Anything can happen in the chaos of a gun battle. Bullets are flying, and they have to stop somewhere. Firearms may be struck by bullets during the exchange of gunfire. Most of us train to fire for center mass, but while you’re focusing on your adversary, you may become fixated on his or her handgun.
As a result, your bullets may unintentionally strike your adversary’s pistol. There may seem to be a slim chance that this could happen, but it does happen, and these incidents have been studied by experts. But what isn’t discussed is what happens to the firearm when it is hit by gunfire. How is the firearm impacted by the bullet(s)? What kind of damage will it incur? Will it still function? A recent experiment answered these questions.
I examined a number of firearms reportedly struck by bullets. My friend Joe Weaver owns a Japanese Arisaka rifle with a long trough in its stock and a dent in the receiver that allegedly was caused by an American GI’s M1 Garand bullet during World War II.
I also inspected two revolvers hit by bullets. One was in the holster when a bullet struck the edge of its grip, causing little damage. In another case, a .32-caliber bullet pierced the shooter’s finger and chipped the grip of the revolver as he grasped it. Another friend showed me her grandfather’s shotgun. The Remington 16-gauge automatic had a dent in the receiver; the deputy sheriff told his granddaughter it was “from a .38.” It looked as if the bullet had struck the steel receiver at an angle, but all I can do is wish I knew more of the tale behind how it happened.
In examining all the firearms mentioned, I found no damage that might have put these weapons out of action. All were still serviceable, with only cosmetic damages. Steel-frame firearms just might take a hit from a soft lead bullet and keep going. But what about modern firearms with frames made of aluminum or polymer? How might these newer firearms fare against modern 9mm ammunition?
Time to Experiment
I had the unique opportunity to test a handgun without sacrificing an expensive sidearm. An acquaintance cracked the frame of his SIG Sauer P220 with a handload — an overload, to be more accurate. The original damage to the pistol was a hairline crack on the right side of the frame, the kind of damage that cannot be repaired through welding.
Though it crossed my mind to perhaps install a .22-caliber conversion unit since there wouldn’t be much momentum from a rimfire, the explosion had also knocked out the trigger bar spring and the top of the right grip. I decided it best to destroy the frame in this experiment. The barrel and slide were still valuable, so they were removed, but all of the internals remained in place.
I used a Wilson Combat Beretta 92G loaded with 9mm. I fired the first round at the receiver’s undamaged side from a distance of 10 yards. The 115-grain FMJ clocked at 1,155 feet per second — the average for a training round. The bullet struck dead-on between the decocker and the takedown lever, leaving the frame badly dented but not penetrated. I believe the pistol would have been functional after this hit.
I flipped the frame around and fired another FMJ round, aiming for the grip, and it struck just to the left of the magazine release. This forced the magazine release out of the frame, but the frame itself wasn’t damaged badly.
I next fired a bullet through the left-side grip. This shot did more damage, striking the frame and breaking the frame off just behind the magazine release. Obviously, this type of strike would be catastrophic in effect to both the shooter and the handgun. When I picked the frame up, the spent bullet actually pricked my finger; the bullet was in the frame. I shook it out and continued with the experiment.
What if the bullet struck the trigger guard? I turned the still-intact SIG P220 frame upside-down and braced it against a block of wood. This time I fired a jacketed hollow-point and, as far as I could tell, it struck dead-center on the forward edge of the trigger guard. The entire leading edge of the trigger guard broke relatively cleanly, but the trigger itself appeared untouched. That kind of force would almost certainly result in serious injury to the person holding the firearm.
The next shot hit the light rail. At this point, the frame was compromised with several cracks and without the support of the forward edge of the trigger guard. I fired, and the bullet struck in front of the trigger guard. The entire front of the frame split off and went flying. The range at which this occurred is a pleasant outdoors setting with plenty of vegetation, and I never found the forward piece of the frame. Of interesting note is that there were no sparks at any time during the firing, contrary to what the movies show.
Don’t Count on it to Hold up to Bullets
Not long ago, I saw a comment online from someone that a handgun struck by a bullet would not be badly damaged and probably remain operable. This torture test demonstrated that this statement is incorrect. A bullet striking the pistol should be more than disconcerting to the person gripping it. A baseball caught in the hand may have 100-foot pounds of energy. A bullet has several hundred foot-pounds of energy.
At the right (or, I suppose, wrong) angle, the damage will destroy the handgun and likely cause serious injury to the shooter. If a round hits the handgun, the firearm will be more than likely put out of action, leaving the operator either injured, unarmed or both. While modern firearms made of aluminum or polymer are quite durable, don’t expect them to endure numerous hits from modern 9mm ammunition.
The Civil War provides a number of remarkable examples of bullets being stopped not only by guns but also by other objects, such as diaries, Bibles and coins. While fighting at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, a daguerreotype photograph of Brig. Gen. William Harrow’s wife and two coins in his coat pocket deflected a bullet from penetrating the general’s chest. Sam Houston, Jr. (son of the famous Texan), of the 2nd Texas Infantry, was saved when a Bible that his mother had given him stopped an enemy’s ball. In September 1864, Sgt. Francis McMillen, of the 110th Ohio Infantry, felt a blow to his chest and, reaching for it, pulled his diary out from his pocket. The sergeant noticed an impression of a bullet, which besides hitting the diary had also ricocheted off his pocket watch and belt plate. “This book was in my breast pocket and received the ball which was intended to take my life,” McMillen wrote in the diary years after the war, “but thanks to the book, watch and beltplate, [sic] I am still alive.”
— Frank Jastrzembski, Associate Editor