First, it must be expanding.
This is important, as over-penetration of a bad person can lead to subsequent penetration of other people. That’s why it’s a bad idea to use full metal jacket (range) ammunition in a concealed carry or home defense gun.
Every bullet you fire in defense of yourself has a lawyer attached to it, so you’re responsible for what happens once it leaves your gun. Therefore, don’t be responsible for shooting someone other than an attacker.
Ideally, self-defense ammunition will have a blend of effective penetration and expansion. It should penetrate to sufficient depth to compromise vital structures, but also expand enough to dump its energy into the target and come to a stop.
Don’t listen to anything you hear about “stopping power.” Handguns don’t have any (relatively speaking). Newton’s Third Law dictates that a gun has to produce enough force to knock YOU down through recoil to produce enough force to do the same to a bad guy. To get that, you need an elephant gun.
To sum up, you want expanding ammunition because it’s less likely to go through the target, but it needs enough penetrative ability to hit something that matters. Placement will take care of the rest, which is what you learn to do with shooting practice – it’s just as much about where your self-defense ammo goes as it is about which kind you buy.
Secondly, pick ammunition that will function reliably in your gun. This will mean having to spend a few dollars to find the brand that your firearm appears to “like” best. It will also require you to shoot some self-defense ammunition at the range, which – yes – is a bit expensive.
However, once you find the brand that your gun likes, stick with it.
Some guns will feed darn near anything, but some pistols are a bit more particular to certain brands. Note the ones that seem to feed best and most reliably in your pistol.
Note also how close the pistol/ammo combination patterns relative to your practice ammunition. You want to use ammunition that prints as close to your typical box of hardball as possible.
My carry gun feeds most hollow points pretty well, but I’ve noticed that Winchester PDX1 tends to hit closest to the point of impact of the typical range ammo I buy (Blazer Brass, if you’re curious; it’s $9 at the store nearest me) so that’s what I carry.
Those are the basics. It has to be expanding and it has to work in your gun. So, how to go about picking one?
You also should select a brand/box of ammunition that has some sort of track record of success in the real world. It’s all well and good to buy the newest tactical hotness made by some bunch of cowboys in a turnip shed somewhere, but ammunition is a tool and one that you really need to count on to work.
This is where things get complicated. You have to do your own legwork, and make the best decision you can. You will not have complete information.
I don’t know to a certainty that my carry ammunition will work as I need or want it to. However, Winchester has been making ammunition for a very long time and their products are pretty darn good.
The PDX projectile – meaning the bullet itself – is the same one that’s been used in Winchester’s premium JHP for ages, from Black Talon to Ranger T Series. It’s proven, or at least is as proven as a bullet can be. While there are no guarantees, I can reasonably expect it to work.
Plenty of testing data is out there, though you should be aware of its limitations. Ballistic gelatin is an imperfect simulant of human tissues; in fact, ballistic gelatin uses the aggregate density of all human tissue.
In other words, it’s the average of bone, skin, blood and muscle density. Per a conversation I had with Chris Laack, head of handgun ammunition development for Vista Outdoors (that’s who makes Federal and Speer and many more) at SHOT Show, the correlation seems to be about a 2:3 ratio. If a bullet penetrates 12 inches in gel, it will penetrate 8 inches in a person. So bear that in mind when you look at testing results, such as that done by Lucky Gunner Labs or ShootingTheBull410.
For my money, the best ammunition testing is done by YouTube personality Paul Harrell, who uses an actual Meat Target. He’s incredibly thorough. Here’s his take on overpressure ammunition, just to give you an idea of his testing procedures.
The conventional wisdom is (or at least used to be) that you find out what your local cops are carrying and get that, which is actually not bad advice.
For one, it’s what the professionals use, so why shouldn’t you? Secondly, the occasional prosecutor has been known to question ammunition choice in the wake of a self-defense shooting.
Usually the idea is that if a person selected a particular type of bullet – such as jacketed hollow points – they clearly intended to kill someone. According to Massad Ayoob, you can easily retort by stating “Well counselor, the police use this same brand and type of ammunition to protect people, so I thought it would be a good idea to get the same kind to protect myself and my family.”
So what do cops carry?
Police officers almost universally carry jacketed hollow points. There are a number of alternative bullet styles – which I’ll get to momentarily – but JHP reigns supreme among law enforcement at the local, state and federal level, from the FBI on down. It’s the most common kind of self-defense ammo.
What brands, specifically?
Federal HST, Remington Golden Saber, Speer Gold Dot and Winchester Ranger are most prevalent. The ammunition industry makes “law-enforcement only” ammunition, but it’s typically no different than what you can buy at Cabela’s. Additionally, some retailers sell it to civilians, though you’ll have to do some hunting online.
However, there’s something you should know. The typical police officer carries a duty pistol such as a Beretta 92, GLOCK 17 or SIG P226. The typical civilian carries a compact semi-automatic, with many preferring a subcompact. Why that’s important is that not all self-defense ammunition is made to function well in pistols with short barrels.
This isn’t exactly news. Police officers noticed many years ago that loads like the standard 158-grain lead semi-wadcutters in .38 Special +P functioned well enough when fired from their, say, Colt Police Positive, S&W Model 10 or Ruger Service Six, but wouldn’t do well when fired from, say, a Colt Cobra or J-frame snubby.
A truncated barrel also truncates muzzle velocity, and the thing about expanding ammunition is that – depending on its design – it may not work below a certain threshold of velocity. Therefore, if you carry a small pistol, such as a Smith & Wesson Shield, GLOCK 43 or Ruger LC9s (or for that matter, a .380) select a load that’s designed for a short barrel.
I had the pleasure of talking to the guys from G2 Research at SHOT Show. They do test their ammunition, so they don’t just make stuff up. From what I gathered, they do their best to make a quality product that does what they assert that it does. I imagine if I’d been able to talk to other ammunition makers of some of the similar alternative bullet design styles, it would be the same story.
All the information I’ve absorbed about ammunition and terminal performance leads to me to conclude the following:
The really popular styles of ammunition for practical purposes, including self-defense and hunting, are the most popular for a reason in most instances. They’ve been proven to work reliably and – at this stage in the game – it isn’t terribly likely that the wheel is getting reinvented anytime soon.
If my mind changes on this front, I’ll fess up about it.
It seems like you have to do some homework to find a good carry load, doesn’t it? Well, you really should. There’s a lot of different brands and boxes of self-defense ammunition out there, and lots of claims about each one. So doing a bit of homework first is a good idea.
Disagree with any of this? Just angry in general and want to rant? Have you finally accepted that blue cheese is superior to ranch in every application? Sound off in the comments.