The truth about handgun knockdown power By Commander Jeffry L. Johnson
The truth about handgun knockdown power
By Commander Jeffry L. Johnson
Long Beach Police Dept., Detective Division
Special contributor to PoliceOne
There is undoubtedly no other myth more perpetuated and closely held (even
now) by many law enforcement professionals than what I have previously
referred to as the “Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy,” or in plainer terms, the
idea that any handgun of any caliber has “knockdown power,” in that the
sheer size and force of the bullet can knock a person down. Closely related
is the myth that bullet size — rather than shot placement — can determine or
ensure a “one shot stop.” Both are inaccurate, unscientific, and dangerous,
and have no place in the training of law enforcement professionals.
Not that any of this is new information. This fact has been generally known
for about six hundred years or so. Notable intellects such as DaVinci,
Galileo, Newton, Francis Bacon, and Leonard Euler all studied physics and
ballistics, as did many others. It was Newton’s research that led Benjamin
Robbins to invent the ballistic pendulum in 1740 (the first device to
measure bullet velocity).
There is no mystery here — the truth has been documented time and again. So
how is it that we still don’t get it? One word: Hollywood.
Ever since Dirty Harry came along with his .44 Magnum hand-cannon, when
someone gets shot in the movies or on TV (and don’t forget video games) two
things happen: 1) the victim is thrown back convulsively, through windows,
off balconies, etc. and 2) there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood
spewing forth from the wound, leaving no doubt that this person has been
shot, and pinpointing exactly where the bullet has struck.
Many firearm and shooting magazines picked up on the idea as well,
discussing and propagating the pseudo-scientific idea of handgun “knockdown
power” and “one shot stopping power.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Firearms Training Unit published a
concise yet insightful report that speaks directly to this issue of firearm
wounding ballistics and the misconceptions that have surrounded this area.
These so called [knockdown power] studies are further promoted as being
somehow better and more valid than the work being done by trained
researchers, surgeons and forensic labs. They disparage laboratory stuff,
claiming that the “street” is the real laboratory and their collection of
results from the street is the real measure of caliber effectiveness, as
interpreted by them, of course. Yet their data from the street is collected
haphazardly, lacking scientific method and controls, with no noticeable
attempt to verify the less than reliable accounts of the participants with
actual investigative or forensic reports. Cases are subjectively selected
(how many are not included because they do not fit the assumptions made?).
The numbers of cases cited are statistically meaningless, and the underlying
assumptions upon which the collection of information and its interpretation
are based are themselves based on myths such as knockdown power, energy
transfer, hydrostatic shock, or the temporary cavity methodology of flawed
work such as RII. (1)
The truth is, the whole idea of handgun knockdown power is a myth. It simply
doesn’t work that way. The FBI report further clarifies:
A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then
equal energy would be applied against the shooter and he too would be
knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of
years. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is
approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball. Tissue damage is the
only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e.,
The report cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and
impact power, concluding that the “stopping power” of a 9mm bullet at muzzle
velocity is equal to a one-pound weight being dropped from the height of six
feet. A .45 ACP (45 auto) bullet impact would equal that same object dropped
from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe,
and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have
come to mistakenly believe.
The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages
the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord),
incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, seemingly longer if one
is engaged in a firefight.
Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in
the heart or major blood vessels of the torso, causing circulatory collapse
is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this
takes time. For example, there is sufficient oxygen within the brain to
support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been
More often than not, an officer firing at a suspect will not immediately
know if he or she has even struck the target. The physics are such that the
body will rarely involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no
noticeable spewing of blood or surface tearing of tissue. Often there is no
blood whatsoever. (4) That is why military surgeons and emergency room
physicians take great time and pains to carefully examine gunshot victims
for any additional small holes. Often that is the only indication the person
has been shot.
But let’s be real here. I can cite numerous additional academic and
scientific sources that support this article, but I know how cops think.
We’re not always the most trustful of academics, especially when it comes to
our street survival. So let me add my own personal experience to the data.
Please allow me to go beyond the cold facts and share with you why I know
what I’m telling you is the truth.
In the mid-1980s I was involved in my first shooting as a police officer.
But to give the story context, I must go back to 1982 when I graduated from
the Long Beach Police Academy. The first thing I was told by experienced
training officers I trusted and looked up to, was to “get rid of that
pea-shooter 38 they issued you and buy a real gun with some knockdown
power!” Although we were issued .38 caliber revolvers, we were authorized to
carry a number of different caliber weapons on duty, the largest of which
was the 45 Long Colt.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted by a suspect armed with a shotgun
in a dark alley and my Long Colt didn’t live up to its billing. I fired five
rounds at the suspect. It wasn’t until I fired my last shot — intentionally
aimed at his head — that he went down. I can’t begin to relate to you the
surprise and horror I felt when there was absolutely no outward indication I
was hitting my target. It was the kind of situation cops have nightmares
What actually happened? I fired five rounds at a distance of about twelve
feet. The first one missed completely. The second struck his upper leg and
broke his femur. The third struck him in the shoulder/chest. The fourth
round hit him dead center—in the heart. And of course, the fifth was a
headshot. Three of the five rounds created fatal wounds, though only one had
Needless to say, I was pretty shaken by the whole thing. Not by the morality
of what I’d done; the suspect had already fired at a bystander and taken a
hostage earlier. He was also high on PCP. That wasn’t my inner struggle.
What shook me was how unprepared I felt; how totally off guard I was taken
by what occurred. No one ever told me it would be like that. The reality was
contrary to everything I thought I knew about deadly force.
That experience more than any research or study is the reason is why I am
writing this article. Police officers risk getting into shootings every day;
we need to know the dynamics of how a shooting incident may unfold. It will
affect our equipment, tactics, and most important, our mindset. We need to
know that rarely will one shot incapacitate an assailant. We further need to
be able to explain this when our fellow officers are involved in shootings
where multiple shots are fired. The public honestly believes it’s like the
movies. Why would we ever need to fire twenty or thirty rounds to subdue an
armed suspect? Problem is we can’t teach it or explain it until we
understand it ourselves. (5)
1. Patrick, Urey W., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Firearms Training
Unit, “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” p.13. (1989).
2. Ibid., p.9.
3. Ibid., p. 8.
4. Newgard, Ken, MD, “The Physiological Effects of Handgun Bullets: The
Mechanisms of Wounding and Incapacitation” (1992).
5. For you visual learners still unconvinced, I highly recommend viewing the
Discovery Channel MythBusters segment, “Blown Away,” (Brown Note Episode,
Second Season), where the knockdown power myth is visually and
scientifically debunked once and for all.
JEFFERSON STATE MILITIA
And the Neo-Militia Movement
- What we are about -
is important to the militia is what is important to all
Americans. We are concerned with the health of this nation.
Militia members are a cross section of the American people.
Many of us have been active in the political realm to voice
our opinion to our elected leaders. Our voice has yet to be heard.
We will not tolerate any trouble makers, Jew haters, bigots,
racists, dissenters of any type first and foremost. We are here
to reestablish the Militias reputation. The militia is a formation
of communities. This is true now as it was throughout the
history of this land. We the people have gathered together to
form one voice in the hope that we will be heard.
Our communities are banding together across this country to
form one voice which is getting louder each day. It is not the
guns of the militia that our government fears, we have not fired
a single shot. The people are uniting together as one to bring
out the truth, justice and liberty that we are Americans!
The Jefferson State Militia is not a "Anti-Government"
hate club or occult of any type. As an "Unorganized" militia
we will assist local state and government in times where
manpower has been exhausted. We stand against enemies
both foreign and domestic.
We all see the
destination in which
Our Government is forcing
upon We American Citizens.
So consider this:
'Like a powerful fast moving Train
heading break neck for the cliff,
We understand that: One doesn't turn
a train for it's on a track.
First the train must be stopped, and
then it must be backed up.'
Hasten Patriots to the Call of Liberty!
~ JRM - 12/22/08
JEFFERSON STATE MILITIA
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