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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Lou Salseda

Lou Salseda

Lou Salseda is a retired LAPD sergeant with 34 years of law enforcement experience. He is the chief instructor of TAC-1 Defensive Firearms Training in Santa Clarita, Calif., and is a consultant for law enforcement training and litigation.

Nick Jacobellis

Nick Jacobellis

Nick Jacobellis is a medically retired U.S. Customs Agent and former New York police officer who was physically disabled in the line of duty while working undercover as a federal agent.

A Trauma Surgeon Talks About Wound Ballistics and Stopping Power

Dr. Sydney Vail is a trauma surgeon, a tactical medical provider, and an expert in how bullets damage the human body.

December 28, 2017  |  by - Also by this author

Dr. Sydney Vail is a trauma surgeon and one of the nation's leading authorities on tactical medicine and the care of gunshot victims. His articles—"9mm Vs. .40 Caliber" and "Stopping Power: Myths, Legends, and Realities"—are some of the most popular and most controversial in the history of POLICE Magazine and

Vail, who has studied the performance of handgun ammunition in both the gunshot wound patients he has operated on and in the works of researchers like Dr. Martin Fackler, is a strong believer that size of ammunition used in a handgun has much less effect on stopping a threat than shot placement.

In "Stopping Power" he wrote: "I believe the definition of stopping power should be a particular ammunition's effectiveness to render a person unable to offer resistance or remain a threat to the officer, an intended victim, or self.

"So how does ammunition accomplish this? You have two options. You can use a really large round at very high velocity like the 30mm cannon rounds from an Apache helicopter's M230 Chain Gun, which produces substantial kinetic energy, or you can place your shot where it has the most effect. Obviously, shot placement is the only realistic option for a law enforcement officer."

Vail's argument that the stopping power of handgun ammunition is not based on caliber has elicited howls of protest from members of the firearms community who are devotees of particular cartridges, especially the .45 ACP. Vail says he enjoys the debate and he reads the comments on his articles, but he stands by his conclusions about ammo performance based on his experience as a scientist, a surgeon, a shooter, and a tactical medical provider.

The following is an excerpt of a longer interview covering tactical medicince, tourniquet use by officers, and wound ballistics that will be published in the January 2018 Police Magazine and on

POLICE: What's the highest number of rounds you've seen shot into a person who's survived?

Vail: The largest number of bullet wounds has been 22. Some were just entry, some were entry/exits. But 22, I think, was my maximum number. It's not uncommon for me to get 8 or 10 or 12 wounds and people survive.

I got involved in wound ballistics and what it really took to stop a threat during residency in Philadelphia because I had a friend on the police force who lost his job for use of excessive force by shooting somebody, I think it was, 18 times, and I always thought, maybe he needed to shoot that person 18 times to stop the threat.

As a surgeon, I saw what bullets don't do to the human body, meaning they don't kill it, they don't just stop it...which is why I wrote that article about stopping power; it's really a myth. I know that the human body can tolerate many gunshots and still function so that the person is still a threat to the police officer. So I make it known that I am willing to help defend a police officer who is accused of excessive force based on the number of shots fired. If it's a clean shoot, I'm happy to review it. If I can agree with them after that review, then I'll be there to testify for them.

POLICE: Is there really a significant difference in terms of wound ballistics between a 9mm, .40, and .45?

Vail: Other than the size of the ballistic projectile, nope. Because unless you hit something vital, it doesn't matter what you hit them with. You could hit them with a .45 in the shoulder, they're gonna survive. You hit them with a 9mm in the shoulder, they're gonna survive. You hit them with a .22 in the brain they could die. So, stopping a threat really does not come down to caliber, it is shot placement.

Handguns are lousy stoppers; it doesn't matter the caliber, they are just not great at stopping threats. Because of the ballistics profile and the amount of energy that a rifle round carries with it and dumps into the body, a rifle is a much better instrument to stop a threat.

POLICE: Can a significant temporary wound cavity be produced by a handgun bullet?

Vail: You really don't get much of a temporary cavity with a handgun. It's there, but it's minimal as compared to a rifle round and, you know, I think that's where ballistic gel [has value]. It's not my favorite substance in the world, but it demonstrates that if you fire a rifle round into it, the temporary cavity is extremely large. You don't really get much damage from the hydrostatic "pressure" of tissues ripping from a handgun.

Police: Can agencies learn anything about their ammo through gelatin testing?

Vail: Yes. You can look at certain characteristics of the ammo: expansion and depth of penetration. But that's all. And you're comparing those two things in gelatin. How those relate to the human body is where I argue you're getting misinformation because the bullets will not act the same in the human body as they act in gelatin.

POLICE: What ammo do you carry in your personal defense pistol?

Vail: Well, for my SWAT team I carry a .45 with Speer Gold Dots issued. Personally I generally carry my 9mm most often because of its capacity (loaded with Federal HST rounds).


Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Ulver @ 12/30/2017 7:40 PM

That was a good article! I agree with most all of it... Years ago, I became interested in "wound ballistics" & "stopping power." Back then, there really wasn't much to debate. Col. Jeff Cooper assured me, that "they all fall to ball (.45 ACP). " Elmer Keith told me, that he would like to see law officers carrying .41 Magnums with "his" semi-wadcutter bullet. Bill Jordon loved his .357's, and 158gr. hollow-points. Me? What the county was carrying. S&W m-25's in .45 Colt, and 225gr. LHP's. Just one problem. The bad guys shot with said combo, were not that all impressed! When the military went with the Beretta 9mm, so did the county. In scores of shootings, the 9mm with Federal 9BPLE +P+ ammunition, gained respect from the officers. I guess the felons too, but they never expressed it. You know, being dead and all.

DD @ 1/3/2018 2:54 PM

POLICE: What's the highest number of rounds you've seen shot into a person who's survived?
Vail: The largest number of bullet wounds has been 22....
rounds does not equal wounds. I have seen five people with fragmented bullet wounds from a singe round. If you get a graze that does not even require a band-aid we now have to report them (which is why firearms injury is going up even though shootings are going down)

jhuey794 @ 3/24/2018 8:43 PM

Ulver must have been a DeKalb County (GA) cop. Yes we had the S8W 25-5s with Federal 225 grain lead hollow points and lastly 225 grain Silver Tips. They bounced off windshields...hit sternums, turned sideways and exited bodies. A detective friend shot 6 rounds into a car an the perp drove off. Found the car but no perp...lots of blood though. The only confirmed kill was a headshot as well as I remember.

The 9MM Berettas dropped everybody. What a boost to morale to have a sidearm that actually did what it was supposed to do....stop the fight!

Theron Patron @ 4/28/2018 10:46 PM

My 9mm is stuffed with the Federal 9BPLE because it has proven itself long before and after the .40 caliber craze. I am also comfortable with NATO Ball and Federal Hst 124gr +P some people ask why ball ammo? Well it works. In the hood when you see guys in wheel chairs and on crunches. They were hit with ball ammo.

Croatinator @ 10/19/2018 5:26 AM

I have been a firearms instructor for to long. I have looked at "stopping power" since a certain agency said the Subsonic 147 gr 9mm OSM was the way to go for those that couldn't carry 10mms. Then they went to .40s to get most to qualify. I have taught 3 things. (All borrowed!) "You can't miss fast enough to win a gunfight." "Carry the most powerful round you can hit well with (and your vest will stop.)" "Pistols can work close and let you fight your way back to your rifle." I carry .40 SXTs. I haven't lost a Deputy/ Officer yet. (I'm knocking on my head which is the closest thing to wood I can find.) Also, with the recent CPD case where every shot fired (16) was charged w/ Agg Asslt, rounds fired matter! Make the first one count.

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