Velocity, energy and bullet expansion are most commonly lauded as the keys to incapacitate an attacker. Truth is, shot placement matters most.
The terminal performance, ability to neutralize and lethality of handguns spawns lots of arguments. The 9 mm versus .45 ACP is probably the longest running and most heated stopping-power debate of all time. Unfortunately, the things that settle these debates are gunfights, and often only one of the participants is around to believe they were right. In order to increase the effectiveness of defensive handguns, ballistic engineers have been tweaking ammunition and projectiles since ammunition and projectiles were invented. This is a good thing, but it’s not the most important thing.
I recently received a letter from a reader in Missouri who had read an old column by Sheriff Jim Wilson discussing the gunfight between Wild Bill Hickok and Davis Tutt. This shootout occurred in Springfield, MO, in 1865. And, while the details surrounding the incident are a bit cloudy, one thing on which most agree is Hickok shot Tutt through the heart at 75 yards, using either one of his .36-caliber Navy revolvers or a .44-caliber Colt Dragoon. In the letter, the reader was curious about the related ballistics of the shot, such as how high Hickok had to hold, impact velocity and energy and possible penetration.
Like with the events that led up to the shooting, we can only speculate about many of the ballistic particulars. Assuming Hickok used a Colt Navy, it would have most likely been loaded with a .375-inch, round lead ball weighing about 80 grains. Though we have no idea about the powder charge Hickok might have used, a good load with FFFg blackpowder would produce a muzzle velocity close to 1,000 fps. It would have taken that round ball close to a quarter-second to travel 75 yards, and it would have impacted with a velocity near 800 fps and about 115 ft.-lbs. of energy. By the best modern comparison, Hickok shot Tutt with a .380 ACP.
Now, hitting a man in the heart at 75 yards while armed with a modern, compact .380 ACP semi-automatic pistol might seem hard to believe. But, it’s a given that Hickok was a crack shot with a revolver and remember, a Colt Navy has a 7.5-inch barreland a sight radius approaching 10 inches. While Hickok might have been wielding .380 ACP ballistics, he was not using a compact handgun that my grandfather would have called a “two-hand gun,” meaning you hold the aggressor with one hand and shoot them with the other. By comparison with a modern .380 ACP, Hickok had a target pistol. As for Hickok’s point-of-aim, those revolvers were notorious for shooting high—it’s been said at distance you held on a man’s waist to hit him in the chest.
Given the ballistic particulars of Hickok’s load, surprisingly, we could expect the round ball to deliver near ideal FBI penetration at that range. And, given that the shootout occurred in July, it’s unlikely Tutt was wearing heavy clothing. It’s also highly doubtful the round ball expanded at all, but a .375-inch-diameter hole through your heart is enough to make your engine light come on. It’s no surprise Hickok was able to kill Tutt as handily as he did.
One aspect of this gunfight that gets no attention is what actually happened after Hickok pulled the trigger. It’s thought that Tutt also fired a shot—and missed—at almost the exact same time as Hickok. If that was the case, between the blackpowder smoke surrounding Tutt and Hickok, unless it was a windy day, Hickok probably did not know if he had neutralized his antagonist for at least several seconds. Since Tutt was not instantly incapacitated, all that smoke might have been what kept him from continuing to shoot at Wild Bill.
What you might be wondering is, what (if anything) any of this has to do with questions and arguments regarding the terminal effectiveness of modern defensive handguns and ammunition. Well, nothing and everything. Some modern projectiles are so well designed that they will deliver near double-diameter expansion even at 75 yards. For example, a 124-grain Federal HST 9 mm +P load will impact at more than 1,000 fps at n75 yards and hit with almost three times the energy of Hickok’s round ball. Federal’s new, non-expanding 147-grain Solid Core 9 mm +P load is going even faster and hits even harder. Still, even with all the ballistic advancements we’ve made, terminal performance is not the most important thing when it comes to ending fights.
When I was still working as a police officer, we had an incident where a physically disabled man was assaulted by a very physically fit man. The disabled man shot his attacker in the chest with a .380 ACP loaded with full-metal-jacket ammunition. Not only did it stop the fight; the assailant died on the scene. Tim Sundles, who owns Buffalo Bore ammunition, told me about a Soldier in the “sandbox” who was getting pummeled by an insurgent using an AK-47 as a club. A .380 pistol the Soldier kept in his cargo pocket loaded with non-expanding, hardcast bullets saved the Soldier’s life.
We can argue about terminal performance, lethality and the ability of this or that cartridge or load to neutralize a threat from now until eternity. The truth is, just like African professional hunter and gunwriter Finn Aagaard once wrote, “Killing power is a matter of biology, not of math and physics, and is influenced almost totally by shot placement, accompanied by sufficient penetration.” Where you hit ’em matters—just ask Davis Tutt.