One of our greatest modern gun experts, Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, USMC, Ret., once made the observation that the bullet is more important than the gun. The gun, he explained, is merely the launcher. It is the bullet that actually does the job.
This is true for an armed citizen’s home defense gun, as surely as it is for the battle weapon of one of Col. Cooper’s brother Marines. Ditto for the police officer’s ammunition. And ditto again for the bullet a rural American citizen uses to harvest game for the family table.
The military is bound by the codes of international warfare, going back to the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Accords, all of which predated napalm, chemical warfare, and the concept of thermonuclear war. Interestingly, the Judge Advocate General’s office has already determined that these restrictions apply to declared wars between recognized nation-states, not things like the current “war on terrorism,” but that’s another story.
The Geneva Conventions and Hague Accords require that the bullets used not be designed to expand. Essentially, they call for full metal jacket projectiles that just punch neat, clean holes through the bodies of enemy soldiers. Ironically, in the name of human decency, virtually every state in the union forbids the use of such ammunition against deer, bear, or other big game. The reason is that it tends to result in slow death and is not humane.
In warfare, the bullet that wounds an enemy soldier becomes a greater “force multiplier” than the one that kills him. A dead soldier means one less enemy. A wounded soldier means at least three less of the enemy: one down, and two more to carry him off the field of battle.
I am sure that this makes good sense to the generals behind the lines, and the bean counters behind them. However, the soldier who is bad breath distance away from an Al-Qaeda fanatic with an AK47 doesn’t just want his opposite number wounded, he wants him instantly out of the fight at the moment the bullet hits him.
At this point, both the semantics and the ethics of the matter start to become complicated. No young man fighting for his country wants, when he thinks about it, to end the life of another young man fighting for his country. However, that young man desperately wants the other young man not to kill him or one of his comrades. Therefore, the job of the bullet he launches is instant incapacitation.
This may cause death. When you get into it deep enough, you realize that the righteous combatant does not shoot to kill, he shoots to stop. A mortal wound is not enough. Many an American soldier who was mortally wounded went on to kill so many of the enemy before he ran out of blood and died that the majority of those on the sacred list who won the Congressional Medal of Honor won it posthumously. Every combat soldier who fought in heavy battle can tell you stories of enemy soldiers who, wounded unto death, still took one or more Americans with them. These men had been killed, but not stopped.
In the big picture, the firearm is a tool. We homo sapiens are the tool-bearing mammal. We are also, ipso facto, the weapon-bearing mammal. We have become the dominant species—the alpha, the top predator if you will—because we have learned to tailor our tools to the given task.
Therefore, Logic 101 tells us, if we must tailor the tool to the task, and if the tool is the gun and we know that the gun’s bullet is more important than the gun itself, why, we realize with our superior human brains that selection of ammunition is absolutely critical.
The history of law enforcement ammunition selection is a good one to study because it encompasses all four of the basic models of selection that the civilian will have available. It is from experience that common sense is born, and the police sector has that experience.
There are essentially four models that police used for selection of ammunition over the years. They might be described as the Traditional Model, the Advertising Model, the Laboratory Model, and the Experiential Model.
The Traditional Model was used for the first two thirds of the 20th Century—longer by some of the more institutionalized departments—and it failed miserably. The .38 Special revolver was the standard then, using 158-grain round-nose lead ammunition with a muzzle velocity of 755 feet per second, generating some 200 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle.