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The King and Queen of Handgun Stopping Power

Following a discussion with gun writer/photographer Tamara Keel on social media last week about the originator of this quote, I sent an query to Massad Ayoob on Saturday:

Me: I’m looking for the originator of the aphorism:

“Shot placement is king, adequate penetration is queen, and everything else is just angels dancing on the heads of pins.” … or words to that effect. Any clues in that encyclopedic brain of yours?

The response from Mas came yesterday:

Massad: I thought it was coined by Karl Erich Martell, a brilliant now-retired appellate lawyer whom I consider a gun expert in his own right. I reached out to him and he confirmed. His response is cut and pasted immediately below. Please confirm receipt. Hope you are well.

[The following was KEM’s email reply to Mas.]

Karl Martell: ‘Thanks, Mas: my recollection is that I invented it (my wording: “Shot placement is king; adequate penetration is queen; everything else is angels dancing on the heads of pins” and it was regarding handgun usage specifically) for use on The Firing Line forum during the first of the “Caliber Wars” back around (before?) the turn of the century.

‘I was at a period in which I was finding enlightenment on the issue of handgun stopping power after seeing dozens of autopsy reports in murder cases that my office handled (at the time I was working at the Appellate Division of the New Mexico Public Defender, which – at that time at least – handled 19 out of 20 murder appeals in the state – as you know, by the time a person is done with a trial, he is indigent and doesn’t have money to buy an appellate lawyer – the Appellate Division was a great specialized practice). After all the nonsense about kinetic energy in the Eighties, I was surprised to note that injury to the heart/aorta or brain/spinal cord seemed to be the only thing that effected a quick stop with a handgun, and I was starting to see cases in which the expansion of hollow point rounds in small calibers “braked” the bullet too soon for an impact on those vital structures. When I’d hear the folks going back and forth about “You gotta have a JHP in your .380” or “If it don’t start with a ‘4’, it’s not serious,” I started posting the line as a tagline on TFL

‘It’s one of a couple things that I’ve come up with (others were legal
concepts) that have actually spread out into the world.”’

Karl Martell’s observations of the key to handgun stopping power–gained at around Y2K as you can read for yourself above–were made at about the time that a number of people in the ballistics community such as Dr. Gary Roberts and other denizens of IWBA were getting some traction outside of academic literature in terms of what “handgun stopping power” actually was and is. This was, in my view, largely due to the advent of the internet and the sudden release of the free flow of information that this technological revolution produced.

Prior to the advent of the internet in the late 1990’s, if it wasn’t in a published book or maybe a magazine, information on terminal ballistics and especially terminal effects of GSW’s was simply not accessible to the shooting public. As a physician with access to a good medical library and MEDLINE, I was able to get my hands on the entirety of the IWBA Journal, and many other publications in medical journals… including the entire published works of Dr. Martin Fackler (the father of modern terminal ballistics studies). When I say I had access, I mean I got in my car and drove 2 hours to the University of Wisconsin Medical Library in Madison, where I looked up the relevant journals, physically took them down from the shelves, and then photocopied the articles I wanted to study. Which is why I have several cardboard file boxes in my storage unit with photocopies of the bulk of Dr. Fackler’s work as well as many of the articles published in IWBA Journal by other experts such as Duncan McPherson and Gary Roberts, among many others.

In other words, 25 years ago the only people who had access to the terminal ballistics information that most Gunternet Gurus know to be true today were professionals who had to work at it to unearth these truths. To put it into some perspective, the predominant authority on terminal ballistics and handgun stopping power available tot he public at that time were the books written by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, “Handgun Stopping Power” and “Street Stoppers”. The contrast between Marshall & Sanow’s books and the ballistics research of the IWBA led to an ongoing debate that many of us came to know as The Caliber Wars.

Karl Martell’s observations on what seemed to work when using a handgun to stop an adversary were gleaned at about that time. Karl was neither a ballistics researcher nor a trauma physician, but an attorney. Regardless of his academic background, he was a shooter and “gun expert” (as Massad pointed out in his email to me). From his unique perspective as a lawyer working on murder cases, he had access to information that most people outside of the trauma medicine field do not see or hear about. And his observations are very, very important.

As it happened, this was also the period in which I was formulating the Shooting With Xray Vision training program, which of course is based entirely on the concept that shot placement with adequate bullet penetration equals stopping power. My observations and experience in the world of trauma medicine were a big part of my understanding of this field. But my observations and experience as a hunter who had killed a lot of animals and done the “field autopsies” on them to determine how my bullets had stopped my quarry were equally important. My readings in the field of ballistics confirmed my own observations, as did my discussions with other ballistically-inclined people.

A good friend and firearms trainer is fond of telling his students, “Think of your handgun as a portable cordless remote control drill. All it does is drill a little hole in whatever you aim it at.” He is absolutely correct.

Handgun bullets stop by drilling holes in critical anatomic structures. The amount of kinetic energy they impart to the target organism is a fraction of the kinetic energy of a rifle bullet. As a consequence, your only hope of stopping a criminal attacker with your handgun is to place your bullet(s) precisely into the vital target anatomy of said attacker.

And you cannot place your bullets precisely if you do not know where those vital target organs are, in three dimensional space. The entire purpose of the SXRV program is to teach you this information.

It ain’t rocket science, folks. If even a lawyer can figure it out, so can you. (JK!!)

We still have slots open in our May 4-5 Shooting With Xray Vision Instructor class, and Operator classes are pending in several locations. Sign up soon!

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Practical Pistol Practice

A recent meme on social media complains that it’s a mystery how “a hundred dollars worth of ammo turns into only 15 minutes of range time”.

We all laugh at this, but there is chagrin behind the chuckles… because we all know that there is an unpleasant truth behind the laughter. Ammo is expensive, and we know it. Which brings up the uncomfortable knowledge that unless we practice, any hard-won pistol skills we have attained in recent months will drain away in a ridiculously short period of time. And practice requires shooting, shooting requires ammo, and ammo requires dollars.

Feeding our favorite blaster is always an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. Since the seemingly never-ending cycle of ammunition shortages and price increases started in the early Aughts, every shooting enthusiast has had to look hard at what has to be given up (money for ammo) and what can be gained (shooting proficiency) and try to find an acceptable balance. It seems to be worse in recent years, but when you look at the inflation-adjusted prices of ammo today compared to 2003, the reality is a bit less alarming. (But only a bit)

I don’t want to get bogged down in politics and economics here, but just to put some perspective on it, the increase in cost of ammunition over the past 5 decades has been consistent with the overall cost of consumer goods and services. (Since 1976, the cost of ammo has increased 482.6%, while the overall cost of consumer goods and services has increased 414.3%. Source: ) So, yeah, it costs more to shoot now than it used to, but it also costs more to eat at a restaurant, or buy gas and groceries, and the increase is more or less proportional.

So let’s us all stop blaming our infrequent practice sessions on cost. Instead, let’s go back to that old standby, the cost-benefit analysis, and see what we can do to put together a practice program that can keep our pistol proficiency up and still be reasonably affordable.

The first thing I suggest you look at is potential benefit. In other words, ask yourself what it is you hope to gain from your practice regimen. Are you looking to advance from rookie to USPSA Grand Master status? Or are you just hoping to knock some rust off your basic pistols skills? Or something in between? Because Grand Master bragging rights is gonna cost you a shitload of ammo and money, whereas the Rust-Knocker project can be done for less than you spend on coffee-&-snacks at work each week.

So now we are looking at cost. Ammunition costs vary depending on where and how we buy our ammo. Let’s use 9mm as our basic example. I personally use 9mm for most of my regular auto pistol practice, about half of those sessions with a Springfield Range Officer 1911 (because my usual daily carry pistola out here in Cactus Country is a 1911), and the other half is done with a wide range of 9mm’s that I like to keep some currency on (because when I go to the Big City I prefer carrying a double-stack striker-fired pistola… and if you’re tempted to go all Gun-Karen on me for having a ‘daily carry rotation’, save your breath for the day you meet me in person). So let’s use 9mm for our pistol practice cost-benefit analysis.

If you order 9mm 115 gr FMJ ammo online and buy it in bulk, your cost at the time of Jan. 2024 can be as low as 24 -26 cents per round. But buy that ammo at the counter at your local gun range, and you may be paying 40 cents or more per round. Which makes more sense? Duh!

It used to be that you could save a lot of money by reloading your ammo, but given current component prices, that is only partly or sometimes true in 2023. Using the best prices I can find online, and using brass you already have on hand at zero cost, you would be paying about 28 cents per round for 9mm practice ammo, in which case you’re better off buying your practice ammo in bulk from an online dealer. This will likely not be the case if you want to practice with your 1911 in 45 Auto or your Dirty Harry 44 Magnum, as the cost of factory ammo for larger/scarcer calibers can be high enough to make reloading more attractive. Each caliber and load will cost out differently. But again: do a real cost-benefit analysis, taking into account the price of your reloading equipment and your time spent loading, before you jump into the handloading game with both feet. For many people it just doesn’t pay off.

The bottom line on our cost vs benefit analysis: you’re gonna have to spend about a buck for every 4 rounds of 9mm ball ammo you fire downrange, best case scenario… so if you’re going to squeeze the maximum benefit from that, you should start planning your practice program instead of just blasting away when you get to the range next weekend. So how do you do that?

The basic principle that should underlie your plan is this: every trigger press should be a high-quality rep. Each rep should be as good as you can make it, because it’s the cumulative effect of all those repititions that builds and maintains your skill. Here’s what I recommend, after expending somewhere between a quarter to half a million rounds of pistol ammunition over the past 25 years:

  1. First thing, get your blaster out of the safe, take it to a quiet room where there is NO AMMUNITION, set a target up against a bulletproof backstop such as a basement wall, and dry fire. I use Massad Ayoob’s dry fire method ( Do this for about 10 minutes, then put your pistol away. Do that every day, or at least 4-5 days a week if you can. Dry firing really, really works. The best competitive shooters do it religiously, and some of the best “street shooters” of the past did it as well: John Wesley Hardin and Wild Bill HIckok are both reputed to have started every day with a dry fire session. And dry firing is not limited to the basement… it works on the range, too. I like to start every practice session with a few dozen dry fire trigger presses with each gun I plan to work with that day.
  2. Second thing: buy (and use) a .22 pistol. Or buy a .22 caliber conversion kit for your daily carry blaster. Bulk .22 LR ammunition can be had for as little as 5 cents per round, and target quality ammo for about twice that price. Which means you can get 3 to 5 times as many bangs for your buck compared to your 9mm practice ammo. Personally, I use my usual .22 pistol (a Ruger Mk IV) to work on pure pistol skills: grip, stance, sight picture, trigger press, and follow-through. I like to fire 3 to 5 sets of 10 rounds, slow fire, at 7-10 yards. Each successive target will show a slightly tighter group. Your last target will typically be quite a bit better. At this point, you’re warmed up.
  3. Use a practice plan. If you’ve never used one, you should get into the habit. When I was shooting IDPA at championship level, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my practice sessions would consist of a dry fire warmup, a rimfire warmup, then a series of slow fire exercises in basic skills starting from firing from high ready, then from low ready, then from “pushout” position, then from the holster. At that point I would start working with my shot timer on specific skills, using specific exercises to address what my last match had showed me to be the areas I needed to work on. I would finish each session with several Double Bill Drills and finally some slow fire “head” shots at 20 yards. This plan would consume 250-300 rounds of ammo. I don’t practice like this any more, and I would not recommend this level of training for most people. It’s expensive, and its purpose is to get me to the point where I can win another match. Most of us are far better-served, in terms of cost-benefit analysis of pistol practice, by a shorter and very structured pistol practice plan, and shooting more often.
  4. Pick a good 50-round practice drill. A 50-round practice drill every week will benefit you far, far more than a 200-round practice drill once per month. Frequency of training has been proven to be far more effective than total time/ammo spent in training. As for which 50-round drill you should use, there’s a plethora of recommendations out there. This morning, I did a quick googly search for “50-round practice drills” and got pages and pages of recommendations. Pick one, and use it. Most of the time nowadays, when I go to the range I start with my dry fire warmup, then usually a 22 rimfire warmup, then I do one of the many 50-round practice plans that are available online. I’ve used a bunch of different 50-round drills over the years and they all have their strong points, so if you rotate through different ones you’ll find yourself working on more pistol skills than if you stick with a single program.

The ammo cost of my weekly practice sessions is about $13.50 for 9mm ammo and another $10 for .22 LR. Which means that I can do a decent job of maintaining my pistol proficiency for about $100 per month, which is a pretty reasonable investment.