Don’t Blame Officer Wilson… Blame His Gun
Let’s have a little CSI moment together and investigate the ballistic realities in a confrontation between a large, rapidly advancing assailant and a person defending himself with your average police caliber handgun. It is my contention that in this case the inadequacies of the duty weapon itself were largely responsible for the turn of events. Sadly, the public lacks the technical knowledge about firearms needed to evaluate the ballistic aspects of the incident. This is a shame. By studying the weapon’s performance, we can expand our evaluation as we wait for the police to give their side of the story.
What follows is my bet on what they shall ultimately find in the final analysis. I have deliberately avoided using names to emphasize that this is hypothetical evaluation, and I don’t want anyone to misquote my work.
First, in an scholarly study we have to state any “given” factors that lie beneath the findings. I ask the reader to consider only one. It has been suggested that the Ferguson assailant was running or “bum rushing” the police officer at the time of the shooting. Therefore, it is “given” in this study that the assailant was rapidly closing on the officer when the shots were fired.
I have had two useful kinds of training that help me investigate this tragic and regrettable situation. First, for many years, I have participated in “practical pistol” matches sponsored by the International Defensive Pistol Association, or IDPA. This is a world wide sport. No two matches are ever the same. Each consists of several unique, realistic self defense situations where competitors must engage multiple human silhouette targets in a race against the clock. It is not uncommon to fire several rounds at each target while on the move. So in the Ferguson shooting I have a feeling for the level of marksmanship required in the tiny window of time available.
The second type of training is my simple high school diploma. The research methods needed are basic enough for anyone with a 12th grade education to ask and find answers for the following big three questions:
- How much kinetic energy does a nearly 300 pound attacker have when moving at sprinting speeds?
- How does this compare to the power of the police officer’s pistol?
- In a head-to-head match-up, should the officer have feared for his life?
This is just a question of basic physics. I used the internet to find calculators for determining kinetic energy by entering speed and weight of a projectile. I converted pounds to kilos, and Joules to Foot Pounds with similar devices. The hard part was determining how fast the assailant was moving. I based the speed on what football players run, on average, in the 40 yard dash, and then I backed off this somewhat idealistic number. The calculations show that at least part of the reason why the assailant died can be attributed to the fact that the non-lethal shots that struck his arm were not powerful enough to knock down a man of his considerable size.
Ironically, the multiple shots may in fact be evidence that the officer was trying not to kill the assailant.
I worked out that anyone who weighs 285 pounds, and can sprint at seven meters per second, generates 3160 joules of kinetic energy which converts to a little over 2300 pounds of impact force. That’s a deer rifle bullet level of energy that would have flattened the police officer and rendered him vulnerable to further assault. People act as if the policeman should have dodged the rush like a quarterback scrambling in the pocket as he looks for an open man down field. That would be fair, right? After all, the police officer had the only gun.
All true, but he didn’t have the right gun.
I have not been able to ascertain what caliber is used by the Ferguson PD. They were likely using standard 9mm handguns, though it is equally possible that they issue .40 caliber weapons. Most people think that all bullets are tiny atomic bombs. One hit, and down you go. If only that were true. The reality is that a bullet’s effect depends on the target’s physical attributes and shot placement. In this case, the assailant’s off the charts height and weight are the critical factors. The reality is that the average 9mm generates just 383 foot pounds of energy. This is plenty for a shot to the head, but not enough for other situations such as when the bad guys wear body armor, hide behind cover, are crazed on drugs, or, as is the case here, are the size of your average pro-football linebacker. The .40 caliber performs marginally better, but not enough to change what happened in this shoot to wound scenario. Larger caliber handguns, such as a .357 magnum or .45 automatic that might have stopped the attack with a single non-lethal, incapacitating hit are difficult for smaller statured officers to use efficiently and are not common in the field.
Now do the numeric comparison of kinetic energies—handgun bullet versus human cannon ball.
385 : 2300.
So I have the answer to my third question. The officer did have good reason to fear as he would no doubt know that his weapon was insufficiently powerful to knock an assailant of this size off his feet with a single shot.
We see from the math it takes multiple pistol rounds to equal the energy of the oncoming assailant. Even four rounds doesn’t come close to the energy stored in that rushing mass. Unlike a shotgun blast, whose pellets arrive simultaneously on target, the handgun’s multiple bullets cannot be counted as a single collective weight as each hit is experienced by the central nervous system as a separate event. Simultaneous hits from buckshot, even of a smaller caliber, overwhelm and short out the nervous system of even the largest attacker. A shotgun might have been used to fire a crippling shot at the assailant’s legs, but the officer had no time to deploy a different weapon.
The autopsy shows that there were several hits to the assailant’s arm. I think that this actually indicates good shooting under stress, but when the assailant is not hit in a leg or vital organ, and is still on the move, it takes a moment to react, and the officer may not have been able to observe his bullets’ effects in the time he had left to make a life and death decision. There is a video that was recorded on the scene just after the shooting where an eye witness (off camera) says that the attacker ran at the officer who “dumped on him” but he just kept coming. In fact, the speaker thought that the officer was missing his target.
So to summarize: Because the officer had no time to deploy a shotgun and was forced to use his service pistol, he had no choice but to fire multiple rounds in a non-lethal attempt to stop an assault by a massive individual moving at great speed. The assailant’s forward momentum could not be stopped by a pistol caliber weapon.
The deceased– no doubt experiencing an adrenalin rush and extreme emotion, plus whatever else he may have had in his system– put too much into his attack and so was unable to stop himself when first hit. His momentum took him that one step too many and he was felled with a shot to the head.
Indeed, this may turn out be a modern David versus Goliath.