Hydrostatic shock
Hydrostatic shock or hydraulic shock describes the observation that a penetrating projectile can produce remote wounding and incapacitating effects in living targets through a hydraulic effect in their liquid-filled tissues, in addition to local effects in tissue caused by direct impact. There is scientific evidence that hydrostatic shock can produce remote neural damage and produce incapacitation more quickly than blood loss effects. Proponents of cartridges that are "light and fast" such as the 9x19mm Parabellum versus cartridges that are "slow and heavy" such as the .45 ACP
.45 ACP
The .45 ACP , also known as the .45 Auto by C.I.P., is a cartridge designed by John Browning in 1904, for use in his prototype Colt semi-automatic .45 pistol and eventually the M1911 pistol adopted by the United States Army in 1911.-Design and history:The U.S...

 round often refer to this phenomenon.

Human autopsy results have demonstrated brain hemorrhaging from fatal hits to the chest, including cases with handgun bullets. Thirty-three cases of fatal penetrating chest wounds by a single bullet were selected from a much larger set by excluding all other traumatic factors, including past history.
It has often been asserted that hydrostatic shock and other descriptions of remote wounding effects are nothing but myths. A recent article in the journal, Neurosurgery, reviews the published evidence and concludes that the phenomenon is well-established.

Origin of the theory

In the scientific literature, the first discussion of pressure waves created when a bullet hits a living target is presented by E. Harvey Newton and his research group at Princeton University in 1947:
Frank Chamberlin, a World War II trauma surgeon and ballistics researcher, noted remote pressure wave effects. Col. Chamberlin described what he called “explosive effects” and “hydraulic reaction” of bullets in tissue. ...liquids are put in motion by ‘shock waves’ or hydraulic effects... with liquid filled tissues, the effects and destruction of tissues extend in all directions far beyond the wound axis. He avoided the ambiguous use of the term “shock” because it can refer to either a specific kind of pressure wave associated with explosions and supersonic projectiles or to a medical condition in the body.

Col. Chamberlin recognized that many theories have been advanced in wound ballistics. During World War II he commanded an 8,500 bed hospital center that treated over 67,000 patients during the fourteen months that he operated it. P.O. Ackley estimates that 85% of the patients were suffering from gunshot wounds. Col. Chamberlin spent many hours interviewing patients as to their reactions to bullet wounds. He conducted many live animal experiments after his tour of duty. On the subject of wound ballistics theories, he wrote:
Other World War II era scientists noted remote pressure wave effects in the peripheral nerves. There was support for the idea of remote neural effects of ballistic pressure waves in the medical and scientific communities, but the phrase "’hydrostatic shock’" and similar phrases including “shock” were used mainly by gunwriters (such as Jack O'Conner) and the small arms industry (such as Roy Weatherby
Roy Weatherby
Roy E. Weatherby was the founder and owner of Weatherby, Inc., an American rifle, shotgun and cartridge manufacturing company set up in 1945. Weatherby created an entire line of custom cartridges, and was one of the people responsible for the industry interest in high-speed cartridges...

, and Federal “Hydrashock.”)

Fackler's contra-claim

Dr. Martin Fackler, a Vietnam-era
Vietnam Era
Vietnam Era is a term used by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to classify veterans of the Vietnam War. The Vietnam Era is a considered to have begun in 1964 and ended in 1975. The U.S. Congress, U.S...

 trauma surgeon, wound ballistics researcher, a Colonel in the U.S. Army and the head of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory for the U.S. Army’s Medical Training Center, Letterman Institute, claimed that hydrostatic shock had been disproved and that the assertion that a pressure wave plays a role in injury or incapacitation is a myth. Others expressed similar views.

Dr. Fackler based his argument on the lithotriptor
Extracorporeal shock wave lithotripsy is a non-invasive treatment of kidney stones and biliary calculi using an acoustic pulse....

, a tool commonly used to break up kidney stones. The lithotriptor uses sonic pressure waves which are stronger than those caused by most handgun bullets, yet it produces no damage to soft tissues whatsoever. Hence, Fackler argued, ballistic pressure waves cannot damage tissue either.

Dr. Fackler claimed that a study of rifle bullet wounds in Vietnam (Wound Data and Munitions Effectiveness Team) found “no cases of bones being broken, or major vessels torn, that were not hit by the penetrating bullet. In only two cases, an organ that was not hit (but was within a few cm of the projectile path), suffered some disruption.” Dr. Fackler cited a personal communication with R. F. Bellamy. However, Bellamy’s published findings the following year estimated that 10% of fractures in the data set might be due to indirect injuries, and one specific case is described in detail (pp. 153–154). In addition, the published analysis documents five instances of abdominal wounding in cases where the bullet did not penetrate the abdominal cavity (pp. 149–152), a case of lung contusion resulting from a hit to the shoulder (pp. 146–149), and a case of indirect effects on the central nervous system (p. 155). Fackler's critics argue that Fackler's evidence does not contradict distant injuries, as Fackler claimed, but the WDMET data from Vietnam actually provides supporting evidence for it.

A summary of the debate was published in 2009 as part of a Historical Overview of Wound Ballistics Research.

Distant injuries in the WDMET data

The Wound Data and Munitions Effectiveness Team (WDMET) gathered data on wounds sustained during the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

. In their analysis of this data published in the Textbook of Military Medicine, Ronald Bellamy and Russ Zajtchuck point out a number of cases which seem to be examples of distant injuries. Bellamy and Zajtchuck describe three mechanisms of distant wounding due to pressure transients: 1) stress waves 2) shear waves and 3) a vascular pressure impulse.

After citing Harvey's conclusion that “stress waves probably do not cause any tissue damage” (p. 136), Bellamy and Zajtchuck express their view that Harvey's interpretation might not be definitive because they write “the possibility that stress waves from a penetrating projectile might also cause tissue damage cannot be ruled out.” (p. 136) The WDMET data includes a case of a lung contusion resulting from a hit to the shoulder. The caption to Figure 4-40 (p. 149) says, “The pulmonary injury may be the result of a stress wave.” They describe the possibility that a hit to a soldier's trapezius muscle caused temporary paralysis due to “the stress wave passing through the soldier's neck indirectly [causing] cervical cord dysfunction.” (p. 155)

In addition to stress waves, Bellamy and Zajtchuck describe shear waves as a possible mechanism of indirect injuries in the WDMET data. They estimate that 10% of bone fractures in the data may be the result of indirect injuries, that is, bones fractured by the bullet passing close to the bone without a direct impact. A Chinese experiment is cited which provides a formula estimating how pressure magnitude decreases with distance. Together with the difference between strength of human bones and strength of the animal bones in the Chinese experiment, Bellamy and Zajtchuck use this formula to estimate that assault rifle rounds “passing within a centimeter of a long bone might very well be capable of causing an indirect fracture.” (p. 153) Bellamy and Zajtchuck suggest the fracture in Figures 4-46 and 4-47 is likely an indirect fracture of this type. Damage due to shear waves extends to even greater distances in abdominal injuries in the WDMET data. Bellamy and Zajtchuck write, “The abdomen is one body region in which damage from indirect effects may be common.” (p. 150) Injuries to the liver and bowel shown in Figures 4-42 and 4-43 are described, “The damage shown in these examples extends far beyond the tissue that is likely to direct contact with the projectile.” (p. 150)

In addition to providing examples from the WDMET data for indirect injury due to propagating shear and stress waves, Bellamy and Zajtchuck expresses an openness to the idea of pressure transients propagating via blood vessels can cause indirect injuries. “For example, pressure transients arising from an abdominal gunshot wound might propagate through the vena cavae and jugular venous system into the cranial cavity and cause a precipitous rise in intracranial pressure there, with attendant transient neurological dysfunction.” (p. 154) However, no examples of this injury mechanism are presented from the WDMET data. However, the authors suggest the need for additional studies writing, “Clinical and experimental data need to be gathered before such indirect injuries can be confirmed.” Distant injuries of this nature were later confirmed in the experimental data of Swedish and Chinese researchers, and in the clinical findings of Krajsa.

Inferences from blast pressure wave observations

A shock wave can be created when fluid is rapidly displaced by an explosive or projectile. Tissue behaves similarly enough to water that a sonic pressure wave can be created by a bullet impact, generating pressures in excess of 1500 psi (10,342,135.9 Pa).

Duncan McPherson, a former member of the International Wound Ballistics Association and author of the book, Bullet Penetration, claimed that shock waves cannot result from bullet impacts with tissue. In contrast, Brad Sturtevant, a leading researcher in shock wave physics at Caltech for many decades, found that shock waves can result from handgun bullet impacts in tissue. Other sources indicate that ballistic impacts can create shock waves in tissue.

Blast and ballistic pressure waves have physical similarities. Prior to wave reflection, they both are characterized by a steep wave front followed by a nearly exponential decay at close distances. They have similarities in how they cause neural effects in the brain. In tissue, both types of pressure waves have similar magnitudes, duration, and frequency characteristics. Both have been shown to cause damage in the hippocampus. It has been hypothesized that both reach the brain from the thoracic cavity via major blood vessels.

For example, Ibolja Cernak, a leading researcher in blast wave injury at the Applied Physics Laboratory
Applied Physics Laboratory
The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory , located in Howard County, Maryland near Laurel and Columbia, is a not-for-profit, university-affiliated research center employing 4,500 people. APL is primarily a defense contractor. It serves as a technical resource for the Department of...

 at Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

, hypothesized, "alterations in brain function following blast exposure are induced by kinetic energy transfer of blast overpressure via great blood vessels in abdomen and thorax to the central nervous system." This hypothesis is supported by observations of neural effects in the brain from localized blast exposure focused on the lungs in experiments in animals.

“Hydrostatic shock” expresses the idea that organs can be damaged by the pressure wave in addition to damage from direct contact with the penetrating projectile. If one interprets the "shock" in the term "hydrostatic shock" to refer to the physiological effects rather than the physical wave characteristics, the question of whether the pressure waves satisfy the definition of “shock wave” is unimportant, and one can consider the weight of scientific evidence and various claims regarding the possibility of a ballistic pressure wave to create tissue damage and incapacitation in living targets.

Physics of ballistic pressure waves

A number of papers describe the physics of ballistic pressure waves created when a high-speed projectile enters a viscous medium. These results show that ballistic impacts produce pressure waves that propagate at close to the speed of sound.

Lee et al. present an analytical model showing that unreflected ballistic pressure waves are well approximated by an exponential decay, which is similar to blast pressure waves. Lee et al. note the importance of the energy transfer:
The rigorous calculations of Lee et al. require knowing the drag coefficient and frontal area of the penetrating projectile at every instant of the penetration. Since this is not generally possible with expanding handgun bullets, Courtney and Courtney developed a model for estimating the peak pressure waves of handgun bullets from the impact energy and penetration depth in ballistic gelatin
Ballistic gelatin
Ballistic Gelatin is a testing medium scientifically correlated to swine muscle tissue , in which the effects of bullet wounds can be simulated. It was developed and improved by Martin Fackler and others in the field of wound ballistics. Ballistic gelatin is a solution of gelatin powder in water...

. This model agrees with the more rigorous approach of Lee et al. for projectiles where they can both be applied. For expanding handgun bullets, the peak pressure wave magnitude is proportional to the bullet’s kinetic energy divided by the penetration depth.

Remote cerebral effects of ballistic pressure waves

Goransson et al. were the first contemporary researchers to present compelling evidence for remote cerebral effects of extremity bullet impact. They observed changes in EEG readings from pigs shot in the thigh. A follow-up experiment by Suneson et al. implanted high-speed pressure transducers into the brain of pigs and demonstrated that a significant pressure wave reaches the brain of pigs shot in the thigh. These scientists observed apnea, depressed EEG
EEG commonly refers to electroencephalography, a measurement of the electrical activity of the brain.EEG may also refer to:* Emperor Entertainment Group, a Hong Kong-based entertainment company...

 readings, and neural damage in the brain caused by the distant effects of the ballistic pressure wave originating in the thigh.

The results of Suneson et al. were confirmed and expanded upon by a later experiment in dogs
which "confirmed that distant effect exists in the central nervous system after a high-energy missile impact to an extremity. A high-frequency oscillating pressure wave with large amplitude and short duration was found in the brain after the extremity impact of a high-energy missile . . ." Wang et al. observed significant damage in both the hypothalamus and hippocampus regions of the brain due to remote effects of the ballistic pressure wave.

Remote pressure wave effects in the spine and internal organs

In a study of a handgun injury, Sturtevant found that pressure waves from a bullet impact in the torso can reach the spine and that a focusing effect from concave surfaces can concentrate the pressure wave on the spinal cord producing significant injury. This is consistent with other work showing remote spinal cord injuries from ballistic impacts.

Roberts et al. present both experimental work and finite element modeling showing that there can be considerable pressure wave magnitudes in the thoracic cavity for handgun projectiles stopped by a Kevlar vest. For example, an 8 gram projectile at 360 m/s impacting a NIJ level II vest over the sternum can produce an estimated pressure wave level of nearly 2.0 MPa (280 psi) in the heart and a pressure wave level of nearly 1.5 MPa (210 psi) in the lungs. Impacting over the liver can produce an estimated pressure wave level of 2.0 MPa (280 psi) in the liver.

Energy transfer required for remote neural effects

The work of Courtney et al. supports the role of a ballistic pressure wave in incapacitation and injury. The work of Suneson et al. and Courtney et al. suggest that remote neural effects can occur with levels of energy transfer possible with handguns, about 500 ft.lbf. Using sensitive biochemical techniques, the work of Wang et al. suggests even lower impact energy thresholds for remote neural injury to the brain. In analysis of experiments of dogs shot in the thigh they report highly significant (p < 0.01), easily detectable neural effects in the hypothalamus
The Hypothalamus is a portion of the brain that contains a number of small nuclei with a variety of functions...

 and hippocampus
The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampi, one in...

 with energy transfer levels close to 550 ft.lbf. Wang et al. reports less significant (p < 0.05) remote effects in the hypothalamus with energy transfer just under 100 ft.lbf.

Even though Wang et al. document remote neural damage for low levels of energy transfer, roughly 100 ft.lbf, these levels of neural damage are probably too small to contribute to rapid incapacitation. Courtney and Courtney believe that remote neural effects only begin to make significant contributions to rapid incapacitation for ballistic pressure wave levels above 500 psi (3,447,378.6 Pa) (corresponds to transferring roughly 300 ft.lbf in 12 inches (30.5 cm) of penetration) and become easily observable above 1000 psi (6,894,757.3 Pa) (corresponds to transferring roughly 600 ft.lbf in 12 inch (0.3048 m) of penetration). Incapacitating effects in this range of energy transfer are consistent with observations of remote spinal injuries, observations of suppressed EEGs and apnea in pigs and with observations of incapacitating effects of ballistic pressure waves without a wound channel.

Other scientific findings

The scientific literature contains significant other findings regarding injury mechanisms of ballistic pressure waves. Ming et al. found that ballistic pressure waves can break bones. Tikka et al. reports abdominal pressure changes produced in pigs hit in one thigh. Akimov et al. report on injuries to the nerve trunk from gunshot wounds to the extremities.


The FBI recommends that loads intended for self-defense and law enforcement applications meet a minimum penetration requirement of 12 inches (304.8 mm) in ballistic gelatin and explicitly advises against selecting rounds based on hydrostatic shock effects.

Hydrostatic shock as a factor in selection of ammunition

Various terms are used to refer to the potential for hydrostatic shock effects: energy transfer, temporary cavitation, shock wave, hydrodynamic shock, ballistic pressure wave, etc. A number of ammunition designers and suppliers mention ideas related to hydrostatic shock in their patents and marketing literature: Charlie Kelsey (radially dynamic bullets), David Harris, Tom Burczynski (Quik-Shok, Hydra Shok), Bruce McArthur, Federal Cartridge (Hydra Shok), American Ammunition (Quik-Shok), the THV bullet, Hornady (Super Shock Tip, SST), Barnes Bullets (Triple Shock), TC Arms (Shock Wave), and Elite Ammunition. One handgun manufacturer has a video showing exploding watermelon heads.

A number of bullet companies appeal to ideas related to hydraulic shock in their marketing materials. For example, Berger Bullets advertises that hydraulic shock is enhanced by penetrating several inches prior to expanding and fragmenting.
Barnes bullets advertises that their triple shock bullet has superior incapacitation because it expands quickly and produces hydraulic shock.
The importance of hydraulic shock in the performance of their bullet designs is reiterated in their "Performance vs. Deformance" video.
In their "Bullet Myths Busted Choosing the Right Bullet: II" DVD, Chuck Yeager
Chuck Yeager
Charles Elwood "Chuck" Yeager is a retired major general in the United States Air Force and noted test pilot. He was the first pilot to travel faster than sound...

 explains how hydrostatic shock improves the performance of Barnes Bullets.
Hornady Manufacturing discusses the advantages of remote neurological effects of their law enforcement line of ammunition in their "Hornady Tactical Application Police Ammunition Test Report and Application Guide."

Ammunition selection for self-defense, military, and law enforcement

In self-defense, military, and law enforcement communities, opinions vary regarding the importance of remote wounding effects in ammunition design and selection. In his book on hostage rescuers, Leroy Thompson discusses the importance of hydrostatic shock in choosing a specific design of .357 Magnum
.357 Magnum
The .357 S&W Magnum , or simply .357 Magnum, is a revolver cartridge created by Elmer Keith, Phillip B. Sharpe, Colonel D. B. Wesson of firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson, and Winchester. It is based upon Smith & Wesson's earlier .38 Special cartridge. The .357 Magnum cartridge was introduced in...

 and 9x19mm Parabellum bullets. In Armed and Female, Paxton Quigley explains that hydrostatic shock is the real source of “stopping power.” Jim Carmichael, who served as shooting editor for Outdoor Life magazine for 25 years, believes that hydrostatic shock is important to “a more immediate disabling effect” and is a key difference in the performance of .38 Special
.38 Special
The .38 Smith & Wesson Special is a rimmed, centerfire cartridge designed by Smith & Wesson. It is most commonly used in revolvers, although some semi-automatic pistols and carbines also use this round...

 and .357 Magnum
.357 Magnum
The .357 S&W Magnum , or simply .357 Magnum, is a revolver cartridge created by Elmer Keith, Phillip B. Sharpe, Colonel D. B. Wesson of firearms manufacturer Smith & Wesson, and Winchester. It is based upon Smith & Wesson's earlier .38 Special cartridge. The .357 Magnum cartridge was introduced in...

 hollow point bullets. In “The search for an effective police handgun,” Allen Bristow describes that police departments recognize the importance of hydrostatic shock when choosing ammunition. A research group at West Point suggests handgun loads with at least 500 ft.lbf of energy and 12 inches (304.8 mm) of penetration and recommends:
A number of law enforcement and military agencies have adopted the 5.7x28mm cartridge, which is reputed to cause considerable hydrostatic shock. These agencies include the Navy SEALs
United States Navy SEALs
The United States Navy's Sea, Air and Land Teams, commonly known as Navy SEALs, are the U.S. Navy's principal special operations force and a part of the Naval Special Warfare Command as well as the maritime component of the United States Special Operations Command.The acronym is derived from their...

 and the Federal Protective Service
United States Federal Protective Service
The Federal Protective Service is the federal police force of the Secretary of Homeland Security. As a component of U.S. Department of Homeland Security, National Protection and Programs Directorate within DHS Headquarters, FPS is responsible for law enforcement and security of nearly 9,000...

 branch of the ICE. In contrast, some defense contractors, law enforcement analysts, and military analysts say that hydrostatic shock is an unimportant factor when selecting cartridges for a particular use because any incapacitating effect it may have on a target is difficult to measure and inconsistent from one individual to the next. This is in contrast to factors such as proper shot placement and massive blood loss which are almost always eventually incapacitating for nearly every individual.

Ammunition selection for hunting

Hydrostatic shock is commonly considered as a factor in the selection of hunting ammunition. Peter Capstick explains that hydrostatic shock may have value for animals up to the size of white-tailed deer
White-tailed Deer
The white-tailed deer , also known as the Virginia deer or simply as the whitetail, is a medium-sized deer native to the United States , Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America as far south as Peru...

, but the ratio of energy transfer to animal weight is an important consideration for larger animals. If the animal’s weight exceeds the bullet’s energy transfer, penetration in an undeviating line to a vital organ is a much more important consideration than energy transfer and hydrostatic shock. Jim Carmichael, in contrast, describes evidence that hydrostatic shock can affect animals as large as Cape Buffalo in the results of a carefully controlled study carried out by veterinarians in a buffalo culling operation.
Dr. Randall Gilbert describes hydrostatic shock as an important factor in bullet performance on whitetail deer, “When it [a bullet] enters a whitetail’s body, huge accompanying shock waves send vast amounts of energy through nearby organs, sending them into arrest or shut down.” Dave Ehrig expresses the view that hydrostatic shock depends on impact velocities above 1100 ft (335.3 m) per second. Sid Evans explains the performance of the Nosler Partition bullet and Federal Cartridge Company’s decision to load this bullet in terms of the large tissue cavitation and hydrostatic shock produced from the frontal diameter of the expanded bullet. The North American Hunting Club suggests big game cartridges that create enough hydrostatic shock to quickly bring animals down.
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