Everyday Carry Gear: Best Loads

Best Loads for Personal Defense

When I choose a handgun, the choice is predicated on straight-forward ergonomics and world-class reliability. I did not have to make the decision to take charge of my own safety, I cannot recall when I have not had that choice firmly in mind.

When it comes to ammunition, the choice isn’t that difficult, but, just the same, there are plenty of poor choices. If you make the wrong choice in the handgun, it may be expensive to change.

Holsters are not inexpensive in quality examples. Ammunition is relatively inexpensive and if you find the load isn’t suitable or doesn’t meet your expectations, simply shoot it up and obtain a more suitable type!

Quality handguns are not inexpensive, training ammunition is priced fairly. Proficiency at arms is a priceless commodity purchased with a different coin. Sweat, time and effort are the main ingredients.

The Importance of Testing

When it comes to handguns and calibers, you may make your own determination of reliability and accuracy. Just fire the thing!

When it comes to ammunition, we have quite a bit of bull waste to wade through, and some get knee-deep and mired in it. If you are able to climb a step up the logic ladder, you find that some claims are ridiculous.

The novice may eat up every word of a so-called stopping-power study, one with secret sources and questionable math and physics that would have Neils Bohr spinning in his grave.

A generation ago, someone penned a piece in which drugged goats were supposedly shot under controlled conditions to gauge bullet effectiveness.

Of course, the sources were confidential — it was laughable and the science, much less the goat anatomy, described was rather far out to say the least. The hoax was published and some took it as a legitimate study.

I never did and the good folks in agencies that should have known of such things never heard of such as study. My own abstracts have been published on a federal level and know what goes into such an effort.

Today, we rely on laboratory results to find the best loads. Gelatin doesn’t lie and holds its shape after being shot. We are able to measure the complete cavity.

Gelatin isn’t a human body by any means and neither is water, but each is useful in testing a loading for expansion and penetration, and comparing one load to the other.

However, gelatin-test cavities may be preserved and photographed. The true test of science is repeatable and verifiable testing.

Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special Gel Test
The Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain .38 Special offers good performance.

How to Find the Best Loads

My institutional background is public safety. I have studied a number of ammunition test programs. The best known is the FBI program, but other agencies and huge ammunition companies have also conducted extensive testing.

Accuracy, pressure, case expansion, a clean powder burn and resistance to the elements are important. Feed reliability is critical. I would not consider any loading unless all of these criteria are met and proven.

Additionally, I proof the load myself, no matter how extensive the test program. After these criteria are met without any failure of any type, I will consider wound potential.

Wound potential is complicated, but in simple terms, I wish to use a load that offers a balance of expansion and penetration. A minimum of 12 inches of penetration is needed and the bullet should expand to 1.5 times its original diameter.

Many service-grade loads meet the penetration threshold and most exceed the expansion criteria. Unfortunately, many shooters in the civilian world approach ammunition choice backward.

They are lured by claims of effect on animate targets and neglect to fully explore the concepts of reliability, accuracy, a full powder burn and modest muzzle flash. Muzzle flash is important to me.

If the cartridge doesn’t have a full powder burn, then someone in engineering dropped the ball or an inferior powder was used. Muzzle blast is simply powder burning outside the barrel.

This is bad news in handgun loads. All handguns are short-barrel firearms and we need to be certain of what makes a load with good cartridge integrity.

Federal HST Projectile
The Federal HST is a well-designed projectile and one of the best loads.

Attributes to Consider

The single attribute the load must have is penetration. Without penetration, without the bullet reaching the vitals and causing rapid blood loss, we have nothing.

There are bullets designed to fragment into shards or dump pieces of the bullet quickly. These loads may fail to penetrate heavy winter clothing or blow up on belt buckles and light resistances.

I avoid them. I do not choose non-expanding heavy lead or jacketed bullets either. I choose a load with a good balance of expansion and penetration. I don’t normally use +P loads, save in heavy-frame 9mm Luger handguns.

When operating pressure is high, this is hard on a handgun. It may not break a frame or crack a barrel, but the small parts take a beating. Why do I demand cartridge integrity and what is it?

This means the bullet is securely crimped in place as one criteria. This prevents the bullet from being bumped into the cartridge case during the feed cycle. We sometimes load and unload a self-loader several times over the course of time.

The cartridge must withstand several chamberings.  The primer should withstand repeated exposures to oil, solvent and water. This means a good tight case seal.

If you have concentrated on ballistic performance only and not taken into account valid reliability concerns, perhaps you need to reconceptualize your thoughts concerning ammunition.

I also like to limit my personal-defense firearms to calibers of .38 Special and 9mm Luger or larger. My favorite caliber for personal defense is the .45 ACP. I am not over-gunned at all.

The small calibers simply do not have the wound potential suitable for stopping a motivated attacker reliably. I have tested a number of loads and trust them enough to carry them in my handguns.

Some are hollow points. Some, like the Hornady Critical Defense, use a special plug in the hollow nose of the bullet that ensures the bullet will expand when meeting resistance and will not plug in the nose and fail to expand.

I believe feed reliability is also enhanced by the Critical Defense (FTX) bullet design.

Man Firing Handgun from Retention
A good test of firing for reliability is firing from the retention position.

What’s Most Important?

To recap, reliability is most important. This means firing a number of the chosen load — 100 rounds seems reasonable — without any type of stoppage. Next, consider overall performance.

Modest muzzle flash and practical accuracy are important. Finally, a balance of expansion and penetration are needed. There are a number of sources for penetration and expansion figures, including the testing done by the makers themselves.

A good choice for everyday carry should be controllable. I am an experienced shooter and keep my loads on the standard-pressure side.

As an example, the +P 9mm Luger in one of the new slim-line 9mm pistols or the Hellcat may increase recoil to the point that accuracy and fast follow-up shots are compromised.

It isn’t worth it. On the other hand, if I am carrying the SIG P226 stainless, a favored full-size pistol, the +P+ isn’t a problem to control. I am not a big fan of several loads for two or three pistols, but prefer a standard load for all of my handguns.

Just the same, you may reap some benefits in performance if you are able to use +P loads in a full-size handgun and standard loads in a compact. The best loads will work well with you as an individual.

Hornady Critical Defense
Hornady offers some of the best loads and the value pack offers real performance.

High-Quality Hard Hitters

Another example of a well designed all-around loading is the Federal HST. A 124-grain 9mm Luger at 1200 fps or a 147-grain 9mm Luger at 1000 fps both offer good potential.

The 147-grain bullet has greater penetration and is among the best performers in this bullet weight. The 10mm Auto HST is a purpose-designed defense load that offers maximum wound potential.

The 230-grain .45 ACP is a proven choice used by many large agencies issuing the .45 ACP. These loads are good examples of personal-defense loads and are a baseline for performance.

Gauge your choice against these when you consider your best loads for everyday carry.

I have the most experience with the Critical Defense and HST bullet line and find them good choices. Whatever your opinion, grace your choice with the hard work of confirming reliability, function and accuracy in your specific handgun.

What do you think are the best loads for personal defense? 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 (4)

  1. If the “goat” study was a hoax, whoever compiled it sure went to a lot of trouble writing it. I looked at it and didn’t assume it to be a hoax. It has a lot of details that would surely require a great imagination to come up with. I’m not positive however.

  2. And it is mandatory that you test fire your ammo in the dark – the difference in muzzle flashes can be stunning. Particularly for short-barreled weapons, muzzle flash varies hugely depending on the round design, and some discharges can be totally blinding in dark or low-light situations You may find that some loads are unacceptable for this reason alone. If a local range has a low-light class, this is a great opportunity to try out your defense ammo, and perhaps even see what other shooters are using – and maybe borrow a couple rounds to see how they work in your weapon.

  3. I have three guns I use for personal defense on a regular basis: a .380 (warm weather carry gun), a .40 (cold weather carry gun), and a 9mm (home defense gun). For the .380, I use 99 grain HST. For the .40, I use 180 grain Gold Dot G2. For the 9mm, I use 138 grain Federal Syntech, which has a synthetic polymer jacket and is designed to split into three petals on impact to create secondary wound channels while the central core continues to punch through the target. The Syntech may seem like and odd choice and it does have lower accuracy than the other two loads, but I’ve reasoned that in a home defense setting the distances will be much lower, and I’m okay with sacrificing some accuracy in trade for increased target damage in such a setting.

  4. Very good article. Have used Hornady Critical Defense in all my hand guns, various calibers, without any problems for many years. Have recently been using Blackhills Honey Badger, also without any problems.

    Would love to see and hear a comparison test, done by you, on these two completely different types of bullets.

    Hope you’ll have time and interest in that study.

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