Caliber Debate, Part 2: FMJ versus HP and the Hague Convention

In recent weeks, the US Army’s claim they will (again) consider dumping the M9 for a larger-caliber sidearm after conducting studies (again) has caused a frenzy of debate on the internet (yes, again). And now, at least some of the confusion has come to light in the most implausible form: a backyard barbeque. Sitting around a fire with a group of veterans began with conversations about work, spouses, and dogs, but as it tends to do, the topic wound around to firearms. Hearing the chatter of myself and a dozen older vets, a far younger active-duty member of the Army wandered over and joined the discussion. Caliber is always a hot topic, and the personal carry around the fire ranged from a little Sig P238 to an HK45 Compact to my own Glock27. And this is when the newcomer sat himself down and dropped a proverbial bomb into our little group. “I don’t see how caliber matters; I’ve seen a guy hit with a 5.56 and get right back up.”

Being myself, I was the first to come back with “that was a FMJ round,” which brought on a chorus of agreement (and the beginnings of a shot-placement fight). But the blank stare we were met with was a little disturbing, considering its source was an active duty member of the military. Granted, some knowledge is gained with time and experience – that, and exposure to lots of different ammunition. Caliber does matter. But so does what type of round it is.

FMJ vs HPThere are myriad options available today: FMJ, HP, SJSP, SCHP, FMC, BEB – the list of available rounds stretches to eternity. And yet, one simple fact remains: the devastating power of an HP, or hollow point, round over FMJ (full metal jacket). This is where our military has taken a baffling stance, because our US Armed Forces are only allowed to use FMJ rounds.

The Hague Convention
It was the Hague Convention of 1899, which was intended to create an international arbitration process, that first raised the issue of ammunition types. Considering this took place in, yes, 1899, this is somewhat ironic because soft-points were not created until the 1890’s as it was, and should not be remotely confused with today’s hollow points. Regardless, the Germans were among the first to raise a fuss about the apparent brutality of the hollow point’s cousins, and when Russian Tsar Nicholas II proposed a peace conference for various reasons, several other countries jumped on board.

The First International Peace Conference, the Hague, May - June 1899
The First International Peace Conference, the Hague, May – June 1899

There are three main treaties to the first Hague Convention and three declarations. It was the third and final declaration that continues to affect our military’s use of force to this day: “Declaration concerning the Prohibition of the Use of Bullets which can Easily Expand or Change their Form inside the Human Body such as Bullets with a Hard Covering which does not Completely Cover the Core, or containing Indentations” (capitalization theirs). The purpose of that final declaration, in more understandable terms, was that all agreeing parties would “abstain from the use of bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core, or is pierced with incisions.” Most countries signed on, agreeing to use only ball ammunition, but there was one country in particular to abstain from signing: the United States. That’s right, our nation did not actually sign on to the very declaration so stringently followed to this day.

Full Metal Jacket
A FMJ round has a soft core with a hard metal case made from a variety of materials including gilding metal, cupronickel, or steel. Their design makes them penetrate without expanding, which makes them far cheaper to manufacture and ideal for target practice and tactical training. The way they penetrate actually makes them a liability for civilian carry, because a round aimed at an assailant could easily pass right through the intended target and travel on to impact an innocent bystander. FMJ rounds make smaller, neater wound tracks, so although getting shot never feels good, being hit by a FMJ round is far less likely to keep someone down for long.

Hollow Point
HP rounds have a pit or hollowed-out area in their nose, allowing for expansion upon impact. There is more than one kind of HP, but basically when they find their target, the hollow creates impressive energy transfer, causing the material inside – usually lead – to expand outwards. This is known as mushrooming and increases the axial diameter of the round significantly, which, in turn, creates a devastating wound track and serious tissue damage. HP’s don’t over-penetrate; in fact, there are specific types of HP rounds designed for greater penetration due to the average HP’s tendency to quickly slow down as it expands. What an HP round does do is make a big hole. Devastation is its middle name.

Shot Placement
Shot PlacementYes, shot placement matters. The largest calibers and greatest-penetrating hollow points won’t save you if you cannot hit the broad side of a barn. Even so, caliber does matter, because as we all know, the bigger the projectile, the bigger the hole it makes. And if you’re going to shoot someone, does it make more sense to wound them with a FMJ through-and-through or to take them out of the game entirely with the utter destruction of an HP?

According to The Hague Convention of 1899, which the United States did not ratify but does follow, our military is not allowed to cause actual physical damage with ammunition. One might even take it a step further and say we are not supposed to kill anyone, just make them mad. Killing people is, after all, rather rude. This seems not unlike telling a child who is being bullied to slap the bully hard enough to make him angry you’re fighting back, but by all means, don’t knock him out cold and end the fight. Heaven forbid we end the fight once and for all.

Of course, in 1907, the United States did sign the Hague Convention IV of 1907, Article 23(e), which says: “…it is especially forbidden… To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.” Because of this, for years snipers were issued rounds designed to more closely resemble old ball ammo rather than moving ahead with the ammunition advancements of today. There is some irony here as well, because at the time of the early Hague Conventions, being shot often meant tiny lead fragments spinning off into your body and a slow death by infection or pneumonia. If that isn’t unnecessary pain and suffering, what is?

But wait…

There are always exceptions to the rule, and in this case, HP’s are authorized for use by Tier-1 Special Mission Units, something managed as a result of their designation as counterterrorism forces. But when it comes to those outside the elite special forces community, FMJ is the standard issue. Of course, there is another way to look at this: the United States uses all manner of fragmentation and thermite grenades, rocket launchers, and anti-personnel mines, among other weapons. And then there’s our array of truly spectacular explosives, including thermobaric weapons such as fuel-air bombs (FAE) and bunker busters like the BLU-113 Super Penetrator. Napalm has been used in multiple situations, although it is most famous for its Vietnam War-era use. We dropped Fat Man and Little Boy on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, proving the long-term effects of atomic bombs, and effectively bringing World War II to an end. The AC-130H Spectre gunship, which is armed with a pair of 20mm Vulcan cannons, a 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 105mm Howitzer, has provided life-saving close air support for countless men on the ground. Sadly, the “H” model is being retired, but that is a debate for another day.

The great caliber debate would be more chat, less brawl, if our troops were armed with HP over FMJ rounds. By all means, drill shot-placement into our men until they’re doing maneuvers in their dreams, but don’t stop there. Provide them with the means to make every shot truly count. All manner of heavy weaponry rains down from above and frags are lobbed into buildings, so why can’t our men use hollow points? Some say a pro of using FMJ rounds is the idea it takes multiple enemies off the battlefield because other, unwounded men must drag the injured man away and tend to his wounds. This supposes quite a bit, including assuming the enemy really gives a crap one of their own has been gut-shot.

“…the first thing one should demand of his firearm is that it be unfair.” Jeff Cooper

Isn’t there more logic to delivering some good old-fashioned one-shot stopping power in the form of a .45 ACP HP round? Being hit with a FMJ round might be annoying, but it isn’t necessarily fatal or even a real hindrance, as the Army guy from the beginning of our story relayed watching a man shot with a 5.56 round simply get back up and keep fighting. But replace the FMJ with HP, and suddenly the enemy combatant isn’t just down for the count, he’s down for good. As famous Union General William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “war is hell,” and that means a few devastating wound tracks. It’s high time we gave our troops the ability to do more than reach out and touch someone. Let’s grant them the ability to reach out and destroy the enemy who would surely do that and worse to them if given half the chance. Hearts and minds? How about hollow points and high calibers.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
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