Shooting Holes in Wounding Theories:

The Mechanics of Terminal Ballistics

VI. The Politics of Terminal Ballistics

The theoretical understanding of what I have conveyed here is not new information for the most part. Seasoned hunters (though by no means all) have been saying these things for more than a century. Admittedly, each advocate of the truth has tended to color the story at some point with a personal bias. Baker favored non-deforming heavy balls and was distrustful of smallbores. Selous had little to say about hunting arms and ammunition but preferred long and heavy deforming bullets and was an early smallbore advocate. Taylor created a dubious measure of "knockout shock" for head shots on pachyderms. Whelen, among the revered ancients, is perhaps the most scientifically objective, but even he argued for minimum kinetic energies for specific sizes of game, independent of other considerations.

Jack O'Connor, in his seminal treatise The Big-Game Rifle, observed:

Actually, extensive tests made at Princeton University during the last war show that the relationship between energy and wound severity is very close, and that this often noted "shock effect" of impact velocities of much over 2000 fps comes because at velocities over 2000 fps energies go up very rapidly...Too many of us have judged the severity of the wound simply by the size of the permanent cavity created. Some of us have judged wound severity by the size of the hole on the far side. We have neglected the killing effect of the bloodshot tissue around the permanent wound channel and the effect of the opening of the temporary cavity...But the bullet has to get inside the animal...As long as the bullets gets inside, then, velocity contributes more to killing power than bullet weight...The difference in killing power between the .30/30 and the .30/06 lies in the velocity. (The Big-Game Rifle, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1952, pgs. 331, 332, 333)

These words were written in 1951. I include them here for two reasons, first to make it clear that I recognize the significance of kinetic energy in wounding and that the physical nature of the wound is as important as its gross dimensions, and secondly to illustrate that the technical sophistication of the discussion has been quite advanced now for over half a century.

More recently, Finn Aagaard (whose opinions I hearken to with great respect), published an article entitled, "The Truth About Stopping Power" (Big Bore Rifles, Petersen Publishing Co., 1994, pp. 8 - 11) in which he lays out the facts without embellishment, though he fields the viewpoints (and formulas) of Taylor and Wooters out of fairness. [Sadly, Finn passed away from us in April of 2000.]

The final word on the theory of terminal ballistics effects has been authoritatively stated in several sources. So why the continuing controversy? Well, to be blunt, the "final word" on a subject doesn't sell next month's magazine. Controversy does. And, to be fair, it remains current for basically the same reasons that "Deer Rifles East and West" remains a perennial staple of firearms journalism.

There is another aspect to the politics of terminal ballistics which is more unfortunate. It exists mainly in the realm of terminal ballistics concerned with defensive (and offensive) ammunition intended to engage armed opponents. There is some overlap between the sporting and law enforcement / personal defense / military communities, but the problem is largely confined to the latter world.

It arose as a dispute between the adherants of Dr. (COL) Martin L. Fackler, MD, USA (ret.) while he was the director of the Letterman Army Institute of Wound Ballistics at the Presidio of San Francisco. Without question he is an authority (perhaps the leading authority) on the actual effects, both mechanical and physiological, of bullet wounds of all types in human tissue. He fostered the use of a specific formulation of ballistic or ordnance gelatin for terminal ballistics tests, based upon a parametric study of the effects on cavity development in gelatin prepared and stored in a variety of methods which he correlated to actual wound tracks in living tissue by identical projectiles. Who else has done that? No one, I can tell you. And few researchers who claim to use scientific methods and ordnance gelatin either calibrate their tests or prepare and store their gelatin in accordance with the strict guidelines (or even with any consistency from batch to batch), which is why you see cavities in gelatin of all sizes and depths from exactly the same loads.

Based upon his observations and tests, Dr. Fackler deposed on the famous Miami Shootout and his views were instrumental in the adoption of the Winchester 147 gr. OSM 9 mm load for the FBI, as well as the development of an FBI standard series of performance tests for handgun loads, which reflected tactical situations as well as wounding requirements. Fackler was, and is, critical of highly frangible handgun bullets intended to zap an opponent with temporary cavitation. He was also critical of some non-scientists who conducted sloppy tests and arrived at invalid conclusions. In particular he and his adherants (of whom I can name myself a member) have oftentimes been extremely critical of the statistical studies presented by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, both police officers.

Criticism is rarely embraced with enthusiasm. Perhaps my criticisms in this essay have been at times a little harsh and unremitting. There is a tendency among scientists and engineers to react fervently against error because it becomes gospel so readily. Most people are not discriminating thinkers. That's just human nature, we all tend to be a bit lazy with our assumptions.

Objectivity is also not invariably held by those whose intellectual integrity is above reproach in regard to science and truth. In other words even those in the right can get carried away. I hate to admit it, but I think that some of the vituperation heaped upon Marshall and Sanow is possibly unfair. Dishonesty is (even in fierce intellectual debates) a thing less often encountered than one would suspect. After all, one isn't dishonest if a "true believer". And that, I think, is the case here.

Marshall and Sanow have put forth some pretty lousy statistics and arrived at some absurd conclusions by pursuing a course of investigation which can only be described as pseudoscience. It would not be accepted by any accredited peer reviewed journal. But I doubt if they are the malicious frauds alleged by the "Facklerite" camp (including the Firearms Tactical Institute, whose hyperlink I have included on my site). Probably they are just very bad statisticians and "scientists". Part of my viewpoint comes from Massad Ayoob, whom I judge to be honest and who regards these two as being above board in their own right. (If you want to read my personal estimate of the case for "one-shot stops" go here.)

The science, amateur investigation, and debate of terminal ballistics ought to be free from personal attacks on the intellect and integrity of opposing proponents, and of the resulting prejudices which cloud objectivity in the best of minds, but it is not. I personally hold no despite for any serious researcher connected with this field (poseurs are another matter), however vehemently I may have expressed myself in this essay, and I hope that my opinions and the facts as presented here will be evaluated in that light.


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