Bullet Lethality

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In the final analysis, is it the cartridge, the powder load, the bullet velocity, the bullet composition, or the terminal foot pounds of energy that ultimately kills the target? The term lethal literally means “to cause death”, so which factor in a firearm cartridge creates this end result?

It is a very complicated subject that I am sure a large cadre of engineers with firearms and ammunition backgrounds could delve into for years, and have. In a weak attempt to discuss the subject here but only to scratch the surface, we’ll confine ourselves to only discussing the lethality factors of bullets, since that is the object we send downrange to do the dirty work.

By this narrowing of the subject then, we will make a lot of assumptions. First regardless of the cartridge, whether the .22 long rifle rimfire, a multitude of handgun or pistol cartridges, hunting cartridges, or rounds used for armed conflicts from outright war to limited incidents of self-defense on an individual level, all firearms cartridges have some potential level of killing capability.

Of course, bullets come in all kinds of sizes, calibers, weights, configurations, materials, jackets, cores, base designs and such. But what is it exactly about a bullet that causes a lethal termination of any living target? Is it the sheer blunt force trauma upon impact, bullet expansion, penetration, tissue destruction, organ function disruption, creating a bleed out wound including a clean exit would, or bullet weight retention within the structural body of the target or what? In many senses, it is all these factors combined, thus working together to bring about the most efficient killing impact possible.

Is it better to have a bullet expand upon impact, but stay within the target body or rather have the bullet push through to the opposite side and out? Should the bullet “mushroom” or to say, open up its jacketed cover to create further tissue cutting damage by expanding in overall size, or simply “sail” through opening a wound channel to facilitate external bleeding? What do you think? These are the design factors that drive bullet engineers mad.

Furthermore, for bullets to do their jobs, they have to be placed into a critical target zone to be effective, thus accuracy becomes yet another factor. Perhaps in the end, it is bullet placement that makes all the difference. Let’s hear from you. Give us your two cents worth.

Dr. John

Award winning outdoor writer/photographer since 1978. Over 3000 articles and columns published nationally. Field & Stream Hero of Conservation in 2007. Fields of writing includes hunting most game in… [Learn More]


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