This question asks about whether AR15 rounds pulverize/liquify.

The original quote from a 12 Apr 2023 ABC nightly news segment on the 2023 Louisville Shooting (in which an AR-15 style rifle was used), they included a segment of a press conference with Dr Jason Smith, Chief Medical Officer of UofL Health.

Beginning at timestamp 4:30:

Rifle rounds pulverize and liquefy tissue because how fast they are moving. They powder bone. They tear large gaping holes in tissue. You don't see that with a handgun. You simply don't.

What about handgun rounds? Do they behave this way?

  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Does an AR-15 rifle round liquefy tissue and powder bone?
    – jwenting
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:37
  • don't as the same question again
    – jwenting
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:37
  • It's not the same question. The other question is about rifles, this is about handguns.
    – atk
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:28
  • it is the same question, the physics don't change.
    – jwenting
    Apr 30, 2023 at 9:55
  • @jwenting handguns and rifles have a different combination of barrel length, bullet weight, propellant amount, and bullet makeup, sheathing and shape. The effect is very well known to change the physics. A .22, lead ball, 1" barreled derringer is not considered an effective self defense weapon and won't penetrate a car door. A .50BMG, 4' barreled rifle is an anti-material rifle and is "illegal" to "intentionally" use on people in wartime.
    – atk
    Apr 30, 2023 at 17:56

2 Answers 2


The claim is, at its face value, wrong; but it would have a grain of truth if less vague definitons of terms in it are used.

The common definition of a handgun is "a firearm designed to be usable with only one hand". It is an extremely broad category, and includes very different devices. As such, one could reasonably expect to find a weapon classified as a "handgun" with similar effects on tissue as, for example, an AR-15 rifle - due to effectively being the same gun modified to fit legal definition of a handgun, and firing the same kind of ammunition.

Discounting such extremes - while handguns, on average, do tend to have lower-energy ammunition than rifles, some of them fire ammunition with comparable energy to the most common AR-15 caliber - 5.56x45 NATO. These are either large-caliber hunting handguns (which compensate for lower muzzle velocity by firing a heavier projectile) or military handguns designed to fire high-velocity armor-piercing rounds (with lighter, but faster bullets). These could, in theory, produce similar results as rifles.

On the other hand, if we take the most common type of handgun caliber - 9mm Parabellum - the difference between it and rifle calibers would be noticeable. As can be seen in this work, lower energy pistol bullets produce noticeably different effect - while they still shatter bone on impact, they produce larger fragments; which, in the context of the claim, would mean that they indeed do not "powder bone". They also produce smaller temporal cavity, which could theoretically be interpreted as not tearing "large gaping holes in tissue", but in my opinion that's a bit of a stretch.

In conclusion: the claim could be true if it specified that it appies to the most commonly found handgun ammunition, but going off the dictionary definition of a handgun - it is quite wrong.

  • 2
    There are even 50 caliper handguns. These are typically loaded with less powder than a rifle round, but still, 50 cal. Apr 20, 2023 at 18:42
  • Should "mussle" be "muzzle?" I don't know if that's how Brits spell it. Apr 20, 2023 at 23:52

You don't see that with a handgun. You simply don't.

Sure you do. Maybe not as extreme.

But first...

What is a "handgun round"?

"Handgun round" is anything from the anemic .22 Short to .44 Magnum and beyond. That's a 20x difference in energy.

Rounds with the same dimensions can also have different bullets with different weights and velocities. Hollow points designed to expand and create a larger wound. At the other end, the bullet can be jacketed for better penetration.

A typical spread of energies is .32 ACP for popular for small, concealed carry pistols to 9x19mm for full size pistols.

Handguns can create large wound channels.

They tear large gaping holes in tissue.

The proper term is wound channel.

Here's slo-mo of many different handgun rounds in ballistic gel making wound channels of various sizes. Grind Hard made a 9x19mm round specifically designed to make larger wound channels and have more stopping power.

Handguns can shatter bone.

They powder bone.

"Powder bone" seems like hyperbole, but they can definitely shatter bone.

Ballistic High-Speed tested various handgun rounds against a full ballistic torso. Warning: their torso is pretty realistic and it's a bit graphic. They're using the aforementioned Grind Hard 9x19mm Extreme Defense and .45 ACP. You can see it shatter a rib and send fragments out of the body, and again when they shoot the torso rapidly.

Don't get shot.

While bullets of certain dimensions, weights, velocities, materials, and shapes will on average produce wounds of different magnitudes, they'll all do the same thing: penetrate skin and flesh, and cause a wound channel. Some will shatter bone, some will shatter on the bone. Some will fragment, some will stay in one piece.

None of this is good for you.

While on average it's better less worse to be shot by a lighter, slower bullet, at a certain point it's academic; all of them can kill or cause permanent damage.

The primary purpose of a handgun is to kill people at a range of about 20 meters.

  • 1
    And before anyone brings up handguns for hunting, they're rare, and that ain't what we're talking about.
    – Schwern
    Apr 20, 2023 at 2:49
  • 1
    the 20m range as "primary purpose" seems rather long. Most handgun use is at 5m or less.
    – jwenting
    Apr 20, 2023 at 6:38
  • 1
    FWTW, "powder" seems to refer to the size of the resulting fragments skeptics.stackexchange.com/a/55542/29579 (alas that paper is not a comparative one, with other calibers) Apr 20, 2023 at 19:28
  • 1
    BTW, that paper is at least credible in the sense that it has repeated measurements/data. There are some comparative newspaper articles (even if sourced from experts) that have some side-by-side of radiographs from unpublished conditions besides the different rounds. nytimes.com/2018/03/04/health/… I'm hesitant to use something like that for an answer because it's quote possible for such data to be cherry picked. Apr 20, 2023 at 19:38

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