The Case for the .45 ACP

By Jim Higginbotham

The .45 ACP is not a very powerful cartridge. Now that may come as a shock to those who are thinking “if this is an argument in favor of the .45 auto then I’d hate to see the other side”. It might come as even more of a shock for those who recognize me as a vocal – if not infamous – supporter of the cartridge for self defense. I start my treatment of this subject this way because too often we tend to exaggerate a bit when developing positions in the eternal debate of which cartridge is best for a given mission.

The mission, in our case, is obvious but, never the less, must be stated. The mission of the defensive pistol is to save the life of its user – or an innocent third party he is authorized to use lethal force to protect. In more specific terms it is to end a lethal attack as expeditiously as possible. Since it takes very little time for an attacker to strike a potentially mortal blow (either with a firearm, edged weapon or blunt instrument) then it is imperative that the cartridge chambered in your sidearm be as effective as practicable – for you may not have the luxury of more than one or two shots before the blow is struck.. In truth, no handgun round is effective enough on a determined human attacker to achieve this goal unless the central nervous system is disrupted (this does not mean just hit – it means serious damage must be done to the brain or spine). Unfortunately, these targets are extremely hard to locate on a three dimensional target in a dynamic situation and are next to impossible to hit reliably. That leaves us with disabling the adversary by causing a loss of blood pressure, and thereby, depriving the brain of oxygen which brings about gradual incapacitation. While no handgun round (and few rifle rounds) are effective instantly with this type of hit, some do a better job than others. Obviously, the faster we can drop blood pressure the quicker the incapacitation. The simple fact is, the bigger the hole(s) the faster the drop in blood pressure. I cannot find any evidence of some “force” or “energy” or any other property which causes rapid incapacitation (as opposed to relatively slow incapacitation due to clinical shock) in and of itself. Of course a simple way to increase the size of the hole is to shoot again, repeatedly and often. However, in trained hands, at normal defense ranges (about 10 feet or less) a .45 Auto can be fired as fast and accurately as a .22 auto. It is more a matter of training than of caliber choice up to a point. Depending on the shooter, and to some extent the weight of the gun, somewhere about the level of the .41 or .44 Magnum full power loads we get into recoil that is unmanageable in rapid fire for most people.

I see a hand raised at the back of the room. “What about ‘hydra-static shock’?” I do not mean to sound boastful or arrogant but I have been experimenting with firearms in the hunting field for over 30 years and I have been involved in law enforcement both as an officer and a trainer for over a quarter of a century. Does that make me the ultimate expert – absolutely not! What it does mean is that I have been searching for answers to terminal ballistic questions for a long time. In that time I have shot a lot of game, interviewed a lot of folks who have been shot, have been shot myself and seen dozens of films and videos of people actually being shot. I have shot critters from 10 to 400 pounds (and witnessed bigger stuff go down) with bullets from .22 to .70 caliber and velocities in excess of 4,000 fps. I have not noticed anything consistent that I could call “hydra-static shock” other than in vermin in the 10 to 30 pound weight range and shot with fragile bullets that impacted at 3000 fps or more. I have shot larger animals with bullets that impacted at well above 3,000 fps and, while the permanent wound cavities were impressive in some cases, I have not noticed any consistent “magic” instant incapacitation when bullets did not strike the Central Nervous System (CNS) or at least hit close. If a 150 gr. Rifle bullet at 3500 fps (.300 Weatherby) will not instantly take down a deer by virtue of its “hydrostatic shock” or “kinetic energy dump” with a lung or heart shot, then what chance does a 9mm have (or a .45) at 1/3 the velocity? Having studied terminal ballistics on both game and humans I have concluded that a 200 pound deer is much easier to incapacitate than a 200 pound determined attacker (note that there are many cases of “undetermined” attackers who have been stopped by warning shots, insignificant wounds or even threats).

Some advocates of small to medium calibers usually opine that shot placement is far more important than any considerations of caliber or “power”. They are ALMOST right. The key to rapid incapacitation is, of course, what the bullet destroys. This is not exactly the same as “shot placement”. Once the bullet strikes the surface of a target “shot placement” has run its course, what the bullet actually destroys inside the body is now subject to terminal ballistic properties. The .22 long rifle solid is noted for its tendency to tumble and change course after it impacts a large target. It is quite “lethal” though it is not noted to be a “stopper”. No doubt, however, if a .22 bullet strikes the brain or the spinal cord (with enough force to damage it) rapid incapacitation would be a result. The trouble is a bullet that is placed perfectly, say on the sternum, may deflect or disintegrate and not reach the organ it was intended to destroy.

So, if what the bullet hits, and the amount of permanent damage done to vital organs is the key to stopping an attack then what is wrong with using medium bore cartridges like the 9mm or the .357 Magnum. In truth, IF one is willing to take the conservative approach with well constructed bullets which might expand a bit but will “stay the course” and penetrate to the vitals from all angles, there is little wrong with them. The trouble is that pundits and experts want to push the “shock” or “energy” properties to the maximum and that leads to light weight, fragile bullets which are less likely to penetrate to the back of the chest wall or to the spine. This does result in some spectacular wounds and in some cases of rapid incapacitation. But it also results in spectacular failures, exemplified by the failures of the 9mm silver-tip in the infamous “Miami Massacre” or the gunfight in which trooper Mark Coates shot his assailant 5 times center mass with a .357 Magnum, only to be killed with a .22 mini revolver.

Even modern technology does not completely overcome the laws of physics. This fall I shot two animals with the hot 9 X 23 cartridge. I used both the Winchester USA factory load – a 125 gr soft point at about 1525 fps from my 5″ 1911 and a handload of a Speer 124 gr. Gold Dot at just under 1600 fps. This performance is at the upper end of the scale for medium bore defense loads. These loads both expanded a little (but not like the pictures in magazines) and held their weight fairly well and both penetrated about 10″. While both hit ribs, neither hit major bone except the Gold Dot which bumped up against a leg bone on the off side with no damage, ending its travel. While neither bullet was by any means a failure neither was the damage done to the animals spectacular. Both produced holes in lung tissue about the size of your thumb. I have seen similar wounds with .45 ball bullets that tumbled (this happens in large targets as often as not).

One might logically ask “so why choose a .45 if a good 9mm produces equal wounds?” The simple answer is that, while the best (or worst depending on your point of view) 9mm wounds are about equal to the least effective .45s – and in some cases produce even larger diameter but shallower wounds – you pay for this by compromising the consistency of your cartridge performance. A 9mm hollowpoint that gives consistent 12 inch penetration in ordnance gelatin in the lab sometimes gives 8 – 10″ penetration in real flesh and blood targets and sometimes it gives 3 or 4″ penetration and I have seen as little as 1/2″ penetration with 125 gr. .38 +P jhp (and no it did not disintegrate nor glance off – it just stopped). If you happen to be shooting the one that gives 3″ penetration (and poor Mark Coates had 5 in a row with his Magnum) then it does not matter if you shoot well – you might as well be shooting spit wads.

So far we are comparing the best medium bores to the least spectacular larger bores. If you compare bullets of similar technology the larger bore shows proportional performance. A .45 230 gr. Ball round destroys about 1.7 times as much tissue as a 9mm ball round. A 230 gr. .45 jhp destroys about 1.7 time as much tissue as a 9mm 124 jhp that expands. The thing is, due to its mass the 230 grain .45 gives more consistent penetration. While it is difficult, you can make a .45 an inefficient performer. You do this by lightening the bullet and increasing the velocity. While some 185 gr. .45’s, reportedly, are well constructed and give fairly consistent penetration, some are not. I have had 185 gr. Winchester Silver-Tips fail to penetrate 8 pound ground hogs – this is not confidence inspiring.

While I have come across some lethal encounters that took a lot of rounds to settle they mostly were the result of either poor hits (or complete misses) or lack of penetration. Nearly all of the high round count cases I have reviewed involved 9mms, .38s, .357’s or smaller calibers. This is not to say they do not occur with major caliber rounds. It is to say I have been collecting data for 30 years and have not encountered many cases in which multiple hits (more than three as two or three shots are a fairly normal reflex action) from major caliber cartridges to the center of the chest have not been sufficient, – the single exception being a case involving the .41 Magnum loaded with JSP bullets which did not expand – they did penetrate – it took five hits center mass to stop the attacker – and have not encountered any with the .45, even with Ball. I have encountered several with 5, 6 or even more hits to the center of the chest with .38, .357, 9mm and .223 rifle rounds failing to stop. Almost every one could be traced to lack of penetration with a couple of exceptions that hit the heart but just did not cause enough damage to be effective quickly. Note I am not talking about “torso” hits. There is a lot of area in the torso in which a hit will seldom produce rapid incapacitation even if hit by a 12 ga. slug or a 30-06 – we simply cannot count such data if we are going to learn anything.

Please note that I am not saying you should avoid cartridge X because it has a track record of 50% “stops” and there are cartridges with better records – the information available in these data bases is simply unusable to predict what a cartridge will do in terms if incapacitation. It is thought by some analysts that in as many as 50% of recorded cases the subject stopped the fight for psychological reasons – and this is not a caliber issue – so we cannot use such data to support conclusions about power. Add to this that many data bases are polluted by inclusion of bad hits or a questionable definition of “incapacitation” and we get into very muddy water. What we can do is take note of the failures and try to figure out the cause.

So, do the medium bores lack “stopping power”, “shocking power” or what ever term you choose to use. Yes they do. So do the .45 Auto and the .44 magnum and the .223 so that is not the defining issue. The issue is that they are less likely to drive their bullet – given equal placement – through an important target with adequate damage to the organ. In short, in the popular loads, they fail to reach or damage their intended target more often than the larger calibers. To be sure there is the issue of overpenetration but I feel that it is overblown. There are so many different types of tissue and bone in the human anatomy that one cannot precisely predict how much penetration he will need nor how much he will get. We have seen where bullets that give 14″ of penetration consistently in ordnance gelatin can sometimes give 3″ in the human body. We need a good bit more margin for error than this for rounds to be effective in their mission. Personally I want rounds that give 12 to 14 inches in gelatin as a minimum, not a maximum and frankly I really want 18 inches but there are few loads with give this and expand also.

In conclusion, having a reasonable amount of experience and study I have no doubt that the larger caliber handguns are more effective that the smaller ones, given exactly the same placement of bullets on the surface of the target, but not because of some energy, force or power which bowls people over or carries some sort of “shock”. It is because they more consistently drill holes – larger holes – through the intended organs. Does that mean they are better for you. Perhaps, but if you do not shoot your weapon well it does not matter. On the other hand I have encountered cases in which people shot their medium bores well – extremely well – and still died because their bullet did not do their job. It is a dilemma of some import.

Perhaps the best advice I have heard on this matter is “shoot the biggest caliber you can handle”. My admonition is, don’t settle for less if you don’t really have to. And if you do have to, use a bullet that will drive through to the vital organs from any angle and through simple barriers (like arms). There are many other factors to selecting a defense handgun, capacity, ergonomics, reliability, accuracy, concealability and so forth (not in that order). All are at least as important as the caliber you select but remember – failure in any one area means failure to carry out the mission. What I am saying is don’t get lulled into the idea that the choice of caliber is unimportant or that a medium bore is big enough if the weapon meets all the other requirements, because …. a .45 is not big enough!

Appendix 1: Ammunition

I don’t like to give recommendations as to specific loads. The main reason for this is that manufacturers change these loads at will, especially the composition of the bullet and they do not give notice. This can greatly effect the performance of the load. Still folks like to have some idea so I will offer the following as a general guideline:

1. Loads to avoid due to inconsistent penetration: Glaser Safety Slugs, Mag-Safe or other “pre-fragmented” bullets. Winchester 185 gr Silver-Tip. While I have no experience with the Federal 165 P.D. load I suspect it is also too light to give consistent penetration if bone is hit.

2. Loads which give 12 to 14 inches of penetration and good expansion (.70 to .80 caliber): Federal 230 gr. Hydra-Shok, Winchester 230 gr. Black Talon (or newer +P Ranger), Speer Lawman 230 gr. Gold Dot, Remington 230 gr. Golden Saber. This list is not all inclusive. Not doubt there are others that will work but I have used the ones listed.

3. Observations from the hunting field – not recommendations just a general report (handloads for defense are discouraged). The Winchester 230 gr. JHP handloaded to 1040 fps is an outstanding performer on deer and wild boar giving complete penetration on broadside shots and expanding to about .77 caliber. The 200 gr. Hornady XTP will disintegrate at about 1500 fps (from a .45 Win Mag.) and loses its jacket at about 1100 fps. The Sierra 185 gr Power Jacket expands to about .90 at 1150 fps but only penetrates about 8 to 10 inches and will break up on heavy bone. 230 gr. FMJ-RN often tumbles on game in the 200 pound range giving about 14 – 18 inches of penetration. A 260 gr. Keith bullet can be loaded to 1000 fps in a 5″ .45 auto and can go lengthwise through a 200 pound deer – it is far less likely to tumble than RN.

Comments, suggestions, contributions? Let me know