Ammunition

Concealed Carry: Do You Need +P Ammo?

modeled box of Liberty Ammunition's Civil Defense

One shot stopping power… The facts bear out that a larger caliber is more likely to stop the bad guy than a smaller one. However, that information is based on bullets that struck the target. It does not account for how many shots it took to hit the target or the time split between shots. But what about smaller calibers with more power? Specifically, I am referring to +P ammunition.

The purpose behind the design of +P ammunition was to add enough energy to reliably deliver an expanded bullet deep enough to get the job done. This allowed smaller calibers to do the job as well as larger ones do. It did not require a lot of extra energy — it just had to be enough.

3 Hornady .45 ACP shells
Note excess pressure signs on +P cartridge case primer, above. Blowback actions are not the place to be hot rodding the .45 ACP!

Calibers

The .45 ACP is standard for a good portion of the self-defense minded community. It has a great track record with standard ball ammunition. 9mm is the most popular, largely due to the advances of hollow point ammunition. .38 Special also ranks, so I’ll discuss it. Although I often carry a .38 as a backup, I’ll admit that the caliber has never been well regarded as a “fight-ending cartridge.” But what about 9mm and .38 SPL in +P?

+P Ammunition: A Compromise?

A hollow point expends part of its energy expanding its size after entering the target. It must be noted, the energy that’s used to expand the bullet is also energy that could have been used to drive the bullet deeper into the target and do more damage to the vitals. This reduces the advantage of a smaller caliber (hollow point) increasing its size once in the target.

I once had a political science teacher who favored the acronym TANSTAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In our decision making process to carry concealed for our own defense, we must accept certain compromises. If you want the bullet to expand, it’s going to suck energy. Remember, energy is the key to expansion and penetration.

Thus the +P was created, marketed, loaded, and carried. But at what cost? Additional stress on the firearm? Perhaps, but few people will ever shoot a gun enough to wear out the firearm. On the other hand, some guns were simply not designed to handle the additional stress, so it is a concern that must be considered.

In my opinion, the additional recoil of +P rounds is the deciding factor. I once had the opportunity of Bill Wilson’s ear (Wilson Combat). In one of our discussions, Bill talked about his shooting days. Even when Bill was shooting hundreds of rounds a day (on average), 100,000+ per year, he said he could shoot higher scores, in less time, with a 9mm than he could with a .45 ACP. Why? Less recoil.

9mm .38 and .357 cartridges
The 9mm, .38 SPL, and .357 — all are viable self-defense rounds that have benefitted from better powders and bullet technology.

So, why would we intentionally shoot a smaller caliber, that is less effective, with the advantage of lower recoil, only to mitigate the advantage by increasing the recoil with +P rounds? At first glance, I would not choose +P ammunition for the reasons I just stated. But is the increase in recoil with +P that much? How much accuracy and time between shots are you losing, versus the power increase? The amount of practice and the shooter’s skill will determine the answer.

The power increase, specifically whether it is necessary for hollow points, still weighs on me. A decade ago, you would not have found many options for hollow points loaded for .38 Special. The .38 simply did not have the power to open the hollow point and drive the round deep enough to reliably do the damage required.

Today, however, you will find several reliable, proven .38 Special hollow point options. Why? Powder technology, rounds designed to perform better with shorter barrels (1 5/8-inch versus a 5-inch barrel), and better bullet design and technology.

Box of Federal Premium HST ammunition
The HST from Federal Cartridge Company is a viable loading for personal defense. The 150-grain HST would be ideal, as it is purpose designed for short barrel handguns.

That means increased accuracy with less time to recover from recoil and reacquire the sight picture for a follow-up shot — with a smaller caliber.

Conclusion

Do you need to be carrying hollow point ammunition? For anything under a .45 ACP, my answer would be “Yes.” Do you need +P ammo? Personally, I do not see the need or feel the advantage is worth it — given today’s bullet and powder technology. But in the end, you’re defending your life and your loved ones. So, choose your load wisely and practice, practice, practice.

Which caliber do you prefer for self-defense? Do you carry +P ammunition? Hollow points? Share your ammo wisdom in the Comment section.

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 (27)

  1. Forgot to mention earlier that when recoil is a perceived issue for the shooter, an extra inch of barrel length should more than offset the +P’s recoil compared to standard. I like 4-4.5 inch barrels the most and the smallest carry gun I’d usually use is a 365. Just me, of course. Agree with the fella who likes Liberty CD and the Lehigh solid copper-ish bullets. Every pistol I own goes back to the range for 10 rounds of any ammo I am considering for defensive use (over the top, but I have nothing much else to do). Each time I record group size and other impressions. Next up is Norma MHP in my Ruger 9mm carbine; I see that there now is a growing interest in, and mfg. response to, the desire for a 9mm round that most effectively uses the PCC 16″ barrels. BTW, glad to see so many old farts posting.

  2. Garland can hit head shots at 50 yards with a Kimber micro 9mm? ya right! Maybe one out of a hundred.

  3. I have read all the above comments and they for the most part all make good points, so I will just give my opinion on what works for me, most of the time I carry a colt compact in 45 acp with underwood ammo and I still at 82 am lucky enough to not have some of the problems that plague us, and I have been shooting the 45 acp for about 60 years so I am pretty good at it, but I also at times carry a 9mm Glock with some really good self defense ammunition I don’t use + p because personally I don’t see the need for it but that is just me.

  4. I have read all the above comments and they for the most part all make good points, so I will just give my opinion on what works for me, most of the time I carry a colt compact in 45 acp with underwood ammo and I still at 82 am lucky enough to not have some of the problems that plague us, and I have been shooting the 45 acp for about 60 years so I am pretty good at it, but I also at times carry a 9mm Glock with some really good self defense ammunition I don’t use + p because personally I don’t see the need for it but that is just me.

  5. I have the Federal LE HST 124G +P for my CCW. This 9 mm ammo exceeded all the FBI Balllestic tests. If I wasn’t carrying this, I would use the Hornady Critical Defense. Enough said. Everything else would be Uncivilized, bar none.

    For home defense, I have the AR-15 rifle. Anything else would also be Uncivilized, period. But, hey that’s just me. I’m fine with whatever you carry. However, ot would be crazy to carry a 380 for CCW. Enough said!!!

  6. I’ve been a fan of the liberty CD for years now; my subcompact 1911 in .45acp is in a bedside safe with 8rds at the ready and a spare mag ontop of the safe (just Incase), my EDC’s both 9mm and truck guns .357mag and .45lc all have liberty. Light weight, hella kinetic energy and penetration not to mention fragmentation. Not very much muzzle flip even with a short barreled 9mm

  7. For many years I thought hollow points were the only way to go. When I reload, which is very often, I still use hollow points. I reload everything as defense ammo. I am much pickier about the bullet, however. Not all hollow points are created equal. One problem not mentioned here is that depending on the target the hollow point may become clogged with say cloth. When that happens, the impact, wound track, is roughly the same as an FMJ. The alternative here is using ARX or even better Lehigh defense or penetrator rounds. The defense rounds do more damage and aren’t as likely to over penetrate. I get supersonic speeds with LeHigh defense. My regular carry is a 380, My belief is that the Lehigh defense makes up for a heavier and bulkier firearm. I still love my 1911s but I rarely am carrying one of them.

  8. Hollow points? Yes. In 9mm or even .45, a plus P might not matter. I do think it matters in shorter barrels. I usually go lighter weight with shorter barrels. As much speed as possible to expand. Longer barrel in 9mm I would use a 124 or even 147. In .45, shorter barrel 185. Longer barrel 200 or the old stand-by 230 grain.

  9. Hollow points? Yes. In 9mm or even .45, a plus P might not matter. I do think it matters in shorter barrels. I usually go lighter weight with shorter barrels. As much speed as possible to expand. Longer barrel in 9mm I would use a 124 or even 147. In .45, shorter barrel 185. Longer barrel 200 or the old stand-by 230 grain.

  10. Having fired a fair share of +P 115-grain and 124-gr loads out of my beloved Beretta 92FS, I don’t find the recoil differential to be overpowering. But eh, that’s just me.

  11. I’m 75 and have found that I can shoot quite well with and trust mine and my loved ones lives with 9mm standard 124gr HST. The added recoil of +P takes an additional split second off getting a second shot on target and I personally would rather not have to worry about what might happen in that split second.

  12. I suppose everyone has their favorites. I believe that a majority of self defense encounters take place under 6 yards or so there is a certain amount of speed drawing and hitting center mass rapidly. I doubt the 25 yard shots are as frequent as the close up shooting. I’ve always used my 9mm with a 135 grn plus P hollow points. Practicing and being proficient with the initial draw for speed and getting on target is important to me. Getting those first rounds in before the bad guy is key.

    My 9mm is a comfortable carry. If it’s not comfortable many people won’t carry it. A 9mm on your hip is better than a .45 locked up at home. Carry extra mags!

  13. great article, raising many points to consider. Before my retirement, our department used the Federal/Remington .38 cal +P 158 lead SWHP bullet. We tested it based on FBI results and on a wall we constructed to simulate our environment. Performed well

  14. All these rounds are viable for defense. As we all know, the best round for self defense is one that you are accurate with and confident in shot placement.

  15. I’ve been shooting. 38 caliber for over 40 years. The articles I read in shooters log talk like being hit with one you’d be home for supper. I sure wouldn’t want anyone to shoot me with one.

  16. You make it sound in several articles in shooter log lately that anyone hit with a .38 caliber will not be affected very much. That’s about all I’ve used for 40 years and I wouldn’t want anyone shooting at me with one.

  17. I worked an OIS team in the 90s for a large county. My experience is that caliber always wins. Now there are a ton of variables with that answer. Most of off duty shootings were .380, 9mm and .38 spec. On duty were 9mm, .40, .45 cal. Ask anyone that has been in a gun fight with a .380 and you probably find that they don’t own that caliber anymore. Ive seen a subject with 5 rounds that hit center mass, didn’t go down and ran off and was speaking to me at the hospital 3 hours later. I’ve also had deceased subjects with .45 single torso hits off center mass that were incapacitated almost immediately. I’m not trying to push any caliber, I’m just sharing my experiences. What wins gun battles? First most accurate round.

  18. Garland – 38 shot shells are the type of round that if you shot someone with it, and they found out that you were the one that shot them, they might beat you up. IF you handload, then the SPEER 38 shot cups, when loaded with three #1 Buck balls, are a better choice. In a snub nose 38, like a “J” frame S&W, those three #1 Buck balls are like three 32 ACP slugs all hitting at the same time. Just don’t use 38 shot loads, as they don’t have any penetration.

  19. While I prefer something bigger like the .45 caliber or even some others of my favorites like the .357 sig or the .38 super, I mostly carry a 9mm Kimber micro 9 because it’s extremely accurate out to fifty yards for head shots and easily concealed under my summer clothing.

    Unfortunately if you look at the reload data of standard ammunition for the .38 special and the 9mm, you will not see a lot of difference in that data, they neither one are going to knock anyone off their feet if shot by one of those calibers.

    Hollow point ammo is a must and shot placement is critical, so practice is necessary if you want any comfort when carrying these calibers.

    While I prefer the Kimber micro 9 my wife has a .38 revolver loaded with a few shot shells in case she is to excited to hit anything. I switched her from a Simi-auto to the revolver because I came home early one morning at 2:00am, unannounced and she tried to shoot me with the simi-auto, but luckily for me she had trouble with getting the safety off.

    Now I don’t come home at night without calling her first…

  20. I’m also 80 and appreciate this post. My favorite self-defense loads for handguns are Liberty Civil Defense, Underwood Xtreme Defender and Federal HST in 147gr. To me, Liberty is great for carry-weight reduction, esp. with high-capacity mags; The Underwood is badass for wound channel and the HST is reliable, easy to find and carried by a gazillion LEOs in case you are in a gun-unfriendly area. A bit off-topic, but I tell anyone who asks for my thoughts that they should avoid using magnum rounds inside the house because of the damage that the report of that ammo will cause to their hearing. The 327 mag is terrible in that regard. I’m nearly deaf now, mostly from Army days when hearing protection was almost non-existent.

  21. In my opinion bullet design is the most important aspect of stopping power. I’m all in on 9mm but, until the P365, I used a small S&W.380. Bodyguard. Experimented with ball, various HP and the Ruger ARX. Lined up five gallon jugs. Shot FMJ, 3 HP and Ruger ARX. The fmj punched through, the jhp made larger, jagged holes in the back. But the ARX made the jug explode. Articles about the ARX say it drills through heavy clothing and work like little Cuisinart inside the body cavity.

  22. Great article Dave and a lot of good points made.
    Unlike most of the Readers and those that share their opinions here I happen to be particularly fond of the .32 Family of Calibers.
    I don’t seriously think that the. 32 ACP is a viable CCW defensive round but it is Fun and pretty easy to manage with older bones and musculature.
    The .32 H&R Magnum and .327 Federal Magnum could be serious contenders however if the Ammunition Manufacturers would “Step up” their Game.
    CCI/Speer currently loads a .30 Super Carry cartridge with a 115 Gr. “Gold Dot” projectile that could tip the scales in favor of these two calibers should they load it on 32 Mags or 327 Fed.
    The Double Tap defensive loads with their 120 Gr. Hardcastle or 60 Lead Free are impressive but you’re more likely to gather a dozen “Hen’s Teeth” before you find a reasonable stock of their ammo.

  23. For Home Defense and EDC my wife and I use Hornady Critical Defense. I shoot the 9mm and she does the .38 in a wheel gun. Based on what my research has told me, it is EXACTLY what I am wanting. There are of course other lines that would be a good choice also.

  24. I am 81 years old and have problems with slide manipulation, so I carry the new Girsan 380 tip-up. If they made it in a 45 I would have bought it. If they do produce a 9mm I shall certainly trade up. 14 380 rounds from a 4.5-inch barrel should get me in the 1200 to 1600 fps area. I added a light with a green laser, at the distances this old x cop is likely to encounter o to 25 feet, with the plus of being able to fire the pistol in hard contact in a hand-to-hand struggle with an assailant makes it a great defensive weapon.

  25. As an older shooter, using +P ammo or not, is not as serious an issue as the handgun being used. An overly light handgun using +P ammo can be too much recoil for arthritic hands. As example, a S&W model 642 DA only revolver is difficult to shoot even with “regular” ammo. The S&W model 638, in SA mode, is a better choice because of the lighter SA mode. (Both are rated for +P ammo.)

    Comparing the 642/638 light weight 38s to the model 36, and the greater weight of the steel frame model 36 helps greatly in controlling recoil. This comparison also applies to 9mm pistols.

    As to +P ammo, they do have a place where they provide an advantage. Question is = Do you really need to use +P ammo for CCW?

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