Bullets: Chunky and Slow vs. Fast and Light

Upset Gorilla Ammunition bullet showing petals

Some people worship at the altar of the .45 ACP, as it is the biggest pistol bullet. “I would carry a .46 except they don’t make one. The .45 doesn’t just stop the bad guy; it kills his soul…” and the list of trite sayings goes on and on. Other people proudly proclaim their heresy and pack 15-20 rounds of Euro pellets in their plastic fantastic. “The Army switched from the .45 to the 9mm, so it must be great. The only time you have too many bullets is if you are swimming or on fire. I can miss 2/3 of the time and still get as many hits as your 1911…”

Brittany Caton with a Glock 9mm handgun in a Tiffany blue Kydex holster
Instructor Brittany Caton trusts here Glock 19 9mm. With careful load selection, the 9mm is a great defensive caliber.

Let’s just say, I am not a fan boy in either camp. There are great options in both categories and the gun you should carry—bet your life on—is the one you know and trust. The one with which you have mastered the manual of arms and are competent to hit with—frequently and fast. It should also be a gun you can/will carry with you all of the time; and I don’t mean in your glove box. That little caveat puts more pocket .38 specials and .380 ACP’s into action than any other part of choosing a carry gun.

Basic Truths

The .45 ACP (.451) is bigger and provides a larger entry hole than a 9mm (.355). However, upon expansion, modern jacketed hollow points from tier-one bullet makers don’t show a huge difference. The 230-grain .45 penetrates based on bullet weight more than velocity. The lack of velocity often restricts the amount of expansion and some JHP bullets barely expand while others open phenomenally. A thorough study that I was once privy to compared over 20 choices. There were many in the non-expansion category, a slightly larger group in the .55- to.70-inch range and two just breaking .80 inch—Federal 230-grain HST and Federal Tactical bonded +P. One overachiever hit a full one-inch of expansion (Winchester 230-grain Ranger T series). All three named bullets averaged roughly 14.5 inches of penetration.

A note on the 200-grain bullets, tread carefully here. Of the bullets tested, more than 60% had little or no expansion and none were close to the top performers. Failure to expand was much less prevalent with the 230-grain options.

5 expanded 9mm bullets
Performance of the modern 9mm Luger gives us a degree of confidence in the cartridge.

The 9mm bullet penetrates based on a narrower cross section and high velocity. The momentum slows much more quickly than the .45, but a well-made bullet does so by trading speed for expansion. In the same study, there were also many bullets in the non-expanding category. Those that did expand broke into three groups. The first group was small in number as well as expansion, ranging from .36–.40 inch. The next group far exceeded that group in both count and expansion. They ranged from .46–.66 inch. The overachievers in 9mm hit .68-74 inch. As 9mm has many options with bullet weight and pressure options, the results need more break down.

The 124-grain choices maxed out at .66 inch—Federal HST +P and Remington Golden Saber +P. The Federal HST in standard pressure was not far behind at .61 inch. All three exceeded 17 inches of penetration.

The 147-grain an up range had two stellar performers. The Federal 150-grain Micro HST expanded to .71 inch, and the Winchester 147-grain Ranger T-series opened to .74 inch. Both exceeded 16.5 inches of penetration.

The test result that shocked me was the Barnes 115-grain TAC-XPD +P with a .70-inch diameter and 13.4 inches of penetration.

Federal Micro HST 9mm Luger
Federal’s Micro HST 9mm was specifically designed for maximum performance in compact and subcompact pistols.

The 230-grain .45 ACP tends to be much better at breaking bones and crushing through barriers. The lower velocity and higher weight tend to resist deflection when hard objects are encountered. In contrast, the 9mm (especially lighter choices) is more likely to deflect. Inside the body, this can create an additional wound channel; but against a car windshield, there is a much larger chance of the bullet deflecting harmlessly away.

My article chose to focus on the amazing performers. Be aware, there are complete non performers that wear ‘big name’ brands. Most are older designs or geared toward shooters who think one aspect is the only thing that matters. There are also a couple of choices where the bullet design is a complete gimmick, as evidenced by testing. One brand in .45 ACP didn’t expand at all and penetration failed to break 11 inches. In 9mm it achieved .02 inch of expansion and failed to penetrate to 10 inches. In my opinion, neither of these options provides anything resembling marginal performance. Some FMJ bullets perform better than that, with some slight expansion and at least hitting the FBI’s minimum penetration of 12 inches.

Gear tree with rifle, shotgun, plate carrier and gear belt
Gear tree with .300 BLK, KSG, plate carrier, battle belt and M&P 9mm ready for duty

In summation, many of the modern, name brand bullets in both .45 ACP and 9mm will do the job well. This data should help you realize, with the proper bullets, ammunition effectiveness is not nearly as large a concern as it once was. The best .45 ACP provides 1.00 inch of direct wound path and 14.5 inches of penetration in ballistic gel. Most carry guns chambered in this caliber have less than 6 rounds on board. The best 9mm provides .74 inch of direct wound path and 16.5 inches of penetration in ballistic gel. Most carry guns in this caliber have less than 8 rounds on board. In both calibers, full-sized guns often carry significantly more—up to 15 and 21 rounds respectively. In my opinion, this means ergonomics, size versus concealability, price, and personal ego or mindset are the real deciding factors.

You should of course do your own testing on ballistics gel, or as I do with a pork butt. Make sure to run at least 50 rounds through your gun for function testing (more is better). Carry the gun and caliber that works for you.

For honest disclosure, the gun on my hip as I write this is a Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm (plastic fantastic) in 9mm. She holds 18 Speer Gold Dot standard pressure bullets, .54 inch on expansion and 18.1 inches of penetration. As a result of this research, I will be testing the Winchester 147-grain Ranger T- series, 150-grain Federal Micro HST, and Barnes 115-grain TAC-XPD +P for reliability and accuracy in my carry gun.

Which self-defense ammunition do you carry? Did you do any testing before choosing it? Make your best case for your self-defense ammunition in the comment section.

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
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 (24)

  1. I live in a state, at least for now, that is about to go to the 10 rounds max per magazine law. The idiots in the state congress and administration are all salivating over its passage into law. In order to be legal, I have to carry 10 rounds or fewer.
    I have had to decide whether I want 10 rounds of 9 mm at about .355 diameter zipping along or 10 rounds of big and slow at .451. In some cases, bigger is actually better and so since I will be limited as to legal carry capacity, I have decided to go with big and slow in +p in my Desert Eagle, Combat Commander length (4.5-inch barrel), with several backup magazines. for concealed carry.
    On my property, I will open carry a Ruger SR1911 in 10 mm with my Buffalo Bore or Double Tap rounds. We have the occasional cougar sighting. With 3 personal experiences with cougars during my 77 years of existence, I do not like or trust those cats at all.
    I fire the Ruger not less than once a week with full power loads and I feel genuine pity for any reasonably healthy man who finds the recoil intolerable. My 76-year-old 110-pound wife shoots it. I can’t say it is her favorite thing but she does perfectly well.

    1. It’s a shame that the FBI did not have more reasonably healthy men and adventurous women then those bad boy 10mm rounds might cost less than a buck apiece… but it is what it is and the 10mm is it..

  2. My only pistol and it’s my EDC is a Glock 32 which is .357 sig.
    I use 147 Hornady hollow points. 13 +1.
    The ballistics are as good as a 45 or a 9mm+ ammo.
    The FMJ is good enough to penetrate a car door and take out a person. Or a windshield glass and take care of business.
    I handload and use 115 and 124 hollow points but they are just for play, since we should never use handloads for our carry for legal ramifications. The 115 grain reloads can be made pretty hot, and would estimate about 1500 to 1600ft/sec and I have no idea the energy…maybe 550 to 650 ft/lbs????
    A pretty potent load.
    I was thinking about a 454 Casull but the 460 Rowland is sounding good too!
    I’d take a 22 Mag if it was available too!
    Better than nothing.
    No mention of Buffalo Bore ammo or Hornady ammo tested. Why not?
    Great article though.

  3. After looking at the ballistic gel test on the InterWeb and reading all data I could find, I bought 5 boxes of Liberty Civil Defense for my 1911. I found that most testing data must have been shot with a barrel under 5 inches because my two favorite carry pieces clocked consistently just over 2,000 fps. In the XD however they were slower by about 200 fps. I am carrying 185 Golden Sabers in it. I am also using the Civil Defense in my PT92 and they clocked out about 1000 feet faster than advertised. I chose these because they fed reliably and offered good accuracy. They also fragment which should mean little possibility of over penetration. I would love to say it is an awesome cartridge but I can’t find any actual self-defense data to prove that.

    So basically in order, reliability, accuracy and not likely to over penetrate.

    1. The 9mm were 100 feet faster, not 1,000. It is an error above with one too many zeros.

  4. Upgrade a Glock21 to 460 Rowland,decidedly more compact than the Desert Eagle and you can use 45ACP+Ps as well.If you want chunky go with the agnum Research BFR revolvers in 45/70,450Marlin,etc. The noise in the 45/70 is quite mild but recoil is up there.

  5. What about the Old FBI load “i.e.38Special+P 158gr lhp’s?Thats what I carry in my 357,followed by 2 speedloaders of 357Mag 158gr JHPs.Frankly I prefer 45 Colt loads in a “nasty magnum name”,large bore, easier on ears.Naturally I’m refeering to factory loads for human defense,for critters its >=300 JHP/JSP,hard cast loads. We have black bears locally..what if..

  6. Correct ammo IS the key.
    Keep in mind that the vast majority, according to the FBI, of gun defense happens within ten-feet or less.
    I carry a 9mm and alternate my “stack” with FMJ and JHP. If two rounds to Center Mass (FMJ followed by JHP) doesn’t stop them, they may have body armor, so make the third round (FMJ) to the head.

  7. If you can’t get a “46” you could go to the 50 G.I.!
    50 caliber at same velocity as 45 ACP.
    Some 1911 frames will chamber this.
    You could also go to the diminutive?? 460Rowland:230gr@1200 fps.The Rowland also cycles 45ACP+Ps.
    Any opinions on the Magsafes[expoxied shot,including #4s]?

  8. Although it now be somewhat dated,check out Evans&Marshall’s:”Handgun Stopping Power”.That utilized -actual morgue- results for one shot t center of mass stops.Some of the ammunition listed is no longer available regrettably.
    It also seems that if one wants sub 45 caliber,go with the 357SIG-that duplicates the 357Mag 125gr jhp load

  9. I would have like to seen some specialty bullets tested. Lehigh, RIP, OATH, etc….. sometimes the small specialty does it right! My Governor with Lehigh ME (Maximum Expansion) has amazing penetration 15”, (more than the 9” advertised) and 1.7 inches expansion!!!! (Done on Hog hunt).

  10. When I was a young federal agent, I was given a box of federal 357 ammo, call the SDL or State Department Load. It was designed for the 2.5 inch model 19 carried at the time. So, as instructed I shot them in water, sand, dirt, and everything I could find and they did great. They were the first prototype of the Hydro Shock. Fortunately, I still have the box and 6 rounds, which I use to dispute myths I often hear about that ammo.

    I still carry the brand in several calibers and like them as well as anything. Back then we also carried steel armor piercing and exploding bullets, and I tested everything on the market and several reloads. As many will recall, there was later an outcry about the “black talon” bullets by Winchester which I also tested. This article asks if we do testing to determine which is the best ammo for our individual carry. My comment is why? We can never duplicate the tests done by the FBI and others. I see hundreds of UTube videos where people spend a chunk of money trying to claim their testing is equal to or somehow superior to the FBI. Just saying, it is a waste of time and money, unless you just want to see stuff blown apart, which is certainly a fine reason. Now, I have shot about 30 deer that were either wounded by cars or hunters, and needed a follow up shot. I have used everything from 22 to 44 mag and even exotics like the Glaser Safety Slug which is in a word, worthless for that purpose, but supposedly wonderful in a J Frame against naked people. I also like the Silvertip, but in 45 acp found them worthless in terms of penetration on a wounded mule deer. Personally, I carry the Critical Defense, Hydro Shocks, and Corbon products and like them well. On the other hand, with a flat meplat like the 9mm training ammo, I have zero problem with a non expanding bullets. I am retired military and also worked in 5 different outfits where I had a badge and handgun. Think about it, if there is a person armed with a knife, I may want to take out his shoulder, and if the person is wandering around Walmart with an AK, I may want to try a head shot, expansion has little value in those scenarios. If I am in a car jacking, at 2 foot range, the bullet design does not matter too much, just that it goes thru as much tissue and organs as possible, so like shooting a deer, full penetration makes sense. So, my comment is, while bullet design is important in rifles, it does not make too much difference in handguns in close encounters. And no, I do not want a .46 caliber, the 45 is just fine. I will also add that I have eaten well over 100 deer antelope, etc that I have harvested with dozens of gee whiz bullets. My opinion is that a bullet that totally comes apart in the lung area puts deer down quicker than all the stay together designs. That means, the standard brands like Remington Core Locks, have worked as well for me as any of the $4 per round bullets. Just my experience, you may need $4 per bullet ammo, I do not. –When I was a young federal agent for a while we carried J Frame 38s, and in our training we were always told that if the first round did not work, try a second shot with a better aim. FWIW.

  11. I carry a 10mm G29 packed with 230 grain hard cast lead, 1120 fps and 641 lbs/ft at the muzzle. I also keep a Ruger P90 .45 in my console… Glock holds 15 round G20 mag plus one in battery, P90 has eight rounds plus one.. Either one is more than capable of ruining a bad guys day. Carried a Colt in RVN 68 through 70 and that piece was capable of creating massive exit wounds from head and body hits, that is why my primary is big but I keep an SCCY 9mm in an ankle carry for that dire emergency

  12. Glock vs 1911, Target vs Tactical training, 45 vs 9. The author’s position depends on who is selling what to whom.

    The first critical hit wins. True for 1 round mag — or 1,000. You decide what can get YOU that hit.

    Rob Leatham has some great quotes on the controversy.

  13. The article failed to mention the Foot Pounds of energy produced and just examines wound channel. The low end of the 45 ACP is in the area of the +P loads for the 9MM, Average for a 9MM is around 350+ pounds where as a 45 starts at 400. Some loads in the 45 exceed 500 for pounds, To reach this you have to use +P+ loads in the 9, which are not SAAMI approved and beat the crap out of the postal, and reduce its life expectancy. The 45 was developed to actually ‘knock a person off there feet’.

  14. IF Glasers and Magsafes are still available,it would be a good[but obviously politically incorrect]solution for the 45ACP and 9mm;perhaps if there are factory multiple ball loads tht is another option.
    That said,with NY’s idiotic/tyrannical 10 round magazine limit,I’ve gone to a 45ACP[G30].The 45ACP does have less muzzlelfash and noise-important to those of us with reduced eyesight and hearing.If you really want to wreck your hearing and night blind yourself,try a357Mag 125 jhp in a snub nose revolver.Yes the 357Mag 125gr jhp is a stopper..but at a cost.
    To me,the reason the US went to the 9mm,was to be in line with NATO,not because the 9mm is really any better than the 45.
    Historically,in the”Chicago Stockyard Tests”,the actual best stopper then was the 30 Luger not the 45AP or 9mm

  15. 1st my pistol is 300 BLK, so my ammo is a 230gr cast hollow point lead alloy bullet powder coated in red. I call it Lip stick for a pig.(does not imply LE) Subsonic load is 1050 FPS and 1600 supersonic. Would be nice to attach before and after pictures.

    1. OK secondary pistol is old browning hi-power using Winchester T-series Ranger 147gr JHP to be used in off hand when you need to be shooting in two directions at once, a very rare thing. AR pistol tactical ammo is S&B 147gr FMJ effective to 440 yards. Beyond that out to a mile it is Hornady 147gr ELD-M in 6.5 Creedmoor. Tactically it is 140gr S&B FMJBT. Interesting that all three have a preferred 147gr bullet.

    1. Yes, they make a 50AE that 1/500 people might possibly be able to control the first shot that counts under pressure. Hopefully that gunfight will be very close quarters ‘cause at that point that DE makes a nice 4 1/2 lb club.

    2. Didn’t say it was easy to fire or was a practical firearm (at least for most people)… just responding to the statement of “I would carry a .46 except they don’t make one.” I had always heard it phrased as “I carry a .45 because they don’t make a .46”, but it still makes the same point.

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