1,000 Foot-Pounds

Somewhere along the line someone come up with the theory that in order to humanely/ cleanly kill a big game animal you would need a cartridge that generated 1,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy.

Over the years, gun and outdoor writers have helped perpetuate this old wives’ tale. Why? I suspect this partially because they did not know any better and partially because they were too lazy to find out on their own. And, well, humans like numbers.

Humans like to assign numbers to everything from the buxom blonde down at the local juke joint to sports teams and cartridges. We almost cannot carry on a conversation if we cannot rate something with a number. The fact is that the ability to kill an animal cannot be classified with a number.

It’s the bullet, stupid. Bullets matter more than foot-pounds—and where they land is just as important.

I know this might come as an unacceptable fact, but such is life. Killing an animal is about depriving its brain of oxygen, and there are lots of ways to do that. Categorizing the effectiveness of a certain cartridge by the amount of kinetic energy/foot-pounds it generates at the muzzle is not one of them.

As proof, consider big game animals taken with archery equipment. An arrow will impact with substantially less than 1,000 foot-pounds of energy, but if the arrow is placed properly, death results in a mater of seconds.

But, arrows kill differently than bullets you say. No, that’s not true, but it is a common argument. You see arrows have sharp broadheads that cut tissue and cause bleeding. Bullets do exactly the same thing. In fact, almost any bullet fired from a centerfire cartridge damages much more tissue than a broadhead. When tissue is damaged it bleeds, and when it bleeds enough the brain starves and the animal dies. But, just like a bullet, the arrow needs to drive deep enough to work efficiently.

Another example would be the 96-pound whitetail doe I took in Texas last year. She was broadside at 30 yards when I shot her with my revolver chambered for the .32 H&R Mag. cartridge. I was using Doubletap’s 115-grain hardcast bullet load with a muzzle energy of about 300 foot-pounds.

The handgun cartridge that did in his whitetail generates less than 300 foot-pounds of muzzle energy. The bullet completely penetrated and the deer traveled about 60 yards after the shot.

The bullet passed through both of the deer’s lungs and she trotted off about 60 yards and tipped over. From the time of bullet impact it took about 15 seconds for the deer to die. On the same day I shot another whitetail with a .308 Win. Again, the bullet passed through both lungs and about 15 seconds later the deer was dead.

Further illustration of this fact is that the .223 Rem. is a fully capable whitetail rifle. Between my sons and I, we’ve taken a bunch of whitetails with the .223 Rem. Few .223 Rem. loads generate 1,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle but, with good bullets placed in the right spot, the deer die just like they were shot with a .30-06.

With the right bullet, the .223 Rem. is a deadly deer cartridge, even though it rarely generates more than 1,000 foot-pounds at the muzzle.

Foot-pounds had nothing to do with the death of the deer shot with the pistol or the .308 Win., especially when you consider the difference at the point of impact was in excess of 2000 foot-pounds. With the .308 being 10 times more powerful, shouldn’t the deer have died 10 times faster?

No, because both deer died for the same reason: The loss of blood and the collapse of the lungs starved the brain of the fuel it needed to run. When it comes to killing big game animals, it’s not the foot-pounds, its penetration and tissue destruction.

Does more foot-pounds mean more penetration? It can, but the behavior of the bullet as it expands plays a larger role. Don’t worry so much about muzzle energy or foot-pounds, worry about shot placement and bullet construction.

That’s what I told my wife last year when she went to Africa for the first time. She took a .243 Win. and most of her hairy chested co-workers told her it was not enough gun. She put the bullets where they were supposed to go and the animals died.


How many foot-pounds does it take to kill a 500-plus-pound wildebeest? Who knows and who cares. The bullet you use and where it lands is what’s important.

And, you know what? Those animals had no idea ho many foot-pounds of energy they got hit with and my wife didn’t care.

For more information on terminal ballistics, check out this post.

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