Handgun Stopping Power and Other Myths, Part 2


Brace yourself, here it comes. Ready?

Handguns are not good at stopping a determined attacker, regardless of the caliber, muzzle energy or bullet configuration.

Take a deep breath, pause and count to ten. Got it together? Let’s continue.

Consider: 1986, Miami– The primary shooter in the Miami shoot-out took a lethal hit from an effective round which performed correctly. Medically speaking he should have dropped from a catastrophic loss of blood pressure in 25-30 seconds. Instead he shot six FBI agents and was killed by a shot through the skull as he tried to drive away two minutes later.

Summer 1993, Los Angeles– Off-duty LAPD police officer Stacy Lim was shot through the heart with a 125gr hollow-point from a .357 Magnum at close range. The bullet expanded properly and damaged several ribs as it exited her back. Her response was to shoot her attacker 5 times. She not only lived, but returned to unrestricted duty a year later.

Neither of these people were on drugs- OK, the Miami shooter had drunk a beer at some point before the shooting. These are only two of many cases where people took hits that would drop most people in their tracks but somehow continued to function. People are tough.

OK, most of the time it doesn’t go that way. Typically if you put a bullet in someone they run like hell. Sometimes they surrender. Sometimes they take a relatively minor hit and drop like a pole-axed steer. The question is if you are being attacked by someone wielding lethal force do you want to bet your life, or worse yet the lives of loved ones, that you won’t get one of the other kind? The kind that stand there soaking up bullets and keep shooting at you?

So what do you do? You can’t carry a 12-gauge stoked with slugs with you everywhere. Or a high-powered rifle. Within the limits of common sense and practicality you are likely to be restricted to a hand-gun. Over the decades police have found that the most effective method of stopping a determined attacker with a handgun is to shoot them multiple times in the center of mass.

There is a lot to recommend this approach. The heart, major vessels and spine are all at the center-of-mass and police typically use weapons that can penetrate deeply enough to hit those structures, so it makes sense that this would work pretty well. Multiple hits mean more chances to destroy these things. Properly done this worked well enough even when most police used .38 Specials firing round-nose lead bullets.

The simple fact is that the only way to be certain of stopping a determined attacker is to break something that they cannot function without. This means the central nervous system or cardiovascular system. The brain and upper spine control the body- take either of those out and you’ve ‘cut the wires’ that send the signals that control the body. This is the only guaranteed instant stop. The cardiovascular system sends fuel to the body that allows it to run. The bad news is that a major hit to the heart can take up to two minutes for them to run out of fuel. Taking out the Aorta can drop someone in s little as 25 seconds… but again might take as long as a couple of minutes.

OK, realistically someone shot through the heart will be most likely be more worried about that than about continuing to try and hurt you. But they might not be. If you are in a shooting you are already in a worst-case scenario. Can you afford to bet your attacker will stop or surrender before they are forced to by their body’s failure?

“But Tinker,” I hear you cry, “I use the latest high-tech defensive ammo on the planet! Surely that improves my odds!”

Yes, yes it does. Let’s take a look at how much it increases your odds. The first thing is that the bullet must penetrate deeply enough to hit the cardiovascular system or central nervous system. A pistol bullet won’t damage it if it doesn’t reach it. Conventional modern defensive ammunition is good at doing this, so we’ll take it as a given.

Medical Examiners and ballistics experts pretty much agree that ballistic gel is a fair approximation of human tissue. A bullet that performs well in real life typically performs similarly in gel. All other things being equal a modern defensive bullet will produce a similar permanent wound channel in either flesh or ballistic gel. So how big a permanent wound channel do modern, high-tech super-bullets produce? It varies from test to test, but top notch stuff produces a permanent wound cavity 1-1/4 to 2 inches in diameter.

What this means is that if your bullet performs ideally you have increased your margin of error by about 1 inch. At the most. At the most you can miss a vital structure by as much as one inch. Of course with multiple hits near together those inches overlap, which helps. Yep, the last one hundred years of bullet development have given you up to a one inch margin for error.

Don’t despair though; the odds that you will ever need to shoot someone are vanishingly slim; the odds that you will encounter a person absolutely committed and mentally prepared to take you out at all costs are much, much slimmer.

OK, you’re using a service caliber weapon with state-of-the-art ammo. What else can you do to increase that tiny margin for error that you have bought? Practice, of course. As much as you can stand. Practice dry-fire. Practice deployment and presentation. Practice with your strong and weak hand. Practice reloading and clearing jams. Shoot as much and as realistically as is practical. When the excrement hits the rotary impeller and the rational, civilized part of your brain is gibbering with fear and denial you will do as you have trained to do, and your odds will be better than average of things working out. If you have practiced.

Yep, we’re back to the bad news; more than your wonder-gun, more than your miracle ammo, whether or not you survive is all on you. Sorry about that.

Tinker Pearce, 24 March 2017

First Time Reloading- Holy Crap, It Worked!


I’m going to call my first reloads a success… much to my surprise! Seriously, the normal thing when I try something new is that it takes a few tries, some fiddling and fussing’ before it comes out right. This time it worked right the first time and gave pretty much exactly the results I had hoped for. I know, right? I’m as surprised as you are, believe me!

The reloading press I traded from another knife maker (thank you Jim!) came with .38/.357 dies. All to the good; I have those, and a few hundred empty cases. The powder choice was made for me when an old pal sent me a few cans of Unique that were surplus-to-need (thank you Tim!) The first rounds I wanted to reload were .38 S&W; I have a couple of these that I love shooting but factory ammo can be hard to come by and tends to be bloody expensive. One issue with these is that .38 S&W has a bore diameter of .360-.362; just enough bigger than .38 Special’s .357″ bore to cause issues like excessive leading, key-holing and poor accuracy. The only readily available, inexpensive bullets for .360 bores are 147gr. RNL. Fine as far as they go, but one hopes for better… especially when one’s wife carries a .38 S&W revolver.

After checking around I discovered that some people had good results from using .357 148gr. Hollow-base Wadcutters. The lead skirt easily bumps-up a few thousandths of an inch to engage the rifling in the larger bore. As a bonus I can also load these in my .38 Specials. So now I need loading data… Oh. None to be had for the 148Gr. HBWC with Unique powder. I did find a load for 147gr. RNL that was said to be safe for top-break revolvers so I used that, backing off a bit from the listed maximum load.

.38 Special/.357 dies are not really intended for reloading the shorter .38 S&W but it can be done fairly easily. The one downside is that you cannot roll-crimp the casing as you normally would for a revolver cartridge. As it turns out though if you set the seating die to the right length for .38 S&W you get a quite adequate taper-crimp, and at the low levels of recoil this round produces there is little danger the rounds will ‘walk out’ in the cylinder.

The rounds were loaded in new Starline brass with CCI small pistol primers. The bullets were Hornady 148gr. HBWCs over 2.5 gains of Unique. This is well below the best estimated safety threshold I could establish for use in a top-break revolver. The bullets were seated to give an overall length of .970″, so that the bullets protrude approximately 3/16″ from the loaded cartridge.

Recoil and muzzle-blast were comparable to factory ammunition, being mild and not overly loud or sharp. The first test was a single round fired from a 1-5/8″ barrel at an kiln-dried Douglas Fir 2×6 board. In the 19th century the Army reckoned that a round that would penetrate a soft 1″ pine board could produce a lethal or incapacitating wound. The 2×6 is 1-3/4″ thick and significantly harder and denser than pine, so I thought it would make an acceptable test.

The round completely penetrated the board and made a 1/2″ deep impression in the 2×6 a foot behind it before bouncing off. This result was very similar to the performance of factory RNL ammunition in a previous test with the exception that the factory bullet remained fully imbedded in the second board. The recovered bullet exhibited stria from the gun’s rifling, shallow at the front of the bullet and deep on the skirt of the bullet where it had expanded into the rifling.

Forty rounds were fired through the test guns. The primary and secondary test guns are both S&W .38 Safety Hammerless Fourth Models with 1-5/8″ barrels. The primary test gun shot to point-of-aim and the secondary test-gun shot low in the fashion that I had anticipated based on the very tall front sight. All shots struck squarely with no evidence of instability or key-holing. None of the fired cases showed any evidence of excessive pressure; no flattening of the headstamps or primers. Neither gun showed any sign of damage or excessive leading. Accuracy was within the limits I was capable of producing on the shooting day. I was able to produce decent but not exceptional groups at seven yards. I have no reason to attribute this to the ammunition rather than the shooter; I am recovering from a severe cold and am not at my best.

The group shown in the picture was fired in approximately 2 seconds at seven yards. Under the circumstances I’m pretty happy with the result.


I like this load, and I’ll be using it for both targets and as a defensive load.

What’s that? Yes, I did say I would be using hand-loaded ammunition for defensive loads. Yes, I am aware of the arguments against this, the primary one being that an overzealous prosecutor could claim that I loaded ‘special killer bullets,’ that normal defensive ammo that was OK for the police and military just wasn’t good enough for me.

Oh hogwash. If your lawyer can’t beat that argument check their pulse… then fire them. Especially in this case- these are lightly loaded target bullets specifically designed to punch clean holes in paper targets. Yes, they are likely to be more effective than factory loaded round-nose lead, but so what? They are certainly less effective than modern service-caliber factory defensive ammunition. Using target loads in an antique revolver is going to be pretty difficult to demonize.

As for reliability as long as I am mindful and exercise due care when reloading the rounds, which I should anyway, I cannot believe they will be less reliable than factory ammunition.

What about reloads? I usually carry five rounds in a speed-strip and thought the square-shouldered bullets would be problematic. Nope- not much harder than with RNL. Strange, but I’ll take it!

Anyway, success! I can readily envision vast fortunes vanishing into the rapacious maw of the reloading press… (insert evil laughter here.) I’m already thinking I want a second set of .38 Special/.357 dies so that I don’t have to mess with my settings for .38 S&W…

Tinker Pearce, 23 March 2017

The .38 Special Wadcutter as a Defensive Load


Doing a bit of research lately on .38 Wadcutters as defensive ammunition. For years these have been the ‘go-to’ low-recoil defensive load for snubbies- not perfect, but better than lead round-nose or semi-wadcutters. So much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ about guns has proven to be hogwash over the years that I thought I would look into this.

First I checked for ballistic Gel tests on Youtube. Pocketgunsandgear had such a test, and the results really didn’t indicate performance superior to conventional lead round-nose. However several Medical Examiners have stated over the years that they were impressed with the wounds left by these rounds. OK, I dug further.

It turns out that the Army had actually done ‘energy deposit’ testing back in the 1970s. They fired through a 20cm block of ballistics gel and chronographed the bullets just before entry and after exit from the block. They found that .38 Special 158 gr.RNL bullets deposited 25% of their energy in the block, and 148gr wadcutters deposited 63% of their energy in the block. There is a direct correlation between energy deposit and permanent wound cavity.

The RNL bullets started with about 200 ft-lbs. of energy and deposed 50 ft-lbs. in the block. Even though it started with only 158 ft.lbs the wadcutter deposited 99 ft-lbs. of energy- nearly twice as much as the more powerful RNL round. That pretty much settles the question on that score- wadcutters do more permanent damage than round-nose lead. The conventional wisdom holds true- as far as it goes.

This isn’t the 1970s though, and bullet design has come a long way. There are light-recoiling hollow point rounds that work very well from short-barreled guns these days and one might be well-advised to research them. Still, it’s kind of nice to know the old stand-by is always there if you need it… and they are a LOT less expensive than modern defensive ammo.

Tinker Pearce, 20 March 2017

Derringers: The Arms-Length Equalizer

People’s 150-year long love affair with Derringers shows no sign of slacking off anytime soon. I get it; derringers are neat-o. They conjure images of the wild west, riverboat gamblers and tough-as-nails Ladies of the Night (with hearts of gold.) Tuck it up your sleeve, in your vest pocket or a lady’s garter and they are nearly irresistible.

The original Deringers (with one ‘r’) were muzzle-loading, large-bore pocket pistols made by Henry Derringer Jr. from Philadelphia. You only got one shot, but that shot was a pretty good one. They required a fairly large pocket as well, ‘compact’ being a relative term. Some over-and-under guns were made as well. Early examples were flintlocks, and later models used percussion caps. These guns were widely copied, as were his name and proofs, and Henry spent much of his later life in court fighting trademark infringements.

The first really small single-shot pistols seem to have been invented roughly two minutes after the invention of rimfire cartridges (or pin-fire on the continent) and judging from the numbers and variety that were produced there was a large market for such pistols. The term ‘Derringer'(with two ‘r’s) was not broadly applied to such weapons until Remington introduced their iconic over-and-under in 1868. These days if you say Derringer this is the gun people think of.


This was chambered in .41 Rimfire, which had a .41 caliber 130-grain bullet loaded on top of 13 grains of black powder. Not exactly a powerhouse- this round reportedly left the Remington at around 425fps and produced around 52ft-lbs. of energy. This seems to have been sufficient however; the gun remained in production until WW2, and ammunition was still made well into the 1960s. You can still, if you hunt around, find new ammunition occasionally but be prepared to pay a steep price for it.

The Remington remains the derringer that everyone copies; the mechanism is simple and easy to produce. Meant for arms-length last-ditch self defense, people still sell scads of them. They seem to have settled into two camps- cheap and unreliable or really expensive and reliable. You can find a Cobra ‘big bore’ derringer for about $125 if you shop around, but experience has shown you might not want to bet your life on it. Higher end derringers like the Bond start at an eye-watering $499, but they are at least very well made. There isn’t much in between as far as I can tell.

So what do you get for your money? A gun as large as a pocket automatic pistol, that is single action and holds only two rounds. If you buy a cheap one the barrels may be only roughly pointed in the same direction, and it’s anyone’s guess if it will fire when you pull the trigger. If you go the expensive route you’ll have a solid gun that you can count on… but it will still be single-action and hold two shots. Oh, and very likely it will be solid stainless steel, and thus rather heavy.


So what, if any, are the advantages of a Derringer over a pocket-auto? One is caliber; you can anything from .22 RF to .45-70. Currently .45 Colt/.410 seems to be a popular option. With current pistol-oriented .410 loads this would make for a very potent ‘GET OFF ME’ gun. With longer barrels and larger handles available it’s easy to imagine the .45-70 in the role of a compact ‘Howdah’ pistol, but this isn’t really in the realm of traditional derringers.


I actually carried  Remington-pattern Derringer as a last-ditch back-up on duty. It was a Davis D32 .32 ACP derringer, and it rode in my right-front pants pocket. It cost me $69.99 brand new, had a cast zinc-alloy frame with steel barrel-liners. The upper barrel shot six-inches high/right at a somewhat optimistic seven yards, and the lower barrel shot a foot low and left. I eventually got to where I could put two hits center-mass (by knowing which barrel was going to fire and aiming accordingly) pretty promptly at that range. Shortly thereafter the gun started to experience light primer hits and became unreliable; putting several hundred rounds through it had stretched the frame. Arguably this is my fault; the gun is meant as a contact-distance self-defense weapon. Had I not actually tried to develop some sort of proficiency with it it could have served in that role indefinitely.

That’s what derringers as a class are really all about: extremely up-close and personal self-defense. If we disregard the cheap, unreliable guns as novelties or range-toys we’re left with some pretty expensive guns with grave limitations.  The $500 entry price (and they go way up from there) gets you a relatively large, relatively heavy gun that can be difficult to manipulate, inaccurate beyond point-blank range and only holds two shots. Like the original Deringer they can be two very potent shots, but still.

For that kind of money you can get a compact automatic in .32 ACP or .380 ACP that is easier to use and gives you three times as many shots. With modern ammunition those will be be pretty good at the point-blank self-defense role. They will also reload faster and put subsequent shots into at least the same postal-code.  In a rational world the derringer would have been left behind in the 19th century. So why are they still so popular? Because people’s decisions about firearms are not always rational. Derringers are cool, and for a lot of people that is reason enough. They don’t need to be the best possible solution because they are fun.

Then too the fact that there may be better options does not mean that they won’t do the job. With modern cartridges they will do the job better than the originals; even a .22 Magnum is going to be more effective than the .41 Rimfire. Ballistic tests have repeatedly shown that while they probably won’t expand they will penetrate deep enough to kill even from a very short barrel. Derringers are available in pretty much any service-caliber (though you might be out of luck in .357 Sig) so you can match it to the caliber of your main carry weapon.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule (or opinion!) I was recently at a gun store with a person buying their first pistol. I told him, “You do not want a derringer- but if you get one it should be one of these.” The gun I pointed at was a High Standard .22 Magnum.


These little guns were made for decades in .22 LR and .22 Magnum. There are quite compact, very flat and- most importantly- are double-action. Just grab-and-fire. The established method for using them is to lay your index finger along the side of the barrel and pull the trigger with your middle finger. Literally point-and-shoot. I found that even with very little training I could easily put two shots into the center of a target at two yards in under a second. While .22 Magnum might not be anyone’s ‘first-best’ choice for a self-defense cartridge taking a couple of them in the face is going to be pretty discouraging.

Another advantage is that the way the firing mechanism is designed they are one of the only rimfire guns that can safely be dry-fired, which is very useful for training. Price-wise they are the exception to the rule; neither very cheap or very expensive. Though currently not being made they tend to be available for around $300-$350, and they work well and are reliable. A local shop currently has several on-hand, and if I had the disposable income I would pick one up. Because, you know, derringers are cool.

The first, most important rule of a gun-fight is have a gun. There might arguably be better choices, but a derringer does meet that criteria, and sometimes it’s not practical to carry anything larger or more potent. Whether or not these technological relics have a legitimate place in modern self-defense we have made a place for them in our hearts, and for now that is sufficient to keep the breed alive and kicking… and did I mention Derringers are cool?

Tinker Pearce, 19 March 2017

S&W M1902 Redux

Prices on S&W revolvers have been climbing for years, with many models well out of my price range. I love their revolvers, so what’s a poor knife-maker to do? Look for guns others have given up on, of course.  The ones that aren’t pretty, aren’t collectible. If you are willing to lower the bar enough you can always afford something.

M1902- ugly finish, ugly grip = Bargain price

In that spirit Linda bought me the gun above for my Birthday. It’s a S&W m1902 M&P that has been… uh… let’s be charitable and call it ‘refinished.’ It looked like it had been bead-blasted before blueing. It sports a 6-1/2″ barrel and some seriously large Pachmyers. Neither the grips nor the finish suit the character of the gun, which was made in about 1909.

The thing is the bore and chambers are excellent and the double-action trigger pull is maybe the finest I’ve ever felt on a revolver. It shoots very, very well, and since the crude refinish ‘ruined it’ for collectors it was available for less than the price of some Model 10 Police trade-ins. So, what to do with an ugly gun? Refinish it, of course.

As an experiment I cleaned and polished the barrel, which was more of a job than anticipated because the gun had not been bead-blasted, but rather had apparently been ‘pickled’ in a caustic chemical. I re-blued the barrel with Van’s Instant Blue and checked the results, which were pretty nice if I do say so myself.

So I started by detail-stripping the gun. I do this over a terry-cloth towel so that small parts and screws are less likely to bounce, roll or otherwise escape. First things first as I removed all of the ancient crud from the mechanism. Presumably they at least partly dismantled the gun when they refinished it so the crud was probably not original, but you couldn’t prove it by me. Next i removed the blueing by buffing it with a sisal-wheel and Stainless Steel Back rouge. This gave me a good look at the surface finish of the gun for the first time. Ugh… covered with a fine network of pitting. I went to work with the polishing wheel, 400 grit sandpaper and several dowels wrapped in sandpaper. Once things were looking reasonably good it was back to the buffer.

This machine mounts two 14″ Sisal wheels and it’s aggressive as hell. Exceptional care needs to be taken to avoid washing-out lines and blurring edges. It’s also important to do this step with the side plate in place so that you don’t ‘roll’ the edges of the side plate.  I made no effort to entirely remove all the pitting, especially in highly detailed areas like the crane. After a few hours work the gun was ‘in the white’ and looking pretty good. Mind you I wasn’t going for a ‘like-new’ finish; more like ‘cherished antique.’ What might be referred to in automotive circles as a ‘sympathetic’ restoration.

After I had the look I desired I de-greased all the parts and washed them in acetone. I applied a coat of blueing, buffed it with 0000 steel wool, then rinse-and-repeat. I originally intended to go for a deep, rich blue but after a couple of coats of blueing I’d achieved a sort of antique-gray finish that I really liked, so I stopped there.


It was almost physically painful to put those neoprene grips back on so after a few days I hunted up some scrap walnut and made a new set of grips. Well… two sets, actually. The first ones didn’t work out well. The grips eventually came out pretty nice, and I decorated them with hand-cut square-top checkering. I wanted it to look DIY, and since that’s about the best I can manage at this point that worked out well.

The finished gun no has a very pleasing vintage appearance that I am quite happy with. I’m not entirely finished; after shooting it yesterday I think I would really like a T-grip style grip adapter. I really want to maintain a vintage appearance, and a t-grip does that a lot better than a modern-style target grip. I’m also on the lookout for a suitable piece of antler; I think it would look terrific with stag grips.


It’s very satisfying to restore an old gun like this. It allows me own guns I could not normally afford and it’s fun to give an old gun new life. With care this one could easily go another century…

Now it needs a proper holster…

PS: A little more work on the checkering and a grip-adapter. Much improved!


–Michael Tinker Pearce, 6 March, 2017