Your .45 is NOT a Death Ray

Written by Greg Ellifritz

Topics: Articles, Tactical Training Scenarios

  • SumoMe

Written by Greg Ellifritz


Col. Jeff Cooper was a huge fan of the .45 handgun.  He once made the statement that the .45 ACP will instantly stop 19 out of 20 attackers.  While I greatly respect Col. Cooper’s contributions to the shooting world, on this topic he was flat wrong.


The late Col. Cooper. May he rest in peace.


The .45 ACP is a fine cartridge.  I carry one every day on my police duty belt.  It just isn’t quite the man stopper that Col. Cooper suggests.  I submit the following news article to highlight my position:


Man kills intruder, accidentally shoots wife


The short article describes an incredibly violent home invasion attack against a 64-year old man and his wife.  It was 4:30 am and the man awoke to the sound of breaking glass.  Before he could realize what was happening, both he and his wife were under attack by two intruders.  One of the men grabbed him.  The other put his wife in a headlock and began punching her in the face.  Fortunately, the homeowner was able to grab his .45 pistol just before the attack.


The homeowner stated:


“I raised my .45 and squeezed off three rounds in his face,” he said of the intruder closest to him. “He was still coming. I emptied the magazine and he fell on top of me.”

Three .45 rounds to the face and the attacker is still in the fight?  How could that be?  The .45 is supposed to drop 19 men out of 20!  If you have researched shootings as long as I have,  failures like this wouldn’t surprise you.  No handgun works that well.  The .45 is as good as any other round and better than most, but sometimes things just don’t work out the way you plan.  I’ve seen stories of people who have been hit by WAY more than 3 rounds from a .45 and still kept fighting.

95% one-shot stops? Not hardly.


To make matters worse, one of the homeowner’s rounds missed and hit his elderly wife in the arm.  She survived.  The bad guy didn’t.


I commend the man in this case for his ability to stay in the fight despite a lot of factors going against him.  But that doesn’t mean he did everything right.  He made some mistakes.  He’s actually quite lucky he prevailed.   We can learn some lessons from this case…



Most gun owners like guns and shooting.  They like to talk about “what’s best”.  That’s cool.  Just don’t make the mistake of putting a piece of gear at the top of your priority list.  No pistol works that well, and there is very little difference in real world “stopping power” between any of the calibers.  Check out my study HERE.   Most handguns stop fewer than 50% of attackers with one shot.  It will generally take 2-3 shots to bring an attacker down.  Expect that.


Instead of endlessly obsessing over the best firearm and ammunition combination for self defense, spend your time training with the gun you have.  I promise your training will lead to better long term results than simply finding the “perfect”  carry pistol.



You should have a small, powerful flashlight on your person at all times.  You should have a better flashlight near your bed when you sleep.  The homeowner in this case said:


“It was pitch-black. I shook myself awake and saw legs coming through the bedroom window”


Imagine what would have happened if the homeowner shined a bright flashlight on the intruder climbing through the window and ordered him to get out or be shot?  Maybe the criminal would still press the attack, but there’s a good chance he would move on to find an easier victim.


Even if the attacker didn’t flee, the light would provide the homeowner with a better visual reference, a more certain threat assessment, and likely more accurate shots.  I can’t help but wonder if the missed round that hit his wife was the proverbial “shot in the dark”.


Buy a couple good flashlights.  I like the ones made by SureFire and Fenix, but there are lots of other great ones available.  Just don’t use the $2 piece of junk you picked up at the grocery store as your defensive light.


And I shouldn’t have to say it, but you should also practice shooting your gun while holding your flashlight as well.



It sounds like the homeowner here was a deep sleeper.  I am too.  That’s why my bedroom door is solid wood and has a deadbolt.  My windows can’t be reached from the outside without a ladder.  I have audible alarms in my house.  No one is going to break in while I sleep without at least waking me up!


In these crisis situations, time provides you with options.  Anything that you can do to delay the criminal’s access or alert yourself to the attack as quickly as possible will work to your advantage.


Take a few minutes and think about your house as a criminal would.  How would you get inside?  Fix that.



If your spouse is not a combatant, he or she should still know what you are planning to do in an attack.  Enlist your spouse’s help, even if it is only for calling 911.  The more people you bring to this fight, the more likely you are to survive.  Panicking spouses or family members are dead weight!


Brainstorm some scenarios and pre-plan each of your responses.  Ideally, teach your spouse and family members how to defend themselves as well.  There’s no doubt that this homeowner’s adult son drove off the second attacker by responding with a gun of his own.  This kind of response doesn’t happen by accident.  Train and Brainstorm!



For an article that is supposed to be focused on mindset, training, and planning, I know I’m harping a lot on equipment selection.  But it needs to be mentioned.  Many gun owners I work with carry low capacity pistols for concealment and even rely on the same guns for home protection.  I think it’s a bad idea.  Your probably won’t have time to reload in your gunfight.  If you are limited to the rounds in the gun, you might as well have a lot of them.  Don’t rely on that Micro 1911 with the 6 round capacity.  Don’t trust that 5-shot .38 snub.  If your gun holds fewer than 10 rounds, you might want to reconsider your choice of equipment.


The article doesn’t mention what kind of .45 the homeowner had here.  It does say he emptied the magazine.  If we assume the .45 was a 1911-style pistol, he likely had 7-8 rounds in the gun.  That was barely enough.  The bad guy collapsed ON TOP OF THE HOMEOWNER!  And the homeowner had an empty gun!  That’s cutting it too close in my opinion.


I’m well aware of the statistics.  Most of the time when a homeowner pulls a gun on a criminal, the situation is resolved without a shot being fired.  When armed citizens shoot criminals, the average number of rounds fired in the encounter is around three.  Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by those stats.


What happens when your gunfight isn’t “average”?  If you just look at statistics, you don’t need a gun at all!  Very few people are criminally victimized in a given year.  If you play the odds, you won’t ever need a  firearm.  But you still have one, don’t you?  You have one because you are preparing for the exception, not the norm.


Use the same logic when you are choosing your defensive sidearm.  Don’t prepare for the “average” gunfight.  If you prepare for the worst, the statistical norm will be much easier to handle.


I believe in having a lot of bullets.  My bedside pistol is a Glock 19 in 9mm.  It is loaded with a Glock 17 magazine with an extended base plate.  That gun holds 22 rounds of ammunition.  I’m not running out of bullets if I’m forced to deal with a “long tail” event.



This may be the most important point of all.  Gunfights happen at close range.  A lot are within arms’ reach.  Your traditional target shooting grip and stance doesn’t hold up so well at this range.  Learn how to shoot from retention positions.  Learn how to defend your firearm.  Get some quality training.  You’ll be amazed by what you DON’T know!



Have you ever fired your pistol from this position?


It is said that “good luck reinforces bad tactics”.  Although distasteful to second guess the responses of the victims in scenarios like the one described above, it is vitally important.  Don’t assume that you did everything right just because you survived.  You can always improve.  Study the mistakes of others so that you are less likely to make the same mistakes yourself!





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16 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Moby says:

    1. The most important piece of self-defense equipment you have is with you at all times, carried conveniently on your shoulders between your ears. Don’t be afraid to use it.

    2. This is coming from the original DIY guy and general all around know-it-all, so believe me when I say it – Actual ‘professional’ training is a very good thing. Unless you’re a frequent participant in actual gunfights, there are just a couple of things you’re not likely to come by on your own. Training with an organized and progressive plan is essential if you want to be any good.

    3. I do power restoration for the local electric power utility. I have to occassionally call residents at home and advise them to check their circuit breakers. I am still amazed at the number of families who can’t put their hands on a flashlight within 5 minutes. …and no, your cell phone is NOT a flashlight.

  2. Great article Grag, if you cannot hit your target in the vital areas with multiple rounds under stress, it won’t matter what you a carrying. Putting the rounds in the right area is the only way to better your chances of success.

  3. Frederick Strobel says:

    Col. John Boyd, of ‘OODA’ fame said it best:

    MINDSET-SKILLSET-TOOLSET, in that order and keep them in order.

    I have been in a number of firefights with the 1911 using ball, and am still here to irritate all of you and embarrass my children. Had a few fights with a S&W 38spl too. In my case the handgun was a secondary weapon. Every firefight I lost I was not using a sidearm although had two of them with me.

    My point is if you do your job, your weapon will do as well as it can too. I find no difference between the 9 or the 45 as long as I did my job. Still trying to figure out what the 40 is for, not withstanding that a lot of folks I know and respect like it. I ain’t against it, just don’t understand it.

    More time learning how to fight and how to place bullets for best effect. Which caliber isn’t very important. I generally recommend the caliber that the reliable weapon was originally designed for. Just pick the best bullets available to you. In my 9mm’s I like Cor-Bons DPX +P load, in 45acp I like the 230gr standard velocity Gold Dot.

    Good luck.

    Semper Fi

  4. Roger Hoff says:

    Having been in law eforcement for 15 years and having worked as a medic in a trauma center ER, I have seen my fair share of gun shot traumas. I have seen bullets strike skulls but not penetrate, hit ribs and skirt around the rib cage without ever penetrating the thoracic cavity. I was part of investigation of an OIS where the suspect was struck in the left upper chest with two Golddot .45 ACP’s from 10-15 feet away…and not die. The suspect did go down but it wasn’t an immediate stop! There is also a homicide that I am aware of where the victim was struck with a single .25 ACP from 15 feet away and eventually died about 100 feet from where he was shot. My point is that what affect a gun shot has on a human body has too many variables, far more than just caliber of weapon used. The only way to make all of these variables work as much in your favor as possible is to hit the vital areas…as many times as possible…and this takes proficiency (i.e. PRACTICE & TRAINING).

  5. Mike says:

    I was always taught to keep shooting until the threat was neutralized. Unfortunately you shoot like you are trained. I have heard of police officers shooting perps twice and then bolstering their gun only to find out the perp is still capable of coming after them and finding this out to late. That’s the way they trained and since they learned this by repetition that is how they do it

  6. Noel Cook says:

    Col. Cooper said, or wrote, a LOT of things. I’m not sure if this one is correctly attributed, in context or not. I never heard him say that. But, he may have. I don’t agree with the statement as written, and I agree with almost everything stated in the article. Nowdays, one does not have to choose between having 8 rounds of 45 or 14 rounds of 9mm Ball or six rounds of 38spl. Semi wadcutter or 357 mag JHP. Which is how it was when I suspect this comment was made. I like having: bullets; bigger bullets; better bullets; more bullets.
    In the days after WWII the most common LE round was the notoriously ineffective 38SPL RNL. If you wanted better there was the 45ACP and the 44SPL. (Also RN.) Then Semi autos began to come into some use. Some really bad, unreliable guns using the 9mm 115 FMJ, which has worse terminal ballistics than the 38RNL. People began to experiment with magnum LSWs and JHPs: they worked better. 44MAG & 357 Mag became popular. They were hard to shoot, but the ballistics were there. There were NO JHP rounds that functioned reliably in the handguns of the day AND expanded properly… So, experimentation continued. The 45 ACP gained it’s reputation compared against the pointy, speedy 9mm FMJ and the slow 38 RNL in use by troops killing Japanese and Germans in wartime, and some what on the border. No serious student of ballistics believes the hype; “hit a man in the arm and the 45 spins him around and knocks him down”, but that was the common belief “In the day”. In the context of his paradigm, which included combat in WWII and a lifetime of study, Col. Cooper MAY HAVE said something like that. Consider it in that context. Col. Cooper is the father of modern pistol shooting, and The IPSC and similar competition formats, the professional shooting school, flowed from him a surely as the ink from his pen. I was honored to know him. It’s funny how often over the years I get called on to defend my use of the 45ACP. I have never said it was a death ray; quite the opposite. I recommend the 9mm WITH PROPER, MODERN JHP AMMO for most shooters. I have, when the facts were different, recommended the 45 for DEDICATED, TRAINED shooters. Today I choose, based on my knowledge and experience, to use the 45 myself. I explain why as articulately as I can, and leave it there. I think it is ballisticly superior; that it creates more damage with similarly designed bullets than the 9mm; A 1″ hole beats a .78″ hole; Small differences can have tremendous effect inside the human body; That I shoot it well; Bullet placement is king; Placement is difficult to guarantee in real world, two way range shooting; The person who does the most damage the quickest wins; Most fights are decided in two-three rounds in short time frames; When expansion fails caliber does not; If I am forced by circumstances to use the lowest common denominator in ammo (Ball), 45 beats 9mm hands down; In intermediate barrier penetration, mass matters; When a bullet fails, mass matters; There are support factors involved; It makes me happy.

    Most shooters are better served with a high capacity, soft shooting, accurate pistol in a medium caliber that is cheap to shoot, thus easy to train with. To these I say: Buy the very best modern expanding ammo that meets or exceeds IWBA and FBI testing protocols; Get good training, on an ongoing basis; Practice frequently; Learn the law; Be fast; be accurate. Unfortunately, I know most shooters will never DO most of these things.
    Finally, pray for me that as I muddle through, in the depths of my delusional reliance on such an anachronistic old cartridge, that I may prevail in spite of myself. I appreciate all the help I can get, because I also know that luck sometimes trumps skill.

  7. Steven B. Drew says:

    Interestingly, the image above depicts Col. Jeff Cooper, a staunch advocate of the 1911 platform in 45 acp, sighting a Browning Hi-Power 9mm.
    ALL defensive handgun cartridges are rather weak compared to full power Self defense rifle or shotgun cartridges.I am continually amazed that the same person who complains that his .398 Magnum what-ever RIFLE failed to anchor a 250 lb deer- truly believes that his little pistol bullets will drop an enraged 250 lb drug abuser. We carry handguns because they are convenient and/or concealable- NOT because ANY of them have a fool proof record of making bad guys fall over. There is no such thing as a guaranteed result when you are forced to fire in self defense with any cartridge- certainly nothing hand(s) held. Colonel Coopers point of reference is mostly from FMJ type ammo. As expected, the “better than average result” tends to be the more likely outcome with larger diameter, more powerful cartridges.There are simple physics at work here.I do not recommend anything smaller that 9mm/38 spl. w/ modern high velocity hollow point ammunition. 40 S&W? better-yes. 45 acp?,yes better still.I know other minimums can work and we can find documented cases where your favorite- fill in the blank, worked. Most people tend to plan for a best case scenario rather than a worst case scenario. I prefer bigger bullets for bigger problems.Professionals tend to concentrate on Mindset and Tactics first, calibers being well down on their list of priorities. We likewise should follow their lead based on historical experience.

  8. Cotter Sayre says:

    Everything Greg Ellifritz states in this article is absolutely accurate. Screw caliber, and get friggin’ training and practice. Shot placement is god (unless you get cranial or rib deflections — but such is life).

    I shoot USPSA every month or more with Grand Masters, which is as good as you’re gonna get without going out to a two-way range in Afghanistan and getting your head blown off. (And it’s quite unlikely you’d get a chance to get to use a pistol anyway…).

    I carry a 9mm 1911, because my follow up shots are rapid with such as heavy pistol, recoil is low, and I can get hits consistently with it.

  9. will says:

    Dear Greg
    I’ve shot a few handguns Some I could hit something with if I took my time and aimed but others I could not. One that I couldn’t hit with was the Glock 21, which I know is your carry gun while on duty. I’m sure your Glock 21 is accurate or you wouldn’t carry it. I’m also convinced that there were other factors besides my skill affecting the accuracy of the guns I couldn’t hit with but I don’t yet know what they were as I’m a beginning shooter. I don’t want to purchase a gun I can’t hit with. I was wondering if you could tell me what the factors might have been that were affecting the accuracy?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      The Glock 21 is a very big gun with a huge grip. I find most people who don’t have big hands don’t handle it that well. Could that be it?

  10. will says:

    Dear Greg
    I’m not sure but that might have had an effect. Other guns I couldn’t hit with were the Taurus 92, and Ruger Superblackhawk. With the Blackhawk neither me nor the other fellow could hit a milk jug from just a few feet away. Both these guns are also supposed to be good. I hit just fine with my freinds Glock 17 and another freinds model 10 S & W. When I was shooting the model 10 I told my freind about me and the other freinds experience with the Blackhawk and Glock 21. That freind suggested it could have been the ammo we were using. Is that a realistic possibility?

    • Greg Ellifritz says:

      Those other guns all have larger than normal grips as well. My bet is that the grips don’t fit your hands well. That makes it difficult to pull the trigger smoothly to the rear without moving the gun off the target.

      It’s possible that it’s ammo related, but highly unlikely.

  11. Bernie says:

    Once again, the “Wonderniners” Are trying to tear down the .45 and build up their “Wondernines” Several variations at stake here….What load did this man have in his .45? The very exotic hollow points you espouse could actually be part of the problem. Coopers statement is not “Wrong” It is out of context. First and foremost, Cooper was not an advocate of any “Miracle weapon” He himself even states “The purpose of a pistol is for you to buy enough time to get to your rifle”. Cooper also did not believe in exotic hollow points. He advocated the 230 GR truncated cone round. He also advocated shot placement and emphasized no bullet of any caliber is going to stop anyone if placed in a non vital area. In order to claim Cooper is wrong, you will have to show hits with the 230 GR truncated cone round placed in the “A Zone” and the perp continued to fight on. There are very few cases where one prevailed due to magazine capacity. There are many cases where magazine capacity leads to spray gunning where not only does he fail to hit the attacker but hits several innocents. Ironically, had the FBI been using 9MM FMJ and .38 LRN on that fateful day in 1966, things might have turned out better. The Silvertip has a nasty habit of making wide, shallow holes and even .45 Silvertips have been known to not penetrate to the vitals. Blowing up gelatin blocks has been the means of demonstrating how effective hollow points are. The Late Col Cooper retorted “There is no record of anyone ever having been attacked by a bowl of Jell-O in any flavor”

  12. giant luv says:

    Cooper said “One shot placed center of mass will instantly stop 19 out of 20 attackers” [sans body armor of course]. This is a highly accurate assessment as Cooper said “stop” not “kill”, there is a huge difference; and Cooper specified the placement of the round as being imperative, he always emphasized center of mass as opposed to head shots which tend to be impractical in most defensive situations.

  13. Ken Campbell says:

    The author leaves out much else of what Lt. Col. Cooper preached, including shot placement. A well placed round of most any caliber should stop the fight. One’s odds increase if the round is bigger and achieves the necessary penetration for said round to strike the CNS, Spine, etc.achieving that one shot stop. (Or to create a large permanent wound to increase blood loss and decrease blood pressure.) So, rather than pick one sentence of a lifetime of writing to make a point, more should be considered.

  14. 4sooth says:

    In the magazine–PROVEN VIGILANT PREPARED–US Special Operations Command–The First 20 years (2007) Page 67. Jedburgh teams are shown training with the Colt .45 Auto pistol. Lined up as in a modern training class–the troops are holding the .45 in a two-handed grip, positioned in what we now know as the Weaver stance. Some are holding the firearm at the 45 degree ready position as practiced today. Here we see these techniques are NOT “modern” in the usual sense but were know during and certainly prior to WWII.

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