Ammo Testing is Complicated

Expanded Hornady Flex Lock bullet

Cartridge testing is complicated by any standard. Research and development must end at the ballistic lab with bullets being fired into gelatin when personal defense and service use is the goal.

Hornady .45 220-grain Flex Lock bullet after meeting glass.
A Hornady .45 220-grain Flex Lock bullet after meeting glass. Glass is hard on projectiles.

The combination of science is demanding. First, a load is developed that operates at a safe pressure for the given cartridge while providing maximum performance. This means careful powder and primer selection. A full powder burn and good accuracy are desirable.

Next, we test wound ballistics. Over the previous century, tests have been conducted using dry cadavers, pine boards, European glue, wax, water, wet newspaper, and most famously and recently ballistic gelatin. Gelatin is the closet media we have to flesh and blood and human and animal tissue, yet it really isn’t close at all.

Gelatin is useful for comparing one load to the other but not necessarily for comparing how the loads will actually perform in a living target. The results are close enough for government work, and the ammunition companies, military groups and police agencies and institutions use gelatin for ammunition testing. Gelatin alone of the viable test media gives a permanent representation of the wound channel. As an example, I often use water for comparing one load to the other. It is repeatable, as well as reliable, and water results are consistent. On the downside, there is no record of the effect, and of course, water isn’t as scientific as gelatin. However, water is much more practical for most of us.

Speer Gold Dot bullet in gelatin with green dye
This is a Speer Gold Dot bullet in gelatin.

There are many factors to consider when choosing ammunition. Recoil, control in the individual handgun, a clean powder burn, good bullet pull, limited muzzle blast and flash, and reasonable accuracy are important. A loading with a balance of expansion and penetration is desirable for personal defense use.

Preparing gelatin for testing is a demanding procedure. The gelatin must be properly mixed, and it is tested for consistency, so the results will be valid and repeatable. It is expensive to scrap a 40-pound block of gelatin that isn’t mixed properly. Consistency is vital.

Agencies across the world must be able to compare ballistics results obtained in the United States. The term repeatable and verifiable are heard often. Studies of so-called street results have little value compared to lab testing, although these results are worth study and may be interesting. Some so-called studies claim to have confidential reports and secret sources. Their validity is zero. Science doesn’t ask you to believe, science presents the facts. As an example, a few years ago some writers actually convinced a gullible minority that secret testing—involving shooting alpine goats—had been conducted! The technical is seldom as exciting as fiction, but it is reliable.

Expanded Hornady Flex Lock bullet
An expanded Hornady Flex Lock

As I have stated, the results obtained in scientific testing are useful in comparing one load to the other. I do not wish to discourage anyone from mixing their own gelatin as there are many careful people capable of doing this work; it is simply a chore that most would not care to perform. There is a considerable investment in time and material. You have to know how to read a wound cavity for the results to be worthwhile.

In water testing, penetration and expansion are tested. The bullet is found in the skin of a water jug, in the jug, or between jugs. The bullet is captured by the gelatin block. The wound cavity is represented in the block. Most jacketed hollow point bullets expand in an 18-inch block and stop. The gelatin block expands a bit and often snaps back to shape. You look over the entire cavity and determine the results.

You will observe how quickly the bullet expanded past the initial caliber-size hole. Some bullets will penetrate the same length but begin expanding at different points. How deep and wide is the cavity, that is the question. This makes for a measureable complete wound volume.

Hornady 220-grain FlexLock .45 ACP bullet in ballistic gelatin
The Hornady 220-grain FlexLock .45 ACP bullet.

Two wound cavities with the same depth of penetration may have different characteristics. The FBI measures the total wound volume. The FBI also demands a minimum of 12 inches of penetration with 18 inches being desirable. This is reasonable considering the fact that the felons arms may be extended as he is firing at you—demanding penetration through the arm bones.

Heavy clothing or light cover may be part of the problem. Or, you may be dealing with a heavy and thickly muscled individual. Another consideration is the length of the beginning of the wound channel, sometimes referred to as the neck. If the neck is relatively short, then the bullet has begun expanding early. If the neck is long, expansion began later. This isn’t a trait that may be measured with other media.

Hornady .45 220-grain Flex Lock bullet after meeting glass.
A Hornady .45 220-grain Flex Lock bullet after meeting glass. Glass is hard on projectiles.

A rapidly expanding bullet may be desirable in home defense. An average-sized individual with light clothing will be addressed well by such a loading. On the other hand, the larger the opponent and the more heavily clad—as in a winter scenario—the bullet that begins expansion later might be the better choice. The choice, which depends upon an individual scenario, is common wisdom. However, some cannot afford the luxury of the individual scenario, and wisely plan for the worst-case scenario. In this case penetration is favored.

The final arbiter of effectiveness is shot placement. A shot to the arterial region that produces blood loss through damage is most desirable. The lungs are not particularly difficult to penetrate. The body has both hollow and solid organs. A hit to one of the solid organs often produces more shock and more bullet expansion.

Bullets that expand well are often stopped by the heavy skin of the back. This layer or hide is more resistant to damage than commonly realized. Flesh, blood, bones, and solid organs are a mix in the body that cannot be easily duplicated.

Bob Campbell firing a 1911 .45 ACP pistol
Firing for reliability is part of the test program. Muzzle flash and a full powder burn are measured.

The bullet may not expand at all. If the bullet nose strikes bone and the nose closes, then there will be no expansion. (A situation the Hornady Critical Defense bullet was designed to defeat.) Gelatin is useful for testing because it homogenous. This simply means it is the same in detail through the gelatin block and does not differ. There have been attempts to modify gelatin for greater realism, such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police testing of gelatin with bones interspersed in the mix. While interesting, such experiments simply give a rough idea of bullet performance in human beings, although the testing is valuable and valid.

The RCMP also tested handgun ammunition at 50 yards, reasonable in light of the ranges of climate and the real estate patrolled by the RCMP. A few individuals with little qualification to comment have argued against the FBI’s minimum penetration standard. This isn’t wise. The FBI has more resources than any gun writer and most ammunition factories. There is good reason I cannot recommend small calibers. The baseline of .38 Special +P and 9mm Luger +P is a good one. These loads offer a high degree of protection for those that practice. And, in the end, that is what matters—practice, shot placement, and marksmanship.

Which self-defense ammunition do you prefer? Why? Share your answers in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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. When you can’t argue the merits because you’re wrong, apparently your next logical step is name calling and berating. But that’s OK, what’s important is the right information gets out to the many people that likely read these.

  2. So are you saying you don’t like me?

    Honestly, I don’t care, what I care about is the right advice is given to the large number of people who likely read this.

  3. What part of handling 100+ reports of non-police involved shootings don’t you understand? Those are reports where people state what happened in shootings they were the victim (sometimes turned out suspect) in, describing the way it happened so that I can make a report on the incident. This is real life experience of hearing the mechanics of the incident, my personal “data.” Again, I don’t think there is an actual database of whether the millions of shootings that take place across the country involved moving or static “targets,” but I see no reason why Cleveland should be any different than any other city. How many of your co-workers have been in shootings that can describe what happened? I had dozens. But then again, LE shooting are so dramatically different from civilian shootings (sarcasm intended). None of what I posted is in any way trying to make myself sound like something other than what any other big city cop might go through over the course of their career, it IS qualifying me to say what I said, what have YOU done for your community or country over the course of your life? Clearly you have an anti-cop bias by bringing up the fact that officers occasionally lose a fight on the street, OF COURSE it happens, we’re just human beings like anyone else, except we have to carry around about 15 pounds of equipment and body armor. Some of that will help you, some of that will hinder you, especially if you had to chase someone prior to fighting with them. But those are pesky little details a person like you couldn’t care less about. So if a database is what you’re looking for, one doesn’t exist, but if life experience/training and common sense don’t work for you, and you don’t think using the BEST ammo you can get your hands on is important, then go ahead and carry crappy ammo and make sure you take very careful aim before you shoot if you’re ever in a deadly force situation.

  4. I carry a .40 and alternately load with rapid expansion and delayed expansion ammo. I was trained to “double tap”, so there is going to be one each sent to greet the recipient.

  5. Most gunfights take place at 21 feet or less. I carry a Walther PPQ 9mm. I use RIP Ammo for two reasons. I don’t want the bullet to pass through an assailaint and strike an innocent bystander is reason number one. The second reason is when RIP strikes it breaks into 7-9 pieces each traveling a different direction making it more likely one will strike a vital organ. Destructive ability is top shelf. Remember, the one who walks away from a gunfight is the winner.

  6. Don,t over analize, it is not complicated. I have used wet telephone books for years. You can get an idea of the wound channel and penetration. The results are repeatable enough. Just shoot a lot of different bullets and loads, and compare one against the other.
    For a self defense gun most hand guns are poor threat stoppers. Don,t think so? Try hand gun hunting. The difference between a deer shot with a 308 Win and a 357 Mag is like night and day. The deer I have killed with a 357 all hopped off and died, most looked like they had not been hit. The last 5 deer I shot with a 308 did not take another step.
    Most Hand gun loads do not penetrate well and cannot be relied on to expand.
    Since you cannot stuff a 308W or 12 Ga.down your pants you are kind of limited to a hand gun for a carry gun.
    Pick the one you want. Pick a load that penetrates and creates a reasonable wound channel. Practice and pray you never have to use it.

    1. Chris, I have seen videos of both Ranger LE 115gr 9mm JHP and the same specs in Winchester White Box and both penetrate 12 to 18″ and mushroom quite nicely in gel blocks. I have shot them out of 8 different firearms I own including Glock 19, Taurus Millennium, Bersa Thunder Pro, TriStar P100 (Canik 55), Springfield XD 9, Canik TP9SF Elite S, FMK9, and Taurus 92AF.
      No problems with any of the 8 using this particular type of ammo. So I would assume you are good ground with what you are using.

  7. Good info. Thanks for the article.
    I use critical defense for my carry sidearms. For me, what is critical in a self defense round is reliability. Nickel case to prevent corrosion,and consistent feeding in a S.A.. I carry a G19 or PT709. My bedside handgun is a Taurus .44 spc. Handloads. SJHP. I prefer the revolver for home defense. Zero chance of failure or mistake. I can handload to balance penetration thay way shots won’t go through walls into the neighbors house. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

  8. I don’t have a place for testing ammunition in the way most manufacturers can. Because of this limitation, I read about the testing and I talk to other gun owners about accuracy and reliability results with our firearms and the various brands of ammunition. Discussions and comparisons of recovered bullets from harvested game are useful. Use what information you can, and be willing to accept the results of your recovered bullets if you can recover them. There isn’t going to be one perfect bullet for all situations for any commonly carried firearm of any caliber. Finally, it is a good idea to test any ammunition for reliability if you plan on using it for any purpose other than putting holes in paper a few times a year. An example of this is easy for me to explain. One of my handguns will not feed Gold Dot factory ammo reliably. It fails to feed almost every other round. Another handgun in the same caliber has not yet had a single failure with Gold Dot in over 500 rounds fired. I realize that 500 rounds is a rather small number to use for reliability testing. The first handgun has never had a failure other than with Gold Dot in over 10 years and 2 worn out recoil springs. Somewhere in the sixty thousand total count for that firearm. Changing the magazine does nothing to help make that gun feed Gold Dot. It just does not like them. No matter how good the bullet performs in gelatin or on wild game, if it does not feed, then it is not reliable in your gun and you shouldn’t use it. Test your ammunition of choice until you are satisfied that it will function in your firearm.

  9. Although ballistics change depending on the gun used, this tests many different defensive loads from manufacturers. Which should be your choice for concealed carry or defensive shooting as handloads are subject to criticism and bias from prosecuting attorneys.

  10. “The results are close enough for government work, ” Ha Ha, Isn’t that the truth. I love it Bob. Every experiment has to be repeatable to be valid and having control over the medium is necessary. Ballistic Gelatin, if you want to be picky, because it’s mixed by humans is not actually the same every time. Though I suppose we have come to accept the minute differences because of the repeatability. Glad you repeated for us that the gelatin is only representative of human tissue but not the same. Too many keyboard commandos think it is.

  11. I believe that I have said this before, just about any caliber can kill someone. It’s all about shot placement (where the round goes). Sure there are certain calibers that do more damage on impact. For instance, larger wound channels or deeper penetration happen with the larger calibers. Yes, the individual would bleed out over time but a well placed round could kill them on impact or very shortly after impact. It’s a known fact that professional assassins have used .22 caliber weapons to kill people before. Again, it’s about shot placement.

    1. You can perform an assassination with an icepick.

      A big difference between murdering an unsuspecting individual and a motivated threat attempting to kill you.

    2. Sure shot placement is extremely important IF you have the opportunity to actually have a stationary, front facing target that’s not shooting back at you. Chances are in an actual deadly force encounter, you won’t, which leads me to my point. Most actual shootings are dynamic, extremely fast events, where your adversary is likely CLOSE, MOVING and SHOOTING BACK, and possibly, SHOOTING FIRST. Taking the time to actually aim to ensure optimal shoot placement, will likely get you killed. At close distances where you’re statistically most likely to get into a gunfight, point shooting will likely be employed (yes, I know it may not be the plan, but trust me, I’ve been there and done that, THAT aiming plan goes out the window when moving from danger), all while trying to hit a moving, shooting target, is most likely to involve a measure of Lady Luck. And since that b**ch is not always smiling at you, having the BEST defensive ammunition, for when you might NOT be hitting those optimal shot placement areas, is crucial when trying to stop the threat as fast as you can. You want the most damaging ammo you can get, and shooting through four layers of denim into ballistic spec, consistently mixed gel is the best (not perfect) predictor of performance available. Certainly commonly encountered barrier testing should be considered in the mix, but they’re not always available and consistent, and not (usually) applicable in a SD event. Lucky Gunner Labs provides a comprehensive, comparable, online database of ballistic gel tests and videos of most SD handgun ammo on the market, along with a wealth of other information. Highly recommended in helping someone find the best performing ammo for whatever caliber you choose.

    3. Not sure where you got your stats on most situations being fluid with someone shooting back at you. Most self defense situations (other than law enforcement) that I have read about and that is many, are far more static and do not involve a person shooting at you but rather confronting because they are trying to rob you. Would like to see where you got your data?

    4. I got my data from 25+ years of big city police experience and training, doing 100’s of reports of non-police involved shootings. Additionally I’m currently a federal contractor through the USMS doing armed, plain clothes duty at a federal courthouse. I’ve been in two shootings myself, both of which involved movement. Up until budget constraints cut yearly qualification rounds fired in half a few years prior to my retirement in 2015, our in-service training consisted of forward and backward movement, side to side movement, and moving to/utilizing cover while shooting. The instructors constantly emphasized, “if you’re not moving, your dying.” Current federal use of force training obtained at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia also repeated the same mantra. There are several books written on SD shooting, one I remember by a guy named Masaad Ayoob who is kinda qualified, and he talked of the same issues. Bottom line, if you don’t believe the voice of experience and logic without a specific “data” source (not sure there actually is one), then do and expect what you want. The best ammo should be carried, and if you haven’t checked out my recommended source and read through it, you’re missing out on a wealth of good information.

    5. Well if you can read you can see that my comments excluded the potential of police situations. You have not furnished any data to substantiate what you have said for the general public. I didn’t realize this was a forum for people to pontificate about their own situations rather than what actually happens in the general public. If yo search enough you will see any number of situations where cops have been unarmed and beaten by aggressors. At least you got to blow your own horn but not sure who is really interested.

    6. Your comments have nothing to do with the article. This feature concerned testing ammunition and had nothing to do with training. The sources used are repeatable and verifiable when it comes to gelatin testing or you may do your own. The information concerning police training is interesting and Captain Ayoob is certainly a reputable writer with much experience.

    7. My initial comment absolutely had something to do with the article, I provided an outstanding reference for results of ammo tests, as well as some real life experience.

      The other comments were a response to other people’s comments about it.

  12. I keep it simple for myself. I shoot only hand-loads. My single biggest criteria is accuracy. My home defense guns are a 30 carbine w/30 round magazine loaded with 100 grain 1/2 jacket Speer Plinkers. I figure they’ll expand quite well at velocities of 2000-2200 fps. My other home defense is a 9mm in a CZ P-07 with 16 rounds loaded & waiting. If I can’t bring someone down with either of these, I’d be better off using a ball bat.
    The only other gun I shoot Is a Savage LRPV with a bench rest stock. I care about nothing but extreme accuracy with this one. If I can consistently show groups 3/8″ or less I’m tickled pink.

  13. I’m glad that my computer has access to information that can help me make the determinations that I need for the different kinds of shooting/hunting that I do. I know that some testing results may not be valid when seen at first, but further study may validate the results taking in all the data presented. Information like that above is very helpful and useful. Thank you for the information.

    1. I was right with you til you spoke of the information in the article above. I failed to see any substantive and or helpful information contained therein. Reading that was a waste of my time.

  14. I use Hornady 124 or 147 grain hollow points exclusively. I practice with 124 and carry the 147’s for EDC. Both are for .357 Sig in Glock 32.
    Hand loading the 115 hollow points which are light recoil, and high velocity.super accurate in all grains bullets so far.

  15. The best gun, ammo, or caliber is the one you have at the time if you have the WILL to use them. If you don’t have the Will to use them then it probably doesn’t matter what you have. Additionally, if the only thing I have at a given moment in time is a 22lr then I guess that has to do now doesn’t it? I think some of the folks who write these articles need to write them from the perspective of what is actually happening in most self defense situations and then they would understand the wide variability and diversity of weapons, calibers and ammo being used in real life situations. I prefer 9mm myself for my own reasons and anyone who would like to volunteer to let me shoot them I guarantee I will put you down. (Not serious about shooting anyone just trying to make a point here, I doubt there would be any volunteers even if I used a 22lr). If you doubt any of this watch the video on YouTube, Vietnam Veteran shoots police officer. Classic example of everything I just said.

    1. That example is surely not representative of most police officers, particularly experienced, big city officers. I can’t imagine why anyone with half a brain would actually carry a .22 long rifle for SD use, but sure, if that’s all you’ve got, OF COURSE you’d have to use it, though you’d be pretty short on the foresight department.

    2. As a big city cop I would think you would know that people carry and have as home defense weapons all sizes and calibers of weapons and of course you picked out the smallest caliber of all to criticize. Of course you would not volunteer to allow me to shoot you with a 22 or anything else but I am sure if I put one through your eye into your brain you would drop like a lead weight. Once again your derisive, know it all tone is rather offensive and speaks volumes for the type of cop you probably were. Probably the type most people don’t like today.

    3. Actually most citizens really liked me, even the criminals that I arrested I tried to treat with respect and kindness, making it clear that my enforcement action was nothing personal, it was my job. Clearly there were some that it didn’t work with, or wasn’t appropriate based on their behavior and/or resistive efforts against arrest. The fact is that with my extensive law enforcement experience and training I DO know more than most people on things law enforcement related. When someone has a ridiculous argument a response against it will usually sound somewhat derisive to the person being shown how ridiculous it is.

    4. So you basically showed more respect to criminals. I doubt there are many people on here who see you as a nice understanding person based on your responses to a number of the folks on here. You are self centered and arrogant and we are done at this point.

    5. I always get a kick out of folks like you and Nagy who can’t make a comment without some derision involved. You would probably be surprised how many folks carry or use for home protection small caliber firearms like .380 autos, 22 magnums, or 22 lr. They use what they can handle and quite frankly if you put one of those in my hand and you and Nagy volunteer to let me shoot you with then, I will put you down very quickly and you will quickly learn that shot placement and the will to use a firearm can be more important than the caliber one uses. Next time just try expressing your opinion without speaking down to your readers. Perhaps you are on the short end of the learning curve.

    6. First off, IF I gave you the time to aim without moving, you would have a great chance of shooting me in the eye, but that’s not a practical happenstance in real life, a moving target shooting back at you is not even close to the same as a non-threatening static target. Especially if that target might be under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, as is the case in many SD situations. In my career I came upon literally hundreds of people who I either found had a gun, or volunteered what they had for home defense and asked my opinion of it. My opinion is that anything smaller than a .380 is too small for a SD weapon as it is less likely to stop an assailant WITH SOME DEGREE OF RELIABILITY, especially if you don’t hit someone in the optimal target areas. That is what I told people, and though yes, a .22 can and does kill people, you have a better chance with a larger caliber, provided you’re physically able to shoot it. When you have a ridiculous argument like, “letting somebody shoot you.” It’s pretty difficult to respond without sounding derisive to the person that originally posted it, mainly due to the fact that you’re criticizing them.

    7. Folks like you are never satisfied unless you have the last word and I seldom waste my time in ongoing discussions with people like yourself who are self centered and arrogant. So you have a nice day as we are done.

    8. I do not agree with the .380 assessment and feel that the .38/9mm is the bottom line.
      As for shot placement Bat Masterson said the man that wins a gunfight is the man that takes his time in a hurry. I agree. Get a good aim and do not use point shooting for God’s sake but put the bullet in the right place.

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