Are those old black-powder Civil War era revolvers deadly? Yes, of course. If not, they’d be pointless. But how deadly were they really?
This video post from Loadout Room answers the question by firing replica pistols into ballistic gel, the same way the FBI and gun and ammunition manufacturers everywhere test projectiles fired from various firearms to see how they perform.
In case you don’t feel like watching the video (although I don’t know why you wouldn’t; watching bullets hit targets is always fun), I’ll give you the lowdown in one sentence: These 19th century pistols were every bit as functional and deadly as any modern pistol.
The .44 caliber Colt Army pistol packs more punch than the modern .45 ACP cartridge, which was used by the US armed forces in WWII and is still among the most popular pistol cartridges in the US. The .31 caliber Colt “baby dragoon,” popular with civilians but never used by the military, is a little less powerful than the .380 Auto cartridge, which is frequently chambered in modern defensive pocket pistols. The .36 caliber Colt Navy is roughly equivalent to the 9mm Luger (also sometimes called 9mm Parabellum), which was invented by the Germans in WWII. It’s probably the most widely used pistol cartridge in the world.
So the armed citizen of 150 years ago carried very similar firepower to what armed citizens carry today. And then as now, American military and law enforcement carry virtually the same pistols as the rest of us. As it should be. My own pistol (which is holstered on my hip right now as I type, and which I carry almost every day) is a polymer-framed semiautomatic chambered for 9mm Luger. A more efficient firearm than my ancestors carried 150 years ago, certainly, but no more effective on its target.
When it comes to my work on the FAR System, this similarity is quite handy because it means that my knowledge as a gun enthusiast and the owner of several modern firearms holds generally true when I’m devising a combat system and describing/categorizing the effects of the bullet wounds your antagonists (and hopefully not your own character) will suffer when lead starts flying (as it generally does in Western stories) from the classic guns of yore.
I love Iron Crown Enterprises — the people who created MERP back in the ’80s and currently produce the awesome Rolemaster system — but I found their firearms supplement very frustrating. For melee weapons vs. varying types of armor, their system works quite well, even if the end result depends a little too much on a purely random die roll. In hand-to-hand combat, the enemy always has an active hand in the results, even at the very moment when a blade hits flesh, and that’s what that random variability represents.
For firearms, however, it’s a very different story. Once that bullet’s in the air, it’s like the hand of God. Neither the shooter nor the target can do anything to change the outcome. So Rolemaster’s use of a random die roll to determine the results of critical hits is particularly frustrating to me, since I want to model the precision and lethality of firearms. If the sum total of your skills, the positive/negative influences of circumstance, and your die roll align to produce a result that amounts to “you hit exactly what you aimed at,” that should be the end of it. None of this getting an “E” level critical, only to have a crappy random roll result in a minor flesh wound.
To that end, aside from the targeting roll, I’ve eschewed any randomness in the outcome of gun combat. The better your targeting roll, the more effective your results. Lethality is relative to what you aimed at, and results are expressed reflected directly in terms of blood loss, broken bones, and the immediate effects thereof. In combat, the gory little details don’t matter as much as the effect on your performance in the rest of the fight. So while I do add flavor text to the critical results, I aim to keep bookkeeping during a fight to a bare minimum. I want combat to move fast and be scary and deadly.
The knowledge I’ve accumulated over several years of nerding out about guns and related topics leads me to conclude that the immediate effects of getting hit by a bullet differ only in broad strokes. Where the bullet hits matters far more than what caliber it is or what gun fired it (although those do still matter; they’re just secondary). You can be as realistic as a game can ever realistically be in terms of immediate combat effects while also not needing tons of detail. But flavor, yes. There’s always plenty of room for that.
If you survive the fight, that’s when you can explore the gory medical details of what the wound actually did to your character’s body and how you can survive and heal up.