Throwback Thursday: Best Defensive Ammunition Options for Rifles

Different Rifle Calibers Defensive Ammunition on Table with Black Background

Only after you have mastered your chosen rifle and thoroughly ensured the reliability of your system should you begin to worry about your defensive ammunition selection. Most of us would be better off practicing with what we have at hand than worrying about what ammunition to use.

You should know you (the shooter), your rifle, your ammunition, and what it can accomplish before considering yourself prepared for the defensive use of your rifle.

What makes a good defensive rifle load is the same performance characteristics we look for in any defensive ammunition. Those characteristics are:

  • Enough penetration to do significant damage
  • Not too much penetration (allowing the bullet to exit and go who knows where)
  • Maximum expansion or fragmentation (in order to cause the most damage)

Some may want to choose, or already have, a rifle chambered in a pistol caliber, commonly referred to as a pistol-caliber carbine. A pistol-caliber carbine will normally offer superior terminal ballistics, handling, and ease of shot placement than the same caliber pistol due to the longer barrel, sight radius, and the fact that it has a buttstock.

However, a PCC cannot match the performance of a true rifle caliber, even when compared to the performance of a short-barreled rifle. A PCC might be considered for compatibility purposes if you have a pistol of the same caliber or even the same magazine system. Still, it’s important to remember that while a PCC is more effective than a pistol or harsh language, it should not be considered a substitute for a rifle.

.22 LR Defensive Ammunition

.22 Long Rifle

While there are infinitely better choices than the .22 Long Rifle, the gun you have is a better defensive tool than the one you do not. If the .22 LR is all you possess to defend yourself, then reliability is an even greater concern than usual in your defense rifle. It is of the utmost importance to ensure your chosen load runs reliably in your rifle, as you do not have the margin of error that another larger caliber would have.

The second point to consider is the accuracy potential of your rifle, as the accuracy from rimfire rifles can vary greatly depending on the ammunition. There are many ammunition choices in .22 LR, and out of a rifle, they vary little in terminal performance. The exceptions to this are the CCI Quick-Shock and the Aquila Super Colibri. These two choices should be avoided due to inadequate penetration, as well as all exotic or “trick” ammunition.

7.62x39mm Defensive Ammunition


The AK-47 is the most prolific rifle in the world. Its predecessor, the SKS, is chambered in the same 7.62x39mm and has quickly become the choice for an inexpensive utilitarian rifle here in America, fighting to replace the wildly popular lever-action .30-30 Winchester carbine.

The military surplus imported ammo has long dried up, but the market has picked up where the surplus left off, leaving us with plenty of inexpensive plinking ammo. Most of the inexpensive Russian JHP and JSP ammunition is substandard when asked to perform the role of defensive ammunition. The exception to the rule is Wolf Military Classic Hollow Point 124-grain, which offers acceptable ballistic terminal performance as a defensive cartridge. Winchester’s excellent Super-X 123-grain soft point bullet load is the other choice in this popular caliber to meet our standards for a defensive load.

.30-30 Winchester Ammunition and Lever-Action Rifle

.30-30 Winchester

The .30-30 lever-action has historically been one of the most popular rifles in North America. This cartridge offers similar terminal ballistics to expanding 7.62x39mm ammunition, and .30-30 Winchester generally outperforms the more modern .223 Remington.

For inside-the-house defensive scenarios, the Winchester Power-Shok 125-grain hollow point is the best choice, while for any out-doors use, a defensive ammunition load with a heavier Jacketed soft-point bullet is a much more flexible choice.

6.8 SPC Defensive Ammunition

6.8mm Remington SPC

The 6.8mm Remington SPC (or 6.8x43mm) was developed with collaboration from individual members of U.S. SOCOM and is based on the .30 Remington cartridge, which puts it between the 5.56x45mm NATO and the 7.62x39mm in bore diameter and velocity. It is readily adaptable to current 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington firearm platforms, the cartridge overall length being comparable.

Due to its rapid acceptance and popularity, there are already a bunch of great defensive loads for this relatively new cartridge. Loads using the Hornady 110-grain V-MAX bullet from Bitterroot Valley Ammunition provide great fragmentation and are perfect for defensive use inside the home, as well as a good choice for light game. The Hornady 115-grain open tip match bullet used in the Remington Express has dominated military terminal performance testing in 2002-2006 because, even at reduced impact velocities, it has excellent fragmentation and early yaw.

Silver State Armory’s load that utilizes the Sierra 110-grain Pro Hunter jacketed soft point bullet is a good general-purpose bullet for defensive use and a great hunting load for medium-size game. Silver State Armory also loads the Sierra Match King 115-grain, another good choice for defensive use.

5.56 NATO Ammunition in AR-15 Magazines

.223 Remington

With the .223 Remington caliber, heavier bullet loadings are not necessarily better at closer, inside-the-home distances, unless that bullet is a fragmenting design. In this caliber, as in most, open-tip match bullets (sometimes referred to as boat-tail hollow points), jacketed hollow points and jacketed soft-point designs can offer good terminal performance.

If your rifle’s barrel has a 1-in-7 twist rate, the 75-grain Tactical hollow point from Bitterroot Valley, Sierra 77-grain Match King boat-tail hollow point in the Remington Premier, the Federal Gold Medal Match, and the Fiocchi Exacta Match are all good choices.

If your rifle has a barrel with a twist rate of 1-in-9 inches that will not stabilize the heavy 70+ grain bullets, the 69-grain Sierra Match King bullet load by Remington, the Fiocchi, and the 69-grain match boat-tail hollow-point load by Bitterroot Valley are all good choices. Some other good choices are the 63-grain JSP from Bitteroot Valley, the Winchester 64-grain JSP, and the Federal 64-grain TRU JSP.

If you have the older 1-and-12 twist barrel, the best choices are the 55-grain Federal bonded jacketed soft point load or Federal’s load with the Barnes 55-grain Triple-Shock X bullets. Both provide adequate penetration while using lighter bullets.

.308 Winchester cartridges on black target with holes

.308 Winchester

With .308 Winchester defensive ammunition, most heavy-bullet loads are ruled out due to over-penetration issues. After all, we do not want our bullets to do harm to anything or anyone beyond the target.

The Hornady 155-grain TAP FPD A-MAX is probably the best choice in a defensive load in this caliber. Some other good loads for the .308 are the Winchester Vital-Shok utilizing the Nosler 150-grain ballistic tip bullet, the Federal 150-grain Fusion, the Federal 165-grain Fusion JSP, and the Remington 165-grain AccuTip.

.30-06 Springfield Ammo in Clips

.30-06 Springfield

For this ancient, proven, warhorse of a caliber, I recommend sticking with the same lighter bullets recommended for the .308 Winchester loadings. The Fiocchi Extrema with the 165-grain Sierra Game King, the 165-grain Federal Fusion, the 150-grain Fusion, and the Federal Vital-Shock with the Nosler 150-grain ballistic tip bullet are recommended loads.

If you are using your trusty M1, make sure you are shooting Garand-friendly ammunition, as most commercial .30-06 Springfield loads are the incorrect pressure for your old rifle and could damage it.

What defensive ammunition do you use for your rifle? Why? Let us know in the comments section below!

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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 (18)

  1. I would like to find some 40 grain or 32 grn. 204 ammo for my coyote rifle. Is it not availble anymore?

    1. Given the ammo crunch, the manufacturers only focused on the most popular self-defense calibers. Then, last summer, they said they would pump out the hunting calibers — it ended up being only the most popular hunting calibers. Currently, manufacturing is getting ahead of the most popular calibers, so I would expect to see the others calibers being produced toward the mid-summer or fall periods. ~Dave

  2. Even though I have a shotgun, pistol and AR-15 for home defense, I also have a .32 WS 94 Winchester on the side of my bed. It was the first gun I was introduced to many years ago as a pre-teen, and more recently a few years ago as my only gun at that time. I stocked up on enough ammo for it several years ago when I got reintroduced it. It’s like an anomaly because you can’t purchase it in stores anymore. But I’m better off using this rifle in a defense situation because of the perceived scary, evil, black rifle the AR-15 is perceived to be where I live.

  3. In my 30-06 I use a 165 gr HP BT Match as an all-around hunting and defense load. Saves having to change handling and sighting for different loads and is an excellent large game load.
    Thanks for great deals and great info

  4. The .22 Winchester Rimfire (.22 WRM) is too 0ftenover-looked as a very viable self defense cartridge. Ionce saw a California Black-tail deer dropped at 50yards with a single shot (Winchester 40-JHP). ACanadian trapper took a grizzly with a .22 WRM rifle though it took several shots tpo finish the job. From arifle, Hornady’s Critical Defense (45-gr JHP at 1,700+ fps)is a an excellent choice; by testing, so too is Wincheter’s
    45-gr JHP at 1,550 fps and Federal’s 50 gr JHP at 1,530.Winchester even has an excellent edible small game load,45=gr at 1060 fps from a rifle. 
    In a handgun, the Hornady Critical Defense and winchester 40-gr JHP are he best choices…’IfI could have only one gun…’ it would be an accuraterifle in .22 WMR, perhaps the C Z 457. Best Regards,’Doc’ D.

  5. I see alot of good calibers got left off this list, 300 Blackout being a major one as it’s easily supressed (especially if used inside, you’re gonna need it to not blow out eardrums) plus, being big and slow, less chance of overpenetration. 277 Wolverine is also an excellent caliber choice (again, easily supressed using 140gr loads) as well as the 300 HAM’R.

  6. I’m rather curious: at what distances are you looking at for the defensive range? In house? or out side and ‘down the road abit’? I have a lever action Rossi rifle in 357/38 special and with hollow point 125 (?) grain bullets and I thought it would be a good in house or close range defensive weapon. It’s easy to shoot, should have enough penetration up to about 50 or so yards, and not pass through the target. If i really need to be in a defensive posture at longer ranges: I have a 270 that I use as a long range (400 yards +) deer gun, and a 308 that shoots just a little bit different than my trusty 270, but will do the job just fine.

  7. My choice for home a home defense rifle is techincally a pistol. It’s an AR pistol I built myself in 300blk. I chose a 10.5″ barrel because I found it on sale and I didn’t want to go with less than a 9″ barrel. I had read up on the 300blk round and heard 9″ was a good minimum for optimal performance. After reading that 9″ number from 3 different sources I figured it was a good choice.

    It has a red dot sight, Magpul flip up sights and, a Sb Tactical brace. OAL with the brace fully extended is just shy of 29″. I have a rail light attached that does double duty as a hand stop.

    I load Sig Elite Performance in120gr. The box claims 2250fps and 1349ft/lbs energy. It should stop any home intruder.

  8. I’m with Pete on this one. I very much like the .300BLK in a home defense rifle. There are many super and sub-sonic loads available with lots of bullets designs. While expensive to do so, one
    Can build or buy a solid .300BLK pistol and add a suppressor. While that does crease the length to normal rifle sizes, it also make the weapon far more hearing friendly for enclosed spaces.

    As I have gotten older I find that my zone of worry has grown smaller. I do not need a .30-06 to reach out and protect something. In fact many of the rounds you mentioned are far too powerful for home defensive use, and that makes your failure to mention one of the few perfect calibers all the more obvious.

    Also there are a lot of .30 carbines out there in the hinterlands. That to is a caliber that should not be overlooked.

  9. Pete I have no idea why they left this jewel of a caliber out. I have two in this caliber one a carbine and one an 8″ pistol The 8″ is ibn my house as is a .40 S&W I prefer the .300blk for capacity and easier sighting

  10. Good article. My preference (retired US Armed Forces and retired Peace Officer – older than dirt) is based on ease of concealment and engagement range. In a pistol, I prefer the Glock 36 (45 cal.) for concealment, the 5.7×28 for short ranges (in either handgun or carbine format), then a 223/5.56 or 300 BLK in AR configurations classified as a pistol equipped with a red dot sight, followed by the 6,5 Creedmor in rifle configurations to 300 yds, the 308 Win to 600 yds, and a 300 Win Mag at greater distances. IMO, choose the right tool for the job at hand and while that depends on many factors, definitely consider your anticipated “engagement range”. Somewhere along the line, consideration should also be given to low light situations or darkness. If you don’t own the dark, those who do own the dark will own you, Cheers

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