The reason police unions and police firearms training units fought so hard for hollow point bullets back in the day was that they wanted their cops to survive gunfights with violent criminals. Simply put, expanding bullets stop the bad guys faster.
The history of law enforcement shows it, incontrovertibly. I was a young puppy when I learned of the case in which an NYPD officer emptied his six-shot .38 into a man charging him with a knife. The 158 grain round-nose lead .38 Special bullets just punched ice-pick wounds in one side of the criminal and out the other, and he was still able to stab the officer in the center of the chest. They died together on the street. Then I remember a friend of mine, a mid-Western policeman, who had to use a similar .38 Special revolver against a man trying to murder him: a single hollow point bullet in the center of the chest dropped the attacker in his tracks. My friend, all these years later, is still alive.
That was the history of the old “ball ammo” versus today’s hollow points. It runs true across the range of calibers in handguns, and even up into rifles. Why do hunters use expanding bullets on soft-skinned big game? Same reason: it drops them faster. Mammals are mammals, two-legged or four. Yes, some of both kinds of critters soak up a lot of bullets before they go down. As a rule, it takes fewer hollow points than it does “ball” rounds. This is why, from the Los Angeles Police Protective League to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in NYC, police representative organizations shouted long and loud for more effective ammo for their members. Once the hollow points were on the streets and the results were in, those cries died down.
Why is a citizen, security guard, or cop ever allowed to shoot a human being at all? Because that human being is doing something so terrible that the laws of Society and Man and God together have approved shooting him as justifiable homicide, to save the innocent from the man who has to be shot. The sooner he falls, the sooner he stops shooting or stabbing innocent people; the sooner his savagery ends, the better it is for all the innocent people concerned.
Wasn’t it Napoleon who supposedly said that God fought on the side that had the best artillery? If you’re on the righteous side, you want the best artillery…and, history shows, with small arms from pistols to rifles, the best artillery is a bullet that does more than punch a narrow, puckered ice-pick wound.
They don’t call cities “concrete canyons” for nothing. Many shootings have taken place at banks and courthouses. Did you ever notice that the architects who build such edifices seem to be obsessed with polished marble? It would be hard to design a substance more likely to cause ricochets. And, we all know, “bouncing bullets” follow unpredictable paths. Heavy bone can also deviate a bullet off its intended path. An adult lifetime of studying shootings has shown me multiple cases of bullets glancing off sloping foreheads, U-shaped human mandibles, etc.
If the Good Guy’s bullet ricochets away from its intended trajectory it can continue onward with enough residual velocity to kill the next innocent person it meets. This, obviously, is unacceptable.
While any bullet can ricochet on an extremely acute angle, the supposedly “more humane” round nose non-expanding bullet is MUCH more likely to do so. It’s as if the damn thing was DESIGNED to ricochet.
The hollow point bullet, by contrast, has a nose that is literally shaped like a cookie-cutter. It is MUCH more likely to bite into the hard surface it strikes, and either bury itself there, or shatter into small, less harmful fragments, or tumble and quickly decelerate, decreasing its power to cause injury.
The NYPD was one of the last police departments to drop “ball ammo” for hollow points. A couple of years ago, a controversial shooting took place outside the Empire State Building, in which two street cops engaged a man who pointed a .45 at them after just murdering a man. The officers quickly dropped him, but the department took a lot of heat because some nine bystanders were injured by their gunfire.
NONE of the injuries were life-threatening. Then-NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly initially reported that all the bystanders were hit by fragments. Later reports (and lawsuits) indicated that two or three of the bystanders might have been hit by whole bullets. At least two of those projectiles were recovered from a limb or a buttock at the treating hospital. Exact details on this have not yet been made public.
The officers were issued Speer Gold Dot 124 grain +P 9mm hollow points, which will penetrate a foot or more into solid muscle tissue simulating ballistic gelatin. If they stopped in a glute or a leg, they were obviously slowed down by something before they hit: something like the concrete planters outside the Empire State Building, which were behind the killer from the officers’ angle of fire. Had those been the full metal jacket round nose bullets that NYPD issued prior to 1999, more deeply penetrating wounds and more serious or even fatal injuries would likely have resulted from ricochets.
Reduced ricochet potential is another reason why virtually all of America’s police issue hollow points. It’s a public safety thing. But there are still more street-proven reasons to use hollow points, and we’ll detail them as this series continues.
Let’s return to the things which justify our choice of hollow-point bullets. A major factor – the one that convinced police chiefs in even the most “politically-correct” cities to insist on this ammo when some were calling for a ban on “dum-dum bullets” – was reduced penetration. Cops called them “controlled expansion rounds” because as the nose of the hollow-point bullet widened as it passed through flesh, it met more resistance and came to a stop sooner. Therefore, it was more likely to stay inside the only backstop the Good Guy or Gal pulling the trigger had: the body of the violent criminal attacker. Self-defense shootings, after all, aren’t likely to take place on gun ranges with the Bad Guy standing in front of a backstop.
Your typical military “ball” ammunition will tend to shoot through and through a human body with more than enough power to kill another human standing behind the intended recipient of the projectile. A full metal jacket (FMJ) round nose 9mm bullet will pierce two feet or more of ballistic gelatin, which is designed to replicate the resistance of human muscle tissue. A .45 “hardball” round in this configuration will penetrate 26” to 30” depending on the load. A human thorax is simply not that deep, nor that solid. Stand three average adult men in line: such a bullet will completely perforate the upper torso of the first, enter the chest and exit the back of the second, and lodge deep in the body of the third. It can kill three people in a row, two of them theoretically innocent bystanders.
“Just be sure of your target and background” is altogether too simplistic an approach to reducing that danger. Tunnel vision is known to occur in a majority of gunfight participants. Darkness may hide the innocent from the sight of the Good Guy who is firing. The Bad Guy’s body may even physically block the Good Guy’s view. This is why it’s important to have a bullet which is highly likely to remain in the intended target and not pass through.
You’ll hear the argument, “There’s more danger to bystanders from misses than from over-penetration, and you’re likely to miss some anyway, so don’t worry about it.” That is “apples and oranges,” and terribly short-sighted. It’s like saying “Don’t be afraid of herpes, AIDS is worse.” In each example, the smart person wants to avoid both bad outcomes.
Let’s say you come under fire from an armed robber this very night, and have no choice but to shoot back. One of your shots misses and strikes a bystander. It is tragic, but you have a very strong defense: in the Doctrine of Competing Harms, your disciplined defensive gunfire presented less danger to innocents behind the Bad Guy than his wanton, criminal gunfire presented to the innocents behind you. You were forced into difficult circumstances (a moving target in the dark, as you ducked desperately to avoid being shot as you returned fire), and the proximate cause of your less than perfect marksmanship was his action, not yours. It will very likely be seen as excusable: that is, it shouldn’t have happened, but it would have happened to any cautious, competent person in the same situation you had been forced into.
But let’s say your full metal jacket .45 ball round hit the bad guy in the chest, exited his back, and then struck the unseen bystander. You had ample time beforehand to select appropriate ammunition, and you knew or should have known this could happen…yet you used the wrong ammo anyway. Now, opposing counsel has the ingredients to cook up a recipe of “willful, wanton disregard for innocent human life” on your part.
So, reduced likelihood of dangerous over-penetration is one strong reason to use hollow points…but not the ONLY reason. There are more, and we’ll discuss them as this series continues.
Federal HST 230gr +P .45 caliber bullet shown here expanded, retrieved from hog.
I’m going to interrupt the series on hollow point ammunition for a time-sensitive announcement. My friend Rob Pincus is running for the NRA Board of Directors as a write-in candidate. If you’re a voting member, he’d appreciate your help.
I’ve known Rob for a long time. He’s a very bright and articulate guy, and comes from the home- and self-defense side rather than the sporting side. We don’t agree on everything, but I’ve always found him open to new ideas and extremely analytical in his approach.
New blood is a good thing for any organization. I think Rob Pincus would be good for the NRA, and I’m herewith endorsing him.
This past Monday I was at a state bar association headquarters, leading a panel discussion they were filming on gun modifications and gun-and-ammo choices as they relate to shooting cases. On the same day, half a world away, South African athlete Oscar Pistorius was on trial for murder in the death of his girlfriend. It turned out that the ammunition in the death weapon in South Africa was jacketed hollow point, and the prosecution was making a huge deal about its deadly effects, implying that using it was indicia of malice in and of itself. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/prosecutor-in-pistorius-trial-says-autopsy-testimony-is-graphic-should-not-be-broadcast/article17391312/. Oddly enough, at the bar association CLE (continuing legal education) film we discussed the same thing.
The ammo was reportedly Ranger, a Winchester brand which in this country is generally sold as “law enforcement only,” though outside of San Francisco I don’t know of any laws actually banning its use by private citizens. (Interestingly, the images they showed on CNN looked more like Federal HST. I watched the talking heads babble on about how the bullet spread itself out into petals that spun like a fan. Slice and dice…it could have been a Cuisinart commercial.
The panel they were filming on our end was made up entirely of people carrying Glock pistols with Winchester Ranger ammunition. The police chief who used to command LAPD Metro and SWAT had 124 grain Ranger +P in his 9mm Glock 17. The Sergeant/Rangemaster who had shot a guy with such a bullet was wearing the same Glock 21 he had used that night, with 230 grain Ranger .45 ACP. And I had the same ammo he did, in my RoBar custom Glock 30S.
The BS arguments about “malicious dum-dum bullets” have been going on for more than 40 years in this country. Yet such expanding bullets are issued to virtually all of American law enforcement, and are the smart thing to put in personal defense and home defense handguns. The reasons are reduced likelihood of overpenetration, reduced likelihood of ricochet, and faster neutralization of threats to the innocent so deadly that they warrant lethal force in the first place. I think those are incontrovertible arguments. But there’s also a fourth argument, and we’ll get to that before long.
This will kick off a five-part series, so our readers can have the tools to defend their use of appropriate ammunition when that choice is falsely questioned in a court of law.