Regular RU columnist and weapons wizard Adam Firestone often posts about the technical side of weaponry. Today’s post tackles the important, if slightly gruesome, topic of terminal ballistics. What actually happens when your hero or heroine fires a weapon? Are you sure that bullet will be enough to stop an armed-and-dangerous bad guy in his (or her) tracks?
Early in the morning of June 9th, 1990, Los Angeles Police Officer Stacy Lim returned to her home. Unknown to Officer Lim, she had been followed by a car containing four hardcore gang members who intended to steal her truck. As Lim exited her vehicle, the presence of the strange car and its occupants made her uneasy, and she took out her service weapon. Lim was approached by the gang members, one of whom was brandishing a .357 Magnum revolver. Instead of immediately firing at the figure approaching her with a gun, Officer Lim identified herself as a police officer.
From a distance of about five feet, the gunman shot Officer Lim in the chest. The bullet, moving at approximately 1,300 feet per second, struck her with between 500 and 600 foot-pounds of force. It penetrated her heart and liver, destroyed her spleen and exited through her back – and retained enough energy to penetrate the door of her truck. Lim later described the sensation of being shot:
“It knocked me back a little bit,” she said. “If you were to take a large javelin, heat it up about 1,000 degrees and shove it through your chest, that’s about what it felt like. A real burning sensation.”
Despite her grievous injuries, Officer Lim retained the presence of mind to return fire, shooting her assailant four times and fatally wounding him. She then returned to her vehicle, preparing to fight off other attackers. Fortunately, during the exchange of gunfire, the other gang members had driven away in panic. (They were all arrested later the same day.) Officer Lim collapsed due to her wounds. She was found by her roommates who called for emergency medical aid. Fifteen days later, Officer Lim walked out of the hospital.
The question that is likely swirling around your mind right now is some variant on “How did she survive?” While an exploration of all the factors involved, ranging from physiology to physics and from the effectiveness of emergency medical procedures to fate and fortune is beyond the scope of this article, a discussion of the way that firearms in general, and handguns in particular, inflict wounds is useful.
Let’s start with the premise that the reality of getting shot, as illustrated by Officer Lim’s experience, is not well represented in popular media such as movies and television. People are simply not thrown back several feet and flattened on their backs. Nor are they (generally) instantly incapacitated. In simpler terms, it’s physics; a bullet cannot knock a human down. If it could, the basic principles of action-reaction would demand that the shooter be knocked down as well – and that simply doesn’t happen. (I’ve been shooting handguns for a very long time and I have yet to be knocked down by a pistol I’m firing.)
Additionally, the energy actually deposited in the body by a bullet isn’t all that much. It’s the equivalent of being struck by a pitched baseball. Given the number of major league baseball players who are struck by pitched balls and then run the bases after briefly shaking off the pain, it becomes even more evident that portrayals of gunshot reactions showing people flung across the room or becoming instantly incapacitated are hyperbolic.
The reality is that gunshot wounds caused by handgun cartridges can only cause instant incapacitation when those wounds are inflicted upon the central nervous system. Specifically, when those wounds are inflicted upon the brain or upper spinal cord area. (As an aside, New York City Police snipers are taught to aim for a two by three inch area on the side of the head. The theory behind this practice is that this is the only place where, when struck by a (rifle) bullet, will cause instant “lights out” incapacitation/death, thus rendering the bad guy unable to commit further harm before expiration.) Barring a central nervous system hit, the only other way that a handgun bullet will “put someone down” is by breaking a major supporting bone such as the femur or tibia. However, given the relatively low velocity and energy of most handgun bullets, the probability of this sort of incapacitation is low.
Now that we know what handgun bullets don’t do, let’s look at the actual mechanics of a gunshot wound. To do so, let’s take a brief detour into Jewish dietary laws. In order for beef to be kosher, the animal must be slaughtered in a manner known as Shechita. The Shechita process requires the rapid, severing of major vessels and arteries which produces an instant drop in blood pressure in the brain. This abrupt loss of pressure results in the immediate and irreversible cessation of consciousness and sensibility to pain – followed without delay by immediate death. This is accomplished through rapidly cutting the animal’s throat with an extremely sharp knife. In other words, the effectiveness of Shechita is measured by the rapidity of incapacitation, and this incapacitation is achieved through extremely rapid blood loss.
Similarly, the effectiveness of handgun ammunition is measured by the rapidity with which it incapacitates an assailant. And, as with Shechita, ammunition is intended to achieve incapacitation through rapid blood loss. Unlike Shechita, however, the blood loss is intended to take the form of an internal hemorrhage. To understand this, it’s useful to take a closer look at what happens when a bullet strikes a living target.
As the bullet enters the target, it begins to move through flesh, muscle and organ, creating tissue disruption. As it moves, a number of things take place. First, the bullet creates a crush injury, or permanent cavity. This is a hole equivalent to the bullet’s diameter through the body, analogous to the chads displaced by a paper punch as it crushes its way through a stack of documents. As the bullet continues to move through the body, the compression wave associated with the its passage generates a temporary stretching many times the diameter of the bullet of the tissue along the axis of passage. This stretch injury, or “temporary cavity” is generally not terribly disruptive to muscle tissue. (Muscle tissue is designed to stretch and return to its original shape; think of childbirth as a case in point!) Organs, such as the spleen, are an entirely different matter. They are not amenable to stretching, and when shot in a manner that results in their becoming part of the temporary cavity, they tend to rupture or burst.
Blood loss comes into play when we realize that the interior of the permanent cavity is a single long wound. This size and depth of this internal hemorrhage correlate directly to the rapidity of blood loss, and hence the rapidity of incapacitation. Given, this, the larger the diameter of the permanent cavity, the larger the overall surface area of the wound channel and the more rapid the blood loss.
This phenomenon isn’t arcane or esoteric knowledge, and ammunition manufacturers have been providing technological means to create permanent cavities that are larger than the nominal caliber of a given cartridge since the late 19th century. The most common technical solution is the hollowpoint bullet.
A hollowpoint bullet is an expanding bullet that has a hollowed out shape in its tip. In the case of handgun ammunition (and some rifle ammunition intended for hunting), this is intended to cause the bullet to expand upon entering a target in order to disrupt more tissue and create a larger diameter wound channel than would be otherwise possible.
When a hollowpoint bullet strikes tissue, the pressure created in the hollowed pit in the bullet’s nose forces the material (usually lead) around the inside edge to expand outwards, increasing the axial diameter of the projectile as it passes through. This process is commonly referred to as mushrooming, because the resulting shape, a widened, rounded nose on top of a cylindrical base, typically resembles a mushroom.
It’s easy to get caught up in popular misconceptions of firearms and their effectiveness. However, a technically accurate understanding of the mechanics of gunshot wounds makes for a much more convincing story and allows for development of more interesting characters and plot twists. Remember, in the end, it all comes down to surface area. The larger the diameter of the wound channel, the greater the surface area and the more rapid the blood loss. The more rapid the blood loss, the quicker the bad guy stops doing bad!
This month’s article inspired by, you guessed it, Black Friday!
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Bio: Adam Firestone brings more than 25 years of experience with weapon systems including small arms, artillery, armor, area denial systems and precision guided munitions to Romance University. Additionally, Adam is an accomplished small arms instructor, editor, literary consultant and co-author of a recently published work on the production of rifles in the United States for Allied forces during the First World War.
Adam has been providing general and technical editing services to authors and publishing houses specializing in firearms books since the early 2000s. Additionally, Adam provides literary consulting services to fiction authors including action scene choreography, technical vetting and technical editing. In this line of experience, Adam has had the fortune to work with well known authors including Shannon McKenna and Elizabeth Jennings.
Check out Adam’s blog here: http://adamfirestoneconsultant.blogspot.com/
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