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The great caliber debate and the FBI’s reversion to the 9mm.

July 5, 2019

One common argument is that Game doesn’t exist because its proponents tend to argue on the internet regarding the best way to practice Game.  This is nonsense, because all this proves is that people often squabble on the internet regarding topics they have a passion for.

When it comes to defensive handguns, the most common internet squabble is what caliber is the best choice.  Lucky Gunner created a spoof video lampooning the attitude displayed by many .45 ACP aficionados on the subject:

The irony of the Lucky Gunner video is that while it accurately portrays the smugness of some .45ACP and big bore revolver fans, it does so from a more subtly smug 9mm uber alles perspective.  This new smugness follows the FBI’s 2014 announcement that it was moving back to the 9mm.  Prior to the 2014 announcement, the FBI’s 1989 report Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness was the source of big caliber smugness.  To my (non expert) eye, both reports share much in common, with the standout difference being how the FBI approached the subject of hollow point expansion.  The 1989 report warns against relying on hollow point expansion when selecting handgun ammunition (emphasis mine):

Permanent cavity can be increased by the use of expanding bullets, and/or larger diameter bullets, which have adequate penetration. However, in no case should selection of a bullet be made where bullet expansion is necessary to achieve desired performance.35 Handgun bullets expand in the human target only 60-70% of the time at best. Damage to the hollow point by hitting bone, glass, or other intervening obstacles can prevent expansion. Clothing fibers can wrap the nose of the bullet in a cocoon like manner and prevent expansion. Insufficient impact velocity caused by short barrels and/or longer range will prevent expansion, as will simple manufacturing variations. Expansion must never be the basis for bullet selection, but considered a bonus when, and if, it occurs. Bullet selection should be determined based on penetration first, and the unexpanded diameter of the bullet second, as that is all the shooter can reliably expect.

The 2014 announcement argues that hollow point technology has advanced sufficiently in recent decades such that this is no longer the case:

Projectiles are what ultimately wound our adversaries and the projectile needs to be the basis for the discussion on what “caliber” is best

· Contemporary projectiles (since 2007) have dramatically increased the terminal effectiveness of many premium line law enforcement projectiles (emphasis on the 9mm Luger offerings)

So far, so good.  But the 2014 report goes a step further and argues that all three common defensive calibers are equal in terminal performance (emphasis mine):

One should never debate on a gun make or caliber alone. The projectile is what wounds and ultimately this is where the debate/discussion should focus. In each of the three most common law enforcement handgun calibers (9mm Luger, .40 Smith & Wesson and .45 AUTO) there are projectiles which have a high likelihood of failing law enforcement officers and in each of these three calibers there are projectiles which have a high likelihood of succeeding for law enforcement officers during a shooting incident. The choice of a service projectile must undergo intense scrutiny and scientific evaluation in order to select the best available option.

There is little to no noticeable difference in the wound tracks between premium line law Auto enforcement projectiles from 9mm Luger through the .45 Auto

· Given contemporary bullet construction, LEO’s can field (with proper bullet selection) 9mm Lugers with all of the terminal performance potential of any other law enforcement pistol caliber with none of the disadvantages present with the “larger” calibers

The extent to which a projectile expands determines the diameter of the permanent cavity which, simply put, is that tissue which is in direct contact with the projectile and is therefore destroyed. Coupled with the distance of the path of the projectile (penetration), the total permanent cavity is realized. Due to the elastic nature of most human tissue and the low velocity of handgun projectiles relative to rifle projectiles, it has long been established by medical professionals, experienced in evaluating gunshot wounds, that the damage along a wound path visible at autopsy or during surgery cannot be distinguished between the common handgun calibers used in law enforcement. That is to say an operating room surgeon or Medical Examiner cannot distinguish the difference between wounds caused by .35 to .45 caliber projectiles.

The problem with this argument is subtle.  Note that the FBI is now simultaneously arguing that:

  1. Given adequate penetration, what matters is the diameter of the projectile making the wound.
  2. The diameter of the projectile making the wound is insignificant.

This self contradiction is obviously nonsense.  The FBI isn’t merely arguing that modern hollow point performance makes the 9mm good enough, it is arguing that caliber doesn’t matter.  But if caliber doesn’t matter, why is the improvement in hollow point performance critical to the FBI’s move back to the 9mm?

The motivation for this doublespeak appears to be a desire to equalize the shooting performance of stronger and weaker FBI agents.  From the 2014 report:

The 9mm provides struggling shooters the best chance of success while improving the speed and accuracy of the most skilled shooters.

As Massad Ayoob notes, prior to the FBI moving back to the 9mm, strong shooters were issued 40 cal weapons, and 9mms were reserved for weak shooters (emphasis mine):

Certainly, as a general rule, in platforms of similar size, shape and weight, the 9mm will have less recoil. This will be a particular concern with new shooters or “remedial shooters” who tend to flinch or jerk their triggers in anticipation of recoil. Many law enforcement agencies (including the FBI prior to announcing an agency-wide return to the 9mm) had been in the practice of replacing poorer shooters’ .40-caliber Glocks with 9mms of the same make.

Women of Caliber blogger Kellene argued that bigger “macho” calibers are scary for women to shoot in her 2009 post The Caliber Wars for Women (emphasis mine):

The reason why I fiercely advocate this point is because many women hesitate to shoot a .40 caliber. They are much more successful in their shot placement when shooting a smaller caliber. Thus it’s shameful to have a woman stopped or frustrated in her pursuit of gun ownership because some macho, misinformed man tells her that a strong caliber (that knocks her on her butt when she shoots it) is useless. One thing that men simply don’t realize is that women are physiologically more sensitive to the loud bass sound of the bullet igniting than men are. Women are literally more affected by the sound of a .40 caliber+ than men are. The sound resonates through them longer than it does in men. As such, the sound literally rattles a woman.

From a feminist perspective, allowing men who shoot well to retain their macho .40 cal weapons and issuing women 9mms is untenable.  From a political perspective, the FBI had no choice but to move all of its agents to the weaker caliber while claiming there is no longer any difference between calibers.

This isn’t to say that the FBI made the wrong decision, as given their organizational needs the 9mm strikes me as the obvious choice given the tradeoffs between the calibers.  None of the big three calibers are perfect, and especially with modern hollowpoints I wouldn’t argue with anyone who decided the 9mm is good enough in terminal ballistics.  But the FBI is now claiming that there are no tradeoffs between calibers, which simply isn’t true*.  Others, especially ammunition makers and sellers have their own vested interest in claiming caliber doesn’t matter, and it is all about the projectile:

The problem with this argument is that while hollow points have gotten better for the 9mm, they have gotten better for the .40 and .45 as well.  See the results from Lucky Gunner’s ammunition tests here.

*Massad Ayoob’s three part series on the subject here, here, and here is the best treatment I’m aware of.

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Post Information
Title The great caliber debate and the FBI’s reversion to the 9mm.
Author Dalrock
Date July 5, 2019 7:44 PM UTC (3 years ago)
Blog Dalrock
Archive Link https://theredarchive.com/blog/Dalrock/the-great-caliber-debate-and-the-fbis-reversion-to.6700
Original Link https://dalrock.wordpress.com/2019/07/05/the-great-caliber-debate-and-the-fbis-reversion-to-the-9mm/
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