Hollow Point Bullets & Other Stuff

By John Gilstrap

I have just returned from my annual sojourn to Las Vegas and the SHOT Show, so I thought I’d turn away from the craft of writing in this post, and back to some tactical topics. Throw in the bullet-bait Brother Bell inserted into his always-excellent post last Sunday, and I feel driven to talk about bullet stuff this week.

First, on the issue of being thrown back by bullet strikes, consider this: Newton’s Third Law of Motion dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If the energy of a bullet strike is enough to throw the bad guy back five feet, then the shooter would fly back a similar distance. When it comes to handguns, the shooter feels more linear force in recoil than the target feels on impact. And remember, once a round leaves the muzzle, it is constantly slowing down. And falling.

Because bullets travel as fast as they do, on impact, they exert all of their damage over the course of a millisecond.  In through-and-through wounds, victims often don’t know for a few seconds that they’ve been shot.  Bullet dynamics being what they are, I have shot empty Styrofoam cups through-and-through with pretty hot rounds, and watched the cups never move.  When a bullet passes through tissue, the ballistic damage it causes actually manifests behind the moving projectile, not at its point.  (The link goes to a video where there’s no blood, so it’s safe for mealtime viewing.)

Brother Bell, I will take exception to your left-hand-shooter speed bump.  Most shooters I know make it a point to train with their weak hand, specifically planning for the event when their strong hand is immobilized.

Bullets are specifically designed to inflict ballistic damage to tissue as it passes through its intended target.  Handguns are intended for close range, and rifles are designed for longer ranges. (A SEAL buddy of mine maintains that the only good use for a pistol is to fight your way to your rifle.)  As a rule, additional range means additional ballistic energy, and a concomitant increase in ballistic damage on impact.

Here’s a video showing a 9 millimeter pistol bullet being fired into ballistic gelatin.  For those who can’t watch the footage, it shows a standard round-nosed bullet passing all the way through the gelatin block with little of its energy expended along the way.  Bottom line: it would suck to be the guy standing behind the guy who got shot, because you’d get shot, too.

This over-penetration issue is specifically why most (all?) police agencies have moved to hollow point ammo. The definition is simple and self-explanatory.  A hollow point bullet is one that has, well, a hollow point. It is different than “full metal jacket” (FMJ) ammo, which is also called ball ammo. It’s been around for a lot longer than I have, and it comes in pretty much any caliber you can think of.  Old farts who haven’t kept up with technology will tell you that hollow points cannot be fired from semi-automatic pistols, but they’re wrong. HP bullets used to be a problem because of issues with the feed ramps in old pistols, but that problem was solved a long time ago.

In the pictures, note the lines around the circumference of the the tip. When a hollow point bullet impacts a target, its “petals” bloom, causing the the projectile to tumble and lose most of its energy. The wound channel is significantly enlarged in the process. Within the gun industry, and among knowledgeable people, hollow points are also call “personal defense” rounds (as opposed to range ammunition) because they are the preferred choice in a gunfight–but probably not for the reasons you think.

This video shows a 9 millimeter HP round hitting ballistic gelatin.

There are a couple of take-aways from the video. First, HP bullets do leave a significantly larger permanent wound channel than that which is left by ball ammo. But second, and more importantly, the bullet stays inside its intended target.  Even if there were to be over-penetration, the vast majority of the energy would be dissipated before the bullet could hit a second, unintended target.  That said, if your characters are anticipating the need to shoot through car doors or windows, HP would not be their first choice.  Yes, HP bullets will penetrate both, but that loss of energy could be a factor.

Next time, we’ll talk about what every police drama gets wrong when it comes to storming the bad guy’s house.

All questions are welcome.

And since you’ve read this far, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, A Writer’s View of Writing and Publishing.


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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

28 thoughts on “Hollow Point Bullets & Other Stuff

  1. Brother Bell, I will take exception to your left-hand-shooter speed bump. Most shooters I know make it a point to train with their weak hand, specifically planning for the event when their strong hand is immobilized.

    Only in this book the author went out of the way to point out that the cop had NOT trained with her off hand. Maybe that should be considered a speed bump, too.

    • Jim, that makes the protagonist’s actions particularly egregious. Shooting weak side is not easy. In fact, I am so right-eye dominant that when I shoot a pistol as a lefty, I have to tilt the gun nearly gangsta-style just to align the sights.

        • “All cops” is too big a net. Truthfully, I don’t know much about how patrol officers train, but every SWAT team I’m aware of–and all the SF teams–train with both hands.
          I took a class in Arizona about a year ago that had us practicing weak-side one-handed mag changes. I, uh, sucked at it.

  2. Great post, John. If you haven’t done so already, silencers (or more accurately, suppressors) might be a good topic. Based on what I read in the news and online, lots of folks don’t seem to realize the Hollywood version of a silencer doesn’t match reality. Shocking, I know. 🙂

  3. This may be my favorite of all your posts, John. I took a 3-day ballistics course at the Writers’ Police Academy, and found it fascinating. The way hollow points mushroom inside the gelatin really illuminates their stopping power.

    That said, if your characters are anticipating the need to shoot through car doors or windows, HP would not be their first choice. Yes, HP bullets will penetrate both, but that loss of energy could be a factor.

    What would you recommend for, say, shooting through glass?

    • Sue, that kind of planning steps into the world of assassins and such, but here we go. The smartest plan would be to load up with armor-piercing rounds, but standard ball ammo (full metal jacket) will work in most cases. The heavier the bullet, the less glass will interfere with the performance.

      It also matter how far away from the closed window the target is standing. Within a foot or two, assuming standard window glass or non-windshield glass, even hollow points will inflict serious harm. As the target moves farther away, the issue becomes one of accuracy as well as terminal ballistics. Once a bullet starts to tumble, it will no longer fly in a straight line, so accuracy becomes a corollary to the “butterfly effect,” where unknown factors have a huge impact on where the bullet goes.

      All bets are off when it comes to shooting into a car through the windshield, however. That laminated glass, combined with the aerodynamic cant of the window make any shot through the windshield a difficult one.

      Of course, all of these problems can be solved by sustained fire from automatic weapons, or the judicious application of high explosives. 🙂

  4. John, I always appreciate your posts b/c one doesn’t have to be an engineer or physicist to understand them. The videos illustrate your explanations perfectly. Thanks!
    Hollow points are also safer in an apartment (or any close living space) b/c you don’t want a missed shot to penetrate a wall and hit your neighbor.

    • Debbie, you bring up an interesting real-world (as opposed to a fictional-world) point. Irrespective of the reason for pulling the trigger, the shooter is responsible for every round sent downrange. If you kill the attacking rapist, but your bullet goes through the wall to kill the baby sleeping next door, that’s just a bad day.

  5. Now you got me nervous, John. When did police agencies (say a Florida county sheriff’s dept) go to hollow-points. I have a guy using them in 1986.

    • I think most agencies went to HP long before 1986, but I don’t know. If I recall properly, the feed ramp issues gave some agencies pause in adopting the hollow point, but again, I could very well be wrong.

  6. Terrific post, John. I’d heard all the hype about “evil” hollow points, but didn’t really understand the distinction. This really clears it all up.

    • Glad to hear it, Laura. In considering the evil-ness of ammunition, it’s important to start with the recognition that one only shoots when one intends to kill. The given is that the bad guy is intended to die. From there, the issue is to control collateral damage. Sight modifications, trigger modifications and ammunition selection are just a few items that pursue the same goal.

      People who fire warning shots into the air need a refresher in the whole gravity thing. 🙂

        • I used to live in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the tradition there for New Year’s is pulling out guns and shooting them into the air to celebrate the New Year. About 10 minutes to midnight, the adults at the party I was at ushered all the women and children into the house to protect from possible falling debris.

          I was told a few people get killed or injured every year by bullets falling from the sky.

  7. Excellent & accurate information, John. Nice to see you clearly corrected the myth that gunshot victims go flying all over the place. Someday, you & I’ll have to discuss the fascinating ballistic evidence in the JFK murder – and, yes, LHO acted alone 🙂

    • That is a deep, dark rabbit hole, Garry. I agree that LHO was the lone shooter, but there are legions of conspiracy devotees who will not be moved by any mountain of evidence. For the record, “back and to the left” had nothing to do with impact forces, and everything to do with the seizure that accompanies an exploding brain.

  8. John, Scorpion and Boxers don’t care. They shoot straight and follow up with the kick to the balls. John, wish you wrote like one book a month. Peace Bro.

  9. My concealed carry is loaded with “MAG-Safe” rounds, the bullet filled with epoxy and birdshot. Started using them when I had a computer shop in a strip mall with a DMV on one side and a tanning salon on the other. Wanted to make sure the round would be lethal, but not able to pass through a wall. The epoxy liquifies the bullet on firing and basically explodes on impact sending the shot in many directions inside the ballistic gel (aka bad guy’s belly). No worries about killing the backdrop, as long as one hits one’s target.

    Luckily, my business was one of the few in that mall never to be robbed.

  10. I’ve always wanted to go to the SHOT show but could never wangle it. Thanks for setting the record straight on some things!

    ==A SEAL buddy of mine maintains that the only good use for a pistol is to fight your way to your rifle.==

    I like your SEAL buddy already. I needed the grin this morning.

  11. Interesting stuff.

    An October 2017 article in Forbes by Adam Andrzejewski notes: “Despite being outlawed by the Geneva Convention, federal agencies spent $426,268 on hollow-point bullets, including orders from the Forest Service, National Park Service, Office of Inspector General, Bureau of Fiscal Service, as well as Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”

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