The 9mm Luger is the most widely used handgun cartridge in the world. Practically universal for police and military use, the cartridge offers enough recoil for the occasional shooter to handle, good accuracy in the right pistols, and can be effective with the right combination of expansion and penetration. The 9mm is a high-pressure number and offers performance out of proportion to its size.
Factory loads intended for practice are usually loaded to the 30,000 PSI level, while standard pressure is around 35,000 PSI for defense loads. +P loads may register 38,500 PSI. For many years, the 9mm was underloaded and the projectiles used in defense loads were underdeveloped. This led to spectacular failures and a lack of confidence in the 9mm.
I like the bread of my own oven and bacon cured in my own chimney smoke. I make my own ammunition. I enjoyed a lively sideline at one time perhaps four decades ago producing high-velocity loads for fellow officers limited to the 9mm. (They looked like the duty load but were 100–150 fps faster.)
A stiff charger of Herco gunpowder and the Sierra 115-grain JHP at 1,350 fps proved quite effective. SIG and Beretta pistols survived these loads while the Smith & Wesson 5906 cracked a frame, and the P38 lost its firing pin cover. This is no longer necessary. Modern 9mm loads are well-developed and offer a good balance of expansion and penetration.
That is the key to effectiveness. The five loads tested may change your mind about the 9mm. They are good solid choices for personal defense and will perform well in a variety of situations.
A word on my test program. Some say, “I stop reading when you use water testing instead of gelatin.” Fair enough. Gelatin is by no means, shape, or form human sinew, muscle, bone, or tissue. Nothing in gelatin represents bones or solid organs. Of course, neither does water. But a reader in Maine or Texas may test his load and compare it against mine with excellent consistency using water.
Gelatin and water results are within 10 percent or more of the same end measurements. The advantage of gelatin is that the ‘wound cavity’ may be filled with plaster and saved and compared. Gelatin is an excellent tool for lab work. If you work for a state or federal crime lab or an ammunition company, sure my results are not as valid as yours, but they are valid means of comparison. Here are five loads to add respect to the 9mm.
Federal 9mm 115-Grain JHP Train and Protect
The old Federal 9B earned a great deal of respect in law enforcement as a reliable and effective loading. Heavier weight loads were adopted, largely because some agencies faced felons behind cover in as many as half of their engagements. The Train and Protect load seems to be much the same design. Available in 50-round boxes, this is a good choice for personal defense.
|1,162 fps||12 inches||.68 inch|
|1,134 fps (SIG)|
SIG Elite 147-Grain V Crown
The heavier 9mm load was originally designed for long-range accuracy in suppressed MP5 SMGs. When Federal agencies looked for greater penetration in handguns, the 147-grain Subsonic hollow point was adopted. Problems included under-loaded ammunition barely breaking 900 fps in handguns and poor expansion.
The SIG V Crown load addressed every issue. The SIG V Crown has proven to be an accurate loading in every handgun I tested. While SIG also offers 115 and 124-grain loads, for those facing felons behind cover or those heavily bundled in winter clothing this heavy 9mm is the trick.
|1,034 fps||20 inches||.56 inch|
|1,001 fps (SIG)|
Federal Syntech Defense 138-Grain SJHP
There have been various attempts at producing a hollow point that produces fragments as it travels. The Syntech Defense with its lead-free bullets does so. When fired into water about at the 10–12-inch mark, the water jugs show tears from exiting shards of the bullet nose. The shank remains intact and travels straight offering enough penetration to reach vital organs while the shards produce wounds outside the wound track.
|1,055 fps||22 inches||.42 inch *recovered|
|1,112 fps (SIG)|
*The base consistently blows the nose off
Hornady Handgun Hunter 135-Grain
The 9mm isn’t usually noted as a hunting load. Accuracy potential is high, however, in modern handguns. An all-copper bullet results in excellent integrity and penetration. For coyote, bobcat, and even the big cats, this load makes the most of the 9mm Luger. It also offers a good balance of penetration and expansion for those needing greater penetration of heavily clad threats.
|1,149 fps||20 inches||.65 inch|
|1,138 fps (SIG)|
Buffalo Bore 147-Grain Outdoorsman
Buffalo Bore is famed for loads that make the most of the caliber. While they offer several excellent JHP loads for the 9mm, this is a specialized loading. As a result of requests for an outdoors load for protection against bears and other predators, Buffalo Bore cooked up a hard-cast 147-grain bullet.
There is a huge difference between lead and the hard alloy in this bullet. This isn’t a soft lead bullet at all. This load penetrates like mad and offers penetration at least comparable to a 160-grain hard cast .38 Special, or the 180-grain .357 also offered by Buffalo Bore. I did not actually capture the bullet but gave up at 48 inches of penetration!
|1,012 fps||48 inches+||Not recovered|
These loads offer different levels of performance from a fast expanding defense load to a heavyweight defense load sure to penetrate light cover and heavy clothing, a hunting load, and fragmenting load for those preferring the type, and a heavy bullet suitable for breaking down heavy bones and penetrating plenty of animal. These loads get the 9mm off its feet compared to lesser loads.