No Magic Bullet!

An Old-School Cop’s Thoughts
on the Great Cartridge Controversy

The 9mm’s huge popularity today among LE agencies has
been propelled — in large part — by improvements in bullet
technology. Photo: Roy Huntington

Maybe we should sit down together with a beer, as some of you may need one. Discussions of this sort have been going hot and strong for at least a century, and it won’t stop here.

Like many of you I’ve been honing my opinions based on what others have opined, as well as my own experiences and observations — in my case about 69 years’ worth.

Defensive cartridges that are “logistically desirable” in terms of
availability and consequently affordable enough to encourage
frequent practice are (left to right): the .22 LR, .22 WMR, .380
ACP, 9mm, .38 Special and .45 ACP.

In terms of velocity and energy, these two .357 JHP loads far surpass
the old .38 Special 158-grain LRN (left). But a more efficient .38 Special
bullet, such as Federal’s new 130-grain HST JHP (right) can increase the
potential of 2" carry snubbies like this old S&W M49 Bodyguard.

Myth And Reality

At the age of 5 I shot a 200-pound pig in the head with a .22 LR. It was dead when it hit the ground. I shot lots of .22 ammo as a kid, but after watching the first Big Bear “Leather Slap” competition in Southern California with Jeff Cooper, Thell Reed and Jack Weaver, I got my first Colt 1911 at age 14 and a Colt SAA .38 Special a year later. A Ruger .44 Magnum followed. By the time I became a cop at age 22, big calibers had my undivided attention.

Then one of my first assignments involved a kid who was accidentally shot about 2 inches above the navel with a .22 LR by his best friend. He fell dead instantly. When I questioned the coroner he told me the bullet had probably ricocheted off the kids spine and gone through his heart. He said the easiest way to find a .22 bullet in a body was with an X-ray, as they never went straight in and stopped, and I remembered the pig.

In the LAPD Academy, Instructor, Guy Hogue (later of Hogue Grips) issued me a 6″ Colt Officer’s Model Match and a box of Winchester .38 Special 200-grain Lubaloy cartridges, possibly the most anemic .38 Special cartridge ever.

This round more often than not, fails to stop a target even with the best hits. One of my best friends fatally hit his assailant, yet the assailant still had time to grab another cop’s gun and kill my friend. After the Watts Riot we were allowed to buy and carry Remington 150-grain Hi-Speed .38 Special ammo and we felt warm and fuzzy. It was a confidence thing.

The gun Gary was first issued by the LAPD was a Colt Officer’s
Model Match .38 Special along with Winchester 200-grain RN
Lubaloy ammunition, possibly the poorest fight-stopping .38
Special load ever, but the .38 Special has come a long way.

But a more efficient .38 Special bullet, such as Federal’s new
130-grain HST JHP can increase the potential of 2" carry snubbies
like this old S&W M49 Bodyguard.

Let’s Talk Power

Through the rest of my LE career I also carried handguns in .357, 9mm and .45 ACP, but I never shot anyone except with a shotgun, which had become my go-to gun whenever I had the chance.

Marilyn Monroe’s first husband, the late Jim Dougherty (and a great guy) was a shotgun instructor at the LAPD Academy. He always told us, “If someone is worth shooting, he’s worth shooting good!” I never forgot it. At close range the shotgun is king, and it’s not bad against cars.

But a shotgun wasn’t always at hand. During the 1970’s the 9mm was making a comeback, but continued to fail due to bullets largely being (politically) limited to full metal jacket. However, half-jacketed lead nosed and hollow point 9mm bullets weren’t much better, as they were designed like rifle bullets, which were meant to perform at rifle velocities. Soft lead hollowpoint .38 Special bullets did perform in revolvers, but such bullets were never reliable in autos.

While all major centerfire handgun bullets made a quantum leap in technology in 1991 beginning with Winchester’s Black Talon, the then-new .40 S&W was in the spotlight and overshadowed some of the others, especially the 9mm. Even with continued major improvements in all popular handgun cartridges, the 9mm has been scorned by many with clichés such as “the 9mm is the .45 ACP set on stun.” However, tons of statistics of actual shootings simply don’t bear this out.

Not only has the FBI adopted the improved 9mm cartridge with the GLOCK pistol for general issue, but 9mm ammunition with hollow point bullets will now be issued throughout the US military for use in the new SIG P320 pistol. The decision comes in the wake of major improvements in the incapacitation abilities of 9mm and other calibers.

During my 28-year career in law enforcement and during the more than 25 years thereafter, I’ve continued to informally study as many handgun wounds as possible. Here’s the kicker: I’ve either witnessed or known of more people stopped or killed instantly from one hit with a .22 LR or .22 Magnum bullet than any other. Seriously.

The most graphic example was an armed robber who was shot point blank with a .22 Magnum derringer. The bullet hit the lower part of perp’s clavicle, breaking it, and went straight down doing extensive damage to most of his organs, glancing off his inner pelvis and stopping in his upper right thigh, rendering him a candidate for the Vienna Boys Choir in the process. Testing bullet paths and terminal ballistics in gelatin is fine, but you’ll never shoot gelatin in a gunfight.

The .45 ACP is as good as it ever was. It’s on Gary’s short list
of desirables, not only for its bore size but for the fact it’s easy
to obtain, thanks to its military pedigree. Photo: Roy Huntington

The Best Handgun Cartridge

Handgun cartridges I consider viable for defense include .22 LR, .22 WMR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .32 H&R Magnum, .327 Magnum, .380 ACP, 9mm, .38 Special, .38 Super, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto, .44 Special and .45 ACP.

Any of these cartridges can do the job within their relative limits of distance — assuming proper placement. For most new shooters the rounds I recommend are limited to .22 LR, .22 WMR, .380 ACP, 9mm, .38 Special and .45 ACP.

Why? Most of these rounds are readily available, reasonably priced and can do the job. Expensive or hard to-find ammunition results in less (or no) practice and this is an absolute deal breaker. If you do not practice and/or periodically qualify, you might be better off not carrying a handgun, not only for your physical well-being, but because of potential legal consequences in these days of galloping litigation. But if you are using another cartridge with which you are confident and competent, by all means have at it.

The recent 9mm S&W Shield and a vintage S&W M15 in .38 Special
represent designs that have served generations of cops. The Shield
has a flat configuration and is quicker to reload. The M15 is less prone
to bouts of “ammo sensitivity.” Photo: Roy Huntington

Practice, Not +P!

Even .22 LR, at about a nickel a round, is 5 times what it cost 10 years ago. And .22 WMR ammo is almost as expensive as many of the larger centerfires. Luckily, 9mm and .45 ACP can be found as military surplus. Again, most who buy handguns chambered for other than my above choices may seldom if ever practice with them due to cost, and practice you must!

Now, take a deep breath and I’ll try to make this as gentle as possible. So-called “+P” is simply another way to sell more ammunition! So sorry, as I know everybody hates the truth, but your +P ammunition will not give your pistol much of an advantage over standard loads. What it will do is create more muzzle blast, more muzzle flash, more wear and tear on your gun and most of all, more recoil.

Increased recoil will lessen your ability to make fast, multiple, accurate, follow-up hits on either your target or assailant. And make no mistake, in a gunfight fast, accurate follow-up hits are what will enable you to survive. If a one-shot stop should occur, you’ve been the lucky recipient of a miracle and you might want to consider thanking someone!

Speaking of muzzle blast, what about suppressors? Gun mufflers are now all the rage to protect your hearing. What’s more, restrictions on them may soon be lifted due to “noise pollution” issues. A suppressor would seem a welcome addition to a home defense auto, but they don’t work
on revolvers.

The last word: At close range a round or two of 12-gauge
00 buckshot can even be effective against a car full of felons,
but a police officer usually has to rely on his or her sidearm.
Photo: Roy Huntington

The Hype Factor

By the way, if you wondered why I left out the .40 S&W out of my “recommended” list, it’s because I’ve always believed this round was overhyped. Even one of its developers called it the “.40 Short & Weak.” I’d choose either the 9mm or .45 ACP over it, but that’s just me.

Besides ammo hype, there’s no end of bad advice. Here’s a good one: “Spread your shots in your assailant’s vital zone.” Seriously? There’s no time to aim at various places in a gunfight. As retired LAPD SWAT cop and founder of Marksmanship Matters, Larry Mudgett, will tell you, “Always shoot for group, center of mass. Your assailant will spread your shots for you!”

What about headshots? There’s lots of training with two shots to the body and an instant follow-up shot to the head of a humanoid target. It’s great fun and great practice, but it requires an iron mindset and everything else you’ve learned about shooting. A properly placed headshot will instantly end the fight, but would you be able to accomplish it in real life?

The best round for you? In my opinion it’s the one you can best master. It’s whatever gives you confidence in yourself and your equipment. You are your own first responder. Only hits count, especially good ones. While projectiles are far better than ever, there is no magic bullet!

Many of the points I’ve covered have been written about many times before, but it is never enough, because many have forgotten it and many more are new to defensive handguns and never heard it. These points and hundreds of others must be repeated again and again or they will be lost. As always, if you disagree, or have some better ideas, we’re all ears.

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