Handguns are very popular for self-defense in the United States. There are a variety of reasons for this, many of which have to do with convenience. While we all recognize that a 12-gauge shotgun is probably better at stopping an assailant, how easy is it to tote one around all day?

In 2009 alone, more than 4.5 million handguns were manufactured and imported into the US.  While many of these firearms were sold to collectors and shooters for various sports, I would argue that many, if not most, were sold to people for defensive use.

There is a problem with handguns that many people don’t know about: they stink on ice for actually stopping an attacker.

Stopping Power

Hold on, before you tar and feather me, I am not saying that handguns aren’t used thousands of times every year to successfully stop an attack. They are.  

What I am saying is when shooting a determined attacker, pistols aren’t very good when compared with other firearms.  Pistols lack the fabled “stopping power” to instantly drop a would-be felon in his tracks.

There are a lot of different theories on stopping power out there. I’ve read through the arguments for most of them. Some of the authors viciously attack the authors of differing theories, while others present reasonable arguments for their beliefs.  However, there is one thing that they all uniformly agree on: long guns, shotguns and rifles, are vastly superior to handguns when it comes to stopping an attacker.

Why is a long gun better than a handgun? A lot of things go into the possible answer, but fundamentally, the long gun just does more damage to the attacker’s body. The more damage that is done, the less likely the attacker will have the ability to harm you.

Ok…so what?

It should be obvious that handguns are inferior tools for stopping a violent attack when compared to a rifle or shotgun.  I think most people would readily agree. 

Removing the long gun from the comparison, some people suddenly believe the handgun is the magic tool that will stop all attackers in a single shot or two. 

Ever hear the old line that shooting someone in the pinky with a (insert favorite load/caliber here) will instantly drop an attacker? It is total bovine fecal matter, yet I hear it all too frequently on Internet gun forums and in local gun shops.  

Consider these cases involving various handgun calibers, all considered good for self defense by most people:

 – Officers from my department respond to a reported suicide. A man took a popular-brand pistol, put it to his head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the gun did not kill the man. In fact, the man’s only complaint while riding to the hospital was of a headache.

 – In another Florida incident, an elderly man and his wife were returning to their home after grocery shopping. As they started to enter the home, an armed robber attacked them. The elderly man was able to get his handgun and shoot the attacker.

When shot, the robber went down. The victim then set down his handgun to call 911.  Unfortunately, the handgun bullet had not been effective, and the robber grabbed the victim’s gun and killed the elderly man with it.

 – A South Carolina trooper stopped a man for a traffic violation along the Interstate one night.  Unknown to the trooper, the man was transporting drugs and was armed. 

In an ensuing confrontation, the trooper shot the man with his service revolver five times, striking center mass with each bullet. Not only did the man survive, but all five bullets failed to incapacitate him. The felon drew his own pistol and killed the trooper.

In all of these cases, I have no doubt the results would have been different if a long gun was used instead of a handgun.

What’s a Pistol Owner to Do?

This article is not intended to dissuade anyone from buy and and using a handgun or self-defense.  I encourage every responsible American to own and learn how to use a handgun.  Part of what you should learn, however, is that the gun is neither a magic talisman nor a Star Trek phaser.  You need to learn its limitations, and how to mitigate those limits.

Shot placement – There are no guarantees that a bullet will work, but putting them into vital areas increases your likelihood of success.  Most instructors will tell you to aim for center mass, which is the area of the chest where the heart and lungs reside.

Shots to center mass are unlikely to immediately drop an attacker, but they will cause massive bleeding.  Other than a shot to the brain or spinal cord, bleeding and the resultant drop in blood pressure is what will incapacitate an attacker.  Shots to the extremities are unlikely to produce enough bleeding to quickly render someone unable to hurt you.

Volume of fire – Ever see the movie Zombieland?  Rule #2 is “Double Taps.”  The same thought about zombies applies to self-defense:  when your life is endangered, don’t get stingy with the bullets.

If one shot to center mass is likely to generate enough bleeding to stop an attack, it should be clear that two shots are even more likely.  Three, four and 15 shots to center mass all increase the likelihood the attacker will not be able to hurt you and your family.

Firearms trainers used to teach police officers two rapid shots to center mass of an assailant, and then assess if you should resume shooting. I don’t think this is the best way to defend yourself, and prefer the advice retired Detroit Police Department cop Evan Marshal once gave: “Continue shooting until your sight picture is degraded by a lack of target.”

Buy a Handgun

The intent of this article is to get you to think more realistically about your pistol or revolver.  It can be an effective self-defense weapon, but it has limitations. Learn to work around those limitations and you will be much more likely able to survive a violent encounter.

However, when given the choice between a long gun and a pistol, consider the paraphrased advice of trainer Clint Smith: The handgun is what you use to fight your way back to the shotgun or rifle you shouldn’t have left behind in the first place.

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