Hornady Critical Duty/Critical Defense

Hornady ammunition with car windshield with bullet hole

There are few subjects as prone to create an argument as personal defense handguns and calibers. Some have a “devil may care” attitude and deploy anything, stating most are the same, while others go into great, even minute detail, in their testing and choices. I think that everyone should master the personal defense handgun of their choice.

Hornady Critical Defense ammunition with tactical vest and handguns
Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty loads are among the most proven on the planet.

Given a reliable handgun of good quality and at least 9mm caliber you will be well armed. The choice must be backed by training. In today’s busy world, few of us have the time we would like to master the handgun thoroughly. This means compromise. What should never be compromised is ammunition quality.

The ammunition must be resistant to oil, solvent, and water. The primer seal and case mouth seal should be good. This doesn’t necessarily mean chemically sealed but a good tight seal. The ammunition should not be prone to the bullet being seated back in the cartridge case as it is worked through the action. Accuracy is relevant and the load should be accurate enough for personal defense. For me this means a four inch group at 25 yards in a service grade pistol. More accuracy is better if I can get it.

I have used Hornady ammunition for many years. Hornady was pushed to the top of the list when it introduced the XTP (Extreme Terminal Performance) bullet. There just wasn’t anything like it before and there is little competition today.

Today, we also have the Critical Defense and Critical Duty loads. They are not really variants of the XTP but fresh designs for a specific purpose. They have Hornady quality in common, however. These loads make the most of a handgun caliber.

upset 135-grain Hornady Critical Defense bullet
This is the 135-grain +P bullet after testing in gelatin.

Handguns, in general, are not very powerful compared to rifles and shotguns. The weak 9mm and strong .45 are more alike than they differ when compared to a .223 rifle or 12 gauge shotgun. I appreciate my Colt .45 1911 very much and often carry a single-action .45 loaded with the 250-grain XTP in the outdoors. Neither is as powerful as my Springfield M1A1 .308 or Browning Auto 5 riot gun—not even close. But the improved handgun loads from Hornady make the most of a handgun cartridge.

A man is about the size and tenacity to life of a large deer. The primary difference is animals do not know they have been shot and are less susceptible to shock. With a handgun, multiple shots may be the rule to stop a motivated felon.

Those motivated by profit seldom have to be shot, they will retreat at the sight of a handgun. The psychopath exists and so do those motivated by a desire to murder or cause human suffering. They may take a lot of shooting to stop.

Cross section of a hornady FlexLock bullet
FlexLock technology is a considerable advance in bullet development.

Handgun bullets don’t damage a lot of tissue compared to 12 gauge buckshot or a .30 rifle bullet at 2,700 fps. Hydrostatic shock and energy dump are simply junk science when it comes to handgun wound ballistics. They are creative literature. What stops an assailant is a wound that produces blood loss.

The body’s pressurized system must be compromised and blood loss created to stop the system from operating. Even with a severe wound, the felon may return fire. As long time cop and writer Tom Ferguson stated, ‘Everyone has a 50-50 chance of dying in a gunfight.’

Penetration is the primary concern. If the bullet doesn’t penetrate to the vitals it is worthless. Velocity is important, as it enables this penetration. Velocity also instigates expansion, which increases the frontal diameter of the bullet and makes the bullet less likely to simply push flesh aside, but more likely to cut flesh and create a larger wound.

Hornady Critical Defense ammunition with tactical vest and handguns
Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty loads are among the most proven on the planet.

A large caliber bullet that expands creates the most damage. It isn’t easy to create enough energy to cause the bullet to both penetrate and expand ideally. One of the finest loads available for service use is the Hornady Critical Duty. This load penetrates auto glass, building material, and sheet metal and exits to penetrate at least 13 inches in ballistic gelatin. The bullet expands reliably, although expansion isn’t the same after hitting sheet metal, as an example, as when entering bare gelatin.

Expansion is 1.2 to 1.6 times the original diameter in institutional and industry testing. Hornady uses the FlexLock bullet in these loads. The original XTP has a thick jacket at the bullets base and a thinner jacket at the nose. This results in the bullet expanding, but not fragmenting, as expansion stopped at the shank.

The XTP usually retains 100 percent of its weight in testing. The XTP expands when the nose fills with fluid. Hornady developed the FlexTip or FTX bullet to offer a different type of expansion mechanism. There is a polymer tip inside the nose or sump of the Critical Defense bullet. The nose doesn’t clog with the FlexTip bullet.

Expansion isn’t as dependent on velocity. The FTX bullet may be loaded to lower velocity but retain good expansion, making for a controllable defense load. This technology allowed the development of a very good .22 Magnum loading using a 45 grain bullet and also good defense loads in .44 Special and .45 Colt. It led to the FlexLock.

Hornady Critical Duty ammunition box
With the FBI contract Hornady will be shipping thousands of rounds of Critical Duty to agencies across the United States.

The FlexLock is based on the same engineering principles, but with a solid locking section in the jacket that locks the jacket to the lead core. This bullet will not separate in tough material. While the XTP is a tough bullet, I have managed to separate the XTP when driving a 90-grain XTP to 1,600 fps in the .38 Super and in similar experiments—the bullet was designed for .380 ACP velocity, about 900 fps.

The FlexLock is a superior design for service use. Is it truly superior to the XTP bullet? The answer depends on your worst case scenario. It is the question of expansion versus penetration, and the FlexLock appears to have both. Hornady did a tremendous amount of research and development. The bullet weights are non traditional, with the first issue 9mm, a 135-grain bullet, and the .40 a 175-grain bullet.

Nickel-plated cases aid in smooth feed reliability. If you consult the Hornady website and its published data for FBI testing, you will find that the FlexLock penetrates about 25 percent more than the Critical Defense load during the FBI protocol testing. Some FlexLock loads actually penetrate less and expand more than the Critical Defense in bare gelatin. When it comes to barrier penetration, the FlexLock has every advantage. As a bonus, during the recent FBI contract testing, the FBI reported that the Hornady 135-grain 9mm adopted by the agency was the most accurate 9mm loading ever tested.

Hornady Critical Duty bullet
The Critical Duty bullet demanded years of research and development.

For most of us, the Critical Defense loading is a preferred home defense and personal defense load. I do not have the resources to duplicate the FBI testing and do not need to, as Hornady and the FBI have tested the load beyond my ability. However, I have fired the loads on the range and checked for recoil, reliability, and accuracy.

I have also fired into my standard water testing and qualified expansion. In short, you have less recoil with good expansion with the Critical Defense FTX bullet, just as designed. With the Critical Duty FlexLock bullet you have excellent penetration if needed.

I think if feral dogs and the big cats are part of the outdoors picture, the FlexLock would be the better choice. I am particularly pleased with Critical Duty performance in both 10mm and .45 ACP caliber. The Critical Defense seems better suited to short barrel handguns with lower velocity potential. Below are certified test results with both lines of ammunition.

Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty Gelatin Results

Velocity Penetration Expansion

Critical Defense

9mm 100-grain LITE (A low recoil defense load, tested in a three-inch barrel.)
1,125 fps. 9.25 in. .57


1,140 fps 11.25 .55
.38 Special 90-grain Lite, tested in a 1 7/8-inch barrel revolver
1,010 fps 8.25 .54


1,010 fps 13.0 .50
110-grain +P
1,090 fps 11.25 .54
.357 Magnum 3-inch barrel L Frame SW
1,390 fps 13.0 .61
.40 Smith and Wesson
1,045 fps 11.5 .68
.45 ACP

185-grain FTX

1,000 fps 13.75 .66
Critical Duty

124-grain +P

1,140 fps 13.0 .53


1,056 fps 15.25 .56

135-grain +P

1,162 fps 14.0 .60
.357 SIG
1,221 fps 14.0 .58
.40 S&W


1,067 fps 13.5 .57



1,134 fps 13.25 .66
.45 ACP
969 fps 14.0 .71

Do you carry Hornady ammunition? Which load and why? Share your answers in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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 (16)

  1. I have a Glock 26 for conceal carry and use Hornady 9 mm critical defense 115 grain. I do not use defense ammo for target shooting but occassionally use up dated rounds. When researching ammo some years ago, the penetration rating caught my attention. I like the low muzzle flash..The indoor range where I shoot maxes out at about 60′ with my target being placed at 51′. I get patterns within chest area sillouette. Not what I could describe as tight but with a capacity of ten shots, I feel confident. At 25′ and 45′, very tight patterns. My wife carries my old S&W model 36 .38 special revolver with Hornady 110 grain.

  2. How are these in short barrels i.e.Glock 26 and 30? Muzzleflash[glaucoma/cataracts]is a really critical issue for me.
    How do these compare with other short barreled ammo?
    How do they compare with Magsafe or Glaser ammo[if those are still available??]?
    In my 4″GP100 I carry 38Spec+P 158gr lhps,followed by 2 speed loaders of 357Mag 158gr jhps.Less muzzleblast/flash than 125gr ammo.

  3. Thank you again Bob for the nice write-up on the Hornady handgun ammo, especially the pictures! I have to Ruger Blackhawk revolvers, so I can shoot between these two handgun 38 Spec, .357 Mag, .45 ACP and .45 LC (Colt). Over the years I have shot thousands of rounds, but never any Hornady ammo, mainly because of its expense, which is typically 50-100% more than ammo with equal power. But I have also looked at it as great ammo, especially for increasing the stopping power.

    Recently I watched a video on YouTube covering the 9mm, 10mm, and 45 ACP ammo, all shot thru a stack of paper plates, with the measure being how many plates each bullet went thru. There was no mention of the ballistics for each ammo, except I think he said they were are from the same manufacturer – Federal I think, and all were FMJ. As I would expect, the 9mm went the furthest (thru more plates). But this to me is just basic physics – the smaller the bullet diameter, the further it will go thru very soft material. But the interesting thing that showed up was that the 10mm bullet mushroomed quite a bit, so it went thru FAR less plates. His conclusion (not mine) was that the 9mm was the most powerful!

    I would also like to comment on your comparison of the handgun loads to the 12 gauge or the .308 rifle! This is not really fair, nor particularly informative. Everyone knows rifles are much more powerful than handguns, EXCEPT! I say except because there are some fairly seriously powerful handguns in both the 45 Colt and 44 Mag, as well as other VERY powerful handguns. The greatest Hornady .308 rifle bullet that I have in my ballistics file is 2,719 ft. lbs. of ME. The .45 Colt ammo maxis out at 1,344 and the 44 Mag at 1,533 ft. lbs., which is indeed quite a bit from the .308 round. But the .454 Casull tops out at 2,302 (made by Swift). But it gets even better with even higher powered handguns – the .460 S&W tops out at 2,422, and the .500 S&W at 2,868 (Hornady Custom) ft. lbs. Of course the handgun ammo is way heavier than the rifle ammo (168 gr vs 260-340gr), so the handgun ammo drops a lot faster, and always has a much lower MV, which means you are better off hunting with a high powered rifle than with a handgun, unless you are in close range, which I would guess at perhaps 100 yards or less.

    Vincent (10-15-2018)

  4. Good grief! Stop it with the “.45 is so great and everything else is an also-ran”, it got old several decades ago and now all you’re doing is blathering on like a politician playing to the base…and annoying half their constituents.

    1. I really get weary of all the hype about the tiny 9mm. Sure, a 9mm bullet might expand, however, a .45 caliber bullet never shrinks down to 9mm.
      The 9mm is a good round for people who cannot handle the recoil o f a .45 or 10mm.

    2. The .45 is an oldy but goody. Lord knows it has taken care of a great deal of problems both professional and personal. There is nothing wrong with a 9mm, being that the best one is the one you have. Carry what you are comfortable and the most accurate with and there should be no issue. That being said if you take umbridege 1st what the author has said…write your own article.

    3. In case you missed the point of making comments they are suppose to reflect others reactions & opinions. There is no rule saying anyone has to agree3

  5. I love the little critical duty rounds for my wife in both 38 Special and 9mm. They are wimpy loads but low on recoil and muzzle flash, yet I trust their controlled expansion bullet for any event in which she might be forced to use a gun. I do occasionally carry that round in a Flat Top Ruger 45 Colt when riding the 4 x 4 or feel like playing cowboy in the boonies or while hiking. Being prior law enforcement and retired military, I personally prefer rounds from Corbon or Buffalo Bore for standard carry. The reason is their loads are hotter and you get more raw power that might be needed to shoot through something. For example, one of my favorite 1911s is converted to 400 Corbon, it shoots a165 grain factory at 1,361 fps. That is about 650 foot pounds, dramatically better than that 10mm, 175 grain at 523ft pounds shown in this article. Just my preference. If you only get one shot before he shoots or shoots that second time, I would just prefer that extra 127 foot pounds. Do not get me wrong, I love Hornady and use the bullets to reload more than any, just not my first choice in factory handgun loads.. FWIW

    1. Old Gringo, I too own a Ruger Flattop 45 Colt revolver! Mine has a switchable cylinder, so I can shoot 45 ACP as well. I went onto the Cor-Bon website, looking up your ammo you mentioned. I found a Cor-Bon 165 gr 45 Colt ammo with a MV of 1100 fps, which delivers 443 ft. lbs. of ME, which is quite low for the 45 Colt. This is about what a 45 ACP delivers in ME. I also found a 145gr Cor-Bon 45 Colt ammo that has a MV of 1,250 fps, delivering 503 ft. lbs. of ME, which again is not particularly powerful. However, Cor-Bon does make more powerful 45 Colt ammo: a 225gr DPX bullet with a MV of 1,200 fps, which delivers 719 ft. lbs. of ME, and a 265gr bullet with a MV of 1,200 fps, which delivers 847 ft. lbs. of ME and a 300 gr bullet with a MV of 1300 which produces a fairly serious 1,126 ft. lbs. of ME. But these are all quite expensive – 2 to 3 times the cost of similar 45 Colt ammo with similar power and/or speed, except for the 300gr cartridge which is roughly on par (similar price) as other similar powered manufactured 45 Colt ammo.

      But to keep all this in prospective, These are more powerful than the Hornady ammo I have listed in my ballistics file. The most powerful 45 Colt ammo I can find made by Hornady is a 225gr bullet with a MV of 960 fps, which delivers 460 ft. lbs. of ME. Keep in mind that 45 Colt ammo can go all the way up to 1,344 t. lbs. of ME, although I have been told I should not shoot that with my Ruger Flattop. So, I have shot 45 Colt ammo only up to 1,214 ft. lbs., and it definitely takes two hands to shoot these! These high power 45 Colt ammo are made by Buffalo Bore, but are as expensive as the Cor-Bon, and about double any of the Hornady are. But keep in mind that the Buffalo Bore ammo is WAY more powerful than either of the other two manufactured ammo.

      Vincent (10-20-2018)

  6. Well I certainly don’t have the background that Bob has but I also don’t share his biases in the real world. First, the best self defense weapon and bullet is the one you have at the time you need it. Second, anyone this knowledgeable should know that most sefl defense situations take place at close range so when he says you should be able to shoot a 4″ group at 25 yards, in my opinion, you are not talking about the average shooter in the real world. I go to the range frequently and most folks would be happy with a 4 inch group from 30 feet or less. Third, there are plenty of folks out there that like small caliber weapons because it is what they can handle best. Not everyone is comfortable with a 45 and with modern day ammo I am not sure why some folks think the 9mm is underpowered. It has been used in the military for years, and shot placement is perhaps even more important than caliber. I am a 9mm fan because I can handle the gun, don’t get a big recoil and can put my rounds on target consistenly at common self defense distances. There are lots of folks men and women of varying ages who don’t believe bigger is better for them. I think sometimes folks who have been in the military and/or served in law enforcement forget that the average person does not operate in the same environment that they once did. None of this even address the most important issue of all. Do you have the WILL to use a gun on someone if you have too.

    1. I might be wrong, but when he stated 4″ @ 25 yds. I assumed he was talking pistol accuracy, say off a rest.

    2. Probably would come in handy if you had time to retrieve one in an actual shooting situation at 25 yards. LOL Shooting off a rest does not equate with a self defense shoot at 25 yards which is probably more of a gun fight than just self defense. Been around guns for over 40 years and never once had to use one for protection.

    3. With my eyes, a rest wldn’t do me any good at 25 yards. You have to be able to see the target. Anything past about 10 yds. forget it.

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