Sunday, July 4, 2010

Blow 'Em Away

Every book Thriller Guy reads has someone getting shot -- gunfire, snipers, up close and far away. Virtually everyone of them has the victim being knocked back, out of their shoes, generally ass over teakettle (how's that for an old-time phrase?) It's bullshit, and TG is tired of it. Thriller writers! Stop it! TG knows you love these action scenes, and he also knows that 99% of you are just regular guys with no expertise in firearms and particularly no expertise in actually shooting another living, breathing human being. You've done your research by watching Hollywood movies and they are totally bullshit.

TG hates to get into this gun stuff. Every writer I know who mentions a gun, shooting, ammo or anything to do with the above is courting a letter (email these days) from a gun aficionado who is eager, nay, frothing at the mouth to set the author straight. Usually these letters are vituperative, to say the least. But TG is also heartily sick of his beloved thriller writers perpetuating this stupid Hollywood myth. Listen up: people who are shot don't get knocked back. And they sure as hell don't get knocked out of their shoes.

Those of you normal humans who have no interest in the subject are now advised to tune out and head over to your favorite other site, whatever that may be. This is going to go on for awhile. Those of you who are interested, or who have a professional (writerly) interest, keep reading.

Just from the last three books I have read, and these are excellent books:

“The force of the bullet had knocked him off balance...”
“He saw the smoke and fire explode from the barrel of Foster's nine. Then the blockheaded cop was flying backward and crumpling to the floor next to Shannon's feet.”
“The force of the bullets lifted her off her feet and she flew face first into the pool.”

TG could go on all night. This sort of thing is in every one of the thrillers TG reads. Here's a small piece of an essay by Joel L., known to readers of this blog as the fellow that TG is helping with writing a thriller. (BTW, Joel is roaring right along with his book and doing an excellent job.) Joel has extensive knowledge of firearms.

“But no way will any of these lift someone off of their feet. Period. Hollywood is terribly guilty of this, and has for years. Writers are too. One author had in his story two guys being ambushed, great scene. Only problem was one when they were shot, they were flying 'out of their shoes, or off their feet when hit. This stuff just doesn't happen that way. Remember that every 'action' according to Newton, has an 'opposite and equal' reaction. Thus, if the bullet or shot has enough force to lift someone off their feet, the shooter would have an even greater force applied to them. There are very strange physiological reactions to getting shot however, but that is not what was described. Sometimes, when the adrenaline and endorphins are really cranking, someone might not be aware that they are hit, or at least not aware that they were hit by a bullet, until after the fight. Sometimes a person can be ambling along and get shot by a .22 in the foot and die from shock and another person can be in a raging fight and take multiple hits from a .357 and keep going. It astonishes me how hard people will fight to hold onto this myth. Not even a Barret .50 sniper rifle, which can penetrate stone walls or engine blocks, can ‘lift’ someone off their feet. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Mythbusters video...

Then Joel cites a real life lawman who has written extensively on the subject:
Commander Jeffry L. Johnsons article:
(TG gives a big hand to Commander Johnson)
P1 Exclusive: The truth about handgun knockdown power
By Commander Jeffry L. Johnson
Long Beach Police Dept., Detective Division
Special contributor to PoliceOne
There is undoubtedly no other myth more perpetuated and closely held (even now) by many law enforcement professionals than what I have previously referred to as the “Demonstrative Bullet Fallacy,” or in plainer terms, the idea that any handgun of any caliber has “knockdown power,” in that the sheer size and force of the bullet can knock a person down. Closely related is the myth that bullet size — rather than shot placement — can determine or ensure a “one shot stop.” Both are inaccurate, unscientific, and dangerous, and have no place in the training of law enforcement professionals.
Not that any of this is new information. This fact has been generally known for about six hundred years or so. Notable intellects such as DaVinci, Galileo, Newton, Francis Bacon, and Leonard Euler all studied physics and ballistics, as did many others. It was Newton’s research that led Benjamin Robbins to invent the ballistic pendulum in 1740 (the first device to measure bullet velocity).
There is no mystery here — the truth has been documented time and again. So how is it that we still don’t get it? One word: Hollywood.
Ever since Dirty Harry came along with his .44 Magnum hand-cannon, when someone gets shot in the movies or on TV (and don’t forget video games) two things happen: 1) the victim is thrown back convulsively, through windows, off balconies, etc. and 2) there will immediately emerge a geyser of blood spewing forth from the wound, leaving no doubt that this person has been shot, and pinpointing exactly where the bullet has struck.
Many firearm and shooting magazines picked up on the idea as well, discussing and propagating the pseudo-scientific idea of handgun “knockdown power” and “one shot stopping power.”
The Truth
The Federal Bureau of Investigation Firearms Training Unit published a concise yet insightful report that speaks directly to this issue of firearm wounding ballistics and the misconceptions that have surrounded this area.
These so called [knockdown power] studies are further promoted as being somehow better and more valid than the work being done by trained researchers, surgeons and forensic labs. They disparage laboratory stuff, claiming that the “street” is the real laboratory and their collection of results from the street is the real measure of caliber effectiveness, as interpreted by them, of course. Yet their data from the street is collected haphazardly, lacking scientific method and controls, with no noticeable attempt to verify the less than reliable accounts of the participants with actual investigative or forensic reports. Cases are subjectively selected (how many are not included because they do not fit the assumptions made?). The numbers of cases cited are statistically meaningless, and the underlying assumptions upon which the collection of information and its interpretation are based are themselves based on myths such as knockdown power, energy transfer, hydrostatic shock, or the temporary cavity methodology of flawed work such as RII. (1)
The truth is, the whole idea of handgun knockdown power is a myth. It simply doesn’t work that way. The FBI report further clarifies:
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 and he too would be knocked down. This is simple physics, and has been known for hundreds of years. The amount of energy deposited in the body by a bullet is approximately equivalent to being hit with a baseball. Tissue damage is the only physical link to incapacitation within the desired time frame, i.e., instantaneously. (2)
The report cites previous studies that have calculated bullet velocities and impact power, concluding that the “stopping power” of a 9mm bullet at muzzle velocity is equal to a one-pound weight being dropped from the height of six feet. A .45 ACP (45 auto) bullet impact would equal that same object dropped from 11.4 feet. That is a far cry from what Hollywood would have us believe, and actually flies in the face of what even many in law enforcement have come to mistakenly believe.
The FBI report also emphasizes that unless the bullet destroys or damages the central nervous system (i.e., brain or upper spinal cord), incapacitation of the subject can take a long time, seemingly longer if one is engaged in a firefight.
Failing a hit to the central nervous system, massive bleeding from holes in the heart or major blood vessels of the torso, causing circulatory collapse is the only other way to force incapacitation upon an adversary, and this takes time. For example, there is sufficient oxygen within the brain to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds after the heart has been destroyed. (3)
More often than not, an officer firing at a suspect will not immediately know if he or she has even struck the target. The physics are such that the body will rarely involuntarily move or jerk, and usually there is no noticeable spewing of blood or surface tearing of tissue. Often there is no blood whatsoever. (4)
That is why military surgeons and emergency room physicians take great time and pains to carefully examine gunshot victims for any additional small holes. Often that is the only indication the person has been shot.
Personal Experience
But let’s be real here. I can cite numerous additional academic and scientific sources that support this article, but I know how cops think. We’re not always the most trustful of academics, especially when it comes to our street survival. So let me add my own personal experience to the data. Please allow me to go beyond the cold facts and share with you why I know what I’m telling you is the truth.
In the mid-1980s I was involved in my first shooting as a police officer. But to give the story context, I must go back to 1982 when I graduated from the Long Beach Police Academy. The first thing I was told by experienced training officers I trusted and looked up to, was to “get rid of that pea-shooter 38 they issued you and buy a real gun with some knockdown power!” Although we were issued .38 caliber revolvers, we were authorized to carry a number of different caliber weapons on duty, the largest of which was the 45 Long Colt.
The .45 Long Colt round next to the diminutive 9 millimeter.
Imagine my surprise when I was confronted by a suspect armed with a shotgun in a dark alley and my Long Colt didn’t live up to its billing. I fired five rounds at the suspect. It wasn’t until I fired my last shot — intentionally aimed at his head — that he went down. I can’t begin to relate to you the surprise and horror I felt when there was absolutely no outward indication I was hitting my target. It was the kind of situation cops have nightmares about.
What actually happened? I fired five rounds at a distance of about twelve feet. The first one missed completely. The second struck his upper leg and broke his femur. The third struck him in the shoulder/chest. The fourth round hit him dead center—in the heart. And of course, the fifth was a headshot. Three of the five rounds created fatal wounds, though only one had immediate results.
Needless to say, I was pretty shaken by the whole thing. Not by the morality of what I’d done; the suspect had already fired at a bystander and taken a hostage earlier. He was also high on PCP. That wasn’t my inner struggle. What shook me was how unprepared I felt; how totally off guard I was taken by what occurred. No one ever told me it would be like that. The reality was contrary to everything I thought I knew about deadly force.
That experience more than any research or study is the reason is why I am writing this article. Police officers risk getting into shootings every day; we need to know the dynamics of how a shooting incident may unfold. It will affect our equipment, tactics, and most important, our mindset. We need to know that rarely will one shot incapacitate an assailant. We further need to be able to explain this when our fellow officers are involved in shootings where multiple shots are fired. The public honestly believes it’s like the movies. Why would we ever need to fire twenty or thirty rounds to subdue an armed suspect? Problem is we can’t teach it or explain it until we understand it ourselves. (5)
1. Patrick, Urey W., Federal Bureau of Investigation, Firearms Training Unit, “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness,” p.13. (1989).
2. Ibid., p.9.
3. Ibid., p. 8.
4. Newgard, Ken, MD, “The Physiological Effects of Handgun Bullets: The Mechanisms of Wounding and Incapacitation” (1992).
5. For you visual learners still unconvinced, I highly recommend viewing the Discovery Channel MythBusters segment, “Blown Away,” (Brown Note Episode, Second Season), where the knockdown power myth is visually and scientifically debunked once and for all.


  1. That was good TG. Did your good deed for the day, with that. :)

    That article from Cmdr. Johnson and that MythBusters video should be part of every law enforcement officers basic training.

    Thank you for the kind words and encouragement on my writing efforts, I'm looking forward to getting your feedback on the next few sections, and the rewrite of the prologue. By the way - life imitates amateur art:

    then less than a week later, same guy:



  2. The shark stuff supplied by Joel L. is important because sharks in this context are key to the plot of his novel. Soon we'll run the prologue of the novel.

  3. Excellent!!! Bravura in fact. I, being a total physical wimp writing about people doing rather daring physical feats, have looked long and hard for such fact-based stuff. Thank you, thank you, Allen.

    But okay, explain this--i was knocked ass over teakettle as an adolescent with a 12 gauge in an attempt to maim/harm/otherwise severely f up a duck. I know, I know. A shotgun, not a handgun. So maybe we just need to scatter-gun our foes out of their shoes.

  4. Not so much in novels but very common in movies is the victim of a gunshot to the head, chest or abdomen spurting blood all over the place. Based on my 40 years as a surgeon, it just does not happen that way. The bullet holes, especially from a handgun, are quite small and the tract of the bullet is collapsed by the subcutaneous tissue and muscle. Not much blood comes out. For you novelists out there be aware also that in real life, people rarely die instantaneously. Many victims of gunshots even to the heart arrive alive at the hospital.

  5. Probably the most insightful post I've ever read on any blog, any where. Real good food for thought. I'm going to go endeavour to make sure I don't fall foul of said inaccuracies in the future.

  6. Hi Syd,

    Depending upon the shotgun you certainly could have felt a wallop surprising enough to unbalance you, especially if you were anticipating a 'kick'.

    Here is a video of a 14 year old girl shooting a 12 guage pump action - 00 buckshot, so a moderately hot load. She's 115 pounds. She's obviously not being pushed back with any severe force.

    If you were a tyke, then there would be enough momentum to knock you off balance, but it would not have moved your body off of the ground.

    As to shotguns effectiveness in combat - shotguns could be devastating, but not for the reasons you think or in every case. Depending upon whether you are using combat type loads or slugs. Wouldn't want to be shooting birdshot. Firepower (capacity) is somewhat limited in shotguns even with extenders. Some full auto shotguns have drum magazines, but I'd hate to trust anything like that being reliable.

    They also are unwieldy.

    Shotguns aren't the 'street sweepers' they are made out to be either, but as Jim Barone could probably relate to, rifle and shotgun wounds can be devastating but it all boils down to one simple fact:

    Shot placement.

    Maybe you could post the whole article Allen, they seem to like this stuff.



  7. This in an email from TG's writing Pal Mike Rothmiller, ex-cop from LA...
    "I read your blog regarding bullet impacts. You're spot on. The only impact that knocks you out of your shoes is getting hit by a car. I saw numerous folks losing their shoes in that manner. The other issue that irks me in movies is bullets causing sparks when hitting the dirt, car, wall, etc. I've probably fired nearly a 500,000 rounds (all calibers) in my life at all sorts of objects and have never seen sparks fly."
    Thanks, Mike.