Thursday, June 13, 2024

Biting The Silver Bullet 9: Measuring Firearms Lethality

 By Sanjay Soni

Sanjay Soni, MD Hughes Precision Manufacturing Pvt Ltd

Firearms lethality is the measure of how capable a firearm is of causing death. 

Every gun is lethal, the access to any gun creates risk, but some guns cause greater risk than others based on how they are designed and how they can be used. 

It is not only the capability of the gun to cause death that is the issue; it’s also the capability of the bullet fired by the gun. And since different guns fire different types of bullets, and every different bullet creates a different amount of damage, we can measure gun risk by combining the type of bullet delivered by a particular gun, plus how the gun is designed to deliver that particular bullet.

200 Years of Evolution

Flintlock Pistol 

In 1630, John Billington, the man who would become America’s first convicted murderer shot and killed John Newcomen, a fellow-member of the Plymouth Colony, after they got into an argument in the woods. 

Compared with Billington’s flintlock gun, a modern firearm is like a monster truck alongside a horse and cart. Today otherwise ordinary Americans can unleash devastating firepower—as happened on May 14th, when a gunman killed ten people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and again on May 24th, when an eighteen-year-old killed twenty-one people in an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, nineteen of them children.

We wonder how we got here. How did guns grow so powerful—both technically and culturally? It has taken nearly two hundred years for guns to become the problem they are today. The story of how they acquired their power explains why, now, they are so hard to stop.

The Advent of “Minié ball”

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James H. Burton’s 1855 Minié ball design

On July 3, 1863, line after line of Confederate soldiers dressed in gray marched forward, charging towards a weak point in the Union line at Gettysburg. But weaponry had changed. Two years earlier, when the Civil War had begun, both armies primarily carried muzzle-loading smoothbore muskets. They had rapidly switched, however, to .58-calibre rifles that fired a groundbreaking conical bullet called the Minié ball. The bullet was easier to load and more aerodynamic than previous designs. It allowed soldiers to fire farther and more accurately upon rushing enemy troops, making massed charges deadly and Napoleonic infantry tactics obsolete.

In popular memory, Pickett’s Charge, as the attack became known, would be seen as a gallant act of doomed bravery. In fact, it was a technologically aided slaughter, in which accurate, long-flying bullets ensured a casualty rate of more than fifty per cent. During the course of the war, the Minié ball would kill tens of thousands. 

As a result, tactics changed. Soldiers stopped firing at one another from close ranks; instead, they began arranging themselves into dispersed lines and firing from behind covered positions, such as walls, trees, rocks, fences, or elaborate fortifications. Slowly, this defensive style turned into an offensive one. One group of attacking soldiers could provide “covering fire” by shooting at an enemy position, forcing its soldiers to keep their heads down while another attacking unit moved forward safely.

Soldiers providing covering fire didn’t depend on accuracy. They often shot blindly, not even bothering to put the gunsights to their eyes. 

The “Beaten Zone”

A picture containing ground, weapon, outdoor

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Lewis Machine Gun, WWI 

During the First World War, the use of machine guns epitomized this approach. The area fire created by such weapons removed the human element in aiming altogether. The area in front of the gun could be blanketed with bullets without the gunner having eyes on any particular target. Since each round had a slightly different trajectory, the target zone would be saturated with fire, creating a deadly area known as “the beaten zone.” As one Japanese officer put it during the Russo-Japanese War, the machine gun could “be made to sprinkle its shot as roads are watered with a hose.” 

“The Gun that won the West” and Other Stories

The unromantic reality of increasingly industrialized war wasn’t likely to capture the public imagination, and so, in ads, dime-store novels, and movies, gun companies proposed a self-serving alternative history. Though Southern Plains tribes like the Comanches had been decimated less by firearms than by disease, Winchester described its Model 73 repeating rifle—a specially promoted gun that had been used by Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill—as “the gun that won the West”; this legend helped the company to sell almost thirty times as many guns in 1914 as it had in 1875. 

Blending the military and civilian domains, Winchester advertised its weapons as “For Military and Sporting Purposes”; Colt marketed its Single Action Army model as “the Peacemaker” – a weapon “for all who travel among dangerous communities.” The Thompson machine gun, developed as a trench-clearing tool during the First World War, was advertised through images showing cowboys defending their ranches against marauders; ads proclaimed the machine gun “the ideal weapon for the protection of large estates, ranches, plantations, etc.” A deadly but inaccurate weapon of industrialized war was recast as a precision instrument for taming the supposedly savage frontier.

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Description automatically generatedColt Peacemaker 

“Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal,” one advertisement read. The mythology of the hyper-violent West became so embedded in the American consciousness that Teddy Roosevelt could construct a notion of American identity around it. In “The Winning of the West,” he painted a portrait of hard life on the frontier marked by continual violence; the effect of this continual hardship was to “wield together into one people the representatives of these numerous and widely different races.” 

“Temporary Cavity” – Solving the Mystery of Disproportionate Injuries

During the Second World War, Solomon Zuckerman, a scientist advising the Allies, made a surprising discovery. While examining an X-ray of a wounded soldier evacuated from Dunkirk, Zuckerman noticed that there was something odd about the way in which he’d been hurt: a grievous injury had resulted from a small metal fragment, barely larger than a pinhead, lodged in the man’s kidney. 

Other soldiers Zuckerman examined had similar injuries. At the time, experts usually considered fragments from exploding shells and grenades dangerous only if they weighed more than a twenty-fifth of an ounce—and yet one soldier had been severely hurt by a far lighter shard, one weighing less than ten milligrams. Another’s forearm had been shattered by a minute metal splinter. According to the science of ballistics, such injuries made no sense.

Zuckerman, who was born in South Africa, had trained as an anatomist and a zoologist. During the war, he’d learned to see horrific violence scientifically. He had studied the accuracy of bombing raids and the lethal effects of bomb blasts; his goal was to learn how much force living bodies could take, and where they were most vulnerable. His work had helped the Royal Air Force maximize the casualties caused by its bombs. At the same time, his steel “Zuckerman helmet,” worn by civilians and civil-defense organizations, protected British heads from falling debris during enemy raids.

Now, working alongside Paul Libessart, a French engineer who had fled to England after the fall of France, Zuckerman turned to the science of wound ballistics—the study of the manner in which projectiles damage human bodies. It was obvious that some bullets and weapons had more stopping power than others, but it wasn’t clear exactly how that power worked. Zuckerman wanted to solve the mystery.

Soldiers tended to assume that stopping a rush required heavier, more powerful bullets. Eventually, the U.S. Army concluded that kinetic energy—a combination of bullet weight and speed—was the crucial factor in bullet lethality.

The Dunkirk injuries convinced Zuckerman that something was missing from this story. He began to think that the overall kinetic energy of a bullet might be less important than how much of that energy was transferred to a body during impact. He and his team tried firing a steel ball into a phone book, then repeating the shot with the book placed behind a block of gelatin, which could serve as a proxy for a human body. By measuring how much the gelatin slowed the bullet, they could guess at how much energy it transferred. They found that some varieties of bullets slowed down more than others, transferring more energy. Later, the team shot small metal balls through the bodies of unfortunate rabbits. 

By means of a technique called shadowgraphy—the analysis of shadows cast by bodies in rapid motion—they captured the moment of energy transfer. In the split second after impact, Zuckerman wrote, the limbs “ballooned due to the formation of an internal cavity.”

Small-caliber, High-velocity (SCHV) Doctrine

Wounds caused by firearms had long been identified with a “permanent cavity” created when the bullet itself physically crushed the body’s tissues. But Zuckerman’s images captured a different kind of injury: a “temporary cavity,” formed when the slowing bullet transferred energy to the surrounding soft tissue. Just as a diver creates ripples as she enters the water, so a bullet transfers momentum to whatever blood, spleen, brain, or muscle happens to surround its entry point. These ripples produce blunt trauma, pulping tissue and breaking bones. This was how tiny slivers of metal could shatter a man’s arm.

Subsequent military studies, including a groundbreaking report written by the U.S. military’s Operations Research Office during the Korean War, measured a gun’s lethality by looking at the maximum size of the temporary cavity. The report concluded that “smaller bullets can be used to produce battlefield physiological effects at least equivalent to those of the present standard .30 cal.” Although the Army remained committed to powerful, accurate, larger-caliber weapons, a small group within it began advocating a novel idea known as SCHV- Small-caliber, High-velocity. Adherents to SCHV proposed that lighter rifles loaded with smaller bullets could allow soldiers to carry more rounds and fire with less recoil, while still causing horrible wounds.

These arguments dovetailed with work being done by an engineer named Eugene Stoner, a Marine Corps veteran who fought in the Pacific theatre. Using advanced alloys and lightweight parts that were common in aeronautics, he started developing a firing mechanism for a new kind of lightweight rifle. Success was slow in coming; the barrel of Stoner’s first prototype burst in Army tests. The weight of U.S. military opinion was in favor of a heavier, more powerful weapon, the M14. His fortunes began to change when General Willard G. Wyman asked Stoner to modify his rifle so that it could shoot a redesigned .223-calibre round weighing roughly a tenth of an ounce.

The AR-15 and M-16

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Colt AR 15 SP1

The resulting rifle, the AR-15, could fire its .223 round at more than thirty-two hundred feet per second—nearly three times the speed of sound. Stoner later explained the advantages of its smaller bullets to Congress. All bullets are “stabilized to fly through the air,” he said, but “when they hit something, they immediately go unstable.” Tiny bullets, having a smaller mass, grow unstable faster, and tumble through the body, causing disproportionate damage. As a smaller bullet tumbles, it transfers its energy to your organs and creates shock waves strong enough to sever muscle; if such a bullet strikes your head, the pressure it creates can shatter your skull or squeeze brain tissue through your sinuses. It might also fragment inside the body, scattering small pieces of itself and increasing the damage.

As the Vietnam War began to ramp up, it was clear that U.S. soldiers faced a small-arms imbalance. American troops were armed with big, heavy, and extremely accurate M14 rifles; the North Vietnamese had AK-47s—sturdy, reliable weapons that children could, and often did, use. AK-47s were terribly inaccurate. Still, the U.S. military concluded that the M14 was an imperfect combat weapon. It had too much recoil to be fired effectively on automatic. Its heavy rounds imposed logistical limits on how much ammo could be carried. 

Colt’s firearms division took a gamble on the AR-15, buying the manufacturing rights for the rifle from Stoner in 1959 and embarking on a unique marketing campaign. The firm invited the Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay to a party at a gentleman’s farm, where he fired the gun into a series of watermelons, creating bright-red explosions with each successful shot. 

By 1964, the AR-15 had been adapted into the M16—an automatic, magazine-fed, gas-operated assault rifle with smaller rounds, which could be carried in greater numbers and caused less recoil. Meanwhile, Colt posted twelve million dollars in profits in 1967; Stoner became a wealthy celebrity.

The “Exterminator” Era and “Barack Boom”

As the twentieth century drew to a close, firearms manufacturers kept updating their stories. Crime rates spiked, and so the image of the frontier hero fending off marauders was revised for the era of vigilante-vengeance films such as “Death Wish” and “The Exterminator.” Guns had once been tools for the frontier spaces that the government couldn’t reach. Now they were a necessity for all spaces, at all times. When crime and authoritarianism run rampant, the Wild West is everywhere.

Crime fell in the late nineties. So did gun production, with just over five million units manufactured in 1994, and under three million in 2001. The 9/11 attacks provoked a modest recovery. But 2008 brought a seismic transformation—the so-called Barack Boom

The election of America’s first Black President coincided with what one gun-industry newsletter called an “incessant consumer demand for high-capacity pistols and military style rifles.” 

The Infamous Bump Stock

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AR 15 Civilian Version 

When John Billington came upon John Newcomen, the bullet damaged only what was directly in its path. And it was a lone projectile. Billington’s gun, which took many minutes to reload, was incapable of creating a beaten zone. He had a tool suitable for murder—but not mass murder.

The guns that today’s Americans buy and sell by the millions are perfectly suited for that purpose. Civilian AR-15s differ from military versions because, in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act banned the transfer or possession of machine guns; as a result, a mechanical block on civilian ARs requires the shooter to pull the trigger to release another bullet. But clever gun enthusiasts have figured out an easy way to bypass this mechanism: a device known as a bump stock uses the energy of the rifle’s recoil to assist in bumping the trigger against the shooter’s finger. The original military version of the AR-15 can fire eight hundred rounds per minute; an unmodified civilian AR-15 might fire forty-five to sixty. A version with a bump stock can fire somewhere between four hundred and eight hundred !!!. 

In the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, a sixty-four-year-old man without advanced marksmanship skills or military training used a bump stock to achieve something like fully automated rifle fire, sending more than eleven hundred rounds into a crowd in ten minutes, killing fifty-eight people and wounding more than five hundred. It would have taken Billington six hours to fire that many bullets.

The bump stock effectively turns the AR-15 into a machine gun capable of area fire. As the retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Arthur B. Alphin explained, to the Los Angeles Times, the gunman “was not aiming at any individual person. He was just throwing bullets in a huge ‘beaten zone’ ” filled with civilians bunched together in ways that soldiers had long ago learned to avoid.

People Kill People, But Guns and Bullets Matter

In Boston from 2010 to 2015, there were 221 gun homicides. Research suggests that one change could have lowered that number by 40 percent: smaller bullets.

At the center of the debate about gun control lies the question of whether the availability of deadly weapons increases the seriousness of crime. Critics of gun control contend it doesn’t. As the popular bumper sticker argues: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” 

“The type of weapon matters,” said Philip Cook, an emeritus professor of public policy at Duke University, and one of the co-authors of the landmark study “The Association of Firearm Caliber with Likelihood of Death.”

If all the shooters in Boston had used the types of guns in circulation with the biggest bullets, the homicide rate could have been 43 percent higher, the researchers calculated recently, even with the same people committing exactly the same crimes.

Effect of Bullet Caliber on Shooting Casualties

Over recent decades, the size of bullets fired by the typical handgun has increased. Changes in design have made it easier to fire big bullets from concealable weapons, and manufacturers have marketed more powerful guns as better tools for self-defense. In the 1970s and 1980s, the guns most commonly used in crime tended to be revolvers or small, inexpensive pistols that fired .22-caliber rounds, so-called for their 0.22-inch diameter.

But regulations meant to reduce crimes pushed them out of gun stores, and  a new generation of semi-automatic weapons hit the market. The newer guns, which started to become common in the 1990s, could fire multiple rounds quickly, and store more bullets in their magazines, requiring less reloading in long shootouts.

And instead of buying guns that fired smaller bullets, people started purchasing ones that fired rounds that were 9 millimeters wide, about 0.35 inches, then 0.40 and 0.45 inches.

Improvements in technology also meant that large-caliber weapons are now available as pistols that that can be more easily carried and hidden.

Bigger rounds can have their drawbacks for shooters, particularly when loaded into compact handguns. The trade-off between caliber and aim is, in part, why the FBI and many police departments carry 9-millimeter guns rather than larger alternatives. 

Let’s look into the lethality of various weapons using several different parameters.

Handgun Lethality Measurements

Here is a list of 95 guns that were evaluated for this lethality manual. This study is based on the evaluation of 95 different guns which more or less represent virtually every type of gun model in the  commercial market.

Manufacturer-ModelLengthCaliberActionCapReleaseReloadLaserLethality
Smith & Wesson
M&P 22 compact512620016
M&P SHIELD cpt 9mm762320020
M&P SHIELD cpt 40772320021
BG380842320019
40SD572620022
9SD562620021
1911Pro 9381520019
41 Std221810014
41LB121810013
M&P9562720022
BG380CT842320423
M&P45582720024
1911 45381520019
M&P40cptCT572520223
1911cpt581420020
M&P9cptCT662420222
M&P9cpt662420020
M&P40CT472420221
M&P40472420019
1911CT381420220
637 LM652202219
638 LM652202219
637652202017
638652202017
986-4392302019
6291102202017
460VXR1102202017
460V1102202017
586292202017
Governor2102102017
GovernorCT2102102421
629 Hunter1102102016
66-4392102017
69-43102102018
686-4392102017
27-4292202017
617-6222202010
351PD792202022
625-6372202016
60-2792202022
500-42102202018
686+-2592202020
686-6292202017
329PD3102202019
M&P R8462202218
17-6222202010
63-3322202011
GlockLengthCaliberActionCapReleaseReloadLaserLethality
G17462920023
G19562820023
G26662720023
G43662320019
G34262920021
G17L262920021
G22472820023
G23572820024
G27672620023
G29692720026
G36372920023
G24272920022
G20492920026
G40292920024
G30682720025
G36382320018
G41282820022
RugerLengthCaliberActionCapReleaseReloadLaserLethality
LCP742320422
LC9662420020
LC380642420422
SR9562920024
SR40572920025
SR40c672920026
SR45482720023
SR1911481520020
SR22622720019
Mark III321710014
22/45421720016
GP100-4392302019
SP101592302021
Blackhawk391301017
Single Six221401010
Vaquero491301018

Rifle Lethality Measurements

Manufacturer-ModelCaliberLoadingActionStockCapacityGripsLaserLethality
AR-15 (S&W, Bushmaster, Stag)444242323
Ruger 10-22244120013
Ruger Mini-14444120015
Ruger 77 – 270 Win.541110012
Savage Mark I20110004
Savage 93241120010
Marlin 336 (30-30)512120011
Browning BAR823010014
AK-47644241021

Shotgun Lethality Measurements

Manufacturer-ModelCaliberLoadLengthActionLaserStockCapacityLethality
Mossberg  500652202219
Mossberg ATI652222221
Mossberg 590A1652220320
Remington 1187632300216
FN MK I Tactical652322323
Beretta 690 Field631100011

Notes To Lethality Tables

This study is based on the evaluation of 95 different gun models, which more or less represent virtually every type of gun model commercial market. Guns from manufacturers that were not evaluated are, for the most part, copies of guns that were evaluated. Hence, the lethality score for each gun on our list would be the same as the lethality score for most guns that are not found on this list. An AR-15 rifle, for example, is basically the same gun whether it is assembled by Smith & Wesson, Stag Arms, Bushmaster, etc. This would also be true for concealable revolvers manufactured by Smith & Wesson, charter Arms, etc.

We are somewhat arbitrarily defining degrees of lethality as follows:

  1. Lethal – Scores between 4 and 16.
  2. Highly Lethal – Scores between 17 and 22.
  3. Extremely Highly Lethal – Scores between 23 and above.

In these three categories, lethal guns count for 219% of the total, highly lethal count for 62% of the total, and extremely highly lethal guns count for 32% of the total. The overall lethality average score for all guns is 18.9. It should also be noted that 29 of the 31 extremely highly lethal guns are handguns, owing to a combination of small size, powerful caliber and integral laser devices. The two highest-scoring guns, the Glock 629 and the Ruger SR40c, are extremely small weapons that are chambered for very powerful ammunition.

Again, we advise that such lethality measurements cannot take into account the most important factor influencing lethality, namely, the skill of the gun’s operator, but that is a factor which needs to be evaluated beyond the issue of lethality in terms of function and design.

Sanjay Soni is the Managing Director of Hughes Precision Manufacturing Pvt. Ltd., India’s first small caliber manufacturer in the private sector. An MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, he has been involved with the ammunition industry in India and abroad since the last 8 years.


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