Throwback Thursday: 5 Good 9mm Luger Loads for Personal Defense

Expanded 9mm Luger Hollowpoint

The 9mm Luger is everyone’s caliber. The 9mm is a powerful number well-suited to personal defense. The 9mm easily jolts 115 to 124-grain bullets to well over 1,100 fps. +P or higher-pressure loadings may reach 1,300 fps. The 9mm is not quite as good as some of its fans think, but it is a better cartridge than most of its detractors would have you believe. It has evolved into perhaps the ideal personal-defense caliber for most users.

The 9mm uses a .355-inch bullet. It cannot do the work of larger calibers, but it certainly outclasses smaller calibers. The 9mm offers all of the recoil most shooters are willing to master. A number of very experienced shooters choose the 9mm based on excellent control, good practical accuracy, and a good reserve of ammunition. A compact 9mm Luger handgun is easily controlled with practice. A compact .40 S&W handgun or .38 Special small-frame revolver may be a bear to handle. Some of the finest handguns in the world are chambered for the 9mm Luger cartridge.

Many affordable handguns are chambered in 9mm as well. It is important to choose a loading with a good balance of expansion and penetration. The 9mm needs good expansion to be effective, and all calibers must exhibit adequate penetration for good effect. Non-expanding FMJ loads have proven ineffective. The search was on for five good 9mm defensive loads.

Underwood 9mm Expansion
Underwood’s 124-grain 9mm exhibits good expansion.

When I was given this assignment, I resolved to test each loading not only for reliability and accuracy, but wound potential as well. I tested the loads without regard to advertised velocities or overstated claims. There’s a lot of misinformation regarding wound potential. A lot of folks don’t understand that questioning the veracity of a source is instrumental to understanding and using sources.

Misinformation is staggering. I use water for testing penetration and expansion because it is within 10 percent of gelatin results and much, much easier to work with. While some will say this isn’t valid compared to gelatin testing, the answer is of course it is. As I stated, water and gelatin testing are very close to one another, usually within 10 percent in penetration and expansion results.

Neither bears a close correlation to flesh and bone. The primary advantage of gelatin is that the wound channel may be observed and even preserved. Water only supplies the end result. On the other hand, my work is easily double-checked.

I tested many loads, but ended up with five that I feel fill the most important niche roles of the 9mm Luger. I think they are excellent loads. For testing, I used a Glock 19 9mm handgun. I think it is the most common and best 9mm. A handgun with a shorter barrel may be expected to produce less velocity, while a longer-barrel handgun will exhibit greater velocity. With modern loads, the difference in expansion and penetration may be slight in either barrel length. Reliability is 100 percent in these loads. Accuracy is consistent at 15 yards.

Here’s a quick-guide infographic that shows you the different loads I’ve featured: (Click here to skip directly to the rest of the article.)

5 self defense loads

1. Hornady 100-Grain Critical Defense Lite

This loading fills the need for a low-recoil loading for those of small stature, particularly in a compact handgun. Older shooters may also feel a need for lower recoil. The Hornady load functions well despite lowered bullet weight. Velocity averaged 1,140 fps. Penetration was 12 inches of water and expansion averaged 0.59 inches. This is a credible choice that will serve well for recoil-shy shooters or those using the smallest 9mm handguns.

Hornady Lite 9mm Luger Ammo
The Hornady Lite 9mm 100-grain loads exhibit good expansion.

2. Fiocchi 115-Grain Extrema

This is a good go-anywhere, do-anything load. It works fine in every 9mm I have fired, and offers good accuracy and a clean powder burn. The 115-grain Fiocchi Extrema isn’t loaded too hot or too light, it is just right! Accuracy is excellent. The load averaged 1,160 fps. Penetration was 16 inches and expansion a very consistent 0.55 inches.

Fiocchi Extrema
Fiocchi 9mm has proven reliable and accurate in a variety of the author’s handguns.

3. Hornady 115-Grain Critical Defense

The Critical Defense uses a polymer plug to instigate expansion. This works well against a variety of material. The Hornady Critical Defense load is loaded to 1,151 fps. Penetration was ideal at 16 inches, and expansion was excellent at 0.58 inches. This is a good general-purpose defense load.

Hornady Critical Defense 9mm Luger
Note excellent expansion with the Critical Defense bullet.

4. Underwood 124-Grain JHP

I wanted to test at least one +P or maximum-effort loading. The Underwood loading clocks 1,302 fps average. Recoil was the greatest of any load tested. We probably would not use this one in a sub-compact pistol. Recoil would be greater, and greater slide velocity may lead to malfunctions. The load was reliable in the Glock 19 and accuracy was good. Penetration was 18 inches and expansion the greatest of the test at 0.82 inches. That is a lot of wound potential.

Underwood 9mm Luger Ammunition
The Underwood load is high velocity and high energy, but did not exhibit excessive pressure signs.

5. Buffalo Bore 147-Grain JHP

Buffalo Bore also offers fast-stepping 9mm loads in 115 and 124-grain weight. I wanted to test a heavyweight 9mm. The industry standard for the 147-grain JHP seems to be 960 to 1,000 fps. This loading breaks 1,047 fps average in the Glock 19. This is excellent velocity for a 147-grain bullet, yet recoil isn’t excessive. Reliability is good.

If you have the need for deep penetration against heavily-clothed attackers or feel that light cover is part of the likely scenario, this is a good choice. Penetration was 20 inches and expansion was a reliable 0.56 inches.

Buffalo Bore 9mm Luger Ammo
The Buffalo Bore 147-grain heavyweight is an interesting number.

When you choose personal safety gear, choose what is optimum for your use, not what is popular. Obtain training and build skills, or else resign yourself to defense at arm’s length.

Decide that defending yourself is possible, not impossible. It fails the power of my pen to describe the fear of a fight fought to the finish. Avoid it at all cost, but by the same token, be prepared with the best gear and supplies possible.

What is your favorite 9mm Luger defensive load? Why? Let us know in the comments section below!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in June of 2020. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
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 (36)

  1. I use different loads for different barrel lengths(usually always frame size dependent), first 5 rounds, 115gr Winchester Silver JHP in 1 magazine for my Shield Plus and CSX both 3.1″(in reality 2.5″), in another 50gr Liberty Civil defense mixed with Barnes 115gr VOR-TX Solid copper hp. The last 3 rounds in every mag are SIG SAUER 124gr. Elite performance JHP(brass cased version of the V-Crown but upto 20.00 cheaper than the Nickel plated). For the CANIK TP9SA 4.25″ FS first 10are 124gr. SIG elite performance JHP. The last 8 are 147gr. Speer Gold Dots Bul-Armory Cherokee FS 4.45″ first 10 are SIG 124gr. Elite Performance JHP. The 9mm round needs 4.4″ to get max velocity from a cartridge. The only thing different is +P rounds will have higher velocities. I think it’s obvious why. The last 6 are 147gr Speer Gold Dots. For cold weather or armored assailants I will switch to a 4″ S&W SD40VE using either Federal 155gr Hydra Shok JHP or 155gr Remington JHP(R40SW1) as the first 5 rounds and the last 10 are 180gr flat nose UMC. The reason being I carry both open and concealed at the same time. If I’m facing a barrier I can strip the first 5 rounds, and you’ll have time. That’s if I have the 40 on me. And since the 9mm isn’t great at barriers I’d swap mags to a 124gr fmj from just about any manufacturer but Tulammo. If you shoot allot, you know how unreliable it is. And are you really going to trust your life to Russian range ammo? Unless that’s all you have. And it’s better than nothing if your fighting for your life just be prepared to tap and rack. For the last 2 years I’ve been reading and watching ballistic gel tests. If you have the means use the Lehigh Defense monolithic solid copper extreme defender, in any +p offering in any weight. And please please, know what’s behind your target, because it could be my house, and we like looking out our windows, and I have grandchildren. Former Navy MAA(military police) train to stop the threat, not to destroy, your not in the military or at war. Your soul will thank you, and your nightmares won’t haunt you.

  2. I stick wthree good, reliable brands. Wincheste: Either Ranger-T or Train & Defend (Defend, of course), Speer Gold Dot 147 or Federal Premium HST 147. If you live in a city or even an apartment, overpenetration can have a nasty habit of finding innocents. Leave the 20 inch penetration for rural areas, as a bullet exiting the bad guy is not as purposeful.

  3. I carry Federal HST 147 gr. in 9mm or 165 gr. in 40 S&W because of price, nickel plated cases, and reports of reliable expansion. I just bought the Sig V Crown in 124 gr. 9mm for the same reasons. The price for Fiochi hollow points were 50 cents per round in plane brass cases recently but I did not know if they would reliably expand.

  4. I carry 115Grain Critical Defense in my Sig P365 and Ruger Max 9. Couple hundred rounds of Critical Defense through each with no issues. Test any pistol I purchase with Critical Defense.

  5. I think it makes cents to use a lighter bullet in warm weather and a heavier bullet in heavy clothing weather. I would only want 12″ of penitration in either bullet so you don’t get Over-Penetration which will almost always be really bad for you if you hit a non-combatent! Also make sure you have some type of shooters insurance to handle the aftermath of a shooting event. Lastly, always practice as if your life depends on it, as it does. Hit your intended target and nothing else and train your most important weapon, your mind to instinctively go into full battle mode when it happens.

  6. Well guys, opinions are like armpits, everybody has them and they all stink. It doesn’t matter what bullet you use if you can’t hit what you shoot at. practice, practice, practice.

  7. I’m a huge fan of the 108gr Norma MHP round. 1300fps+, 400ft lbs+ of muzzle energy out of a 4″ bbl. I drop feral hogs and coyote with one shot @30 yards consistently with my H&K VP9. Too much fun!

  8. You should try International Cartridge Company. They make frangible handgun rounds. As a PA State Constable I carry these rounds and trust my life with them. They provide great penetration and a full energy transfer.

    1. My agency in Florida Citrus county- tried frangible but just for training. As a part time instructor I thought they were garbage and so did everyone else we went back to Fiji for punching paper and stuck with Speer gold dot for carry ammo.

  9. I agree with Daniel on 6/8/20, I also use Winchester Ranger +P 9mm 124g JHP. Alot of good defense ammo out there. I also like Federal Hydroshock JHP, XTP 147g. Hornady gunner 9mm +P 124g XTP 1175fps or get some Hornady 9mm 147g XTP 975fps.
    I use and carry the Glock 19. I want a round that is heavy with extreme terminal performance XTP….going as fast as possible + P. Get the most for your money. All this technical info is really good, thanks for sharing.
    Gelatin, water ballistics, etc. is nice. Remember…Food, medicine and Defense, most else is irrelevant.
    And if you are ever going to shoot someone : 2 in the heart, 1in the forehead, your target will go down and not get up. (John Wick ).

    1. Unless you have had to shoot a bad guy and the ammo did it’s job your opinion is meaningless. The ballistic gelatin doesn’t shoot back. And the Mozambique drill is very frowned upon these days ( John Wick is not real-sorry). So if that what you are practicing just be prepared to have some roommates behind bars.

  10. 2nd Generation Winchester Ranger T-Series (RA9T) is superior to all of these rounds. 16.5 Inches of penetration with expansion at .74 Inches

  11. Gelatin is great and has been used by manufacturers to test their hunting and personal defense loads for years. However, the best, and most valid test is the incident reports from la enforcement agencies that have been involved with shootings. Tennessee Highway Patrol switched a few years ago from the ammunition they had been using to a different brand because, in the words of one of the officers in charge of firearms training “it was getting too many of our officers killed”. I[m sure that was just a graphic way of explaining it to me, but actual shootings demonstrated to them what didn’t work and a reason to switch. And importantly, what worked and didn’t work in their service guns.

  12. I wish you had a single “button” which would allow us to save a user friendly copy of an article. Every now and then there are articles that I’d like to save, either for my own future reference or to share with others.

    Using my browser to print a copy doesn’t really work well, it works but includes too much extraneous material.


      You can save copy of the article by holding down the left mouse button to highlight what you want then hit the right button on the mouse and select copy (or CTRL + C then paste it to your words or notepad then save as

  13. Speer Gold Dot 124 g gdhp. Carried it at work , had to use it at work; it worked. Now I carry it daily in my Glock model 45 9mm.

  14. I’ll stick with either the Federal HST 124 grain +P which averages 18.3″ penetration and >.60″ expansion or the Remington Golden Saber 124 grain +P which has nearly identical performance at a lower price point. Both fly along at around 1170 fps which also happens to work well with several of my 9mm pistols.

  15. It would be interesting to know all of the different rounds tested and not just the top 5 pick. I have Sig V Crown hollows loaded into all my pistols for self defense.

  16. I’m sorry I am not convinced the better EDC sould be a 9MM IMHO a .40 or larger is more
    suited for self defense Many thugs are ourt wearing home made armor (heavy clothing) and light weight higher velosity rounds don’t cut it. My wife loves her .357 Magnum as her EDC for me it’s .40S&W at 180 gr

  17. All of this Ammo sounds great but, I hope everyone thinks about OVER PENETRATION!! Some of these loads penetrate up to 20 inches in a lot of cases that will go through the human body. Make sure you account for all of your shots and know what’s behind the person your shooting at..

  18. I use the 115grn critical defense in subcompact/BUG, and for my EDC i load 124grn XTP at 1250fps from the G19.

  19. Be that as it may It would of been appreciated if at least ONE round would of been a ball/jacketed round as some states does not allow hollow point ammunition to be carried by a citizen (in a concealed mode). ‘m lucky my state allows it but not all………..So when traveling across states!?

  20. You are talking cavity, and depth. In a self defense situation I would look more at wound potential. In that situation I use R.I.P. round from G 2 Research. If i need to use my firearm in a self defense situation. I am looking to end any threat. I am surprised that the “Radically Invasive Projectile” R.I.P. round wasn’t included in your list of personal protection ammunition.

  21. I use nothing but 124 grain in my Canik Tristar c-100. The point of impact is not as drastically different between fmj and defense loads. I also keep 2 Winchester 124 gr nato FMJ loads as 1st 2 shots, which are great for penetration. After that, the rest are either Golden Saber +P 124 gr bonded jhp, or whatever 124 gr jhp i can find/afford at the time.

  22. I’m using the Hornady 135gr Critical Duty +P load through my SIG P365 (I also use the Critical Duty in .40 S&W 175gr in my PPQ M2 in the Cold months). Both loads function without a hiccup in either gun, and accuracy is good. The +P in the P365 is stout, but not unmanageable. My wife carries the .38 Special Critical Defense Lite in her S&W Model 60. She has RA issues and the Lite isn’t too unpleasant to use.
    Good article and a wide variety of test cartridges within the 5 brand limit.

  23. Cut my teeth on the .38 Special/.357 Magnum 158 grain so I was used to managing recoil. I use the 147 grain JHP. I still prefer my .357 revolver, but with so many of today’s shootings involving 2 or more shooters with high-volume weapons, my 15 round S&W seems to make more sense.

  24. My fav has been MagTech First Defense 92.6 Super light recoil, wicked fast, near perfect penetration in gel. Expansion is decent, but I am really starting to believe I may go the other way, heavy, slower. Sub sonic, if you have to shoot inside, the noise will be significantly reduced.

  25. I would like to see something on frangible as self defense loads. I like the idea and fortunately have not had to test it in real situations. Certainly, I know it’s not penetrating thick surfaces, but I always figured it would be effective against anything worn by scum.

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