Defensive Handgun Loads

Bullets ammunition on stone table wide banner or panorama. Bullet background copy space. Rounds and ammo into 9mm hand gun.

When choosing a load for self defense, there are several things that are more important than the actual load in the gun that should be addressed.

  • Reliability is the most important factor in deciding on what load to put in your gun. A gun that does not reliably feed your chosen defensive round is useless as a defensive tool. Choose a round that feeds reliably in your gun and test it out extensively.
  • Shot placement is still far more important than the load you choose. A hit in the vitals does far more damage than a miss with the latest and greatest bullet design.
  • The third tier of choosing what to put in your gun is actually wading through the choices out there to find an acceptable defensive load for your specific application.

An acceptable defensive load is …

  • One where the bullet penetrates far enough to do damage when it comes in contact with tissue, yet not so far as to over-penetrate without transferring its energy to the tissue.
  • Also, ideally, features the greatest achievable spreading out (mushrooming) of the bullet for that specific caliber.

For the sake of this article, we will be using the FBI standards of 12 inches of penetration of ballistic gelatin and expansion to the largest diameter possible in order to cause the largest possible wound channel. A standard which most experts support wholeheartedly.

The .22 Long Rifle is one of the most popular cartridges in the world and one of the most popular chamberings for a pocket pistol or revolver. The most important consideration in picking a .22LR load is the reliability of this notoriously finicky round in your gun.

Some semi-automatic handguns do not work well with standard velocity ammo and some do not like the high-velocity loads. Luckily, the low cost of this round lets you practice enough to ensure you picked a compatible load and, perhaps as important, lets you hone your skills with your handgun, ensuring adequate shot placement when the need arises.

Barrel length also may play a role in ammunition selection. The popular CCI Quik-Shok 32-grain copper-plated hollow point round is a good choice for short (2 inches) barreled guns, although may expand and fail to penetrate when fired from a longer barrel.

Conversely, the Remington Yellowjacket, with its non-expanding 33 grain truncated cone bullet, is probably a good choice for those with longer barrels as it creates a larger diameter permanent cavity than a lead round nose bullet design.

So the picking of a defensive .22LR round is fairly simple:

  1. Find a load that you and your gun like.
  2. Practice, practice, practice, practice!

Some Other Options

The popular .380ACP round brings a bit more firepower to the table, yet the drawbacks to most defensive bullet designs in this chambering are the lack of expansion with penetration. Most experts advise sticking with a quality FMJ loading such as Remington’s Express 95 grain or Federal’s American Eagle 95 grain. However, some recommend the Cor-Bon DPX 80 grain bullet load as a quality, expanding defensive round.

The .38 Special has an interesting problem of being offered in revolvers of many different barrel lengths, which makes choosing a load more difficult. A solid, acceptable choice that meets our standards for any revolver from snub-nosed to target length, is Speer’s 135 grain+P Gold Dot load. This load is specifically designed with snub-nosed revolvers in mind, so be careful to ensure that your gun is rated for the higher pressure +P cartridge.

Cor-Bon’s DPX 110-grain standard pressure offering with a solid copper, lead-free bullet is another good performer for snub-nosed .38 specials. In revolvers with barrels over four inches, Remington’s Classic Express +P with 158 grain lead hollow point bullet, this “FBI load” is a tried and true choice.

Stepping up to the 9mm brings true defensive firepower to the picture, with many acceptable defensive designs and loadings. For this, Winchester Ranger SXT pretty much sets the standard with a proven record along side the heavier 147 grain SXT in a sub-sonic standard-pressure load.

If you have a short-barrel, consider the 124-grain Speer Gold Dot for your compact 9mm. The .40S&W is currently the most popular police duty round, which means there are plenty of excellent defensive loads to pick from that meet the standards of a good defensive load.

Cor-Bon’s 140-grain uses the Barnes all-copper DPX bullet, and the 165-grain is another design from Speer’s Gold Dot line.

If you have a compact pistol with a shorter barrel, you might pick Speer’s 180-grain, as it was designed with shorter barrels in mind.


As for .45ACP, good defensive loads meeting the FBI standard

Whichever round you choose, remember to test it out in your gun to ensure reliability and maintain your proficiency level to ensure proper shot placement, should the need arise.

Do you have a favorite loading for personal defense? Share what it is in the comments 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!

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