Stopping Power: Top Choices for Self-Defense Ammunition

By Dave Dolbee published on in Ammunition

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.

Two upset Hornady bullets

If you are worried about ammunition performance, load Hornady defense loads and rest easy.

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.

Bullets

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.

upset V-Crown bullet top view

Note excellent expansion .45 Colt V Crown hollowpoint.

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.

 

Engineering

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.

Hornady Critical Defense bullet, cross section and upset

This is the Hornady Critical Defense, a very efficient bullet.

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.

DoubleTap 77-grain and 115-grain upset bullets

The Double Tap 77-grain bullet, left, would be ideal for urban defense. The 115-grain all copper load is a good choice while the +P 115-grain load, right, maximizes the caliber. Note the long shank and all-copper center.

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.

Ammunition Performance

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.

Four Speer Gold Dot bullets after impact

This is the Speer Gold Dot bullet after impact at different velocities. Even at modest velocity, the bullet expands to an extent.

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 9mm

Federal Premium Personal Defense Micro HST 9mm

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

Colt Commander with Hornady Critical Defense ammunition

The Hornady Critical Defense load proves accurate and powerful at a solid 974 fps.

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.

Conclusion

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.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s 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 Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s 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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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (43)

  • Donald Heater

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    I wonder why the Gloçk 19 wasn’t mentioned. It seems to me that one of the most popular carry weapons would be mentioned for the information results.

    Reply

  • Robert Fehlner

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    Why didn’t you evaluate CNC machined copper bullets like the R.I.P. by G2 Research?

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      We are always looking for ammunition to test! Let me reach out to G2 and see what we can do. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Steve Hamilton

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    #ShawnD Thanks again for the thorough explanation and the book recommendation. I will certainly grab a copy of it. With the temporary stretch cavity issue, I guess the best way to sum it up would be that it may “hurt”, but not “incapacitate” (necessarily, dependent upon shot placement). Much obliged. – Steve

    Reply

    • ShawnD

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      Unless the bullet produces direct physical trauma to the central nervous system or blood loss in rate and quantity to produce rapid unconsciousness you cannot rely on the temporary cavity causing any type of reaction as the bad guy may be drunk, drugged, psychotic, extremely determined and he/she may not react as you believe a rational actor would.

      Reply

    • Steve Hamilton

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      #ShawnD After studying this further you are correct. The temporary stretch cavity may be disruptive and may “hurt”, but there seems to be no guarantee that it would put someone down for the count. I appreciate the explanation and the links to additional research. Cheers mate.

      Reply

  • ShawnD

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    Sadly the author mistakenly believes that energy transfer is a mechanism of incapacitation. It is not. The bullet must damage tissues critical to immediate survival to produce rapid incapacitation of a violent felon. Only hits to the brain and upper spinal cord will produce instant incapacitation. Hits anywhere else on the body are going to take time – time required for blood loss in rate and quantity to produce unconsciousness. A handgun bullet can only be counted on to poke a hole in soft tissues, unlike higher velocity expanding rifle bullets that produce a substantially larger temporary cavity that can produce severe damage to even the most resilient of soft tissues as well as produce concussion of the spinal cord which stuns and disrupts the spinal cord causing instant temporary paralysis that leads to instant collapse.

    Reply

    • Steve Hamilton

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      #ShawnD Thanks for the comment. God willing I will never have to use a rifle or handgun to incapacitate an intruder. However, I will never hesitate to do so if necessary. In the slow-mo videos, the temporary expansion looks wicked from a rifle round, as we’ve all seen. One would think that that alone would “hurt” someone. However, I understand your point about instantly incapacitating a threat, and I believe you are quite correct. I’ve seen too many videos where people take two or three rounds from a handgun, then get back up. My go-to is the AR-15 in 5.56 or .300 AAC with expanding rounds for an HD scenario. Thank you for the clarification, mate.

      Reply

    • ShawnD

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      Think of the temporary cavity as nothing more than than a “splash” of soft tissues. As for the “wicked looking” temporary cavities produced by centerfire rifle bullets, consider hunters who shoot human-sized game animals with large caliber centerfire rifle bullets and the animal runs away immediatley after being shot.. I suggest you go to YouTube and search for and view the video “LeMas Ltd Killing Pigs to Sell Bullets”. There you’ll see pigs being shot with handgun and rifle bullets designed to quickly “transfer energy”. Note that NONE of them are instantly incapacitated and ALL are able to act with volition immediately after being shot (and none of the pigs are drunk, drugged, psychotic, etc.).

      Reply

  • Steve Hamilton

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    #Mr. Charles Very good point! Thanks for bringing that up. Consistently flawless feeds are obviously critical.

    Reply

  • James

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    The only thing I would add is to test the round to make sure it feeds in your gun properly. I had a friend with a cheap Taurus pistol that thought he was all set until he went to the range to test his pistol with his chosen round and it jammed the gun repeatedly. The 147 grain rounds worked fine in his Glock, but would not feed in his Taurus.

    Reply

    • John Tyler

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      The Taurus problems were with the magazines, not the weapon. From 2008 until 2012-13 taurus put out crappy mags that needed to be smoothed and rounded to feed properly. Those problems have been fixed.
      The new Taurus Spectrum in .380 is…in a word…perfection. If, however, your friend still has that problem, tell him to simply smooth out the top of the feeder in the mag with a metal file and spread the teeth a bit and the mags will feed fine. cheers.

      Reply

    • RKC

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      So you are excusing a third rate maker on the reasoning that he supplied a firearm with a non functional major component? Buy quality and there are no excuses. Decide what your life is worth. My life is worth more than a Taurus.

      Reply

    • Yosemite

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      Anyone can make a lemon. It can and does happen….Look at all the various recalls of things from baby cribs to vehicles from almost every manufacturer (IF NOT ALL OF THEM) of vehicles, to various firearms to kitchen appliances to whatever item…..

      I have seen Colt 1911 .45 ACP NIB have all kinds of issues and need some work from factory or Gunsmiths….I have seen “cheap and I MEAN CHEAP weapons work flawlessly….We just never know when it is going to happen Taurus did make a bunch of crap at one time. They corrected that problem…and I know and have seen others that own, use, EDC with them.

      Glad your friend got the problem resolved

      Reply

  • MR. CHARLES

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    Glad that you have found the information you were seeking to become a better informed Armed Citizen. Before I purchase anything I do the research to find out the information needed to give me the best knowledge to judge the merits of the product I want and if it will fit the needs that I want. Example: I wanted a .44 or .45 Magnum – when looking at the Ballistics Data for the .44 Magnum the maximum load was not enough for what I wanted, I then looked at the .45 Magnums Data and found the .454 Casull which gave me the results that I wanted for the need that I had. I then purchased a firearm that shot that cartridge and that I could handle as well. That is my experience level and I hope that you will be happy with what you are doing.

    Reply

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