A solid marketing scheme or cool packaging will do little to stop an attacker, but the right ammunition can. However, there are far too many people who can tell you exactly why they chose a particular firearm for self-defense, but have little to no idea why they chose the ammunition they loaded into the gun. This article reviews bullet construction, “stopping power,” and a handful of top choices to get you on a path to effective self-defense.
When choosing a firearm for self-defense, your primary concerns should be centered around the fit, function, purpose, and potentially concealability of your firearm. Next, you’ll want to ensure theory meets reality. For example, the gun may be small enough to easily conceal, but too small to easily manipulate the controls. You may have the right self-defense caliber, but the recoil of the particular platform is unacceptable.
For the purpose of this discussion, let’s start with the premise that you have done your homework, bought a pistol that you can easily manipulate the controls, achieve a repeatable grip, and successfully manage the recoil. If the gun will be used for concealed carry, it is also sized properly so you can conceal it.
Congratulations! You now own a rather poor club or a very expensive rock. Whichever way you prefer to view it, the firearm is not what stops the attacker, the bullet does. The most tricked-out reliable pistol in the world is of little value without ammunition—more specifically, the right ammunition for the gun.
The firearm is the launch vehicle, but the bullet is the instrument that does the dirty work. To say the bullet is the most important element in the self-defense equation would only be a half-truth. The shooter needs to be able to accurately place the round on target.
If the effectiveness of a bullet can be summed up in a single phrase, it would be “stopping power.” The more stopping power a bullet delivers, the more effective it will be at ending a confrontation in your favor. Make no mistake; stopping power and caliber do not share the direct correlation many people think. While I like, and have often subscribed to, the theory of “The bigger the pea, the better the straw it was shot from” caliber is still a misleading measure of stopping power in my opinion.
Lead bullets expand rapidly. This is because the metal is soft and easily deformed. However, even in larger calibers such as the .40 S&W or .45 ACP, an all-lead bullet would deform quickly at the expense of penetration. On the other end of the spectrum, we have the full metal jacket or FMJ bullet. The FMJ’s hard copper shell over the lead core gives outstanding penetration (by comparison), but it has a tendency to over penetrate, which means it did not transfer all of its energy (hydrostatic shock) diminishing its stopping power.
For maximum stopping power, we need the proper amount of penetration coupled with the maximum amount of energy transfer. This combination is the definition of stopping power, and what we need to end a gunfight in our favor. That is why simply having the biggest caliber is not necessarily the best solution—especially when it is not coupled with the right ammunition.
Now that we have a good definition of stopping power, we can start looking at the rest of the elements of the self-defense bullet equation. The perfect bullet is akin to a unicorn that ballisticians have chased since the invention of gunpowder. As of today, it does not exist in any single form, and here is why.
What do you learn from watching a video of a bullet fired into a gel block? We have all watched these videos. The bullet enters, the block shakes in slow motion, the shooter whips out a knife, cuts open the block, and retrieves the beautifully upset bullet. From this we have a fairly good measure of penetration, energy transfer, and expansion. However, stopping at this point and believing you have the right self-defense ammunition is a fool’s errand.
The video has only demonstrated how well the cartridge performed out of a particular gun, not your firearm. That is to say, the same cartridge fired from a revolver with a 6-inch barrel gives very different performance than a cartridge fired from a 2-inch snubby.
The longer barrel offers a more complete powder burn that generally equates to a faster velocity. Given the short range of a self-defense encounter, we are essentially talking about muzzle velocity as our measure. The difference in bullet speed (as applied to kinetic energy) effects how the bullet expands, which in turn affects penetration and energy transfer or stopping power.
With this knowledge, we can make a few deductions. The first is that we need to select a bullet with the proper construction. There are several worthy hybrids on the market today. Historically however, they are some variation of the jacketed hollow point (JHP). The JHP features a soft inner core, usually lead, with a hard outer coating such as copper. The hollow point allows the soft inner core to maximize expansion and energy transfer while the partial copper jacket controls the expansion to achieve the proper amount of penetration—not too much as to over penetrate, or too little which would not reach the vitals and do the necessary damage to stop the threat.
This is predicated upon the bullet’s speed at entry and the medium of the target, which is why ballisticians chase the mythical unicorn. The manufacturer does not know which gun you will be using, the barrel length, how the target will be clothed, whether the target is a bulked-up, 400-pound mound of fat and muscle or a skin and bones 110-pound meth addict.
What the ballisticians have done to solve this dilemma is formulate powders with different burn rates. They have designed a variety of bullet core and jacket combinations to control the rate of expansion. The combination of powder and bullet is a task reloaders are used to testing, but self-defense enthusiasts… not so much. This is where you have to take responsibility, and do a little homework.
Selecting the Right Ammunition for Your Handgun
Will you be carrying a full-size 1911 with a 5-inch barrel or short 3.5-inch barreled Citadel? Will a 9mm Glock 17 with a 4.48-inch barrel or Glock 43 with a 3.39-inch barrel ride your waistline? What will your likely adversary be wearing? Is it minimal clothing such as t-shirts and shorts weather or winter parkas and multiple layers weather? Penetrating heavy clothing may clog the hollow point, effectively making it act like a FMJ.
Considerations such as these—and I am sure some of you reading this will add more in the comment section—are all factors you should be considering when selecting a self-defense ammunition. While there is no one cartridge that is optimal for all guns and situations, you can certainly increase the effectiveness of your self-defense ammunition by choosing the best performer for your chosen pistol and carry situation. After all, it is your life and the lives of your loved ones that matter most. Isn’t that worth more than just the cheapest (or most expensive) box on the shelf? Isn’t that worth a little research, forethought, and testing on your part?
Gel blocks are very cool and crazy expensive. 20 Percent ballistic gelatin blocks, depending on dimensions, run anywhere from about $80 to $200 each. That adds up quick. However, one-gallon milk jugs filled with water and a chronograph is a lot cheaper.
Here are the test results Bob Campbell reported in his Every Man’s Defensive Caliber — The 9mm article.
|Ruger SR1911 9mm with 4.25-inch Barrel|
|Load||Velocity/Penetration in Water||Expansion|
|Hornady 124-grain XTP||1090 fps/16 inches||.54|
|Hornady 124-grain XTP +P||1180 fps/17 inches||.66|
|Winchester 115-grain Silvertip||1150 fps/11 inches||.64|
|Winchester 124-grain PDX +P||1190 fps/16 inches||.65|
|Gorilla Ammunition 135-grain||960 fps/18 inches||.70|
|SIG Sauer Elite 124-grain V Crown||1165 fps/18 inches||.66|
|Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P Short Barrel||1201 fps/15 inches||.68|
|Federal 124-grain HST||1155 fps/18 inches||.72|
What type of ammunition should you buy? Here’s a list of several top choices, all of which were designed with one goal in mind—winning the fight by stopping the attacker and minimizing the damage to you and your loved ones. But you still need to proof your chosen load.
Speer Gold Dot Personal Protection
Speer pioneered bonded core bullets. The Uni-Cor bonding process secures the jacket to the alloy lead core essentially eliminating the odds of the jacket and core separating during expansion.
The Gold Dot’s hollow point design is formed in two stages. The first stage controls the width of expansion. The second stage determines the rate of expansion. This patented two-step cavity formation gives Speer’s engineers incredible control in the design process. Each bullet caliber and weight is tuned for optimum expansion and penetration to maximize stopping power.
Speer Personal Protection Short Barrel
This load shares the same qualities you’ll find in the standard Personal Protection line, including nickel cases and Speer bullets with two-stage construction. However, the Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel Personal Protection line of handgun projectiles is designed to offer you superior performance out of your shorter barreled carry guns at an affordable price.
Federal Premium Personal Defense HST
Federal Premium Personal Defense HST cartridges offer everything needed in a personal defense round: consistent expansion, optimum penetration, and superior terminal performance. That’s why it’s already the duty load of choice for law enforcement officers around the world.
Federal Premium Personal Defense Micro HST
The .380 Micro HST, introduced in 2015 and now available in addition calibers, offers the same consistent expansion, optimum penetration and superior terminal performance as its bigger brother, but with bullet weights and propellants optimized for the most efficient cycling and accuracy in micro-sized subcompact handguns.
Hornady Critical Defense
When the demand came for a better self-defense round, Hornady answered the call with its Critical Defense line. All Critical Defense ammunition is loaded with the FTX bullet that features a hollow point with a polymer tip to maximize ballistic performance and reliable expansion by reducing the chances of clogging.
Buffalo Bore Standard Pressure Short Barrel Low Flash Heavy .38 Special Ammunition
Buffalo Bore Ammunition is some of the best defensive ammo available. Buffalo Bore 20E was manufactured specifically to meet the needs of shooters carrying older/fragile/alloy revolvers. Buffalo Bore 20E is an effective “fight stopper” that is more powerful than typical.38 SPL ammo. It is also flash suppressed.
The Buffalo Bore 20E utilizes a jacketed hollow point 125-grain bullet. This bullet is designed to expand at low speeds and has no problem opening up at considerably less velocity, than the stated 900 fps on the box, from two-inch barrel revolvers. Penetration in human tissue is roughly 12 inches.
These are just a few of the dozens of the quality self-defense ammunition offerings on the market today. You’ll have to do some homework, but popping a few caps at the range is hardly work. Due to the cost of premium ammunition, testing with a few friends is never a bad idea. However, if four friends each bring a few different boxes of ammunition, you’ll have a lot of test loads for each of you at a minimal expense.
What pistol and load combination do you carry? What testing did you do to proof the ammunition you carry in your self-defense gun? Share your answers in the comment section.
Growing up in Pennsylvanias game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Daves writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersens Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersens Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!
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