Guns are, let’s face it, designed to kill. While there are many sporting aspects to them, and they can be a great deal of fun to use, their purpose is ultimately a rather grim one. Keeping this in mind then, it would be well for the gun owner and user, particularly if the use is to be self-defense, to be aware of the mechanism of death by firearm. Lack of this knowledge results in two very serious shortcomings. The first is that the user may not take firearms as seriously as should be the case. This could result in careless, and excessive use of firearms, shooting when it is not justified, or shooting to frighten or warn. The second is the possibility that a gun may be chosen which is not up to the job. Both situations are, alas, all too common.
I am very happy to say that I do not write from any direct experience. I have never been shot, which is fortunate, and which happily puts me squarely in the majority. I have also never shot anyone else. I have read accounts, and talked to people (including my brother) who have been shot, and they all mention two factors in common. The first is that there was little pain (initially), but that a great weakness overcame them. The second is that, no matter where they were hit, they have never quite been the same since. In some cases it is a matter of reduced mobility, or of weakness and pain, in others it is numbness, or an ache whenever the weather changes, a constitutional weakness and susceptability to sickness. Then there is the scarring, and disfigurement, along with assorted limps, twinges, losses of coordination, and disabilities. Impairment of abilities is almost certain. The only matter in doubt is the degree, and the location of the disability.
Used properly, and at the proper time, a firearm can be your best friend in a life threatening situation, and the wisest purchase you ever made. Used improperly, a firearm can get you thrown in prison, leave you with a lifelong guilty conscience, and end or seriously impair the life of another human being. It's all a matter of knowledge, responsability, and proper judgement. Before you do such a thing to a fellow human being, it is best to consider the justification. In the end, you will both have to live with the consequnces of this action. Consider that when you point a gun at another human being, and pull the trigger, you are subjecting him to all that is described below, and on the following pages.
Why do Bullets kill? What's the best caliber, and the best round? Is bullet energy the lethal factor, and if so what is the minimum amount required to make a round effective, and what is the maximum practical amount which a shooter may reasonably be expected to handle? What are the other factors besides raw energy which can make a bullet lethal? Ever since people started shooting at each other, there has been an effort to answer these questions. You will note that the questions revolve around the ability of a bullet to kill, not to wound. This does not (hopefully) reflect a certain blood thirstiness, but rather, it reflects a certain harsh reality, and the mindset required in considering these matters. The reality is, despite the silliness seen on T.V. and in the movies, bullets are not supernatural things. It must be borne in mind that these things are made up by writers who almost with out exception, are very ignorant of firearms. I base this assumption on what they produce. To them, a gun is nothing more than a prop used in plot development. It is very unfortunate that this seems to be where the bulk of people aqcuire their firearms knowledge.
A few myths should be debunked. First, a bullet can not knock a man down, "knockdown power" does not exist in anything less than a cannon. This is not to be confused with "stopping power" which certainly does exist, although what produces it is a hotly debated point. There are a number of factors which can be looked at and several different formulas which have been developed according to the school of thought of the developer. The factors involved are the bullet weight, the bullet diameter (caliber), the shape and type of bullet, and in some cases the rifling of the bore. Other important factors are the shot placement, range, and state of health of the target. It should be noted that the vast majority of studies done concern themselves with the lethality of handgun cartridges. The reason for this is that even a powerful handgun is a marginal stopper for an animal the size of a human.
So, how do bullets kill? The simple answer is, they kill by producing lethal wounds, wounds so traumatic, or to such vital areas, that the body can no longer function. So how do bullets wound, then? They wound by disrupting, or disorganizing tissue. They tear, bloat, crush, and punch holes in tissues and organs. In order to do this, a bullet requires a certain amount of energy. This energy is then transferred to the tissues, disrupting and in some cases destroying them. This is an important concept to keep in mind. The amount of tissue directly destroyed is generally on the order of about two ounces. This may not seem like much, but if it is two ounces of brain, spine, heart or major artery tissue, the results can be devastating. There are also some indirect effects, though they are often questionable, and are only factors under the right conditions.
I have broken the information in this section up into several categories for ease of use. There is much overlap of categories. Velocity and energy are related factors, and certain types of bullets depend greatly on velocity to work properly. Still, it is easier to separate these factors and consider them individually before trying to make sense out of the sometimes contradictory "facts" out there about bullet lethality. This is, despite the constant muddying of the waters, not rocket science. The factors involved are quite simple, but like nearly anything involving firearms, are clouded by opinion, politics, self appointed experts, and rumor. Like everyone with an interest in this gristly subject, I have a bias. I hope to provide firm, logical reasoning for this bias in the following sections. The effects under consideration are those of pistol rounds, unless specific mention is made of a rifle round. The effects of rifle rounds are very different, and a small section will be devoted to them.