Paging Dr. Freud: On the Psycho-Sexual Roots of Defensive Ammunition

It is common, tediously so, for people to dismiss men’s attraction to guns as “phallic symbols” and male gun owners as using guns as “penis substitutes.”

(Does that mean, a la Freud, that women who own guns have “penis envy”? Or is it the case that “sometimes a gun is just a gun”?)

Reading Warrior Dreams: Violence and Manhood in Post-Vietnam America by sociologist James William Gibson recently, I saw this taken to a whole new level. (Note: The subtitle of the book when it was published in hardcover in 1994 was Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America, and I will have more to say later about the book in general.)

Warrior Dreams

I was excited (not sexually BTW) because in a chapter on weaponry the author actually writes not just about guns but also about ammunition. He observes that “pistols fire far less powerful ammunition than do rifles. Their bullets travel from 750 to 1,400 feet per second, depending upon the cartridge’s capacity for gun powder and bullet weight. Shooters have a choice between smaller. 38 or 9mm pistols which fire bullets at 1,000 to 1,400 feet per second or larger .44 Special or .45 automatics firing much bigger bullets around 850 feet per second. Ammunition manufacturers have designed ‘hollow point’ bullets for pistol cartridges that expand upon impact. Only the smaller, lighter bullets fired by .357 Magnums, .38s, and 9mms travel fast enough (over 1,000 fps) for the bullets to expand with some consistency.” (p. 91-92).

I was impressed when I read this passage since it is easy for people not well-versed in gun technology (like myself) to confuse a “bullet” and a “cartridge,” not to know that larger bullets generally travel more slowly, and to understand what a hollow point is and how it works.

I was all the more taken aback, therefore, when I continued reading the following: “An expanded bullet has its shaft intact, but the head is folded back into a mushroom.” Shaft? Head? Wait for it.

“A perfectly expanded bullet bears some resemblance to an erect penis.”

ballistics 9mm

What can I say? Not mine? And what does it say about me that when I look at an expanded hollow point bullet I see flowers not penises?

3 bloom flower pot from
3 bloom flower pot from

From here Gibson moves on to a discussion of gun magazines’ stories about hollow point bullet testing. “Bullets are fired into a simulation of human flesh called ‘ballistic gelatin.’ Sophisticated magazines show graphs contrasting bullet expansion and penetration, often accompanied by drawings of wound channels that look very much like…” Wait for it.


38 Spl Plus P JHP wound channel

What can I say? Not . . . oh, why bother?

He continues, “Field statistics for most of the better 9mm, .38, and .45 loads, however, show that their chances of stopping the ‘adversary’ with one shot are all about the same, and all quite high—62-80%. Given that these figures are by no means secret, the seemingly compulsive repetition of penetration tests suggests they carry a strong psycho-sexual charge” (p. 92).

Although I do not want to dismiss Gibson’s work entirely, in this case I think a picture of an expanded hollow point bullet or a drawing of a wound channel is like a Rorschach test.

In Rorschach tests, people’s perceptions of various inkblots are understood as projections of their own personality characteristics and emotional functioning. Gibson’s psycho-sexual analysis of defensive ammunition, therefore, probably tells us more about Gibson than about gun culture itself.

Rorschach test


  1. Wow, this takes the cake on making ridiculous comparisons. Surprised the author didn’t take it further and say the firearm “ejaculates” the bullets. If a gun is a penis extension and fired bullets resemble penises, does that mean penises ejaculate penises? I’m getting confused here.


  2. Scrappycrow – see my follow-up post for even more confusion. Guns are penises, but guns can also be women. Confusing.

    Random funny aside. In “Gun Guys,” Dan Baum quotes someone called Zanther on “I AM compensating.” Zanther writes. “If I could kill stuff with my d$%# from 200 yards I would not need a firearm, would I?”


  3. I am glad I wasn’t the only person to read this book and come away really confused. Much of the book seemed like a stretch to “empirically” justify a lot of anxieties about gun culture. There are certainly good parts of the book, I think I remember the section about the media being particularly interesting.


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