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>> Fraudulent Marketing? :: By MikeG on 2004-07-12
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The Fraudulent Foot-Pound


By MikeG


It has been so well ingrained into the collective conscience of shooters/hunters by the gun press that we rarely question the following statements any more (or slight variations thereof):


“It takes 1,000 foot-pounds of kinetic energy to reliably kill whitetail deer”

“It takes 1,500 foot-pounds of kinetic energy to reliably kill elk, moose, etc…..”


If it isn’t the exact numbers above, it will be something close, within 10%, usually.  Amazingly, this has been repeated often enough that many states and countries have created laws regulations which require certain kinetic energy figures to hunt big game animals.


But what do those numbers mean?  Why do we use them?  And are they really relevant to hunting?  My answers are, nothing, ignorance, and absolutely not.


To arrive at a conclusion that will support my arguments, it is first necessary to take a small detour which might explain how we arrived at the present state.


Roll the clock back approximately to 1870, and consider the buffalo hunter working for hides and/or meat to feed railway crews.  Using cartridges with ballistics that we might consider barely adequate for white-tail deer, they slew animals weighing upwards of a ton, at ranges we would consider completely irresponsible.  And to be sure, there was wanton waste of game resources…. But they killed a huge number of buffalo, and recovered the great majority.


The bullets were soft cast lead, the powder was black, and the cartridges were weak.  It’s been suggested that the majority of hunters simply used U.S. Government surplus rifles and ammunition in the .45-70 and .50-70 calibers.  If we consider how popular surplus military rifles / ammunition have always been, this is a very valid conclusion.  To be sure, many hunters did use special ‘buffalo rifles’ with various other black powder cartridges, notably ‘Sharps,’ but these were in reality not a great deal more powerful than the usual .45-70 & .50-70, and some hunters used lesser calibers yet.


The hunter sitting around the campfire would neither know nor care the muzzle velocity of his gun.  Although many rifles had sights regulated for different distances, the actual business of hitting targets would have to be worked out by trial and error, due to range estimation errors by the individual.  So muzzle velocity, ballistic coefficients, etc., were just so much useless information.


Fast-forward a short time to the dawn of smokeless powder.  This was a revolutionary step forward, but brought with it the following problems:


  1. Soft lead bullets could not stand the pressure/velocities.  It would be many decades before dedicated experimenters showed mainstream hunters that 2,000 or even 2,500fps could be achieved by hard cast bullets with correct lubes, etc.


  1. The increased velocities brought a substantial increase in recoil, if bullet weight were to stay the same.  If a .45-70 kicked hard with black powder, it could be made to kick really hard with smokeless.  There’s a reason ‘Guide guns’ are ported!


  1. Although a hunter could potentially work up to the recoil of heavier loads, given time, this was not an option for the armies of the world.  They needed repeating rifles (and ammunition) which were manageable by the average conscript.


The solutions to the above problems were complementary.  Small-caliber, metal-jacketed bullets fixed all problems, as well as increased the amount of ammunition that the soldier could carry.


Naturally, hunters wanted the most modern weapons & ammunition.  The increased velocities made hitting at extended ranges much easier, and less recoil (of smaller, lighter bullets) was surely appreciated by all!  Jacketed ammo feeds well through repeating rifles designed for it (ruling out paper-patched bullets for all but dedicated shooters and controlled environmental conditions).  Hunters suddenly became a lot more interested the difference in exterior ballistics (muzzle velocity, trajectory, etc.) as these differences were easily demonstrated on the target range and in the field.


Naturally, not all hunters rushed to the new technology.  Some had to be dragged kicking and screaming… figuratively if not literally…. Which is why companies pay lots of money to market products.


Big problem – small-caliber, full-metal jacket ammunition was very poor for hunting, in most cases.  Although a great deal of engineering has been put into making FMJ bullets that will either yaw (turn sideways) at some point in the wound channel, or completely break in two at the cannelure, this does not make for a predictable, reliable hunting bullet.


A solution was found – the expanding jacketed bullet.  With just the correct amount of exposed lead on the bullet nose, and certain jacket thickness/hardness, we can come up with a bullet that expands ‘some’ but not ‘too much’ through a certain range of velocities.  If that sounds like a fairly narrow definition of success, it is!


Consider what it takes to make a jacketed bullet expand.  Simply put, it has to slow down at a very rapid rate (decelerate).  When the front of the bullet hits something more solid than air (or a paper target), it slows down.  The back end of the bullet, not having heard the news, tries to keep going, and pass the front.  The front of the bullet is badly deformed, caught between the momentum of the rest of the bullet, and the inertia of the target (which is normally so much larger than the bullet, that it hardly moves at all on bullet impact, regardless of the erroneous claims of ‘knockdown power’ bandied about).


If the bullet decelerates too much, it may expand to such a great diameter that it simply cannot penetrate through muscle and bone to damage vital organs (or the stress can cause it to completely fragment).  If it fails to decelerate enough, it may penetrate completely through and not expand, without having created enough damage.


Considering that bullet companies go to an amazing effort to ensure that their bullets are as aerodynamic as possible (ie. have as little deceleration between the gun and target as possible) … it’s a wonder that they can be made to perform so well on game!  Only the explanation that the game animal is many times more dense than air explains why this works.  The most effective shape for flying through the air at high velocity is also the least effective shape in wounding tissue.  That statement is vital to understanding wound ballistics – to create a wound, there must be resistance to the bullet’s passage.


Velocity… let’s get back to that.  How do you convince the veteran black-powder hunter that your ‘tiny’ 160 grain .30 cal bullet will in fact be more effective on game than his traditional 400 grain .45 cal bullet?  Find some attributes of your new product that are superior to his existing product, even if they don’t really apply to the situation at hand (basic marketing).


Trajectory, as mentioned, is one.  Less recoil is another.  Turning to science for the third, we have attribute called ‘kinetic energy’ which sounds really impressive.


Kinetic energy (Ke) is a physical characteristic that can be easily calculated, if we know the bullet weight and velocity.  The formula is one half the muzzle velocity squared, times the mass (not the weight) of the object.  This is true for airplanes, cars, rockets, ships, water stored behind a dam for conversion to electrical power, etc…. it does not relate to bullets exclusively (note, we divide weight by acceleration due to gravity to get mass, otherwise Ke on the moon does not equal Ke on the earth, for identical objects traveling at identical speeds.  Mass equals weight divided by the acceleration due to gravity, 32 ft per second squared at sea level on earth).


The normal units, foot-pounds (or pound-feet) refer to the amount of energy released when you drop an object weighing one pound a distance of one foot.  Those in the metric system relate this in Newton-meters.


Because kinetic energy incorporates the square of the muzzle velocity, it is biased toward velocity – which fits in perfectly with the increased muzzle velocities attainable with smokeless powders!  Coincidence…. I think not.


Consider the ‘hot’ .30-30 Win of 1895 vs. the traditional black powder .45-50 load:  160 grain (original load) bullet, at about 2,000 fps vs. 405 grains, at approx 1,200fps (velocity greatly depending on barrel length which might be from a short carbine of 15 or 16 inches up to a full military rifle of 28 or 29 inches; let’s just stick to 1,200fps for the sake of comparison).


Ke of the .30-30 = 1,421 foot-pounds

Ke of the .45-70 load = 1,295 foot-pounds


Clearly…. The .30-30 carries the day!  And Winchester surely has sold many of them over the years, millions of rifles and carbines.


The debate ignores one teeny, tiny little problem… The .30-30 has to have that high velocity or it won’t work (because the bullets won’t expand otherwise).  The .30-30 must decelerate rapidly within animal tissue in order to expand and create a useful wound channel.


The blunt .45 cal bullet does not need to expand.  In fact, for a non-expanding bullet, higher velocity through tissue makes a better wound channel, because tissue displacement/destruction decreases when velocity decreases!  Prove it to yourself…. Slap your hand down into water.  There is more turbulence the faster your hand moves, and turbulence through tissue destroys it and creates the wound. 


It’s true for all bullets that increased speed through tissue creates a larger wound channel, but we tend to overlook that an expanding bullet will very rapidly slow down as it penetrates.  Deceleration is not linear, either; drag varies with the cube of velocity and so most of the velocity is lost within the first few inches of travel, if the bullet expands rapidly!  And a large wound through shoulder bone/tissue is not nearly as disruptive to the animal’s vascular system as a smaller wound through soft lung tissue.


Look at it from another perspective.  We like to compare ‘sectional density’ of bullets in different calibers, in order to compare their relative effectiveness.  Sectional density is the mass of the bullet divided by the cross-sectional area.  So, in theory, our 160 grain .30 cal bullet (sectional density ~ .25) will penetrate just as well (if not better) than a 350 grain .45 cal bullet (sectional density of ~ .24, different bullet weight used to make the examples as close as possible).  Right?


Wrong!  Our expanding .30 cal bullet might increase in diameter as much as double it’s previous diameter to say .60; yet also the stress of deforming (er – expanding) the bullet might cause it to lose as much as 25% of it’s weight.  What’s the sectional density of a .60 cal, 120 grain bullet….. hint…. It’s not real high!  0.048, and consider that the bullet may well have shed half of it’s velocity penetrating to the vital organs.  Another way of looking at it – we’re really down to perhaps 400 or 500 foot-pounds of energy that can be ‘delivered’ to the vital organs of the deer.  What????  Yes, it’s true; run the numbers for 120 grains (the bullet weight we have left) and take a guess at how much velocity the bullet has left after expanding and penetrating through shoulder tissue (maybe 1,200fps?) and that’s what you get.  Even assuming that deceleration is linear – which it isn’t – and if the bullet would decelerate from 2,000fps to 0 fps in 10 inches of tissue, the first two inches of tissue would drop bullet velocity from 2,000fps to 1,600fps, and combined with the decreased mass of the bullet, we’re down to 682 foot-pounds of ‘energy’.  More likely, it’s several hundred feet per second slower yet, with a corresponding reduction in Ke. How did I get 10 inches of penetration – from those who would claim perfect bullet performance is finding the expanded bullet in the skin on the off side, combined with typical whitetail deer dimensions.


If it doesn’t seem possible that a considerable amount of energy (read velocity) is used (lost via deceleration) merely to deform the bullet in it’s first few inches of travel, place a jacketed bullet in a large bench vise and pound it with a 4 lb. hammer until it deforms to double diameter.  It’s a real eye-opener!


Yet – we might well look down our noses, at a handgun bullet traveling ‘only’1400 or 1500fps or so, of about .35 cal and the same 160 grain weight, as being entirely insufficient for deer hunting.  True, if our handgun bullet expands to the same degree, it’s going to have problems.  Yet – if it doesn’t have to expand, then it doesn’t have to have considerable deceleration on entry, and will maintain the velocity much longer in tissue.  This isn’t theory; ask anyone who hunts with hard cast bullets in a handgun if they’ve recovered one.  I haven’t….. penetration is measured in feet!  If a 160grain hard cast bullet can penetrate 2 feet of tissue, and decelerates uniformly, it still has almost all of the original velocity as it travels through lung tissue on a shoulder shot.  Let’s say it’s going 1,300fps (and still has all 160 grains mass, Ke is now ~600 ft.-lbs) as it enters the chest cavity. Very comparable velocity as it enters the lung tissue, compared to the rifle bullet after expansion, if not actually higher!  So why would we consider it less effective?


The last difference we might draw between the two is the wounding potential.  So what you say, my ‘big’ (expanded) .30 will make a bigger hole through lung tissue than your ‘small’ non-expanding .35, right?  Specifically, the .30 cal bullet expands into what’s normally a larger round nose bullet profile – the classic ‘mushroom’.  Our .35 never changes shape.  A round nose shape does not have the wounding potential of a flat-nosed shape, because it flows through the tissue easier.  So it has to be larger than the flat-nosed bullet, to destroy the same amount of tissue!  Read that again if it doesn’t make sense… it is key to understanding bullet performance on game.  The more blunt shape wins…. Always!  Try paddling a rowboat with a square stern backwards, vs. using the pointed or rounded end first.


Last hope of the Ke lover….. the expanding bullet stops in the deer, therefore it delivers more energy to the vital organs.  Well, not likley….. lung tissue is mostly air, and the bullet probably lost very little velocity crossing the chest cavity.  I would hate to contemplate the pile of deer lungs that would be necessary to stop even a .30-30 bullet!  The off-side ribs and/or shoulder are what stopped the bullet – again, energy expended on non-vital tissue.  Hide is very elastic also, and easily stretches to ‘catch’ a round-nosed mushroom as the stress of the impact is distributed over a larger area.  The hard, sharp nose of the cast bullet easily cuts a hole through the hide and exits (and it probably doesn’t hurt that it’s traveling faster at this point as well).


Both bullets ‘deliver’ surprisingly little energy to (vital) lung tissue, if we stop to calculate the likely deceleration in that soft spongy organ.  Both bullets are going to be very effective on deer, a proven fact.  Conclusion:  kinetic energy at the muzzle is just a meaningless number.  It has little effect on terminal performance.  Last nail in the Ke coffin is that it doesn’t scale (why does a 1,000lb. elk only need 50% more Ke than a 100lb. whitetail deer?).


The kinetic energy argument is essentially circular.  My fast bullet has a lot of Ke, and I need a lot of Ke to hunt with, therefore I need a lot of velocity from my bullets.  Or, my fast, jacketed expanding bullet is superior to the slow cast bullet, because it expands (and it only expands because it is fast in the first place).


The .30-30 rifle bullet vs. the .35 cal pistol bullet was deliberately chosen as these are often considered minimum caliber choices for big-game hunting (by their proponents, not detractors).  Scale the comparison up to say, the .30-06 vs. the .44 mag… the .338 Win vs. the .454 Casull or .475 Linebaugh….. the examples will be very similar, as well as the results in the game fields!


Now…. I’ll admit to using high-speed jacketed rifle bullets.  I’ve taken game with them and continue to do so.  I’ve even recommended them – and help friends load their own for hunting.  But I refuse to buy into the misleading argument that more energy makes for a more effective load – results personally observed in the game fields don’t correspond to kinetic energy, momentum, or much else for that matter, other than hitting in the correct spot.


There you have it, an explanation of one of the great marketing schemes of the ages, which continues to this day to mislead hunters, game departments, and our elected officials.

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