The Myth of AR-15 Over Penetration and Muzzle Up vs. Muzzle Down

Today, we’re going to talk about 2 of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the AR-15.  To be fair, they get these misconceptions honestly.

They’re repeated ad nauseam in articles, blogs, forums, videos, and even on TV without proper context.  To complicate matters even more, there’s an element of truth to each of them.

Myth: “I think AR’s are bad for home defense because of over penetration.  I don’t want to shoot my neighbors or kids in another part of the house.”

Good.  I don’t want you to shoot anyone who’s innocent either.

But let’s dig into this a little…

First off, penetration is good.  It gets you to vital organs and stops threats fast.  In the FBI Miami Shootout, there was a famous bullet that stopped just short of hitting the heart of one of the bad guys…it was called “the bullet that failed.”  You don’t want to use bullets designed to fail.

You’ve got to have penetration to maximize effectiveness…you just don’t want to miss your targets and have ammo go through walls into bedrooms or into your neighbor’s house.

There’s 2 components to this…

The first and most important rule to minimize innocent people getting hit in a gunfight is to hit your target with every shot.  Don’t stop training when you can hit your target…keep training until you CAN’T MISS.

That is the standard that you should set for yourself.  100% hits and no misses.  It’s not reality and there’s a really good chance that Murphy will step in and mess things up, but you want to train so that any misses you have are beyond your control…not because of a lack of training or practice.

Second, you should realistically expect ANY ammunition that’s going to have effective penetration on a person to go through drywall, sheetrock, and other wall materials.

Ordinary defensive 9mm hollow points can go through 6 layers of sheetrock or 3-4 layers of steel in a car.  There’s a good chance that ANY caliber of defensive pistol or rifle ammo has the ability to go through walls and hurt innocent people.  Hollow points that may expand when they hit soft tissue oftentimes get plugged when they go through sheetrock, don’t expand, and act like a full metal jacket round.

There are bullet designs that claim to reduce over penetration on sheetrock, and some do better than others, but the best way to minimize the chances of hurting innocent people is to have 100% hits.

One thing that’s surprisingly consistent in penetration/overpenetration testing is that typical defensive handgun rounds penetrate MORE layers of building materials than .223 from a carbine.

But what about shotguns?  If we look at both ends of the spectrum, slugs have a serious over-penetration problem and bird shot has a serious UNDER-penetration problem.

In the middle, Buckshot shares a problem that’s common to all shotgun loads—the recoil is harder for smaller shooters to control, slows down followup shots.

In addition, the recoil and weight of a shotgun make it less enjoyable to shoot for smaller shooters and less practice translate directly to less comfort with the gun and lower performance under stress.

Finally, there are fewer ranges that allow you to practice with a shotgun than there are that allow you to practice with a pistol or AR.

So, if all bullets are capable of penetrating through multiple walls, it stands to reason that you might want to use a weapon platform that will give you the highest probability of hitting your threat.  For most people, the increased barrel length and controllability of an AR makes it easier to hit man-sized targets at in-house distances in low light conditions under stress.

The proof is in the pudding…while nationwide hit ratios for law enforcement are in the 12%-25% range, hit ratios with rifles for many departments are over 80%.

In addition, it’s generally easier to put a light/laser on an AR than on a pistol.  There are great laser/light options for pistols, but most shooters find them easier to operate on an AR than on a pistol.

Finally, you can use both a pistol and an AR as an impact weapon, but the AR is much easier to control and keep control of if you decide to strike someone with it.

Next is another “rule” that I thought Moses delivered himself:  Always move with the muzzle of your gun pointed down.”

There’s a joke that this is an Army vs. Navy thing…more specifically, Special Forces vs. SEALs.  It’s said that SF points their guns down so that they don’t shoot their helicopter blades and SEALs don’t point their guns down so they don’t poke holes in their boats.

The reality is a little more complicated…

When you think about indoor ranges, VERY few have fully bullet resistant ceilings.  They may have a few sheets of AR-500 hanging from the ceiling a few yards downrange, but very few ranges have AR-500 right above the shooting bays.  If there’s a potential of having ANY students on the range who don’t have fully established trigger discipline, it makes more sense to have a rule that all muzzles remain pointed at the ground so that you don’t have an errant round escape the building.

When you move to outdoor ranges, you’ve normally got berms that define the shooting bays.  Shoot over the berm and there’s the possibility that your bullet will hit something that you don’t want it to hit…again, if there’s any chance of a shooter being on the range who doesn’t have fully established trigger discipline, it makes sense to always keep the muzzles pointed below the top of the berms so that no rounds escape.

There’s another factor at play.  And it has to do with live fire shoot houses.  In many cases, there are catwalks above the shoot house so instructors can watch students shooting and moving through the structure.  If you’re an instructor, and students are going through a shoot house below you, would you want them to point their muzzles down, or up…at you?

Muzzle down makes perfect sense in these situations…in fact, it makes perfect sense in almost all square range situations, but in a real-life, dynamic, close-quarters, fight, muzzle-down isn’t always the best solution.

If you go around a corner and someone starts striking you in the face, would you be able to defend and counter attack faster if your muzzle was up in front of your face or down by your knees?  People argue both ways and people have successfully used both ways in life & death situations…but which is best for you?

If you go around a corner and someone grabs for your gun, do you want gravity working for you or against you?

Try this with a broom handle…hold it pointed down and have someone grab it and try to keep you from pointing it them.  Now hold it pointed up and have them try to keep you from pointing it at them.

It only takes a few seconds to see that muzzle-up gives you a significant advantage.  Add in a little friendly slapping to the face and the advantages of muzzle-up shoot through the roof.

If you go around a corner and are surprised, will muzzle-up or muzzle-down let you muzzle punch (which is potentially a lethal strike) faster?  Muzzle-down is kind of like a kettlebell swing.  Muzzle-up is like a jab…with additional leverage and speed.

Muzzle down is not even always the safest solution.  What if you’ve got young “ankle biters”, family/innocent people curled up on the ground, pets, or you’re upstairs while the rest of your family is downstairs?

What if you’re in a multi-story apartment building, condo, or hotel?

For some of the best research, tactics, and at-home training available for the AR rifle, I want you to check out >THIS COURSE<.  It comes from a stress shooting lab that was put together by a group of retired and medically retired special operations personnel.  They ran 100+ civilian and law enforcement classes per month (100 of which included force on force) and were able to test tactics in a home defense context in a way that no other group had ever been able to before.  They learned which training techniques actually work for civilians with limited training time and budgets, and which training methods really only work if Uncle Sam is buying your ammo.  If you have an AR…regardless of whether it’s for home defense, competition, hunting, or a worst case scenario, you owe it to yourself to get this course by clicking here now.


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  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 27, 2017

    Ox, I’ve enjoyed the constructive dialogue. Learning should be a never-ending process and even the smallest tidbit of new information can make a difference. Keep up the good work!

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 27, 2017

      I did too, Tom, but I really feel bad that I caused the misunderstanding and didn’t figure it out sooner. I’ve gone back through the article a few times and haven’t figured out how to effectively clarify it yet or if it’s necessary. 60+% of my subscribers are current/former mil/LE, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the tactics/techniques learned professionally are the most effective for a home defense situation. I’m going to keep mulling over the approach I took.

      I’ve got a couple dozen guys who are current/former knuckle dragging meat eaters who call me out if/when I make a mistake or am not clear. Since there are potentially lives at stake with the subject matter, it’s something I appreciate a lot. Thanks, Tom. -Ox

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 24, 2017

    Ox, what happened to my response I sent yesterday? It’s not showing and it’s no longer showing “Awaiting moderation”.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 25, 2017

      It was still awaiting moderation…I just took some time off…which I’m about to do more of while I butcher my deer 🙂

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 23, 2017

    Ox, I think the explanation is simple. I can understand muzzle down as you’re moving from Point A to Point B in an urban war scenario clearing streets where you are not expecting an immediate threat at close quarters. However, clearing a building or house where the threat is going to be immediate, muzzle connected to line of sight is crucial! “See the target, engage the target” vs. “Find the target, see the target, engage the target”. Back in the late ’70’s, Captain Robert Lindsay with the Jefferson Parrish Sheriff’s Office went around the country and interviewed numerous convicted cop killers and came up with four primary reasons why the bad guys were able to take out the officers. Since I know you’re a big advocate of “Point shooting”, you’ll appreciate this. #4 on that list was “The officer took the time to aim, whereas the suspect just “pointed” the gun and pulled the trigger. Consider the average LEO shooting lasts 2.5 seconds with the average time it takes to “Aim and shoot” of 2.8 seconds compared to the time of 1.2 seconds it takes to “Point and shoot”. How much time is lost raising the muzzle when the bad guy steps out, points and shoots? Modern training has made progress in reducing that greater time it takes to “Amin and shoot” but not enough is being done to advance Point Shooting.

    You previously mentioned even with the muzzle lined up with line of sight, we still cannot react as fast as the bad guy can act. You’re 100% correct, as I have demonstrated hundreds of times in my classes. HOWEVER, if you get hit with a round, is the ability to return fire and prevent that second or third round from the bad guy being on target increased or decreased if you’re already on target and you don’t have to raise or lower the muzzle to immediately and effectively return fire? Here’s the acid test question. I’m pointing a gun at you and I’m going to pull the trigger. Do you want to have your muzzle up, muzzle down or pointed back at me? This is what we anticipate when performing a high-risk search warrant or building search; an immediate and potentially deadly threat! Subsequently, I’m going to have my muzzle lined up with line of sight.

    There will always be some differences of tactical philosophies among LE trainers but the reasons from a pragmatic standpoint must be defined and then the decision made on what is the most effective tactic to accomplish the mission while maintaining the highest standard of officer safety. A case in point. The two primary formations used for an active shooter are the Diamond Formation and the “T” Formation. Both of those have gaping flaws with a substantial risk for a case of Friendly Fire. That is why I developed the Staggered Split Formation, which reduced those flaws and virtually eliminated the Friendly Fire aspect. Too often, LE trainers jump on a new tactic because it is trendy without dissecting it down to the most basic level from a tactical standpoint. But, it is far better to commit the errors in training and learn from then vs. learning from a fatal error on the street, which sadly is how far too many of our tactics are learned.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 25, 2017

      Hey Tom,

      A few things…

      First is an apology. In my mind, something was clear that, in re-reading the article, is not clear. The context for the article was supposed to mesh with the context for the Home Defense Rifle course, which is someone acting in a civilian capacity (regardless of whether they’re military, law enforcement, or civilian) and using a carbine for home defense. I intended for people to read it through that lens, but didn’t do my part to make it clear. You, because of your background, naturally saw it through the lens that your career gave you and had no reason to try to view it through the lens that I intended, because I never made it clear that you should. That’s my bad.

      Second, the point of the article was not muzzle up vs. muzzle straight ahead. It was muzzle up vs. muzzle down. And the point isn’t even that muzzle down is always wrong…the point is that it’s important to understand WHY a particular technique or piece of gear is used by a particular group before adopting it for yourself. If either of us would have caught and stopped this misunderstanding, we would have saved a lot of time 🙂 I got sucked into the discussion like my Malinois gets sucked into a scent trail and became fixated and lost perspective. Again, my bad.

      Now…there were a couple of interesting things you said that I wanted to expand upon.

      Sighted vs. unsighted (point) shooting…you mentioned that I’m a big advocate of point shooting. I am, but it’s nuanced so I want to comment on it quick. I believe that it’s not an either/or. If you practice your drawstroke in a way to automatically bring your sights up into alignment between your dominant eye and the target AND to line up your muzzle with your target before the end of your presentation, point shooting simply becomes a matter of pressing the trigger slightly earlier in the process than you would with a sighted shot. Both methods CAN be aimed shooting, and both methods can be very precise. When it’s not an either/or but unsighted shooting is simply another step in the sighted shooting process, it simplifies learning AND makes it practical to practice point shooting using dry fire even when you don’t have a laser.

      The bigger thing with sighted vs. unsighted shooting is that with basic vision training, it’s possible to make sighted hits on target faster than most shooters can make unsighted hits. The key being “hits.”

      I wasn’t aware that you developed the Staggered Split formation. That’s great and a lot of guys owe you a debt of gratitude.

      Hope you had a great Thanksgiving.

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 22, 2017

    Having said that, the majority of information you put out is excellent! I’ll just have to disagree with you on this aspect because of what has been taught pretty much nation-wide since the mid to late ’80’s.

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 22, 2017

    Ox, it was you who brought up clearing buildings and performing building searches. Nothing was said in that post about home defense. As any SWAT team member of a major agency would know, when doing an entry or building search as a team, the tactic of “Opposite Threat” is used. NO ONE would their muzzle pointed at another’s back. Is that where the potential threat would lie? Of course not! The team is staggered, with each team member facing opposite the person in front of him is facing. You don’t seem to have a solid grasp on SWAT entry tactics, while I have worked with many teams, including at the annual SWAT Roundup held in Orlando. We always labeled anyone with “muzzle up” as duck hunters, because no target they would encounter would be in the sky. Again, when you’re expecting a potential lethal threat, you want that muzzle pointed in the same direction as you’re looking so if you see that threat, you are able to instantly respond. The time it takes to raise or lower a muzzle will usually be too late, as I have demonstrated literally hundreds of times in a Survival Attitude class I taught to thousands of LEO’s or academy students over the course of almost 30 years. However, even for home defense, nothing should change. The muzzle follows the line of sight with finger off the trigger discipline maintained until the moment one engages the threat. Even most LE TV shows now show this proper protocol when doing building searches or entries. I can’t remember the last time I saw a muzzle up or down on one of the more progressive cop shows. This is one area where I don’t think you’ll find very many LE firearms or tactics instructors disagreeing with me.

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 22, 2017


    Having spent 10 years on SWAT with a major agency in FL, I have been involved in literally hundreds of entries on high-risk search warrants and have been in 6 OIS’s. I also taught building searches for over 25 years in both In-service training for our agency, the academy and outside agencies. I can tell you that one of our SWAT members is alive today because of using that exact methodology. A bad guy stepped out of a doorway armed with a .44 Magnum, pointed at the head of the team leader but the SWAT member behind him was able to INSTANTLY take out the bad guy, as his muzzle was pointed where he was looking. Having his muzzle up or down would have resulted in the death of the team leader. I taught it and I lived it. I didn’t just learn it from someone else who did. As for friendlies, I don’t know they’re friendlies until I have identified them as such. Performing a Dynamic High-Risk Search Warrant assumes everyone is a potential threat until otherwise determined they’re not. Opening a door Using an MP5 for conducting building searches is not difficult at all. Using a full-length long-gun for a building search is not pragmatic. If using an AR-style rifle is a must, then use one with an adaptable stock and a shorter barrel. After being in LE for 35+ years (still involved), I have accumulated just a bit of information. Perhaps some of the knowledge I could pass on to you could save your life. I know mine has saved several others.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 22, 2017

      Tom, I suspect we’ve got some cross talk going on–which is understandable for an online conversation, but I maintain that the muzzle up OR muzzle down techniques–the techniques that CAG, DEVGRU, and SWAT teams across the country use, is superior to keeping the muzzle of your carbine shouldered and pointed straight out in front of you for an extended period of time.

      I’m really having a hard time matching up what you’re saying with the fact that you spent 10 years on a SWAT team. You’ve been a subscriber long enough to know that LE and MIL special operations are my literal (blood) and figurative family. I’m a national sponsor of the NTOA. I put out everything that I put out with the understanding that someone I love may use it in a life or death situation in the coming weeks, days, or even hours.

      There are a few things about what you’re saying that just don’t mesh–as an example:

      Are you saying that your SWAT team(s) would perform entries with muzzles being pointed at the guy in front of them in the stack? You’re talking about a lot more than using a weapon mounted light to identify friend or threat.

      An MP5 is generally not thought of as a carbine. It’s a submachine gun. I still wouldn’t muzzle friendlies with it as a generally accepted tactic, but it IS considerably easier to keep it pointed horizontally for an extended period. Did you mean to change the topic from carbines to submachine guns?

      Are you saying that if you and another teammate are on opposite sides of a door, getting ready to make entry, that you muzzle each other instead of going high or low?

      It appears as if you may have interpreted this article through the tactical lens of someone who’s all kitted up, operating with a team, going after a known hostile with purpose optimized weapons and tools. This article is clearly about a home defense situation where you’re alone, behind the curve, probably in your boxers and barefoot, and using whatever carbine you happen to own. There are probably family members to be concerned about and probably neighbors on the other side of the walls. I hope you can appreciate the difference. In fact, one of the big purposes of this training is to highlight the difference between the tactics and techniques that are appropriate in a military context, a law enforcement context, and in a civilian context.

      I have a ton of respect for your experience, and I’m sure I could learn a lot from you, but in this case, I’d like to ask you to re-think what an appropriate approach would be when you look at it through the lens of someone in their home waking up in the middle of the night to an intruder and grabbing what will probably be a 16″ or 18″ carbine.

  • Tom

    Reply Reply November 21, 2017

    Muzzle up or muzzle down? Neither! Whether or not I’m doing a building search, yard search or moving to cover, I am always going to have my muzzle pointed in the direction I am looking, ready to IMMEDIATELY engage the threat! The key is, finger off the trigger until ready to engage. If I come around a corner and engage a bad guy who has his firearm pointed at me and my muzzle is pointed down or up, it’s lights out for me! Same if he steps out of a room. The muzzle should ALWAYS be kept in line with your line of sight.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 21, 2017

      There are a few problems with that line of thought that you don’t find out until you do realistic force on force or clear buildings for real. How do you open a door? Have you ever done a building search where there are friendlies? Do you point your muzzle at them? Ever hold your muzzle straight out for an extended period of time?

      You may want to actually test your theory about coming around a corner and engaging a bad guy who has his firearm pointed at you. If his firearm is actually pointed at you, the chances of you reacting faster than he reacts is slim.

      If it works for you, that’s awesome. I’ve learned building clearing from special operations and tactical law enforcement…guys who have done it for real hundreds and sometimes thousands of times. They may argue about muzzle up vs. muzzle down, but they don’t keep their muzzle hanging out in front of them all of the time.

      As to the muzzle always being kept in your line of sight…that’s what you do when you’re manuvering with your muzzle up. It’s not 2 feet above your head…it’s straight in front of your face.

      Tom, I think the course would be incredibly helpful for you. It may just save your life. Best to you.

  • Jacob Jackson

    Reply Reply January 19, 2017

    Good article that lets the air out of some persistent myths. It’s amazing how they stick around in spite of be debunked numerous times. In this article there are some video’s of the penetration effects of 9mm, 45 acp, 5.56 and 12 gauge. The are all pretty much consistently going through 12 layers of drywall.

    I think people make too much of muzzle up vs down reload. They both have their uses in certain situations and I think you need to master both to say that you are proficient with a rifle.

  • Herman

    Reply Reply September 23, 2016

    My question Ox – what about “entry ready” position when searching a structure? Thanks.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 23, 2016

      Great question…I’ve got an article+video on this that I’m going to post in the next few days.

  • George Webber

    Reply Reply September 23, 2016

    If you are clearing your home then muzzle up ready to shoot makes far more sense. The whole point is to shoot first. On the topic of penetration, several years ago my daughter (then 11) built a wall just big enough to fire a number of rounds and trap them in several phone books. (This was a school project.Try that now!) She tried FMJ, hollow point and wad cutters. The hollow point rounds filled with plaster and acted like ball ammo. Depth of penetration was similar for each of the rounds after going through the wall. Perhaps not very scientific but it did demonstrate that someone on the other side of a wall can be injured by a stray bullet.

  • left coast chuck

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    A useful and thought-provoking article. Thanks for posting it.

  • Justin

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    Just a method I was ttrained on, but, muzzle downward at low-ready, roughly 45*, not directly down (to clear up any confusion) retains better center of gravity and better control in a combative scenario. Rolling a muzzle over its owner’s shoulder will put them on their back or at the very least off-balance the shooter, where downward allows protection of the rifle, with the ability to control the attacker.

  • marz

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    in a multistory concrete building muzzle up or down won’t make a difference, but my small pets that are more likely to be below the waist does make the difference… so in my situation, muzzle up would make the most sense.

  • Bill

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    I live alone with no people close by, but thank you for reminder. However I am in habit of pointing down & of course down range. Have not really considered AR for home defense because of many pistol`s & Rem. 870. I do know over penetration must be considered.

  • Jason

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    I think it was the shootout you are referring to was the 1986 shootout in Miami Florida between FBI agents and two guys named Mattix and Platt.
    Excerpt from it:” As Platt climbed out of the passenger side car window, one of Dove’s 9 mm rounds hit his right upper arm and went on to penetrate his chest, stopping an inch away from his heart.”

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 22, 2016

      You’re EXACTLY right…my bad.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 22, 2016

      I updated it to say the FBI Miami Shootout. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

  • BigTrout

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    Always concise and direct. Perceptive and useful info. Thanks.

  • Wayne Ware

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    a hand gun with wad cutters will not go through much sheet rock – I have a 38S with Hornady Critical Defense FTX bullets – if you live in an apartment this would help in not shooting some one next door though the sheet rock – I know hit the target but that is not always possible

    If you use Hornady Critical Defense handgun ammo for home defense you cannot rely on it to perform if you have shoot through the corner of a wall or through sheet rock near a door jam, if that’s what it takes, to stop an attacker who’s partially exposed.

    Hornady Critical Defense handgun ammo is not designed to shoot through anything other than clothing. It’s not tested against anything other than bare gelatin and clothing. Performance against commonly encountered light barrier materials is untested and unknown. Therefore if your self-defense requirements include the capability to shoot through commonly encountered light barrier materials then Hornady Critical Defense handgun ammo is not your best choice.

  • Mikey

    Reply Reply September 22, 2016

    …the advantages of muzzle-up shoot through the roof. lol

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