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Wound Ballistics — Practical Issues

I came across a great, great little article on the interwebs the other day on Active Response Training’s Facebook Page ( ) that you NEED to read. And if you’ve never shot a living animal or person before, you really, really, REALLY need to read it. 

BTW, the article is written by a guy whose writings have been impressing me for a couple of years: Greg Ellifritz. I don’t know this man, we’ve never met. But we have apparently taken training from a lot of the same people, who also happen to be pretty switched-on thinking-about-shooting kinds of people, because so far I’ve found almost nothing in Greg’s writings that I disagree with. Now, that is what we in Pulp Fiction movie-quoting circles call, “a bold statement”.  I typically disagree with parts of just about everybody’s writing, for what I think are good reasons. But two internet writers seem to keep coming back to haunt me with their consistent right-on-ness, and one of them’s Greg Ellifritz. The other, if you must know, is Kathy Jackson. But this is by the by… what’s important here is the content, and the implications of that content. 

You need to read Greg’s article because, as he points out, most defensive-minded gun folks have never shot a real living person or animal, and that is setting them up for Big Time Failure. 

This is important, people. One of the big problems with so-called “tactical training” in America as practiced by 90% of the “tactical trainers” out there is that their classes do not effectively reproduce the major factors at play in a real Deadly Force Situation (DFS).  If you’ve taken one of my Shooting With Xray Vision classes, or Ken Murray’s SIMUNITION school, you will have heard the term Simulator Fidelity.  Literally, this refers to the training being faithful to the actual facts of a DFS. The more closely a training situation reproduces the features of a reall DFS, the greater the degree of Simulator Fidelity that training has. Full-on SIMUNITION force-on-force training has very high Simulator Fidelity, and about as high a degree of Simulator Fidelity as is possible without actually shooting real people. Good Airsoft FoF training can be just as good.

But most “tactical training” is dumbed down to the point that it fails to even remotely simulate the realities of a DFS. As trainers eliminate the critical salient features of real DFS’s–things like 360 degree fields of fire, low light conditions, incoming rounds, getting shot your ownself, etc–the degree of Simulation Fidelity of your “tactical” training is degraded further and further. 

Eventually, when you get to the point where the shooters are on a straight firing line on a square range shooting stationary, flat, paper targets that bear no resemblance to an actual person, your Simulator Fidelity has dropped to about as low as it can go… but this is the commonplace “standard” for 90% or more of the “tactical” training civilians have access to in America. 

And this is creating a huge training scar. 

If you’ve followed my blog or taken my class, you’ve heard about training scars. Training scars are unintended consequences of training that set the shooter up for failure when they get into a real LFS. And I think that the fact that 90% or more of defensive-minded armed citizens have never shot anything remotely resembling living flesh is setting them up for a bad, possibly fatal, training scar. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be training people on square ranges on paper targets, not at all. Such training is essential for learning the basic and even intermediate level of skill needed to operate a defensive firearm. But at some point you’ve got to get past the square range and into the life laboratory. 

So: the critical point of today’s blog, the very point that Mr. Ellifritz addressed in his article, is that too many folks are hung up on narrow ideas that have become commonly accepted, even dogmatic, but that have very low Simulator Fidelity. This has happened with gelatin testing. Somehow, people have got the crazy notion that the performance of bullets in ballistic gelatin is equivalent to their bullets’ performance in the Real World. So, the noob’s thinking goes, since their bullets will always penetrate 12+ inches of gelatin, they have to worry about what’s going to happen after their bullets shoot right through their 10″ thick opponent and sail on through to strike something or someone else on the other side. 

As the article states, however, the reality of bullets’ terminal performance in flesh is very, very different from the terminal performance of those same bullets in gelatin.  The varying densities of different tissues in the body have profound effects on the penetration a bullet attains. For instance, a bullet fired into the right side of the chest of an attacker that strikes the subject when he’s straight-up facing you is going to follow a very different path than a bullet that strikes him in the midline. Let’s examine those two examples. 

In the first case, the bullet will perforate the chest wall (~1.5″ thick) and then have very low density tissue (lung) to traverse for the next 6-7 inches, then it will penetrate and possibly perforate the posterior chest wall (2.5″). Total measured depth is something like 10-11″, so based on gelatin testing of your bullet/load which shows it penetrating 14+ inches of gelatin, that bullet should exit the body with lots of energy to spare, right?  Well, not so fast, junior. First thing you have to consider is whether the bullet strikes bone (rib, scapula) in the anterior or posterior chest wall. Bone really, really slows bullets down. So if your bullet hits rib on entry, then hits rib on the posterior wall, then hits the scapula after that, it may not have enough energy left over to exit the skin. And even if it doesn’t hit any bone, the skin of the back is the thickest and toughest skin on the human body… and it stretches like Billy-o, so bullets with less than optimal velocity will simply tent the skin outward, then the skin snaps back and the bullet is trapped under the skin. 

So we really don’t know if that bullet of yours will go all the way through, or if it will stop in the body. But to this point, we have only discussed the terminal ballistics of that GSW. We haven’t even begun to talk about the terminal effects of that GSW! But before we get to terminal effects, let’s look at Example #2. 

In this second case, the bullet is striking the chest in the midline, perpendicular to the surface. Let’s say this bullet strike is one inch up from the xyphisternum. This means that the bullet will strike bone (sternum) as soon as it enters the anterior chest wall, and after perforating the chest wall, it passes through a small space (1-2 cm) and then strikes the heart. The heart is a tough, resilient, organ comprised of dense tissues. The bullet chews its way through that, then after perforating the rear wall of the heart, it has to break through the posteriorly located aorta and/or vena cave, then after that the tough and stretchy connective tissue membrane surrounding this bundle of heart and blood vessels. This connective tissue isn’t as tough as skin, but it’s tough enough we have to consider it. Then, the bullet strikes the complex of muscle, bone, and connective tissue comprising the thoracic spinal column. This is where most handgun bullets give up the ghost. By this time the bullet has traversed a good 4-5″ of tough tissue and bone, which has slowed it considerably. One can only assume that the theoretical 1000 fps of velocity the bullet had on leaving your gun’s muzzle has been diminished significantly, perhaps by as much as two-thirds. Its residual momentum or energy will be similarly diminished. If the bullet strikes the vertebral column i the midline, it will have about 1″ of muscle and connective tissue to go through, then it will hit the very hard, very dense bone of the body of a thoracic vertebra, which is about 2″ thick. Few handgun bullets will make it all the way through, and I would venture to say that no service/defensive caliber bullet would do so. The total thickness of tissue penetrated by your bullet in this case is probably something along the order of 8 or 9 inches. And there’s still another 3-4″ of tissues to traverse on the other side of its stopping point!

Now, what does these two examples tell you about the physical performance of your 14+ inch gelatin-penetrating bullet in real flesh? 

If your answer was, “It don’t tell me shit!”, you would be correct. 

Gelatin testing is not a measure of what a bullet will do in flesh. It is an artificial standard that helps us compare one bullet to another. It tells us nothing about actual wound ballistics, but it’s a pretty good predictor of general bullet performance in a real body, as long as you consider the enormous number of variables in tissue and wound track in a body. 

But let’s get back to terminal effects in our example. We’ll look at them in reverse order. Bullet #2 perforated the Bad Guy’s heart, after fracturing his sternum; it lacerated the Great Vessels behind his heart, causing instant massive bleeding, and then as if that wasn’t enough damage, it caused a massive fracture of a vertebra which in all likelihood stunned the thoracic spinal cord, paralyzing him from the chest down. He falls to the ground, losing consciousness in seconds, and in all likelihood dies within 2-3 minutes. Needless to say, his attack on you was aborted milliseconds after the bullet struck his body. This is a Good Thing in the world of self-defense. 

Now, let’s go back to the first bullet, which we’ll assume punched all the way through our attacker’s chest, exited the body with a couple hundred of fps of velocity still dripping off it. It could, theoretically, hit an innocent bystander on the other side, and injure him. In the real world, though, this is pretty unlikely. The bullet will have shed at least 2/3 of its velocity in traversing the chest, so it will be moving slower than a pellet out of a BB gun. It may strike a second person, but it won’t have the energy to penetrate much, if at all. So that is a non-issue. Let’s look at what the bullet has done to our attacker’s anatomy, physiology, and his ability to carry on his attack. Well, on that score anyone who’s taken my Shooting With Xray Vision class knows we’re in trouble. We’ve put a hole in him, sure, but we haven’t  hit–let alone destroyed–anything he is going to need for fighting purposes in the next 10 or 15 minutes. In other words, he will be capable of continuing his attack. This is a Bad Thing. 

And herein lies the trap, the Training Scar. If all your training has been on flat paper targets with no real Simulator Fidelity, you’re going to expect that bullet to stop the attack. After all, you shot him in the chest, didn’t you? Every time you’ve scored a hit inside the 10-ring on your B27 target, or the A-zone of your IPSC target, your instructor has patted you on the back and said, “Attaboy, you killed him good”, didn’t he? But that shit ain’t reality; in point of fact you have not come even close to stopping this bad guy! 

How is that going to affect your performance in this DFS, this fight for your life? You expected him to fall down, to stop fighitng, but he’s still coming on! Your thoughts are racing: “What’s wrong? Is there something wrong with my gun? Is there something wrong with my ammunition? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What’s wrong? What do I do now?

You get stuck in a paralyzing cycle of disbelief, confusion, and doubt. Your mind and body freeze up. And as you stand there trying to figure out why this situation that you trained so hard for hasn’t gone the way you expected it to, and your attacker murders you with the contact weapon in his hand. 

This, my friends, is what can happen when you have a Training Scar in your mindset. I have read and heard of numerous examples of this very thing happening in real fights, in real DFS’s. It happens to cops, it happens to non-LE civilians. And I hate to say it, but most of you probably have those Training Scars in your heads, and you don’t even know it, and you are ripe for it happening to you. Worst thing, you can’t possibly know it until/unless you get into a DFS and the Training Scars result in you being injured or killed. 

So how can you fix this?

If I could tell you one thing that might jolt that Training Scar out of your head, I would tell you this: break out of your tired old training mindset. It will take some work, some time, and a little money, but it is do-able. 

First step: take at least one good force-on-force training school. These aren’t easy to find, but they are valuable beyond belief. My training company partner, David Maglio, and I used to offer such a school which we called Deadly Force Decisions.  It was a helluva good class. People who took it were amazed, and profoundly grateful to have that training. But we stopped offering it because nobody would sign up for it. People like Henk Iversen (Strike Force Tactical) offer something like it, as do other high-end trainers in America, and even they have trouble getting people to sign up. I wish I could tell you why. 

Second step: kill something. I’m not kidding. Go to an organic farm and buy a slaughter hog and kill it. If you don’t know how, get the farmer to show you, or get a friend who’s a deer hunter to take you. Get up close to the animal, look it in the eyes, and kill it with your carry pistol. Shoot it in the head, between the eyes. Learn what it means to take a life. This isn’t easy for most city folks to do, but consider this: if you can’t kill a farm animal that’s going to die soon anyway, how on earth are you going to shoot a human being at close, deadly-force, distance? I only know of one firearms instructor who does this in his class, and it’s in his most advanced class. People in that class have taken over 100 hours of firearms and Use of Force training by the time they face their pig, and some folks find that they just can’t do it. Better to learn you can’t kill another living being in a class than when you’re faced with an armed and dangerous adversary who wants to kill you.

Third step:  after your freshly killed hog is dead, shoot it a few more times to learn a bit about what your gun and bullets will do in flesh (don’t waste the good meat by shooting the hindquarters, but shoot the chest. Then shoot it in the chest with your AR-15, or your home defense shotgun. See for yourself what your weapons can and will actually do. If you’re already a hunter, next time you kill a deer or a feral hog, take some test shots into the animal’s chest and/or neck and/or shoulders with your defensive firearms. 

If you can do these 3 things, you will have eliminated at least 2 or 3 of the biggest Training Scars that defensive minded armed citizens have picked up in their training over the years. And that could well save your life, or that of your loved ones. 

Failure is not an option. Do the work, take the training, and get rid of those goddam deadly Traning Scars. 


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