The topic of handgun stopping power is immensely popular both on line and in the printed media. I cannot be critical of those who follow the topic closely as I was once fascinated by it as well…so much so that I actually made it the subject of my Master’s Thesis in Criminal Justice Administration. When doing my research for that paper, my former law enforcement agency allowed me to use letterhead to request shooting and autopsy reports from across the nation. This effort resulted in a network of people I was able to draw upon over the years to keep track of which rounds/calibers were actually working in the street and which were not. As these folks retired (along with me), my network shrunk, which is fine as I now realize that bullet size, expansion and velocity are only part of the equation. As Dr. Vincent DiMaio, former Texas Medical Examiner and the author of Gunshot Wounds, once said, “It’s where you hit them and how many times you hit them” is the real key to handgun incapacitation potential.
Expansion does offer some performance advantages, however. An expanding bullet slows inside the body delivering energy to surrounding tissues. Some question how much tissue damage expansion creates but let’s be honest…it sure can’t hurt! Common sense tells us a bullet that gets bigger has the potential to reach out and destroy more as it passes. In addition, a bullet that stays in the body does not become a danger to non-hostiles that may be behind a perpetrator that needed to be shot. Of course, missed shots are a greater hazard than over-penetrating rounds, but his has always been the case. And keep in mind the bullet that hits the wall next to our attacker pretty much nullifies all of the ballistic research that went into its creation! The down side of a bullet that expands and slows is lack of penetration, both in the body and through hard objects the suspect may be hiding behind. Motor vehicles are of special interest to law enforcement officers as a high percentage of enforcement activities take place in and around cars and trucks. Considering the amount of time the average citizen spends in and around cars, there is also a good chance a vehicle could become a factor in an armed citizen shooting as well.
Simplistically, a conventional hollow point expands due to what some call a “hydraulic factor” or “fluid physics”, i.e. fluid (blood, urine, fecal matter), wet material (tissue), or other matter enter the bullet’s nose cavity and due to the forward motion of the bullet said material cannot escape backwards so the side walls of the bullet rollover. In early hollow point designs, this “collapse’ was usually one side or the other…if at all…but was seldom a complete mushroom as seen when the bullet was fired into consistent tissue simulant. The human body is not a consistent medium with hard bone, tough muscle, soft gelatin-like fat and wet fluid filled regions being the norm. Current hollow point deigns have solved previous expansion problems via cavity and jacket designs that allow for consistent expansion of the side walls. Bonding mechanisms have increased penetration through tissue and intermediate barriers. But even as good as current hollow point designs are, they are still subject to plugging due to solid material clogging the cavity turning the bullet into a conventional round nose projectile, likely passing though whatever is shot.
Several years ago, I was invited to the Federal Ammunition plant in Minnesota where I had the opportunity to check out the research/testing going into the company’s Expanding Full Metal Jacket (EFMJ) round, a bullet that would expand via impact instead of the conventional hydraulic factor(s). (NOTE: While there, I was also permitted to see the testing of their HST round before it was introduced. This bullet was VERY impressive and I am not surprised by how well it has worked in the street.) While EFMJ did not perform as well as Federal would have liked initially, they stayed with the concept and now offer the load through Speer as their Guard Dog line. Others have worked to solve the plugged cavity problem with Corbon offering their Powerball load (which actually preceded EFMJ) while Hornady introduced both Critical Defense and Critical Duty loads that have worked well in a limited number of shootings I am aware of. Power ball and Critical Duty/Defense are slightly different than EFMJ in that they have conventional cavities that are filled with polymer material that upon impact push back into the bullet cavity and create expansion. While different, they are still dependent on impact to expand or deform.
The FBI is currently testing a new duty round (word is adopted) known as the “Gold Dot LE II” or “G2”, though no one at The Bureau is officially acknowledging this that I know of, it is a not well kept secret. This same rumor mill states this bullet design offers .45 hollow point-level performance (gelatin wound track) in a 9mm load. The bullet looks like a conventional Gold Dot hollow point with a clear elastomer plug “protecting” the hollow point cavity. This 147 -grain load actually travels 40 fps slower than the regular 147 grain GDHP. The testing I have seen on line is somewhat disappointing as the GD II seems to punch through ballistic test media easily and deeply. That said, people who have seen the FBI testing of this bullet are greatly encouraged with one telling me “I have carried a .45 for 20 years but I just went out and bought a Glock 17.” Not sure what to make of this other than what has been released to the public and what The Bureau has are different loadings.
Am I enthusiastic about impact expanding loads? Not so much by their current technology, but by the potential performance that could be built into the bullet design. While at the Federal plant, I had a conversation with several engineers working on the EFMJ project. Consider a bullet that expands only while it is in contact with whatever it is passing though…the duration of contact… but the expansion stops when the contact stops. An example would be a bullet that passes through a car window is only in contact with the window for approximately ¼ inch so the expansion would be minimal. But once the bullet struck a person inside the car, the bullet would traverse the person’s torso staying in contact for a much longer length of time, resulting in a fully expanded bullet. The implications for such a bullet are huge! While it is true that impact bullet design is not there yet, it is getting closer. The current Guard Dog round from Speer is much improved over the original EFMJ while Hornady’s Critical Duty and Defense loads are showing promising results in actual shootings, expanding well even though they are passing through intermediate barriers.
While I would not call impact expansion loads “smart bullets” I do believe they have a strong potential to be the next generation of combative ammo and since they are not a conventional hollow point design… and all but eliminate the potential for fragmentation… they should meet the Hague Accords standards for warfare making them issuable to the military for general use, though the U.S. Military has recently approved hollow point ammo so this is now a mute point. The Federal EFMJ was used during the Global War on Terror by several Special Mission Units as well as the U.S. Marines in both .40 and 9mm and while they did not perform to the level of one of the best law enforcement hollow points, they were superior to NATO Ball. I spoke to one Marine who was present when an EFMJ was used to shoot an insurgent with a Beretta 92 pistol and he advised that two rounds took the terrorist out of the fight. “This was a real improvement,” he advised, “normally you have to drain the magazine as ball 9mm acts like an ice pick…in and out with little affect.”
Only time will tell if impact expansion ammo will be the next wave of combative ammo, but I, for one, remain encouraged.