Classic Defense Loads

1911 and Defense Loads

Things become classic because they work, endure and develop a good reputation. The same applies to firearms and ammunition. Some handguns are the gold standard for reliability and hit probability.

Some loads are proven because they have been in use for decades and given good results. Let’s look at few of these. Remember, the first criteria for any type of defense load is complete reliability.

The loading must always feed reliably and must always go bang. This isn’t a given in ammunition, but ammunition from the major makers is amazingly reliable.

A note on these loads — they are designed to expand and provide good results in personal-defense scenarios. Many police service defense loads are designed to penetrate light cover, including vehicle doors and sheet metal.

For civilian and home-defense scenarios the loads featured in this report offer good results. Some are most useful in specific calibers, and others offer good performance straight across the board in every caliber the type is offered in.

The Federal Hydra-Shok is a good load that is viable in both 9mm Luger and .45 ACP, while the .357 Magnum Hydra-Shok is a hunting load, as an example.

Winchester’s Silvertip is at its best in 9mm Luger, .40 S&W and .45 ACP.  Let’s look at some of the best.

.38 Special Defense Loads

The single most proven loading available in .38 Special is the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint.

Without the need for a copper jacket, a soft lead hollowpoint opens readily, but at less than 900 fps, it doesn’t lead the barrel badly. This loading expands well and penetrates to the optimum depth.

Winchester and Remington still offer this load, and Federal recently introduced a 158-grain LSWCHP in the Train and Protect line. They are all similar, expanding even at low velocity.

This is a class load that is proven. Buffalo Bore offers a stout loading using this bullet that is best used in steel-frame revolvers.

.38 Special Revolver and Defense Loads
Perhaps one of the best examples of a classic defense load is the .38 Special lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint.

.357 Magnum Defense Loads

The 125-grain JHP at 1400 fps is among the most proven loads ever fielded. I worked in an agency that issued .357 Magnum revolvers.

Officers who passed a grueling qualification could deploy the Magnum, otherwise they loaded .38 Special loads. We had too many fights with bad dogs, including drug dealer’s guard dogs in those days, and the .38 Special didn’t cut it.

The Magnum put down dangerous animals with a single shot. I observed several hits with the Magnum during my time in uniform. The results were impressive.

For those willing to practice until they are able to control the .357 Magnum, this is a formidable loading. Federal offers a 125-grain JHP in an affordable 50-round box in the Train and Protect line.

Another good choice in .357 Magnum is the 110-grain JHP. The 110-grain loading was designed as a low-recoil loading that offers plenty of velocity, but less recoil than the 125-grain load.

Some 110-grain loads break 1250 to 1300 fps. The Remington 110-grain JHP is an exception at 1340 fps. Affordable in 50-round boxes, this is an effective loading.

An underrated loading for the .357 Magnum is the Winchester Silvertip. This 145-grain load breaks 1250 to 1300 fps in most four-inch barrel revolvers.

When I was a young cop, one of my fellow officers, an avid deer hunter, took five deer in one season, one shot each, at 20 to 35 yards with his four-inch Magnum and the Silvertip.

He carried it on duty. As an all-around, go-anywhere, do-anything loading, the 145-grain Silvertip is a formidable loading.

.357 Magnum Revolver and Defense Loads
Winchester’s 145-grain .357 Magnum Silvertip is a fine all-around load.

9mm Luger Defense Loads

The 9mm Luger had a spotty history at best, and it took considerable development to create a useful loading. Among the first universally accepted defense loads was the Winchester 115-grain Silvertip.

This loading breaks 1240 fps in my CZ 75, and will put five shots into 1.5 inches at a long 25 yards. Velocity is similar in my custom Browning Hi-Power. I like this load for 9mm use.

Winchester has long offered a 147-grain loading for those that prefer a bit more penetration than the standard Silvertip.

The Federal Hydra-Shok is among the most accurate 9mm Luger loadings in general use. The standard load breaks about 1100 fps in most 9mm Luger pistols.

The balance of expansion and penetration is good. The Hydra-Shok figured into a shooting in an agency I worked with. I looked over the autopsy shots.

The bullet expanded quickly and clipped a piece out of the heart as it passed, and came to rest under the skin on the back perfectly expanded. This lends confidence to an opinion.

9mm Luger Accuracy on Target
Winchester’s Silvertip is more than accurate enough for personal defense.

.40 S&W Defense Loads

The Winchester 155-grain .40 S&W Silvertip breaks over 1100 fps in the GLOCK 23. Expansion is more dynamic than the heavy 180-grain loads.

For those willing to practice and control this formidable loading, it offers plenty of power.

Winchester .40 S&W Silvertip
Winchester’s .40 S&W Silvertip is a distinctive choice.

.45 ACP Defense Loads

In .45 ACP, there are several loads that have been proven in decades of us. Among these is the Winchester 185-grain Silvertip. Recoil is modest and expansion is excellent.

Federal’s 230-grain Hydra-Shok is a consistent performer in the standard weight. An outstanding loading with a legendary reputation for accuracy, is the Hornady 200-grain XTP.

The Remington Golden Saber passed a grueling test period during the FBI’s adoption of the Springfield 1911 SWAT pistol.

1911 and Hornady .45 ACP Defense Loads
The Hornady .45 ACP 200-grain XTP is a widely-respected loading.

.45 Colt Defense Loads

You don’t have to have an expanding bullet for effectiveness. One of the most proven personal-defense loads is the 255-grain .45 Colt loading.

While it is loaded a bit light in deference to the many older revolvers in use, a 255-grain chunk of lead at 800 fps packs wallop.

There is considerable evidence the bullet tumbles as well. Winchester offers this traditional loading in the Super-X line.

For the outdoorsman, Buffalo Bore offers several SWC loads in revolver calibers. These loads basically duplicate classic handloads using the true Keith-style semi-wadcutter bullet.

With a flat nose and sharp cutting shoulder, these are effective loads.

.45 Colt Revolver and Ammo in Holster and Carrier
The author’s hiking rig: Rocking K Saddlery belt slide and ammo carrier and Winchester 255-grain .45 Colt loads.

These are proven loads that above all else are reliable and accurate.

You don’t need the latest technology in home defense and personal defense when you have proven loads that just may retain an edge in most situations.

What are your favorite defense loads? Why? Let us know in the comments section below!

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 (12)

  1. Good article, I was referencing competitors as reference material using ballistic gel. I own a Glock 17 and 26 as well as a Glock 30. I am curious, what is more important, penetration depth between 12-18″ (looking for that 15-16″ sweet spot), or looking at average diameter expansion. I was told years ago that Cor-Bon 115gr JHP had the same “knock down” power of a .357 cal (manufacturer and grain were not given) JHP. You seem to favor Federal HST in this article. Looking for you thoughts for the above firearms and calibers.

  2. Any thoughts on the Hydra-Shok in .40 caliber? I’ve got both a FNS-40 Compact and a S&W Sigma loaded with both.

  3. Thank you for your review of proven defensive loads in popular calibers. Less popular but till effective is the Speer Gold Dot in 357 SIG The Secret Service carries this load in the SIG P9

  4. I’ve never shot anyone, but the PD I worked for had much success with the Federal 9mm BPLE loading. I currently trust my life as an armed citizen to the Sig V Crown in both 9mm and .45acp

  5. Thank you for this article. I found it very informative and helpful. Just curious, how to you rate the 22 Mag, caliber for self defense? I have a Keltec 22 mag semi automatic and find it has more penetration than the 38 special. What is your experience? Thanks

  6. If you carry a teeny tiny little “micro-9” type of handgun, you need to be very careful of even well proven rounds if they are not specifically designed for your subcompact / micro 9’s little 3 inch barrel. The following video illustrates this very well, part of the very well known “Ammo Quest: 9mm” series of well documented research videos, done entirely from the perspective of carrying a subcompact / micro 9 with a 3 inch barrel.

    Ammo Quest 9mm: Speer Gold Dot 124 grain tested in ballistic gelatin test review

    In short, even the famous and very well proven Speer Gold Dot, in this case their 124 grain standard pressure 9mm hollow points, may not function so well when fired from a little 3 inch barrel. This round was designed for full sized duty handguns and in that category they have done very well over the decades, but as the video above documents very well, at the lower sub-1050-ish fps velocities you get our of shorter little micro-9 barrels, they may not expand properly and, counter-intuitively enough, OVER-penetrate… the video link above speaks for itself.

    In short, if you are carrying a tiny subcompact / “micro” handgun with a short little barrel, get ammo specifically designed for it! 🙂

  7. I also trust proven loads: 9mm BPLE ; 38 Spl Winchester 110 +p+ ; 357 Remington 125 SJHP ; 40 Federal 180 HST ; 45 ACP Remington 185 Golden Saber, All proven over time. But then I also trust Craftsman wrenches and the US Post Office.

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