FREE e-Newsletter
Important News - Hot Topics
Get them Now!

The Law Officer's Pocket Manual - Bloomberg BNA
This handy 4" x 6" spiral-bound manual offers examples showing how rules are...


Lead Vs. Steel

What really happens when you have to pull a weapon and shoot at a suspect in a car.

April 01, 2003  |  by R.K. Campbell

Since the turn of the 20th century when criminals first became mechanized, officers have recognized a need for gun and ammunition combinations capable of penetrating the light sheet metal of vehicles. But few officers have ever actually had to shoot at a car, and very few people know what to expect when high-velocity lead slams into a sedan, truck, or SUV. So taking advantage of access to a junkyard, Police magazine set out to test typical law enforcement weapons and ammunition against a series of wrecked but intact vehicles.

Our goal in this test was to answer two separate and equally important questions:

How effective is a handgun when used to fire at a suspect behind cover of a vehicle?

How effective is a vehicle as cover against the bad guys' fire?

We are the first to admit that this study is imperfect but we were able to verify many aspects of cartridge performance. And our study does meet the test of scientific evidence; its results are verifiable and repeatable.


Many of our readers may be aware that the FBI has conducted similar testing using automotive steel, glass, and rubber, but that testing has its limits. Instead of shooting sheet metal or glass in a controlled environment, we fired at actual vehicles. This is a critical difference because in the real world a vehicle is not just sheet metal or safety glass, it is a piece of machinery with an engine, door bracing, pillar supports, and many other components that can affect the performance of a bullet.

The following are the calibers and loadings used in the test:

  • 9mm Luger (Winchester 115 grain JHP Ranger, Black Hills 147 grain JHP, Winchester 124 grain FMJ)
  • .40 S&W (Winchester 155 grain Silvertip, Winchester 180 grain FMJ)
  • .357 SiG (Hornady 124 grain XTP)
  • .45 ACP (Winchester 230 grain SXT, Black Hills 230 grain FMJ)
  • .357 Magnum (Winchester 125 grain JHP)
  • .223 (Hornady 55 grain TAP)
  • .30-30 (Winchester 150 grain Silvertip)
  • 12-Gauge (Winchester 00 Buckshot, MK Ballistics QB slug)

The testing was organized according to the four distinct areas of contemporary automobiles and trucks: the front, side, rear quarter panel, wheels and tires.

Dead On

One of the best ways to disable a motor vehicle is to blow a hole or holes into its radiator. Most vehicles will overheat and stop running within three to four minutes after a complete loss of coolant-just as animals, including humans, shut down with a loss of blood pressure.

That said, firing into a radiator-while more efficient and effective than shooting out the tires-is, for several reasons, not a move to be made lightly. First and foremost, you are firing toward the passenger compartment, which makes this only an option if you intend to use deadly force. A lesser concern but an important one nonetheless is property damage. When you bring a car to a halt by shooting the radiator, you've likely turned the engine to slag.

Still, there may come a day when you are forced to shoot a radiator. So we shot a few.

And here's what we found out. Any number of bullet types and calibers will punch holes in a radiator, but the smaller the bullet, the smaller the hole and the more time it will take for the coolant to leak out. For example, small caliber weapons such as the .223 rifle and the 9mm handgun were relatively ineffective in this role, while the .40 and .45 caliber handguns took a larger chunk. But if you really want to put some hurt on a radiator, use a .357 Magnum or better yet a 12-gauge loaded with buckshot or slugs.

In contrast to the radiator, the engine block is immune to small arms fire, barring a lucky strike to the coil pack, distributor, or water pump. Despite stories of powerful pistols cracking engine blocks, we doubt that a full power .30-06 load would cripple a car in this manner. Our research shows that all bullets flatten on engine blocks.

Safety Glass

Automobile glass is tougher than it looks. Hit it at the wrong angle with handgun rounds and the bullets can bounce off. Hit it right, however, and the results are more positive.

Firing through windshields has been the subject of many real-world firearms "experiments." Consequently, we have been able to compile numerous case histories nationwide demonstrating that modern handgun ammunition performs well against car glass.

But there are some things to bear in mind when shooting automotive safety glass. One, all shots fired into car glass are deflected downward to some extent. Since the distance to the intended target, usually in the front passenger seat, is not very long this deflection matters little but should be understood. Two, bullets sometimes behave unexpectedly after striking glass.

Tests have shown that .38 Special roundnose ammunition will bounce off a windshield at even a slight angle. And it's not just .38s. When we fired a .45 ACP "hardball" roundnose bullet into a windshield at the wrong angle, it was a less than pleasant experience. Our testing reveals that if you have to break glass, the .357 SiG and .357 Magnum are your best bets for energetic penetration.

OK. But what if you have to shoot through your own windshield? It's not as easy as you might think. Officers have been wounded by ricochets while trying to return fire while inside their vehicles.

Take it from us, shooting out through your own windshield is not a great option. While completing this part of the test, we picked up numerous shards of glass in our skin. And during this part of the testing, we were very thankful for hearing and eye protection.

A .45 double-tap in the rear of an SUV.

It was worth the pain, however, because certain rules of firing from a vehicle were discovered. For example, the upward cant of the firearm should be aggravated when firing through a windshield inside a car. What this means is to strike a man-sized silhouette in the center of the chest at 10 yards requires you to aim at the belt buckle.

Also, after the bullets slam through the glass, accuracy becomes relative. We found slow fire groups were commonly three times the size of groups fired without intermediate barriers. The lesson here is that it would be very easy to completely miss a subject when firing out through car glass.

Flanking Maneuver

A 115-grain 9mm went through the windshield, front seat, center armrest, and rear seat of this car.

Windshield glass is, of course, not the only glass protecting the occupants of a vehicle. It is the thickest, however, and its safety coatings prevent it from shattering under the impact of bullets.

In contrast, door glass almost always shatters with the first shot. And this makes the double-tap a viable tactic when firing at side glass. The first shot will shatter the glass and the second will be unimpeded.

Blowing out door glass is easy. Shooting through the door itself is more complicated. Vehicle doors have an internal mechanism known as the "regulator," and the stamped steel parts of this device are often quite heavy. In our tests, these regulators stopped every handgun bullet and sometimes shotgun slugs and the .223. Only the .30-30 could be counted on to fully penetrate the regulator and keep moving into the passenger compartment. Note: the .308 Winchester would perform even better in this regard.

CONTINUED: Lead Vs. Steel «   Page 1 of 2   »

Be the first to comment on this story

POLICE Magazine does not tolerate comments that include profanity, personal attacks or antisocial behavior (such as "spamming" or "trolling"). This and other inappropriate content or material will be removed. We reserve the right to block any user who violates this, including removing all content posted by that user.

Other Recent Stories

First Tactical: The Refined Tac Pant
"The V2 pant is performance-ready and purpose-built to handle any mission that arises...
Letting Go
Decide to live in the now, dealing with the things you can control.
Who Should Be the HAIX Hero of the Month?
Nominees for HAIX Hero of the Month have been chosen, and now, we want to hear more from...
Two Tools for Field Communications
Two models may help your field conversations, depending on who you're talking to....

Police Magazine