Hollowpoint bullets have been a very controversial topic for nearly two decades now. They have often been the focal point of the anti-gun campaign, despite not being anything new. Hollowpoint ammunition has appeared near the end of the 19th century, a time from which also dates the common nickname – “dum-dum bullets”, which came from the town of Dum Dum in India (near Calcutta), where British produced ammunition for rifles in .303 caliber. (It should be noted that actual “dum-dum” bullets were not hollowpoints, but rather soft-nosed projectiles, with flat nose exposing the lead core through the lubaloy jacket). For various reasons, including international bans, hollowpoint ammunition never found widespread usage in the military. However, it became very popular for hunters and in self-defense. There is an interesting anecdote about Winston Churchill, who was an officer in the Boer War. In his Mauser C-96, Churchill carried self-made hollowpoint ammunition. Boers would have executed him for utilising such ammunition, but he managed to escape.
Hollowpoint bullet usage started to get more widespread after 1960., when Lee Juras developed hollowpoint bullets of small mass and high exit velocity. With that, he solved the issue of reliable expansion. As the reliability rose, so did the usage of hollowpoint bullets among both police and the civillians. Consequence of that was also increased interest of the media and general public in hollowpoint bullets, who quickly – and incorrectly – identified hollowpoint ammunition as a threat to the society.
The most publicized case was that of the “Black Talon” ammunition. Aiming to fulfill the requirements of the FBI for a bullet that would reliably expand even after passing through an obstacle such as clothes, windshield glass or a thin sheet of metal, Winchester developed a new hollowpoint bullet. With a black bullet and a Galvanised shell, it was named the “Black Talon”, and Winchester immediately started an agressive marketing campaign. Almost immediately, set off by the bullet’s agressive and threatening look as well as the name, antigun campaigners started to push for a ban on all types of hollowpoint ammunition. The “Black Talon” was finally pulled from civilian sales after an incident where an African-American Colin Ferguson, frustrated with having not received a social care cheque, killed 5 and injured 17 passangers in a New York underground railway. This set off an even stronger media campaign which forced Winchester to limit “Black Talon” deliveries to law enforcement agencies. Interestingly, nobody asked why Ferguson did what he did, nor weither casualties would have been higher had he used full metal jacket or perhaps homemade hollowpoint ammunition.
Typical arguments used against hollowpoint bullets are related to the massive tissue damage they cause. A hollowpoint bullet, when passing through target’s body, will expand and thus cause relatively wide wound cavity. While RN ammo creates a permanent cavity 66% of the bullet diameter, JHP makes a permanent cavity 80-90% of the bullet diameter. It is also more likely for a hollowpoint bullet to break apart (fragment) inside the target’s body, causing increased internal bleeding. This increases the risk of death or crippling of the target or any accidental passerbys that might get hit. Generally, there are two main questions: do hollowpoint bullets cause unnecessary suffering, and do they provide advantages that would justify their use?
Normal FMJ ammo is designed to wound, not to kill; that way, one takes out of the fight not only the enemy that had been shot, but also one or two of his temmates that have to carry him out of the fight. But primarily, it is designed with high capacity for penetration so as to be able to penetrate cover and any body armor enemy might be using. Thus a pointy or rounded bullet, which facilitates penetration. However, the primary principle in self-defense situations, both police and COIN, is to stop the threat as quickly as possible in order to prevent additional casualties. A determined attacker – especially when high on adrenaline – might not even notice having been shot with a FMJ ammunition. In such a scenario, it is beneficial to have a bullet which immediately causes high damage so as to stop the target as quickly as possible, to avoid possible mutual kill (these issues forced the US Army to adopt a high-calibre M1911 handgun after the fighting in Phillippines demonstarted inadequacy of low-calibre ammunition then in use, which proved completely incapable of stopping a determined attacker – even one with a machette). It is also very rare that bystanders are shot, and in any case, criminals – who are the primary danger as they do not care about innocent lives – can easily create their own hollowpoint bullet cartridges by simply modifying FMJ ammunition. Limiting or banning the production of hollowpoint bullets will thus merely give massive advantage to criminals in shootouts against either civillians or the police. In 1995., the FBI issued a report stating that the Black Talon was “no more lethal than other commercially produced ammunition”.
So what are the necessary characteristics of police and self-defense ammunition? As noted before, in self-defense situations, the primary aim is a quick and reliable transfer onergy to a target, so as to quickly disable it. Another aim of this energy transfer is to prevent the overpenetration of the attacker’s body, or penetration of walls and other structures, so as to reduce the danger to bystanders. Additionally, the bullet should fragment when striking a hard surface, so as to prevent potentially dangerous ricochets. These characteristics are also useful for use by military in counter-insurgency operations, where the enemies typically have no body armor, and fighting is often done near or within inhabited areas.
Wounding the target is achieved via four basic mechanisms. First is the penetration, as the bullet destroys or disrupts the tissue in its path. Second is permanent cavity, which is a hole left by the passage of the bullet, created by removing tissue. Third is temporary cavity, which is expansion of permanent cavity created by stretching caused by the transfer of kinetic energy during the projectile’s passage. Fourth is fragmentation, as fragments of projectile or bone (if hit) are impelled outward of the cavity and damage tissue surrounding it; this effect may or may not occur. Reliable incapacitation is only achieved through damaging or destroying the central nervous system, or by causing significant blood loss. A young, healthy adult can lose 25% of blood volume without a substantial effect or a permanent injury. Even if the thoracic artery is severed, it will take five seconds at minimum for 20% blood loss to occur in average sized male. Further, even if the heart stops beating and causes immediate cessation of blood flow, there is still enough oxygen left in the brain to support willful, voluntary action for 10 to 15 seconds. Pain also is not normally incapacitating due to adrenaline rush, the so-called “fight or flight” effect, which supresses the pain for some time. Some drugs can also prevent or delay incapacitation due to pain. Psychological factors are typically the primary cause of incapacitation, and also the primary cause of incapacitation failures; physical factors have no effect on immediate incapacitation. In one case an attacker took six rounds in vital organs (heart, left lung, right lung, liver, diaphragm and right kidney) plus eight to non-vital areas, and still kept coming. In the end, he was felled by a bullet to the brain, but still showed vital signs when EMS arrived. No traces of drug or alcohol were found in his body.
Due to their unique shape, hollowpoint bullets expand upon entering target’s body. This results in very efficient transfer of kinetic energy, which results in increased tissue damage. This in turn achieves two primary aims: it improves the possibility of disabling the target with just one hit, as well as reducing the possibility of bullet penetrating the target and hitting something or someone behind it. Hollowpoint bullets, especially high-velocity ones, have far higher stopping power than nonexpanding bullets of the same mass and velocity. The research done by Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, described in the book “Street Stoppers”, compares two instances of Whinchester 9 mm PARA ammunition: Silvertip JHP “hollowpoint” cartridge and “hardball” jacked roundnose cartridge, both with 115 grain bullet. The percentage of one-shot stops was 83% for Silvertip bullet in 304 cases recorded, and 63% in 256 cases recorded for a cartridge with a non-expanding bullet. Dick Fairburn’s study shows a 27% difference in favor of hollowpoint bullets. Hollowpoint bullets have also been noted to be far quicker at disabling the attacker. This is especially true with hollowpoint bullets with exposed lead core, while JHP will need more resistance to overcome a copper jacket. As noted, reasons for this are largely psychological.
FMJ non-expanding ammunition has various shortcomings which do not make it a good choice for police or civilian use. There are three types of high-risk situations that passers-by can find themselves in a case of a shootout with FMJ ammunition.
First risk is that of a too high penetrative ability of a non-expanding bullets. Hollowpoint bullets expand, flatten and/or break apart inside the target’s body; this means that more energy is transferred to the target, and bullet stops more quickly. Often, this will also change the path of a bullet inside the target’s body, increasing the distance it would have to travel to exit; since hollowpoint bullets are calibrated for penetration little more than depth of average male torso (so as to penetrate through the hand if it is in the way), this very reliably prevents overpenetration. This does not happen with classical bullets, which will often pass right through the target; in the best-case scenario, such bullets will “tumble” inside the target’s body, achieving similar effect to hollowpoints’ expansion but less effective and reliable (e.g. M16). Most serious handguns (those above 9 mm PARA) have too high penetrative ability in ther FMJ variants, which can endanger a passer-by as well as the firearm user. Silvertip hollowpoint bullet achieved a 25 cm penetration into a 10% ballistic gelatin, while most non-expanding FMJ bullets of the same mass penetrates the same gelatin to a depth of 70 to 80 cm. This data shows that hollowpoint bullet will transfer far more of its energy to a target, thus reducing the likelyhood of overpenetration. On the other hand, FMJ bullet is very likely to overpenetrate and possibily wound or kill someone behind the target. Data by Marshall and Sanow shows that, in 139 studied shootouts, and 204 fired “hollowpoint” bullets, only 17 penetrated the attacker’s body and exited on the other side. In seven of these 17 cases the bullets were of powerful revolver cartridges in .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum calibres, while in remaining 10 cases, bullets hit in the head or thighs. New York Police Department has also significantly reduced on injuries and deaths by overpenetration since adopting hollowpoints.
Second risk is a possibility of a ricochet from a hard surface. In one case in 1998., a woman lost an eye due to a ricochet. Naturally, the case was immediately used against the “hollowpoint” ammunition even though the actual ammunition used was a full metal jacket one. Hollowpoint ammunition is far more likely to fragment when striking a hard surface than FMJ ammunition, which significantly reduces the possibility of ricochet and making it ideal for use in urban settings with a lot of concrete buildings. Hollowpoint bullets’ hollow point is a structural weakness which often cause them to fragment when hitting a hard surface; this can happen with FMJ ammunition as well, but is less likely.
Third risk is a possibility of bullet(s) penetrating the walls of various objects. This problem is also problematic with hollowpoint bullets, as some older models penetrate up to 50 cm into a ballistic gelatin even after penetrating the wall. Exception to this is Glaser Safety Slug and MagSafe ammunition filled with buckshot, which fragments upon striking a hard surface.
Because of advantages of hollowpoint ammunition in self-defense and usage in urban areas, it is used by some police departments. US Army has also considered the hollowpoint bullets for a new sidearm. Reason for this is that modern warfare is more likely to be a policing / counterinsurgency effort than a clash of nation-state militaries, thus rendering crucial hollowpoints’ advantages in spite of a Hague ban. Another problem is lack of stopping power. US soldiers – using ball ammunition, and in a low-powered M9 pistol to boot – had been and are complaining about 9 mm (.354 in) round’s ineffectiveness in combat, and some US Marines are reusing old M1911s because of M9s inadequacy. M1911 was in fact introduced when the Phillipines combat revealed .38 Long Colt’s inadequacy in stopping a determined attacker, which led to US military reverting back to .45 revolvers at first, followed by .45 M1911. Using hollowpoint ammunition has the potential to offer best of the both worlds, combining the stopping power of a .45 with high magazine capacity and superior accuracy of 9 mm calibre. The FBI, which switched from 9 mm to .40 caliber after a deadly Miami shootout where shooters managed to keep fighting after being hit, is in the process of switching back to 9 mm ammunition – but this time, with hollowpoint bullets. Hollowpoint ammunition is somewhat more prone to jamming than FMJ ammunition, but this may be simply because handguns are generally designed with FMJ ammunition in mind.
Hollowpoint bullets are ideal for COIN (counterinsurgency) operations because they significantly reduce the risk of injuring or killing innocent bystanders, and increase the probability of quickly stopping the target. COIN, at its core, is a struggle to win popular support. This includes stopping second and third order effects, which can often be undesirable (such as harming civilians in the course of self-defense). But protecting the civilians in COIN requires deadly force to neutralize insurgents. In early 2009., one such incident involved an attack on insurgents that had attacked Pashtunistan Square by hundreds of Afghan commandos, soldiers and police officers. Thousands of jacketed rounds were expended, and it is impossible to tell the damage it caused; only thing certain is that the damage would have been less with hollowpoints.
The Hague ban of hollowpoint ammunition was triggered by its use in rifles, whose ammunition has about six times as much kinetic energy as that of a handgun; worse, the ban was based on the assessed threat of dum-dum bullet. Dum-dum bullet itself was designed specifically for anti-insurgent use. But the bad reputation it received was a result of experiments done by German surgeon, Professor von Bruns. Von Bruns had used a powerful German Mauser rifle in the experiments. As discussed above, hollowpoint’s characteristics in preventing overpenetration are less useful in more powerful handgun calibers; thus usefulness of their usage in rifles is questionable, but what is not questionable is the massive tissue damage they cause. Also, the ban was developed in an era when a clash of uniformed armies on a battlefield was a norm, not an exception; in such circumstances, characteristics of hollowpoint bullets would not be very advantageous, and might have proved a disadvantage in some circumstances. As hollowpoint bullets would offer few advantages in such circumstances (a rifle hit will likely disable the target regardless of ammunition due to far greater kinetic energy), their characteristics causing massive internal tissue damage are argued to cause “undue suffering”, as well as reducing chances for survival and recovery of soldiers who did not get killed by the shot right away. However, its practicality in era of assymetric conflict has to be questioned, especially since nothing prevents soldiers from using hollowpoint bullets in sidearms and standard military ammo in assault weapons. The British had in fact understood this. While British opposition to the ban was ridiculed, it was based on the correct understanding that a normal bullet was not sufficient to place a fanatic, determined opponent hors de combat. The ban never explained why causing undue suffering to one person is worse than causing suffering to two people by not using bullets which place the target immediately out of combat. Nevertheless, the ban had stood for 116 years – since 1899 – by the time US Army decided to consider hollowpoint bullets (of course, a ban prohibiting dropping of hand grenades from hot air balloons might be a bit outdated). It should also be noted that the ban is “only binding for the Contracting Powers in the case of a war between two or more of them“. The bolded parts mean that even the Contracting Powers can legally use hollowpoint ammunition in anti-terrorist and COIN operations, two types of military operations where such ammunition is the most advantageous. Lastly, the treaty itself was not humanitarian, it was political, motivated solely by power plays on the European continent. This conference was followed by a 1907 conference, which merely reaffirmed the ban because of Beernaert’s – intentional or not – misinterpretation of the denunciation provisions of the 1899 conference. Ever since – in 1949., 1974. and 1975. – the ban was affirmed by automatism, without any understanding of the ban or the issue on the part of the delegates reaffirming the ban.
In military use, overpenetration is desireable in most cases, for various reasons. First reason is to penetrate cover enemy troops might be using, such as walls. Second reason is to penetrate any body armor that might be in use. Lastly, it is more advantageous to wound enemy soldiers than to kill them, since wounded troops require care, so wounding one soldier takes one or two healthy soldiers out of action as well. This explains the lack of usage of hollowpoints in assault weapons, but does not explain the Hague ban of general usage of hollowpoint bullets in military conflicts, and does not counter hollowpoints’ effectiveness in sidearms as a tool of self-defense.
Further, the “savages” that Great Britan faced in India and Africa in late 1800s are no different from current Muslim fanatics: terrorists who do not use a “fixed distinctive sign recignizable at distance”, do not carry their arms openly, and do not conduct “their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war”. Now as then, the combat environment includes densely populated civilian areas and terrorists who do not distinguish themselves from civilians, which compounds the threat to both soldiers and civilians in the combat zone. In 1985 the Judge Advocate General of the US Army has concluded that the limitations of 1899 declaration do not apply to counterterrorist incidents. The reasoning is indeed instructive. It noted that the signatories to the Hague declaration were focused on “conventional combat operations” as traditionally fought, which is “combat between lawful combatants on a battlefield relatively devoid of civilians, utilizing a high volume of firepower”. In such conditions, soldiers had to rely on combined effects of massed weapons, which are designed for incapacitation rather than lethality, in order to increase logistical burden on the enemy. As opposed to a conventional military force, terrorists usually attack civilians and civilian objects, and even direct attacks against national armed forces typically take place in the midst of populated areas, placing civilians at risk. Hague convention does not take into account specifics of counterterrorist operations, and as the JAG noted, it does not apply to forces engaged in counterterrorism operations because the terrorists are not members of national armed forces entitled to the protection of the laws of war. The possibility of a “superfluous injury” to the terrorist pales in comparison to issue of avoiding causing harm to innocent bystanders.
Finally, what would constitute “unnecessary suffering”? The ICRC took the position that “any injury or suffering of the combatants in excess of that necessary to put the enemy hors de combat” constituted unnecessary suffering. It still recognized the necessity of balancing “the nature of the injury or the intensity of suffering on the one hand, against the ‘military necessity’, on the other hand, before deciding whether there is a case of superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering as this term is understood in war.”. The Commentaries merely reaffirmed the ban on hollowpoint and dum-dum bullets based on previous conventions. However, as noted, they did note that military necessity has to be considered, and weapons that produce more serious wounds do not automatically cause unnecessary suffering. Based on the characteristics and various advantages of hollowpoint bullets, they should be legal under the international law; but since the prohibition against use of hollowpoint bullets in the current international law is customary, it is binding upon all nations, including the United States. This, however, does not make it any less stupid. As discussed in detail in earlier portions of the article, there is no evidence that hollowpoint bullets cause excessive suffering. What is clear are hollowpoint’s advantages in reducing the possibility of collateral damage due to reduced likelyhood of bullet either passing through the target, ricocheting or passing through obstacles, as well as due to reduced number of bullets fired.
One positive effect of usage of hollowpoint rounds for military sidearm is that it might help popularize them among civilians as well, which would only have positive impact on general safety of the populace. But in general, hollowpoint rounds or not, guns are lethal weapons and should not be used unless aim is to kill.
In conclusion, hollowpint ammunition offers clear advantages in both self-defense and counter-insurgency role. The current ban on hollowpoint bullets has no scientific or practical basis, it is based only on political goals and widespread misinformation of its signatories. Therefore, the ban should be either overturned or ignored, as there are no practical reasons that should prevent either law enforcement or military organizations from utilizing hollowpoint ammunition in certain scenarios. Fighting radicals is not the same as fighting unfiromed soldiers, and troops undertaking counterinsurgency operations should not have to be constrained by a misinformed ban dealing with entirely different category of conflict. Unlike Western conscript soldiers of both World Wars, or modern professional troops, radicals are hell-bent on destruction of their enemies and are far more likely to fight until death. Due to their advantages in such situation, hollowpoint bullets should be issued to all troops sent to undertake counterinsurgency operations.
Bullet: a projectile which exits the barrel.
Ammunition: or a “shot”, consists of the case (the cartridge), primer, propellant and the projectile.
Core: actual material of the bullet, usually lead
Jacket: a thin covering on a bullet, usually copper, brass or steel
Tip: nose of the bullet
Hrvatski Vojnik, Broj 85/86., Godina XII, Srpanj/Kolovoz 2002. (Croatian Soldier, No.85/86, Year XII., July/August 2002.)