Home Defense: The Case for Low-Penetration Rounds
Major Pandemic 02.24.15
Would you find it acceptable for your kids, wife, or friend to be hit collaterally while defending your life? I would bet most people would answer, “No.” With that in mind, what follows is a discussion around limiting overpenetration, and not around ammo that can shoot through the most complex imaginable barriers which fit the FBI Standard.
FBI Penetration Standards are the Wrong Standard for Civilian Ammo
It is very important to understand the direct need of FBI’s ballistic penetration standards. Their standards require that they have the ability to penetrate obstacles such as car doors, car glass, and typical structural barriers, while providing enough penetration for across the body shots where arms or shoulders may get in the way and still have penetration reach vital organs during a worst-case barrier shot.
In reality FBI really wants 18″ of penetration, but they think 12″ is a minimum. Obviously the dynamics of an attacking shooter will not always present a flat center of mass torso shot, but this is the most statistically typical shot/target opportunity that occurs. The problem from my perspective is that rounds delivering worse case penetration depth have proven to easily overpenetrate flat center of mass torso and even angled torso shots.
Another point I would like to make is that “Your Performance May Vary.” Real-world testing of your favorite ammo fired from your gun will vary from the performance manufacturers specs and testing. FBI Spec ammo may not perform to FBI spec in your gun, or it may overperform and be a super-overpenetration round.
The reality is that most ammo used these days are designed around the FBI’s 12”-18” penetration standards, which I believe are totally irrelevant standard for civilian defensive situations.
I am not alone in a perspective that 12”-18” of bullet penetration is too much in modern defensive environments. It has been shown over and over that rounds that meet these FBI standard tend to overpenetrate the target and deliver deadly force after passing through a perpetrator or barrier. I consider this an unacceptable risk to bystanders.
The person behind the guy with the gun could be a friend, your wife, kids, or just drywall with any number of unintended targets beyond the wall. In the home, defending yourself becomes a 360 degree shooting environment where bullets can pass through many walls and impact loved ones in other rooms inside the home or even people and neighbors outside the home. Many companies are now offering high expansion, low penetration rounds, which I am personally an advocate for.
Statistically speaking, it is unlikely I will ever need to pull my gun for defense, and it would be a statistical anomaly that I would also be required to defend myself in a situation that required shooting through barriers to stop an attacker. Some would ask why then would I even bother worrying about what ammo is in my gun? Well, that is another perspective.
Admittedly Government and Law Enforcement may have a need for these rounds, but I am skeptical of these standards based almost solely on a 1986 Miami FBI shootout with 20-year old handgun bullet technology against a .223 Rifle. Almost every single ineffective round that hit the shooter was not a top end hollow point of the time, but in some cases semi-wadcutters fired from .38 Special revolvers.
In order to answer the need of more power by the FBI, the 10mm Auto round was developed, which ultimately proved “too powerful” to shoot for most agents, and then the .40 S&W was created based on a light 10mm round.
It is my opinion that the FBI was looking for a magic bullet to put down any threat, but the human body does not work that way. Sometimes, despite all odds, the body keeps going. The FBI penetration test was created based on this event, and it specifically includes the need to shoot through barriers or completely across the body.
While training at ITI we had the opportunity to shoot through car doors, glass car windows, and a number of barriers with the low penetration/high fragmentation rounds such as Liberty Civil Defense 9mm ammo and Guard Dog from Federal.
Even with these “low penetration rounds, I was convinced through actual testing that even typical FBI barriers could still be defeated if needed with multiple round shots. My perspective is that high penetration rounds that meet FBI standard loading in civilian guns only net more legal liability once the gun goes off due to high potential “pass through” rates. If you do your own research, testing, and look at pass through shots, police have delivered on perps that have harmed or killed bystanders, you will certainly rethink using high penetration rounds in defensive guns.
Low Penetration Rounds are Potentially Safer and More Deadly
It sounds odd, but LP rounds are potentially safer and also more deadly. They are safer because they do not over penetrate, and more deadly because 100% of the energy is dissipated within 6″-10″ instead of only partial energy delivery due to over penetration.
Historically, pistol rounds have proven in testing to overpenetrate beyond perpetrators and double sided drywall much more than .223 rifle rounds. In most cases typical .223 defensive rifle rounds will deliver some shrapnel on the other side of the attacker or wall, but pistol rounds nearly always overpenetrate unless the bullets have been specifically designed not to do so. Historically this is one of the primary reasons I advocate for an AR-15 for home defense loaded with light hollow points over a handgun or shotgun. The risk of wall-to-wall penetration is diminished greatly when low weight hollow points are used in AR-15 rifles such as .223 40 Gr V-Max or Liberty Silverado 50gr rounds when compared to handgun rounds.
Liberty Ammo and Federal both have low penetration handgun rounds. The Guard Dog rounds are essentially enclosed Hollow Points rounds that mushroom violently with a design that will not overpenetrate. In my testing, I have yet to have a 9mm Guard Dog round penetrate more than 10″ of ballistic gel. Previously all my carry and home defense pistols were loaded with Federal Guard Dog ammo simply because the handgun ammo was specifically designed to not penetrate home walls. This total metal jacketed hollow point also feeds unbelievably well even in guns that are a bit finicky.
Liberty ammo recently introduced their Civil Defense handgun ammo, which delivers the same low penetration features as the Guard Dog ammo but with a higher 450 Ft/lbs of energy from the 9mm round. The Liberty Ammo expands and shreds violently within the first 6″-8″, and again I never saw over 10″ of penetration from this round in ballistic gel. Another attribute of the Liberty Civil Defense ammo is that it is a significantly higher velocity than other 9mm defensive rounds with a very light 50gr 2000 FPS bullet. With this light of a projectile and a speed approaching many rifle rounds, I am very satisfied with how the bullet disintegrated on impact with wood and other materials, thus greatly lessening barrier or body overpenetration. Both of these rounds deliver huge cavitation (wound cavities) in only 6″-8″ of gel. Either of these rounds are highly recommended by me for handguns.
Equally important are defensive shots required outside the home. Think of the typical violent crime areas of malls, movie theaters, and restaurants where there are lots and lots of other people around behind an attacker. It is statistically likely that even if you do have a 100% hit ratio (which is unlikely in stress), that those directly behind the attacker will also fall due to your rounds. I never want to be in this situation where over penetrating rounds have hit a bystander, and I have taken measures to reduce that potential situation by selecting low penetration rounds for my handguns carried or used for defense.
Similarly I use Liberty’s Silverado .223 rounds, Winchester Power Point Super X/Ranger, Hornday’s TAP, or 40gr V-Max rounds in defensive rifles because I am satisfied after testing that these rounds do not deliver multi-wall over penetration or more than 10” of ballistic penetration. My goal for any of my defensive rounds is 6”-8” of ballistic gel penetration with a maximum of 10” of penetration.
If you start doing the research on those autopsies of victims of .223 rounds that have specifically been shot with hollow point rounds (not FMJ military NATO round), you begin to see that explosive expansion of low penetration HP rounds almost always deliver “one shot stop” lethality in .223 even when vital organs are not hit. I encourage you to do your own research and testing, measure the thickness of your own body back to chest, and tell me whether you would rather have maximum expansion and round energy delivered fully in the first 8” or the first 12”-18″, and then do your own testing on ballistics gel with a layer of clothing over the gel. I think you will change your mind that the FBI standard could create enormous liability for you.
But The Military Uses/Says…
Plain and simply due to a gentleman’s agreement, the military cannot does not use hollow point rounds due to the Hague Convention unless it is specifically to improve flight characteristic or for special operations. They can, but they currently don’t outside of special forces. But that might be changing with the decision to opt for hollow point ammo and 9mm handguns.
In general, the military uses only “ball” ammo, which is in essence FMJ rounds or steel core penetrator rounds. So ultimately every round they use is totally irrelevant and inappropriate as a civilian defensive round, as is any data collected regarding general military round lethality.
Actually most of the military folks would like to be using hollow point rounds as well. Due to the fact that we as civilians do not need to adhere to the Geneva Convention, which limits military ammunition to exponentially less lethal “ball” FMJ ammunition, we can use hollow point ammo for defense in both handguns and rifles. Fundamentally, the performance of hollow point ammunition is exponentially different than anything the military can use.
So instead of one shot take downs of guys attempting to bomb your battalion, there are reports of having to shoot attackers up to a dozen times. Personally I think the Geneva Convention is outdated for today’s wars, but that is all above my pay grade. Just note that any military lethality data is irrelevant to your needs as a civilian.
Many have noted that the military seems to be moving back to the .45 ACP. One of the reasons is that it makes a big hole, which is more lethal than a smaller hole when the bullets are in essence just FMJ. The only option they have is to shoot bigger bullets or drive them at a higher velocity. In many ways this is why I think the FN Five SeveN makes quite a bit of sense as a military Geneva Convention approved handgun round.
Dynamics of Incapacitation
The dynamics of gun shots are multi-dimensional. Some doctors say wounds close to the skin deliver the pain required to stop attackers, others note wound cavity or the trauma of vital organ damage has higher incapacitation. Vital organs are only 4″ deep on humans, so a large wound that reaches only 6″ deep is deep enough to deliver the pain of a shallow wound, incapacitation of a large wound cavity, and with the trauma of vital organ damage. This wound is exactly the type of wound that also prevents over penetration and the ammo I outlined delivered in my testing.
Don’t take my word on this school of thought. Test it yourself and then let me know whether you would feel comfortable being the guy behind the guy being shot with FBI standard ammo.