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Why bullet size matters in officer-involved shootings

A shootout that killed multiple FBI agents underscores the need for cops to use bullets that will neutralize an adversary as quickly as possible


Law enforcement officials survey the scene of a shootout in which two FBI agents were killed and multiple other agents wounded, April 12, 1986.

AP Photo/Bill Cooke

The 1986 FBI Miami shootout between eight FBI agents and two serial bank robbers was the deadliest and most violent shootout in FBI history.

Following the incident, significant changes were made to the firepower carried by agents, the body armor they wore and the incident response training they received.

In their book, “Defense of Self and Others,” FBI firearms training experts John Hall and Urey Patrick (ret.), provide a detailed description of the incident and review the critical importance of choosing the appropriate duty-carry handgun rounds for police officers.

What happened during the shootout on April 11, 1986

During the shootout, Special Agent Jerry Dove fired a lightweight, high-velocity 9mm round that struck murder/armored car robbery suspect Michael Lee Platt in the upper right arm.

The round severed Platt’s brachial artery, passing through the arm into his chest and almost entirely through his right lung. Doctors later determined that this round was not survivable. However, the round stopped just short of entering Platt’s heart/aorta, only penetrating his torso about six or seven inches.

After receiving this wound, Platt initiated a devastating attack upon the surrounding FBI agents, killing two (including Agent Dove) and severely wounding two more. Platt was killed at the end of the gunfight, but not before unleashing deadly mayhem. If Agent Dove’s bullet had entered Platt’s heart, he would have perished quickly, before launching his life-ending assault.

Bullet-Wound Factors in Officer-Involved Shootings

In his 1989 treatise, “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” Supervisory Special Agent Urey Patrick explained that the goal of an officer in a life-threatening shooting incident is to incapacitate the adversary as quickly as possible. The only way to ensure immediate incapacitation is to shoot the adversary in the brain or upper spinal cord (i.e., central nervous system).

During a dynamic gun battle with erratic movement by both officer and adversary, this requires extraordinary marksmanship or, more likely, pure luck. The only other way to end an adversary’s life-threatening action is through circulatory collapse.

Circulatory collapse results from massive bleeding caused by bullet wounds primarily to the heart, other major organs or major blood vessels of the torso. Circulatory collapse will result in significant deprivation of oxygen to the brain. This can take several seconds to several minutes or even longer. In this dangerous time period, an officer’s adversary can continue his deadly actions against an officer. Patrick points out that there is sufficient oxygen in the brain to support voluntary, life-threatening actions against an officer for 10 to 15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed.

Because of the dynamic and chaotic nature of officer-involved shootings, officers are trained to shoot at center mass of an assailant’s torso from whatever side/angle of the torso that presents itself. The FBI Training Division reported in May 2014 that officers, on average, strike an adversary with only 20 percent to 30 percent of the shots fired during a shooting incident.

Moreover, law enforcement shootings typically result in only one or two solid torso hits on adversaries. Because head shots are rare and extremely difficult, and torso hits are likewise difficult and do not result in immediate incapacitation, choosing handgun bullets for officers is a critically important task. The better the bullet and the shot placement of an officer, the more likely the officer will go home after a shooting.

Handgun Bullet-Wounding Factors: Myth and Reality

The idea that a bullet has the power to knock an adversary to the ground is a Hollywood myth. Patrick explains in his treatise that, “A bullet simply cannot knock a man down. If it had the energy to do so, then equal energy would be applied against the shooter (i.e., recoil) and he too would be knocked down. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball.”

Because bullet strikes to the torso will not immediately incapacitate an adversary and will not knock him to the ground, police officers need to use bullets that will neutralize an adversary as quickly as possible.

Patrick’s treatise outlines the following factors to consider regarding handgun bullets:

  • Body Penetration: To be effective, an officer’s bullet must reliably penetrate the soft body tissue of an adversary at least 12 inches whether it expands (e.g., hollow point) or not. Patrick states that penetration of up to 18 inches is preferable.
  • Permanent Cavity: This is the space within the body of an adversary that has been permanently created through tissue destruction caused by the bullet’s passage through the suspect’s body. Simply put, it is the hole in the body left by the passage of the bullet. The permanent cavity includes the length and width of the bullet’s path inside the body. It likewise includes the amount of body tissue destroyed, including blood vessel and organ tissue destruction. If circulatory collapse occurs, it will be the result of body damage along the permanent cavity.
  • Temporary Cavity: This is the temporary expansion (not destruction) of tissue around the permanent cavity that is briefly created by the stretching of that tissue due to the kinetic energy from the bullet passing through the body. Because the velocity of handgun rounds is relatively slow, the impact upon tissue surrounding the permanent cavity is of little or no consequence regarding wound impact.
  • Fragmentation: This involves pieces of the bullet breaking up and secondary fragments, such as pieces of bone, which are impelled outward from the permanent cavity. Fragmentation of any significance “does not reliably occur in handgun wounds due to the relatively low velocities of handgun bullets.”

Accordingly, the best handgun rounds will reliably cause a permanent cavity that will penetrate the soft tissue of an adversary between 12 and 18 inches. Penetration of this length and the tissue, blood vessel and organ damage/destruction that follows is vital to circulatory collapse.

Patrick states that “since vital organs are located deep within the body, it should be obvious that to ignore penetration and permanent cavity is to ignore the only proven means of damaging or disrupting vital organs.” Remember it is massive blood loss that causes circulatory collapse. Massive blood loss is much more likely with deep penetration and damage to vital organs.

The FBI Chooses the 9mm Bullet

In my book “Lethal Force and the Objectively Reasonable Officer,” I point out that after the FBI shootout in Miami, the FBI Firearms Training Unit, under the leadership of Unit Chief John Hall, tested 9mm, 10mm and .45 caliber rounds.

The tests resulted in the selection in 1989 of the 10mm bullet as the most effective and accurate round for FBI agents to carry.

The FBI subsequently transitioned from revolvers to semi auto .40 caliber handguns with S&W .40 caliber bullets (a slightly shorter version of the 10mm round).

This remained the norm in the FBI until May 2014. In September 2014, LooserRounds posted an article titled FBI Training Division Justifies 9mm Caliber Selection. This post reported that the FBI Training Division had reevaluated which handgun round was best for FBI agents and reached the following conclusions:

  • For a bullet to be effective for law enforcement, it must be able to penetrate the body between 12 and 18 inches to reach large vital organs to cause rapid blood loss.
  • In each of the three most common law enforcement handgun calibers (9mm Luger, .40 S&W, .45 Auto), there are some projectiles that have a high likelihood of success for officers (i.e., all three are very effective).
  • 9mm Luger now offers select projectiles that are, under identical testing conditions, outperforming most premium line .40 S&W and .45 Auto projectiles tested by the FBI.
  • 9mm Luger offers greater magazine capacity and less recoil/more weapon control at a lower cost.
  • A majority of FBI shooters are both faster and more accurate using 9mm Luger versus .40 S&W rounds.
  • There is little or no noticeable difference in wound tracks between 9mm Luger, .40 S&W and .45 Auto premium line rounds.

The 2014 FBI Training Division Report stated that the FBI had chosen the 9mm bullet (147 grain Speer Gold Dot G2) for FBI agents to carry because, “The 9mm provides struggling shooters the best chance of success while improving the speed and accuracy of the most skilled shooters.”

In reaching this conclusion, the FBI appeared to give too little weight to the tissue-crushing ability of the larger projectiles (.40 S& W; .45 Auto).

The original FBI testing of bullets conducted in the late 1980s involved testing the Winchester 147 grain subsonic hollow point 9mm round, the Remington 185 grain hollow point .45 round and a 10mm 180 grain hollow point round.

The test results disclosed that the .45 round displaced an average of 4.22 cubic inches of tissue, the 10mm round 4.11 cubic inches and the 9mm round 2.82 cubic inches.

The earlier FBI testing left no doubt that tissue displacement was greater with the larger rounds. Greater tissue displacement is likely to lead to more blood loss. It is also logical to assume that when the larger round enters a major body organ, the negative impact upon that organ will be more significant.

If a 9mm bullet barely misses the heart or aorta of an adversary, but the heart or aorta of that same person is creased by the slightly larger .40 or .45 caliber round, it can be said with conviction that bullet diameter, expanding or not, really does matter.

The FBI has made a pragmatic decision that the 147 grain 9mm bullet is the best bullet for its agents because it allows for more rounds in the handgun. It has less recoil, is less expensive and its penetration apparently compares favorably with the larger-sized rounds. It enables struggling shooters to attain better weapon control/shot placement, and permits skilled shooters to be faster and more accurate.

I do not argue with this decision; however, I believe agents who can control the larger weapons/bullets without a problem should have the choice to carry weapons with the larger bullets. This would give them an edge regarding tissue displacement/destruction during a shooting incident where any advantage, however slight, would be welcome.

I would make the same recommendation to all American law enforcement agencies who are considering a switch to 9mm handguns. They should provide officers who can control the larger weapons a choice about which pistol they are permitted to carry. It is often said in sports talk, that “the game is a game of inches.” This is also true in life and death gun battles like the FBI Miami shootout.

John Michael Callahan served in law enforcement for 44 years. His career began as a special agent with NCIS. He became an FBI agent and served in the FBI for 30 years, retiring in the position of supervisory special agent/chief division counsel. He taught criminal law/procedure at the FBI Academy. After the FBI, he served as a Massachusetts Deputy Inspector General and is currently a deputy sheriff for Plymouth County, Massachusetts. He is the author of two published books on deadly force and an upcoming book on supervisory and municipal liability in law enforcement.

Contact Mike Callahan.