According to Dr. Martin Fackler and the International Wound Ballistics Association (IWBA), between 12.5 and 14 inches (318 and 356 mm) of penetration in calibrated tissue simulant is optimal performance for a bullet which is meant to be used defensively, against a human adversary. They also believe that penetration is one of the most important factors when choosing a bullet (and that the number one factor is shot placement). If the bullet penetrates less than their guidelines, it is inadequate, and if it penetrates more, it is still satisfactory though not optimal. The FBI's penetration requirement is very similar at 12 to 18 inches (305 to 457 mm).
A penetration depth of 12.5 to 14 inches (318 and 356 mm) may seem excessive, but a bullet sheds velocity—and crushes a narrower hole—as it penetrates deeper, while losing velocity, so the bullet might be crushing a very small amount of tissue (simulating an "ice pick" injury) during its last two or three inches of travel, giving only between 9.5 and 12 inches of effective wide-area penetration. Also, skin is elastic and tough enough to cause a bullet to be retained in the body, even if the bullet had a relatively high velocity when it hit the skin. About 250 ft/s (76 m/s) velocity is required for an expanded hollow point bullet to puncture skin 50% of the time.
The IWBA's and FBI's penetration guidelines are to ensure that the bullet can reach a vital structure from most angles, while retaining enough velocity to generate a large diameter hole through tissue. An extreme example where penetration would be important is if the bullet first had to enter and then exit an outstretched arm before impacting the torso. A bullet with low penetration might embed itself in the arm whereas a higher penetrating bullet would penetrate the arm then enter the thorax where it would have a chance of hitting a vital organ.
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