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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!