There are few subjects as prone to create an argument as personal defense handguns and calibers. Some have a “devil may care” attitude and deploy anything, stating most are the same, while others go into great, even minute detail, in their testing and choices. I think that everyone should master the personal defense handgun of their choice.
Given a reliable handgun of good quality and at least 9mm caliber you will be well armed. The choice must be backed by training. In today’s busy world, few of us have the time we would like to master the handgun thoroughly. This means compromise. What should never be compromised is ammunition quality.
The ammunition must be resistant to oil, solvent, and water. The primer seal and case mouth seal should be good. This doesn’t necessarily mean chemically sealed but a good tight seal. The ammunition should not be prone to the bullet being seated back in the cartridge case as it is worked through the action. Accuracy is relevant and the load should be accurate enough for personal defense. For me this means a four inch group at 25 yards in a service grade pistol. More accuracy is better if I can get it.
I have used Hornady ammunition for many years. Hornady was pushed to the top of the list when it introduced the XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) bullet. There just wasn’t anything like it before and there is little competition today.
Today, we also have the Critical Defense and Critical Duty loads. They are not really variants of the XTP but fresh designs for a specific purpose. They have Hornady quality in common, however. These loads make the most of a handgun caliber.
Handguns, in general, are not very powerful compared to rifles and shotguns. The weak 9mm and strong .45 are more alike than they differ when compared to a .223 rifle or 12 gauge shotgun. I appreciate my Colt .45 1911 very much and often carry a single-action .45 loaded with the 250-grain XTP in the outdoors. Neither is as powerful as my Springfield M1A1 .308 or Browning Auto 5 riot gun—not even close. But the improved handgun loads from Hornady make the most of a handgun cartridge.
A man is about the size and tenacity to life of a large deer. The primary difference is animals do not know they have been shot and are less susceptible to shock. With a handgun, multiple shots may be the rule to stop a motivated felon.
Those motivated by profit seldom have to be shot, they will retreat at the sight of a handgun. The psychopath exists and so do those motivated by a desire to murder or cause human suffering. They may take a lot of shooting to stop.
Handgun bullets don’t damage a lot of tissue compared to 12 gauge buckshot or a .30 rifle bullet at 2,700 fps. Hydrostatic shock and energy dump are simply junk science when it comes to handgun wound ballistics. They are creative literature. What stops an assailant is a wound that produces blood loss.
The body’s pressurized system must be compromised and blood loss created to stop the system from operating. Even with a severe wound, the felon may return fire. As long time cop and writer Tom Ferguson stated, ‘Everyone has a 50-50 chance of dying in a gunfight.’
Penetration is the primary concern. If the bullet doesn’t penetrate to the vitals it is worthless. Velocity is important, as it enables this penetration. Velocity also instigates expansion, which increases the frontal diameter of the bullet and makes the bullet less likely to simply push flesh aside, but more likely to cut flesh and create a larger wound.
A large caliber bullet that expands creates the most damage. It isn’t easy to create enough energy to cause the bullet to both penetrate and expand ideally. One of the finest loads available for service use is the Hornady Critical Duty. This load penetrates auto glass, building material, and sheet metal and exits to penetrate at least 13 inches in ballistic gelatin. The bullet expands reliably, although expansion isn’t the same after hitting sheet metal, as an example, as when entering bare gelatin.
Expansion is 1.2 to 1.6 times the original diameter in institutional and industry testing. Hornady uses the FlexLock bullet in these loads. The original XTP has a thick jacket at the bullets base and a thinner jacket at the nose. This results in the bullet expanding, but not fragmenting, as expansion stopped at the shank.
The XTP usually retains 100 percent of its weight in testing. The XTP expands when the nose fills with fluid. Hornady developed the FlexTip or FTX bullet to offer a different type of expansion mechanism. There is a polymer tip inside the nose or sump of the Critical Defense bullet. The nose doesn’t clog with the FlexTip bullet.
Expansion isn’t as dependent on velocity. The FTX bullet may be loaded to lower velocity but retain good expansion, making for a controllable defense load. This technology allowed the development of a very good .22 Magnum loading using a 45 grain bullet and also good defense loads in .44 Special and .45 Colt. It led to the FlexLock.
The FlexLock is based on the same engineering principles, but with a solid locking section in the jacket that locks the jacket to the lead core. This bullet will not separate in tough material. While the XTP is a tough bullet, I have managed to separate the XTP when driving a 90-grain XTP to 1,600 fps in the .38 Super and in similar experiments—the bullet was designed for .380 ACP velocity, about 900 fps.
The FlexLock is a superior design for service use. Is it truly superior to the XTP bullet? The answer depends on your worst case scenario. It is the question of expansion versus penetration, and the FlexLock appears to have both. Hornady did a tremendous amount of research and development. The bullet weights are non traditional, with the first issue 9mm, a 135-grain bullet, and the .40 a 175-grain bullet.
Nickel-plated cases aid in smooth feed reliability. If you consult the Hornady website and its published data for FBI testing, you will find that the FlexLock penetrates about 25 percent more than the Critical Defense load during the FBI protocol testing. Some FlexLock loads actually penetrate less and expand more than the Critical Defense in bare gelatin. When it comes to barrier penetration, the FlexLock has every advantage. As a bonus, during the recent FBI contract testing, the FBI reported that the Hornady 135-grain 9mm adopted by the agency was the most accurate 9mm loading ever tested.
For most of us, the Critical Defense loading is a preferred home defense and personal defense load. I do not have the resources to duplicate the FBI testing and do not need to, as Hornady and the FBI have tested the load beyond my ability. However, I have fired the loads on the range and checked for recoil, reliability, and accuracy.
I have also fired into my standard water testing and qualified expansion. In short, you have less recoil with good expansion with the Critical Defense FTX bullet, just as designed. With the Critical Duty FlexLock bullet you have excellent penetration if needed.
I think if feral dogs and the big cats are part of the outdoors picture, the FlexLock would be the better choice. I am particularly pleased with Critical Duty performance in both 10mm and .45 ACP caliber. The Critical Defense seems better suited to short barrel handguns with lower velocity potential. Below are certified test results with both lines of ammunition.
Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty Gelatin Results
|9mm 100-grain LITE (A low recoil defense load, tested in a three-inch barrel.)|
|1,125 fps.||9.25 in.||.57|
|.38 Special 90-grain Lite, tested in a 1 7/8-inch barrel revolver|
|.357 Magnum 3-inch barrel L Frame SW|
|.40 Smith and Wesson|
Do you carry Hornady ammunition? Which load and why? Share your answers 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 Shooters 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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