Defensive Ammunition Selection: Tragedy Leads to Innovation

In the past 20 years or so, handgun ammunition technology has improved by leaps and bounds. The “Miami Shootout” tragedy sparked many of the improvements. On April 11, 1986, two violent criminals, William Matix and Michael Platt, battled to the death with eight FBI agents. The firefight lasted less than 5 minutes, expended about 145 rounds of ammunition, and left 5 FBI agents wounded, and 2 agents, Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove, dead at the scene. Subsequent investigation discovered the first pistol round to hit Platt had stopped about an inch away from his heart. Although this shot eventually killed Platt, he had fought on with his .223 rifle, absorbing 11 more gunshot wounds before he was effectively stopped. The incident sparked an industry drive to develop new calibers and new bullet technology that continues to this day.

After the Miami Shootout, the FBI mandated that its future pistol ammunition penetrate no less than 12 inches of ballistic gelatin—which simulates the soft tissue of human or animal meat. Twelve inches of penetration is still considered the industry standard to this day, but it is not the only important factor to consider. The total damage done by the wound channel made by the bullet as it passes through the soft tissue also depends on the bullet’s weight, velocity, and diameter. Bigger cartridges offer more of all these things than smaller ones do, but for each cartridge, there are also a variety of bullets and loadings from which to choose.

Fiocchi Pistol Shooting Dynamics, 50 Grain Full Metal Jacket Bullet
Fiocchi 50 Grain Full Metal Jacket Bullet

The most obvious distinction to make in bullet design is between an expanding and non-expanding bullet design. Full metal jacket bullets feature round noses fully enclosed in a brass or copper “jacket,” which holds the bullet together and prevents deflection or expansion. Even a .25 acp FMJ round can penetrate more than the FBI’s 12-inch minimum, but in doing so it simply drills a quarter-inch hole straight through the ballistic gel. In fact, many FMJ rounds carry a risk of over penetrating, going right through the bad guy and hitting someone innocent beyond. Why are FMJ bullets still so popular? Well, they are simple to manufacture, and that means they are inexpensive. The vast majority of bullets actually fired at shooting ranges across the country each year are FMJ, simply because they are the cheapest practice round.

A jacketed hollow point bullet is more complicated and expensive to manufacture than the FMJ. The round nose is gone, replaced by a crater at the business end of the bullet. As the bullet hits soft tissue, the hollow point fills up with tissue pressing against it and the copper jacketing peels back like a banana. The bullet’s diameter expands, forming the shape of a star or a mushroom. Well, that is how it’s supposed to work at least! Older hollow point designs would frequently fail to perform. If the bad guy was wearing thick clothes, the crater in the nose of the bullet would often get plugged up with clothing and the round would act like a FMJ. If the copper jacketing separated from the lead bullet core, the core would fragment into a few small lead chunks causing little damage.

Glaser Blue Safety Slug
Glaser Blue Safety Slug

Ammunition manufacturers soon responded to the FBI’s plea for better ammo. Hornaday’s XTP bullet was the first new bullet designed to meet the FBI’s requirements, and in the late 1980s Federal introduced an improved version of their famous Hydra-Shok bullet, which featured a metal post inside the hollow point to help expansion and hold the bullet together. These bullets were state of the art through the 1990s and are still highly respected today. However, they were only the beginning of a huge trend that still shows no signs of stopping. There are now dozens of competing jacketed hollow point bullets marketed for personal defense. A few noteworthy types:

  • Bonded bullets such as the Speer Gold Dot use careful manufacturing processes to make the jacketing very difficult to separate from the lead bullet core. This keeps the bullet from fragmenting.
  • The Glaser Safety Slug is a unique and controversial concept. Compressed birdshot replaces the lead inside the jacketing. This design ignores the FBI penetration standard entirely, immediately disintegrating on impact and dumping its birdshot load into the first few inches of soft tissue.
  • Solid copper bullets from Barnes, Magtech, and others have no lead in them at all. These bullets weigh less than an identically-sized lead bullet, exhibit a lot of penetration, and do not fragment.

Today, the average U.S. citizen can choose from several types of bullets made specifically for the application of self-defense; many of which are improvements over the rounds used by the brave FBI agents who faced down the murderous Platt and Matix back in 1986. Some of us prefer a lighter bullet loaded to the highest velocity possible, while others choose the heaviest bullet even if it moves a bit slower. Some of us prefer the higher capacity of the 9mm or the larger, heavier bullet of the .45acp. But, all of us should never forget agents Ben Grogan and Jerry Dove, whose deaths in the line of duty led to the innovations in ammunition that we may depend upon one day to save our own lives.

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