Handgun Defense Loads

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Safety and Training

In the pursuit of wound potential, sometimes called stopping power, there have traditionally been two alternatives. The first, and most reliable, was to increase bullet diameter and weight. Examples include replacing the .36 Colt with the .44 Army revolver and the later invention of the .45 Colt revolver. Designed to drop not only enemy soldiers and aboriginal tribesmen, these firearms could drop warhorses as well. A high point in design came with the 1911 .45 automatic pistol, combining a self-loading action with a big bore cartridge. At about the same time, high velocity was used to increase penetration and wound potential. With the increasing use of heavy web gear by soldiers, the high-velocity 9mm Luger, with its great penetration, was deemed desirable. The greatest of the high-velocity cartridges—a sensation when introduced—was the .357 Magnum. There was nothing wrong with the .45 ACP’s wound potential, but the .38 ACP Super was introduced to give improved penetration against felons behind cover and in vehicles.

Capt. Mathew Campbell shooting the Glock 19

A long suit of the 9mm is control. Capt. Matthew Campbell shows how it is done with the GLOCK 19.

Today another means of increasing wound potential exists: this is expanding bullet technology. Essentially, a bullet that expands or upsets to 1.5x its beginning diameter to improve wound ballistics by creating a larger wound channel. By decreasing the standard bullet weight, from 158 to 129 grains in the .38 Special or from 230 to 185 grains in the .45 ACP, we are also able to increase velocity at the same pressure level. A lighter bullet may be driven faster. Pressure from burning powder gas is what drives the bullet and we have a fairly narrow band of pressure to work with. This is important because handguns are not all that powerful. Compared to the 12-gauge shotgun or .223 rifle, the weak .38 and strong .45 are more alike than they differ.

Comparison of a defensive round and wad cutter practice bullet

You do not need an expensive JHP, left, for practice. The lead bullet handload works just fine. For personal defense however spare no expense.

Another means of increasing wound potential is to load the cartridge with a powder producing greater driving pressure. A little confusion exists concerning these loads. Designed to give handgun cartridges a step up in power and energy by increasing velocity, +P ammunition is not more dangerous. It simply is loaded to greater pressure. Wear and tear theoretically increases. One industry source likened a steady diet of +P loads to driving the family sedan over a bumpy road at 100 MPH for 100 miles.

These loads do not crack slides or cause blown guns. Wear is accelerated on small parts in revolvers and slides may be battered in self loaders—unless you use heavy-duty recoil springs. You need not use this steady diet of heavy loads. Practice with standard loads, proof the pistol with a box of the +P loads to ensure function and familiarize yourself with the product, then, go into the dark night.

NOTE: Check the owner’s manual to ensure the gun is rated for +P loads; certain pocket pistols or vintage guns may not be designed to handle the increased pressure. After all, +P loads have existed for some time.

Expanded Federal Hydra-Shok bullet

This is typical Hydra-Shok expansion.

Once labeled Super X, High Speed or Rifle Only loads, we knew what they were. Some handgun calibers need +P loads more than others. As an example, the original .38 Special revolver cartridge is a fairly sedate number that lets a 158-grain round nose bullet out of the barrel at an advertised 850 fps that is closer to 750 fps in a 2-inch barrel. The majority of .38 Special defense revolvers these days are snub nose revolvers. The standard load is safe in a 1930s era Spanish revolver made in the Basque region of notoriously soft steel; it has to be. But for your modern Taurus, Smith & Wesson or Ruger revolver, a heavier load is perfectly safe.

The Federal Hydra-Shok

The Federal Hydra-Shok is specially designed for good performance in short barrel revolvers. In the case of the .38 Special +P, the bullet weight is 129 grains, which works out for a good balance of expansion and penetration. And that is what is important. A bullet that expands too quickly will lack penetration.

Expanded Gold Dot bullet

This is an expanded Gold Dot from the short barrel .45 load.

The .38 Special Hydra-Shok +P averaged 900 fps in my personal two-inch barrel Smith & Wesson. Velocity has been clocked at 875 to 921 fps in revolvers with barrels of 1 7/8 to 2 ½ inches. The bullet expands reliably, and recoil isn’t too great for a fast follow-up shot. The +P is in many ways simply an update of an older cartridge that brings it in line with the performance possible with modern handguns. As an example, GLOCK 17 handguns in police and military service have digested thousands of rounds of both +P+ and NATO specification 9mm ammunition without a problem. A 1930s vintage High Power might not prosper.

SAAMI, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufactures Institute, uses the +P designation to identify cartridges loaded to these higher-pressure levels. In self-loaders, +P loads can produce greater slide velocity. The greater momentum may result in a faster slide action that may affect the ability of the magazine to feed. For this reason, you must proof the short slide handgun with the chosen +P loads. Short slide, compact handguns sometimes have heavy recoil springs to compensate for this situation but all do not. A short-slide handgun needs a heavier spring, but some shooters complain of extra effort needed to rack the slide. The revolver firing +P loads simply kicks more, the self loader kicks more and cycles faster.

Shooter testing bullets by shooting wet newsprint

Ballistic testing is an exact science but the shooter can conduct ad hoc tests with some relevance such as shooting into west newsprint to check expansion.

Are +P cartridges loaded to borderline high-pressure standards? Of course not—they are not as hot as industry proof loads and they are hotter than standard loads. If you choose the .38 Special Hydra-Shok you have an accurate, clean-burning cartridge with a good record. For practice, the (AMM 334) Blazer TMJ .38 Special is an affordable practice load. Another use for the .38 Special +P is, interestingly enough, in .357 Magnum revolvers. As an example, the early records set for long-distance revolver shooting with the .357 Magnum were actually set with heavy-loaded .38 Special loads. Magnum brass, 1/10-inch longer than the .38, was difficult to find for many years.

When spelunking or when firing my Magnums at long-range, I find the Buffalo Bore .38 Special Outdoorsman load is an ideal choice. A 158-grain SWC at 1200 fps—actually a bit faster in the four-inch barrel Ruger GP 100—is a startlingly accurate loading. It would be an outstanding loading against coyote and the like. I have fired it in several long-barrel target-sighted Magnum revolvers. There is no more accurate factory load at long-range than this one. For a long shot across the canyon this .38 Special +P has what it takes. It is docile to fire in a full-size Magnum revolver, which certainly doesn’t hurt anything. The correct choice for each revolver is important!

A box of Speer Gold Dot with two loose rounds

The Speer Gold Dot (this is the 9mm) is often a good choice. The Gold Dot is in use across the world.

The 9mm Luger

The 9mm definitely needs help. With FMJ loads, the ice pick-like wound isn’t impressive. The Federal 115-gr. JHP at 1180 fps is a great standard pressure loading with a good reputation for expansion and accuracy. For practice, the AMM 441 9mm Blazer is clean burning, accurate and inexpensive. I like Blazer because a lot of them on the belt are still light. The aluminum case is lighter than brass. If aluminum brass were not used in the 30mm aircraft gun, as an example, the Warthog tank buster could not get off of the ground.

This is good modern technology. However, take a look at Buffalo Bore 124-grain JHP +P+. These loads break over 1300 fps from my GLOCK 19, penetrate 14 inches or more and expand to about .80 caliber. That is impressive! I would not use it in a sub compact, but this is ideal for the GLOCK 17 or GLOCK 19 or a SIG P250 full size. The .45 ACP doesn’t need the help the small bore cartridges do.

Expanded Cor Bon 200-grain JHP

This is an expanded Cor Bon 200-grain JHP in .45 caliber. It doesn’t get better than this.

Despite several attempts at revisionist history and junk science that abound, the .45 ACP is a good choice for personal defense. Operating pressures are low and the inherent accuracy excellent. Just the same modern technology is a good thing to have and a number of good choices make the .45 ACP even more effective. In a compact pistol, one of the most desirable loads is the Speer Gold Dot short barrel load in .45 ACP. Specially designed for a clean burn, good expansion and reliable functioning in short barrel .45 ACP handguns, this is an outstanding loading. A standard weight (230-grain) bullet at 820 fps is a recipe for reliable function.

In a steel frame pistol with a five-inch barrel, the +P .45 ACP can really shine. Check out the CorBon 200-grain JHP in .45 ACP. This loading has always proven superbly accurate in every 1911 I have fired it in. Expansion is excellent. The bullet doesn’t fragment but stays together and drives home. Velocity is well over 1050 fps in most handguns. In my Les Baer Monolith, this loading has averaged a five-shot group of about 1.25-inch at 25 yards, about all I can hold from a solid, careful braced bench rest shooting position.

The Kimber Eclipse is nearly as accurate from a rest and just as accurate in off-hand fire. This is a load that maximizes the .45 ACP not only in terminal performance but accuracy as well. You would be hard pressed to find a more accurate load. For general shooting and practice, I use what is available and inexpensive. As long as it goes bang! and is accurate enough for practice, little else matters.

Bob Campbell shooting 9mm +P ammunition

The author demonstrates one of the long suits of the 9mm- control. The 9mm +P kicks but little compared to standard pressure loadings.

However, for personal defense a high-grade loading with good case mouth seal and good primer seal is foremost. Reliability must be there. These loads have cartridge integrity, are gilt-edged accurate, and offer excellent performance. When you may be betting your life on the ammunition you are using in a worst-case scenario, these are good choices.

What is your choice for a handgun defensive round? Tell us in the comment section.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (20)

  • Brian


    There is aerror in the article. The .357 Magnum case length is 0.125 inches (1/8″) longer than a .38 Special case, not 0.10 inches (1/10″) as stated in the article.


  • Wayne Clark


    Excuse me…that was supposed to be Gold Dot. Sorry.


  • Wayne Clark


    Right now, I have a S&W .357 m66 4″ revolver that I use Red Dot Personal defense 158gr jhp to carry & a bunch of reloaded .38 special ball, fmj & fnmj with varying loads (typically 135gr) for practice. I’ve been thinking about going with a +P .38 special round for carrying, as I feel it would get the job done as well as the .357 loads & be less expensive, as I want to practice with what I carry & I don’t reload. I’m on a fixed income & want the best bang for my buck.
    Any thoughts on the +Ps?


  • Peter


    My favorite SD round is well features in this issue – the Hornaday XTP bullet – evveryone more from Hornaday to the dozens of other manufacturers licensed to see the same bullet.

    No bullet is more accurate, more consistent in its expansion and bullet loss, and best bang for your buck as virtually every other JHP maker packs them 20 to a box while Hornaday gives you 25 rounds per box for the same price – making them the better price deal as well.

    I’ve been using the XTP for 20 years without a single failure to mushroom.


  • Joshua Sheskin, Esq.,


    The fact is that accuracy in your shot is the key to stopping power. My friend who works for the DOD tells me that they use 9mm in their work because if you hit the target correctly with it then there is no question the target is going down. They do not even use hollow point ammo.

    I use two concealed carry guns. I use a .40 PM40 as my main carry piece with a Crimson Trace Laser. I use a 9mm Sccy as a pocket carry because it carries ten and never has had a problem with accuracy or loading since I changed out the springs, smoothed the feed ramp and keep it immaculately clean and well lubed.

    I carry the Kahr most of the time because it is lighter. But certainly I do not need a .40. A 9mm is plenty to repel a threat as long as you practice your accuracy and use a decent ammo.

    My grandfather used to teach self defense shooting, he used to say that “by the time you need a fourth round you should be running and not shooting.” At that point you either cant hit anything with accuracy worth more than running away, or you are up against too many people and need to run for help. In a situation in which you are not hitting or you are up against more shooters then you need to realize you are not a SWAT Team and run.


  • David


    Personally, I carry Hornady Critical Duty or if that is not available, then Hornady Critical Defense. If the Ranger T-Series bullets were easily available locally, then I’d be carrying that load in my all 9mm & .40 cals. The T-series is the modern version of the old Black Talons that have the sharp jagged cutting petals.

    Having worked in LE and seen the results of countless shooting investigations / autopsy results, the initial bullet impact & tissue / nerve damage on a assailant is extremely important to your survivability.

    The advantage of a round like Hornady with the rubber insert is that the insert acts like a water balloon when it comes into contact with water containing body tissue. If you push down on a water balloon, it gets fatter in diameter very quickly. That is what happens to a Hornady Critical Duty & Critical Defense round’s insert… the red tip gets fatter in diameter very quickly and causes the petals of the hollow point bullet to begin expanding as quickly as 1 1/4″ into tissue. Without wanting to be too graphic, the jagged & sharp copper petals begin to cut tissue, nerves, veins & arteries almost immediately. For a distance of approx, 6-10″ the petals are cutting a channel almost 2x’s the bullet’s original diameter and when the petals are folded all the way back along the bullet’s base, the bullet is still close to 1 1/2x’s its original diameter. Plus the initial impact shock wave will create a black-blood cavity close to 6″ long and 3-4″ in diameter. They cause very ugly wounds.

    30+ yrs ago, I was the victim of a gunshot wound to my upper arm. It was a small .32 cal solid jacket bullet. I never felt the bullet’s impact… I didn’t know I had been shot, nor did the wound ever at anytime hurt. But the bullet struck the nerve that controlled my Thumb, index finger and middle finger. They went numb instantly and I couldn’t wiggle them so much as a fraction of a inch. That is the kind of instant damage you want from your self defense rounds. Sharp jagged expanding petals cutting nerves that control muscle groups & body functions. Your assailant may not feel the bullet impact, but you can instantly shut down muscle function to different parts of their body via nerve & tissue damage.

    Finally, remember that you own every bullet that leaves your barrel. If you get in a hurry to shoot and only hit your assailant in the arm, shoulder or side… then most likely that load is gonna exit and hit whatever is behind your assailant. The round that hit my arm never slowed down. It passed through like my arm was made out of a single sheet of tissue paper. We never found where it ended up. You don’t want your hot +P load to end up in a innocent by-stander. So don’t just ‘spray & pray’, hoping to hit your target.


    • Richard from AZ


      David that is an excellent email. It explains so much. I’m going to switch to Hornady’s in all my magazines, instead of using normal JHP’s.

      Why is Critical Duty better than Critical Defense? It’s confusing to me why Hornady would offer 2 types.

      Basically, after reading all replies, I’m gonna stay away from +P just like I always have, but upgrade the quality of what is in my magazines and revolver speed loaders (for my 44 magnum).

      I guess the only +P I ever bought was Buffalo Bore 44 magnum 300 grain lead flat nose. I’m a strong guy and I never worry about recoil, but let me tell you, you can feel the difference. I’ll only load these in the forest if I’m worried about bears.


    • David


      Thanks for the kind words Richard, Don’t totally rule out +p on my account…or other brands of ammo. I was just pointing out that unless you get a good solid torso hit in the thick center chest / stomach area, there is a good chance of over penetration and the bullet leaving your assailant. Personally, I can’t be certain of making that kind of shot in a Self Defense situation… so I plan for the possibility of over penetration.

      Here is a couple of links to Hornady gel tests you might find interesting…



    • Richard from AZ


      David thanks for the videos. I’m defintely going with Critical Duty over Critical defense. I’ll be testing them in my Glock 29 10mm, and also in the RIA 10mm 5 inch barrel I’m buying this week.


    • Peter


      Just a thought on over penetration:
      (I don’t know if this story is true, but it’s a great illustration)

      At one point, the FBI backed off from the .45 and went to the .38 Spl due to the concern of over penetration. Then one astute Agent pointed out that 9 of 10 FBI rounds misses the target, and that this was the ultimate over penetration. The FBI then went back to “.40 or larger.”

      Every round that misses over penetrates. Don’t worry too much about what your round will do after it hits your target – assure that it will actually hit the target.


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