Choosing Defensive Ammunition

"Discussing 'Power among handgun cartridges is much like discussing rank
among Privates.
" - Jim Higginbotham

One shot stops.  Ballistic gelatin.   Light ‘n fast … or slow ‘n heavy?

What is “stopping power,” anyway?  How do I get the most of it?

If you are visiting this web site, you are probably interested in carrying or keeping a firearm (particularly a handgun) for personal defense.  Hopefully, this article will help you make a choice about the particular ammunition you use.

(Click here to skip directly to our recommendations)

Priorities

Important Point #1:  “Stopping power” is not our first priority.  The number one most important factor in choosing defensive ammunition (and a firearm to use it in) is reliability.  Every time you pull the trigger, the gun should fire.  If you load your gun with Super Bullets but the gun doesn’t go off when you need it to, the Super Bullets don’t do you much good.

Our recommendation is to fire at least one-hundred rounds of your chosen defensive load through your handgun before relying on it.  Yes, that will cost you $50 or so, but that is very cheap insurance.  If your gun cannot fire at least 100 rounds of your chosen ammunition without a malfunction, you need to choose different ammunition.

What about accuracy?  Accuracy is important, but it should not be the primary factor in choosing defensive ammunition.  Most defensive shootings occur within a range of seven yards, in conditions of reduced lighting, under extreme stress.  You are not going to be focused on bulls-eye accuracy.  Don’t get too wrapped up splitting hairs between a load which is reported on this web site or some magazine as shooting 1.50” groups as opposed to one which shoots 2.00” groups at twenty-five yards.  The real world difference between the two is meaningless.


Stoping Power,
not
Killing Power

Important Point #2:  There is a difference between “stopping” and “killing.”  If you are forced to use lethal force, it is almost certainly because you or someone else is threatened with imminent death or serious bodily harm.  In a defensive shooting, the priority is to stop the attack immediately.  Shooting someone in the leg might cause an infection which kills eventually, but that doesn’t save you from return fire.

 So just because a certain round has a reputation for killing doesn’t tell you if it is effective at stopping an attack quickly.  Quite a bit of the scientific research into bullet wounds focuses on killing power, not stopping power.   Know the difference.

 “If your actual intent is to kill the attacker, then a deadly virus might be just as effective as a shotgun blast.  Some of those hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola have a kill percentage in the 90s.  Are you certain your goal is to kill, rather than to stop?”
– Julius Chang, posted to rec.guns


Get JHP'd

Most modern defensive ammunition is some variety of JHP (jacketed hollow point).  A JHP bullet has a hollow cavity facing forward.  When the bullet strikes something, the hollow point tends to open up into a mushroom shape.  This has two primary effects.

First, the bullet diameter is now wider, meaning the bullet cuts a bigger hole.  It does more damage and has a greater chance of hitting a vital organ.  Second, the wider contact surface meets greater resistance as it tries to push through, so it will not penetrate as deep.

If you take nothing else from this article about choosing ammunition, remember this: always choose JHP ammunition.  Every major law enforcement agency in the country uses some form of JHP ammunition.  Every major ammunition manufacturer touts its premiere JHP as the best defensive load.  Choose a JHP.


The Numbers
Game

Check out this web site or any other debate about ammo, and you will see lots of numbers.   Some of these numbers are important.  Some of them are useful.  And some are just worthless.

Three numbers define a particular load.  The first is caliber, which is a rough description of a bullet’s diameter.  Don’t get too wrapped around the axle on this.  For example, a 357SIG bullet is actually 0.355” in diameter (which happens to be the same as 9x19mm).  However, a .357 Magnum is actually 0.357” in diameter … and so is a .38 Special!  But bullet diameter is one measure of a particular load.

The second is bullet weight.  Bullet weight is measured in grains.  One grain is equal to 1/7000 of a pound.  So a light 115gr 9x19mm bullet (which is 0.355” in diameter) weighs about one quarter of an ounce; a heavy 230gr .45 ACP bullet (which is actually 0.45” in diameter) weighs half an ounce.

The third number is muzzle velocity.   Muzzle velocity is simply the speed of the bullet as it leaves the muzzle, measured in feet per second.  A fast 115gr 9x19mm load might be moving 1,350fps, while a slow 230gr .45 ACP load will probably rate about 850fps.

Another important number is muzzle energy.  “Energy” in physics terms is the ability to do work.  More energy means potentially more work.  Muzzle energy is determined by plugging the bullet weight and muzzle velocity into a formula.  Muzzle energy is measured in foot-pounds.  Our 115gr 9x19mm bullet moving at 1,350fps has 465 foot-pounds of energy; the 230gr .45 ACP bullet moving 850fps has 369 foot-pounds of energy.


Terminal
Ballistics

More numbers!  When that JHP strikes a fluid medium (such as the inside of a human body), it expands.  The size of the expanded bullet, and the depth of penetration, are also numbers most people consider very important.  These numbers are usually determined by shooting special, calibrated ordnance gelatin (jokingly referred to as “jello”).

Expanded diameter is measured in two ways.  The most common is a raw measurement (e.g., 0.65”).  The less common is as a percentage of the original caliber.  So if a .40 S&W bullet (which is 0.40” in diameter) expands to 0.65”, you have 62.5% expansion.

Penetration is simply the depth, in inches, that a bullet moves through the target.

A lot of factors affect expansion and penetration.  Bullet design is the most important.  Bullet weight and speed also play a role (as a general rule, the faster the bullet is going, the more it will expand and the less it will penetrate).

Two other numbers are produced in gelatin testing.  One is the permanent wound channel (the volume of the hole created by the physical path of the bullet).  The other is the temporary stretch cavity (the volume of space which is temporarily displaced by the shockwave of the bullet moving through a fluid medium).

For an excellent, detailed explanation of how the FBI performs this kind of gelatin testing, see the article on the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol located here at CALIBERS.


Confusing
Numbers

There have been many attempts to study real world shootings and create a “stopping power formula” to predict the effectiveness of any particular load.  Because they are easy to compute and easy to quote, many people – including some gun magazine writers – tend to use them as definitive proof.  

Unfortunately, these numbers are, for the most part, bunk.

So when you read about “One Shot Stop” percentages, it is important to understand that the numbers are all but meaningless.  The reasons are too numerous to mention here, but you can read all about The Myth of One Shot Stops if you would like to. 

The same is true for things like the Fuller Index and Taylor Knockout Factor, which depend on easy to find ballistic numbers without taking into consideration what bullets actually do inside a target.  They also tend to have a very strong built-in bias toward one type of ammunition or the other.


The Great Debate

So what makes one load better than another?  There are two schools of thought on the subject.

One school believes that light, fast bullets with high muzzle energy are best.  These tend to produce higher temporary stretch cavities.  The theory is that such bullets create more disruption inside the target and lead to more rapid incapacitation.  These bullets tend to expand more (or even fragment), and therefore have less penetration than slower, heavier bullets.

The other school of thought tends to favor slow, heavy bullets … usually in larger calibers such as .40 S&W and .45 ACP.   The bullets tend to penetrate deeply and cause longer (wider and deeper) wound channels.  The theory is that such bullets are more likely to strike a vital organ because they are more capable of passing through intervening barriers as well as protective tissues such as bone.

These are very broad generalizations, of course, and a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle.  Nevertheless, they define two different approaches to choosing defensive ammunition.   Not surprisingly, in most calibers there are three popular bullet weights … a light fast bullet weight, a slow heavy bullet weight, and a middle ground.


Location,
Location,
Location

It’s a dirty little secret which rarely sees the light of day in most “stopping power” debates, but ammunition choice plays a much smaller role in stopping an attacker than shot placement.

Shot placement simply means putting the bullet(s) where the most damage will be done to the attacker.  The primary target is what we call the thoracic triangle.  The points of the triangle are the throat and two nipples.  Shots to this area tend to make people FDGB (“fall down go boom”).  Shots outside this area tend to have less immediate effects.   Within reason, this is true regardless of caliber, ammunition, etc. 

Almost any popular defensive JHP load (Gold Dot, Hyrda-Shok, SXT, Golden Saber, etc.) in a major caliber will be effective if shot placement is good.  More importantly, if shot placement is bad, a “more powerful” round won’t do you any good.


Choosing
Ammo

OK, shot placement is key.  But that is no fun!   We don’t want an average or ok bullet, we want the very best.  We want every tiny edge we can get.  How do we choose?

First, make sure you are buying name-brand, quality ammunition.  Gun show reloads, bizarre “specialty ammo” bought out of the back of comic books, and the like is not a good idea.  Companies like Federal and Remington spend fortunes designing and testing their ammunition under the widest variety of circumstances.

Second, if at all possible choose a premium JHP.  These are the “name” bullets, like Hydra-Shok from Federal, Golden Saber from Remington, SXT from Winchester, and Gold Dot from Speer.  These are the top of the line choices from the big guys, and this is where the development and testing is at its greatest.  Sure, there are “standard” JHPs which are also good, but choosing a premium JHP will eliminate the guesswork on your part.

In certain calibers, some defensive ammunition is labeled “+p” or “+p+” … this indicates that the ammunition is loaded to a higher operating pressure than standard ammunition in that caliber.  Such “+p” ammunition is available in .38 Special, 9x19mm, and .45 ACP.  There is no such thing as “+p” .40 S&W ammunition, even though some companies advertise their ammo as such.  You can read more about “+p” ammunition in the Plus-P Facts section of this web site.  As a general rule, we recommend +p loads for .38 Special and 9x19mm, but not in .45 ACP.

What about all those numbers we talked about before?  For caliber, read the different advocacy articles here on CALIBERS (.380 ACP, .38 Special, 9x19mm, 357SIG, 10mm, and .45 ACP).  For bullet weight and muzzle velocity, it really depends on which caliber you are shooting.  Smaller calibers (like .380 ACP, 9x19mm, and 357SIG) tend to work better with lighter, faster rounds.   Larger calibers (.40 S&W and .45 ACP) tend to work better with heavier, slower rounds.

Penetration and expansion numbers can be harder to come by, but they are frequently reported in shooting magazines and on the web.  As a general rule, you want a cartridge that gets reasonable penetration (10” is a good number to start with, though some advocate as little as 8” or as much as 14”) and expands to at least 150% of its starting diameter (0.53” for 0.355” bullets; 0.60” for .40 S&W and 10mm; and 0.67” for .45 ACP).


Recommended
Loads

We constantly get e-mail asking us “what’s the best?”  Hopefully, the discussion above has helped you realize there is no simple answer for every possible shooter.  Still, we keep getting those e-mails.  So we have tried to list some of the better loads in each major caliber.  Whenever possible, we have given at least a couple of different brands in each caliber.  Loads are listed by bullet weight and manufacturer, and the order in which they appear is not intended to indicate that any particular load listed is better than another.

9x19mm:

  • 115gr +p+ Federal 9BPLE at 1,300fps

  • 124gr +p ProLoad Tactical Gold Dot at 1,200fps

  • 124gr +p Remington Golden Saber at 1,180fps

  • 147gr Remington Golden Saber at 990fps

In 9x19mm, most shooters prefer lighter bullets (115gr to 125gr) at +p or +p+ velocities.  The Federal 9BPLE load is technically sold to law enforcement only, but is usually available at gun shows and over the internet.  A very similar load is the ProLoad 115gr +p Tactical Gold Dot, which also has a muzzle velocity of 1,300fps. 

 The middle weight ProLoad 124gr +p Tactical tends to have greater penetration than most fast 9mm loads, and is one of the most accurate rounds we have ever tested.  For those who want more reliable expansion through heavy clothing, the Golden Saber is a good choice.  If you can find it, the “Law Enforcement Only” 124gr +p+ Federal Hydra-Shok has a very good reputation as well.

 For those who want a heavyweight in nine millimeter, the Golden Saber from Remington probably has the most consistent expansion at such slow speeds.  And while it has something of a jaded history, the 147gr Federal Hydra-Shok is another good choice in this category.

 357SIG:

  • 125gr ProLoad Tactical Gold Dot at 1,400fps

  • 125gr Speer Gold Dot at 1,350fps

There are very few premium JHPs in the 357SIG market, and the Gold Dot is definitely the best of the bunch.  While the standard factory Speer loading is a great choice – in fact, it’s the choice of the U.S. Secret Service as well as both the Texas and Virginia state police – we have found the custom loaded version from ProLoad to be a little faster as well as more accurate.  The 125gr Federal JHP (the first 357SIG ever) is also a pretty good choice.

.40 S&W:

  • 135gr ProLoad Tactical JHP at 1,260fps

  • 155gr Remington JHP at 1,205fps

  • 165gr ProLoad Tactical Gold Dot at 1,070fps

  • 165gr Remington Golden Saber at 1,150fps

  • 180gr Federal Hydra-Shok at 990fps

The 165gr loads tend to be the best performers in .40 S&W.  The ProLoad 165gr has little recoil while maintaining the excellent expansion and penetration qualities of the Gold Dot bullet.  The Remington 165gr Golden Saber is a hotter round for folks who want more energy downrange. 

Moving a little lighter, the 155gr Remington JHP is an exception to our normal recommendation for premium JHPs … this load has become famous for its effectiveness and is the round of choice of the U.S. Border Patrol. 

For shooters using short-barreled guns such as the Glock 27, Kahr, etc., the lightweight ProLoad 135gr would be our recommendation for maximum performance without maximum recoil.  [See Mark Passamaneck’s test of 135gr .40 S&W ammunition options here]  Another low-recoil choice is the 165gr Hydra-Shok from Federal; however, this slow moving bullet is best used in full size guns which can get the most out of their velocity.

If you really want a heavy bullet in the more common 180gr weight, the Hydra-Shok from Federal has amassed a good reputation among law enforcement in the United States for its consistent performance.

10mm:

  • 175gr Winchester Silvertip at 1,290fps

The 175gr Silvertip from Winchester is the hands down favorite of most 10mm shooters.  For those looking for more traditional large caliber bullet performance, the 180gr Tactical Gold Dot from ProLoad (at 1,2000fps and 576 ft-lbs of energy) gives deeper penetration and better weight retention.

.45 ACP:

  • 165gr Federal Personal Defense at 1,060fps

  • 200gr +p Pro Load Tactical Gold Dot at 1,000fps

  • 230gr Federal Hydra-Shok at 875fps

The 230gr Hydra-Shok from Federal is the standard by which all defensive ammunition is measured.  Especially for shooters with full size guns (which in .45 ACP means a long 5” barrel), you would be hard pressed to find a more accurate, more effective cartridge.  Another effective choice in this bullet weight is the 230gr Remington Golden Saber, although most people find it to be less accurate than the Federal.

For shorter barrels or those wanting a faster projectile, the ProLoad version of the 200gr Gold Dot at one thousand feet per second muzzle velocity and almost four hundred and fifty foot-pounds of muzzle energy is a definite attention getter.  A +p round, expect recoil to be a little greater than most standard pressure .45 choices.

For those wanting a soft shooting load out of short barreled guns, the Federal 165gr Personal Defense load is not a bad option.  Even out of shorty barrels like the Glock 30, SIG P245, or Officer-sized 1911 variants you can expect velocities over 1,000fps.

A relatively low-pressure cartridge intended for long barreled guns such as the M1911A1, the mighty .45 is more affected by barrel length than its high pressure competitors such as 9x19mm, .40 S&W, and 357SIG.  Ammunition choice must be tailored around your intended shooting platform (pistol) to make sure you are getting adequate velocity to see the performance you expect.


Stay Safe!

In the end, ultimately the decision is yours.  Talk to knowledgeable people and seek their advice; be prepared for a variety of intelligent but differing opinions.  Again, it probably doesn’t matter nearly as much in the long run as you think.  Shot placement … just keep thinking shot placement.

“You need a large caliber mental attitude and a high capacity spirit, then the bullet caliber will take care of itself.”
– Magnum, rec.guns moderator


 

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