in smaller, more concealable sizes. Sometimes referred to as “pocket rockets,” these guns should be considered for some self-defense situations. And avoided for others.

Larry Pearson is an NRA certified pistol instructor and a member of the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers, as well as a former police officer, former military firearms instructor and lifelong student of the martial arts. He also felt that he had something of value to share with the firearms community, and wondered which gunzines he should approach with the above essay. The problem was that he was dealing in ideas and concepts, and virtually all of the present gunzines only want articles about products and services so that their advertising department can sell space and everyone can make money. This is the American way. This is his first published work.

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