Ammunition Myths and Facts

In the 1970s, a major controversy over the use of hollow-point handgun ammunition by police agencies erupted. The arguments against the use of this ammunition were generally emotional, with claims of "mutilating wounds" and organs reduced to "unidentifiable chopped meat." Most of the arguments heard for and against the use of hollow-point handgun ammunition were based on myths, false assumptions, and second-hand stories spread by both opponents and proponents of this type of ammunition.

From the introduction of the .38 Special cartridge in 1902 until the late 1970s, handguns chambered for this cartridge were used by most police agencies in the United States. The traditional .38 Special cartridge was loaded with a 158-gr., all-lead, round-nose bullet, propelled at velocities of 700 to 850 ft/sec. In the mid-1960s, many police organizations began to complain about this cartridge. They felt that this round did not have any "stopping power." They cited numerous instances in which officers, firing this cartridge in self-defense, were unable to stop their attacker before they injured the officer or an innocent bystander. What police agencies desired was a pistol cartridge that would stop a person "dead in his tracks." There is, of course, no such pistol cartridge and there never will be. "Stopping" an individual depends not only on the characteristics of a cartridge but also on the organ(s) injured, the severity of the wound (s) and the physiologic makeup of the person who is shot.

When a bullet strikes tissue, it produces injuries by two mechanisms: (1) directly crushing and shredding a wound track equal to the diameter of the bullet, and (2) creating a temporary cavity. These actions result in both anatomic and physiologic injuries that impair the function of the organs affected.

If a 9-mm hollow-point bullet expands (mushrooms) to 12 mm in passing through an organ, the amount of tissue crushed and shredded will, theoretically, be greater than if the bullet did not expand or if it was a solid bullet. In reality, a solid or non-expanding bullet may produce equal if not more direct injury to tissue, if it tumbles after achieving penetration while the hollow-point doesn't. Solid bullets may even be more lethal than mushrooming bullets. As a general rule, mushrooming bullets do not penetrate as deeply as solid bullets because they mushroom. If the aorta, for example, is 14 inches from the skin surface and the mushrooming bullet stops after 12 inches of penetration but the solid bullet travels for 18 inches, then the solid bullet is more lethal than the hollow-point.

There is no objective proof that in real-life situations mushrooming of a bullet plays a significant role in increasing lethality or the "stopping power" of the bullet. This is because of the other factors that can also influence the amount of tissue destruction and incapacitation, e.g., the organ injured, the state of the organ at the time of impact (distended or collapsed), the stability of the bullet, and the emotional state of the victim, etc.

As a bullet moves through the body, not only does it directly injure tissue, it also creates a temporary cavity. The size of this cavity is directly related to the amount of kinetic energy lost by the bullet in the tissue. A hollow-point bullet should lose more kinetic energy in a vital organ than a non-expanding bullet. This is because as a hollow-point bullet travels through the tissue, it expands, creating greater resistance to its travel, decelerating more rapidly, and losing more kinetic energy than a solid bullet. As a result of this, the temporary cavity produced by the hollow-point bullet will be greater in size than that from a solid bullet. The key word in discussing cavity formation is "temporary." This cavity lasts only 5 to 10 msec before the tissue springs back into position as a result of the tissue's inherent elasticity and resiliency. In the case of handgun bullets, the size of the temporary cavities produced by hollow-point bullets versus non-deforming bullets is not significantly different so as to effect the severity of wounds. In other words, the temporary cavity phenomena is of little or no significance in wounding when dealing with handgun bullets.

Whether using either a hollow-point or a solid-lead handgun bullet to inflict a mortal injury, the bullet must strike a vital organ. Although hollow-point bullets, in comparison to traditional solid lead bullets, theoretically have a greater ability to kill by virtue of greater physiologic injury to an organ, such differences are only theoretical. An individual shot through the heart with a solid, round-nose bullet is just as likely to die as an individual shot through the heart with a hollow-point bullet. In the case of a gunshot wound of the lung, theoretically the hollow-point would be more likely to cause death. In reality, the speed at which a wounded individual is transported to the hospital is a greater determining factor as to whether the individual will live or die than the type of ammunition used.

More important than the theoretical concept of greater "stopping power," hollow-point ammunition does possess two virtues. The first is that such bullets tend to stay in the body. It is therefore unlikely that a bullet will exit and injure innocent bystanders. Second, hollow-point bullets tend to break up rather than ricochet if they strike hard objects. Again, this trait works to prevent injury to innocent bystanders.

There are a number of myths about hollow-point handgun ammunition which tend to impart a bad reputation to this type of ammunition. First, it should be said that hollow-point bullets do not mutilate organs or destroy them any more than their solid-nose, all-lead counterparts of the same caliber. The wounds in the skin, as well as those in the internal organs, are the same in appearance and extent for both types of ammunition. One cannot examine the wounds in a body and say that the individual was shot with a hollow-point rather than a solid-lead bullet. No organs are reduced to a "chopped meat" by a handgun bullet.

The second myth is that hollow-point handgun bullets fragment or "blow up" in the body. Fragments, both jacket and/or core, may break off a hollow-point bullet especially if it strikes a bone — but this breakup is not significant.

What is the origin of these myths? Part of the explanation is the normal exaggeration and distortion that occurs in stories when they are passed from person to person. Second is the fact that many people, with little or no experience with hollow-point handgun ammunition, do not let this inexperience stand in the way of their offering "expert" testimony on the topic. Third is the fact that some people confuse wounds caused by soft-point and hollow-point centerfire rifle bullets with those caused by handgun bullets. Individuals shot with soft-point or hollow-point rifle bullets show significantly more severe wounds than people wounded by handgun bullets—rifle bullets shed large numbers of fragment in the body. Confusion between handgun and centerfire rifle bullets or statements based on experience only in the military, where centerfire rifle bullets are the rule, may have caused the origin of some of these myths about hollow-point handgun bullets.

Is there any situation in which a hollow-point handgun bullet will invariably stop an individual "dead in his tracks"? Yes, if the bullet injures a vital area of the brain, the brain stem, or the cervical spinal cord. But any bullet, regardless of style or caliber, injuring these organs will cause instant inca-pacitation. It is the nature of the structure injured, not the nature of the bullet, that causes the incapacitation. Aside from areas in the central nervous system, while a bullet may produce rapid incapacitation, there is no guarantee that it will produce instant incapacitation. This is because in these other areas incapacitation is produced indirectly by depriving the brain of blood and oxygen. Since the brain can function for 10 to 15 seconds without oxygen, even if all blood is cut off by the wound, the individual can function for this time period. If the injury does not shut off the flow of blood to the brain completely, an individual will be capable of normal activity until they lose approximately 25% of their total blood volume. The amount of time necessary for this to happen can vary from a few seconds (plus the 10 to 15 second oxygen reserve of the brain), to minutes, to hours depending on the structures injured, compensatory mechanisms of the body and attempts to staunch the bleeding by the victim. The fact that an individual can be mortally wounded, yet still be capable of aggressive actions and a threat, sometimes for a prolonged amount of time, is not appreciated by the public whose concepts of shootings is derived from television and the movies. This is periodically manifested by outcries from the public and the news media against the police when an officer shoots a perpetrator multiple times.

While there are numerous cases where an individual has received a mortal wound and continued to function, there are also numerous cases where an individual collapsed immediately after receiving a non-lethal, even minor, wound. In these cases, the rapid incapacitation is due to psychological and physiological reactions to the trauma, specific to the victim, and not the nature of the wounds.

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