Light Loads For Personal Defense

target with bullet holes in the bulls eye

Handguns are the weapons of opportunity. Not as powerful as a long gun, they are portable and may be carried with us at all times. The handgun demands plenty of practice to master. The rub is that handguns kick a lot—in some calibers and in lightweight models. Until the laws of physics are changed, this is a reality. It is also a reality that the more powerful cartridges have greater wound potential and are more likely to stop a felonious assault with a minimum of well-placed shots.

3 revolvers
Different size and weight handguns will behave differently with the same load. The aluminum frame .38, top, offers harsh recoil with many loads. The steel frame .38, center, is heavier and easier to control. The four inch barrel steel frame revolver, bottom, is the easiest of all to fire and use with the same .38 Special ammunition.

Some of the more popular defensive handguns including, the snub nose .38 and the compact 9mm, have more recoil than some are willing to master. Others, such as the .357 Magnums, are a bear to fire in lightweight handguns. Load selection is critical. A heavy-bullet load at +P pressure isn’t a good choice for a lightweight handgun. Rather, a functional load with decent ballistics is best.

The single most important component of stopping power is shot placement. The single most important cornerstone of combat ability is to be able to control the handgun. There are calibers I do not enjoy firing. I have been at this a long time and I avoid the heavy kickers, except when necessary. I make a smart choice and shoot straight.

Anatomy of a Reduced Load

The means of achieving low recoil varies. Some loads use the same projectile but a smaller powder charge. Others achieve high velocity by using a lighter bullet that generates lower felt recoil. A high velocity service load often uses a bonded-core bullet to achieve penetration. A fast expanding bullet is fine for personal defense and doesn’t have to be driven as fast.

Ballistic Gelatin showing bullet penetration
Despite the light bullet weight Hornady Lite bullets exhibit good penetration.

Hornady achieves good results with its Lite loads by reducing bullet weight but maintaining good velocity. The .38 Special and 9mm Luger Lite loads are reliable, accurate, and offer good expansion. These low recoil loads do not offer the balance of expansion and penetration of +P loads designed for service use.

Their range of penetration is adequate, but they may not be effective against vehicle glass and light cover. Against lightly clad threats, they will deliver superior wound ballistics. Be certain of your needs and consider the likely threat. These loads cover the majority of the problems civilians are likely to encounter.

9mm Luger

The Hornady Lite uses a 100-grain bullet with a pink tip. It is a Critical Defense bullet loaded to over 1,000 fps and specially designed to expand at modest velocity. I have gauged performance in my Honor Defense Honor Guard handgun, and find it good. Wound ballistics are good without going to the harder kicking +P, which may also produce more wear on the handgun. Like all Hornady products, this load is very accurate.

.357 SIG

target with bullet holes in the bulls eye
Instructor Brittany Caton shot this. Standard loads are easily controlled, accurate, and relieve stress.

The .357 SIG is a powerful cartridge. I would not consider this cartridge in a compact pistol. For a mid-size handgun such as the Springfield XD, this is an acceptable caliber. Most loads jolt a 125-grain bullet to 1,350 fps some of the 115-grain loads are at 1,500 fps. However, it is a difficult cartridge to master.

A load that offers excellent wound ballistics is the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain load. Sensibly downloaded, the Critical Defense sails over the Competition Electronics chronograph at 1,203 fps. This load offers excellent control. As an example of a full power .357 SIG, the Hornady 147-grain XTP breaks 1,200 fps—ideal for service use. For most of us, the Critical Defense load is ideal.

.38 Special

The .38 Special is a mild cartridge in a four-inch barrel revolver with steel frame. Load a .38 +P in an aluminum frame two-inch barrel handgun, and recoil is brutal. Good grips are an aid, but snub nose .38 geometry being what it is, there is a tendency of the cylinder release to put a bloody notch in the knuckle of the thumb.

Hornady offers the Hornady Lite 90-grain .38 Special low recoil low. While lightweight sometimes means under penetration, this isn’t the case with the Critical Defense bullet. It has been developed to give good penetration and expansion.

upset Hornady Critical Defense bullet
This is an expanded Hornady Critical Defense Lite bullet.

.357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum revolver has a well-earned reputation as the most effective handgun caliber ever deployed. The Magnum is a great stopper, but it also exhibits a great deal of muzzle blast and recoil. It is a daunting proposition to master the revolver without extensive training.

The rub… prolonged firing with full-power loads is also hard on the small parts to the revolver. An alternative is to deploy the most powerful .38 Special loads, which work well and function in the Magnum cylinder. The Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain load is one choice.

In the .357 Magnum, we have the Hornady Critical Defense 125-grain load at 1,380 fps from the four-inch barrel revolver. While an intensive practice program is needed to control this handgun and load combination, it isn’t as harsh as some of the loads that break 1,400 to 1,450 fps in .357 Magnum. I would avoid lightweight, aluminum frame, compact, Magnum revolvers for personal defense.

9mm Hornady lite ammuntion
The 9mm Hornady Lite is a good choice for personal defense.

.44 Special

Modest operating pressures for the .44 Special, and the popularity of the lightweight Charter Arms Bulldog, means the ammunition companies must load this cartridge light. Hornady’s 165-grain Critical Defense loading offers good expansion and lower recoil as a result of a lighter weight bullet. At over 900 fps, this load offers good expansion.


The .44 Special is a mild-shooting, big bore cartridge with good properties for personal defense.

.45 ACP

In the .45 ACP, a certain balance must be maintained to ensure the firearm functions. A self-loading handgun requires a certain amount of recoil force. +P loads are not needed in the .45 ACP. Even a lightweight hollow point may exhibit a good balance of penetration and expansion with the .45 ACP.

woman standing next to a silhouette target
Attention to detail and controlling your handgun is what matters the most.

The Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain load or the Hornady 185-grain XTP are good choices with good wound ballistics. They do not recoil as much as the 230-grain loads and are often match grade accurate.

.45 Colt

Among my favorite calibers is the .45 Colt. I prefer the .45 Colt to the .44 Special, and even the .44 Magnum revolver. Even the cowboy action loads, which are loaded light for good control and for economy, are fine for home defense. A 250-grain .45 caliber bullet at 750 fps is a huge chunk of lead for a handgun bullet. If you are familiar with the handling of your cowboy action revolver, there is no reason you cannot count on it for home defense. An expanding bullet load, that outstrips the .44 Special in wound ballistics, is available from Hornady. When I use the .45 Colt for home defense the Hornady 185-grain Critical Defense is a first choice. This load offers impressive wound ballistics and excellent accuracy.

These loads allow the use of handguns that may have seemed too painful or hard kicking to fire with good control. Yet, they offer good wound ballistics and predicted effect. Make a wise choice and concentrate on accuracy and control.

What’s your favorite light load? Share your answer in the comment section.

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 (14)

  1. It is hard to believe that any commentator would actually suggest that 9 mm Parabellum or .38 Special, when loaded with modern hollowpoint ammunition, is some sort of “marginal” round. Are we next going to hear these quite capable calibers referred to as “mouseguns?”

  2. Wilburn, I enjoyed your article and agree. I carried .45 in the military as a duty gun and know its capabilities. Thirty years later, I carry a S&W 642-2 with .38 +p and my wife the same, but with the the lighter Hornady 110 FTX as you discussed. My winter carry is a S&W Airweight M12 with the Hornady 110 gr FTX. It is an excellent round.

    We do not fear that we are under prepared. We are both street savy and avoid confrontations, not looking for a fire fight as others have discussed. Your article discussed felt recoil in a ‘Personal Defense’ round, either on your person or in your home. Less recoil means more hits on target, I can put 4/5 .38+p on an index card at 15 yards. We can both place the Hornady 110gr FTX on a 3×5 index card at 7 yards. It should not take more than two to stop a threat.

    The reason we carry is to survive a self-defense encounter at close quarters & only as a last resort, respecting our backdrop and innocent bystanders. If we were to be in a fire fight as some have discussed, we would bring a duty weapon. The discussion of the FBI firefight is moot point unless you are currently employed in law enforcement or going to war. Been there, done that. Thanks for your article.

  3. Back in the 90 s there was book out that some swore at and some swore by it. It was suppose to be a complete stud of actual police shootings and what rounds were best at stopping Bad Guys, Specifically One Shot Stops.

    I never bought a copy. I have read chapter here and there. Now since then, New bullet designs have been created and are on the market. Smaller and more compact 9mm NATO are readily available on the market.

    Smaller and lighter weapons are going to mean more recoil. One does not get something for nothing. There is always a trade -off.’ One would expect different loads for less recoil
    Back to the Book on Stopping Power and One Shot Stops.
    From what I recall the Federal 9mmNATO 115grn JHP had the best One Shot Stops or best stops in that Caliber. I do not have any of the 9mmNATO Compact/Sub-Compacts so no idea how they recoil.

    I also recall that the Federal ,357 Magnum125grn JHP was the best stopping round in that caliber. Again I do not currently have any of the Snubbies …..

    I have no problems with control in my Ruger KGP 100 4 Inch Bull Barrel

    Personally IF I were to get a snubby I would first consider the Ruger (LCR?) .357 Mag no external hammer, and probably carry .38 +P+ Starfire or Federal Hydra shocks . I like the weight of it and Ruger Tough and also the ability to have a second caliber ie Two guns in One.
    I have no doubt Full power .357 MAG loads in such would be a bear to handle and the muzzle blast devastating……..

  4. Perceived recoil is a function of not only the energy of the ammo, but also the weight and design of the firearm. While it’s true that the projectile leaves the barrel before the barrel unlocks, the slide and barrel have started moving back together and in most of JMB’s designs, the breech end has started to cam down as the bullet goes on its merry way. (This can be seen in high speed cam videos.) The slide/barrel moving back against the recoil spring absorb at least some of the felt recoil.

    Then there’s the secondary recoil, the gas jet that leaves the barrel after the bullet also pushes back and is felt as recoil, so it’s not just the weight and velocity of the projectile.

    I agree, my old Colt Air Weight “off duty” 38 got sold in short order in the early 70’s when I was still a rookie cop. In the initial years, we were required to carry 38 round nose lead, even if we had a 357 revolver. The 38 proved to be a fairly ineffective round when it comes to stopping power. We knew we were often outgunned.

    .357 Sig is good, but it does have more muzzle flash bang than the 40 S&W I carry in my P229. It’s a barrel swap away, but I prefer the 40. At 73, I have no issues handling the recoil.

  5. Wilburn,

    I am not certain that I follow your article. At one point, you argue for light recoil and on the other you state a liking for the .44 Special, the .45 Long Colt and the .45 ACP. That seems to me to be a somewhat irreconcilable position. In my experience, both the .44 Special and the .45 Colt or Long Colt both have substantially more recoil then the 9mm or the .38 Special.
    You seem to like the .45 Colt with a 250 gr bullet at about 750 FPS. I know that load and do not find it to have less recoil than the 230 gr FMJ at about 830 in my 1911 compact. In fact, if I had to say which recoils the most, I would vote for the .45 Colt over the standard load in the 1911 compact of the 230 gr standard loads. Do you disagree?
    Finally, what is with all this concern about recoil? My really petite 75-year-old wife shoots my 10 mm 180 gr standard load in my Ruger 1911 and doesn’t complain. Yes, there is recoil. She has joked it is nothing compared to labor with one of our children.
    My concern is simply this. At the time, one of the best trained and somewhat elite forces in law enforcement, armed with the 9mm and using an approved load failed with multiple agents to stop two perpetrators in a felony stop. I am, of course, referring to the Miami/Dade FBI shootout that left several agents dead and wounded. The perpetrators, after being hit several times with the 9mm FBI approved rounds continued to fight and kill or wound FBI agents. If memory serves, it took a 12 gauge load from a Dade County Deputy Sheriff to subdue one of the perps.
    I worry about warning people to avoid recoil by recourse to moderate or lite loads in anemic calibers, like the .38 special or the 9mm. I know of the argument that it is better to have something than nothing and that is obvious. However, I bellieve it is a disservice to lead people to think that weak rounds in the hands of anything other than a well trained expert is perfectly adequate for self defense. It was for the FBI in Miami and has also been such in the case of several police shootings.
    Wouldn’t it be more honest to state that moderate loads may, or may not, perform as hoped and should only be used by those too weak or infirm to handle something better. Instead, a great many writers speak about minor cartridges as if they are all anyone will ever require in a self defense situation. That just is not proven by history.

    1. Thanks for reading.
      The point is that many shooters are occasional shooters. They cannot shoot well with heavy loads. The loads listed make the most of the caliber and offer good wound ballistics for each caliber.

    2. “Of the eight agents at the scene, two had Remington 870 shotguns in their vehicles (McNeill and Mireles), three were armed with semi-automatic Smith & Wesson Model 459 9mm pistols (Dove, Grogan, and Risner), and the rest (six) were armed with Smith & Wesson revolvers, two had .357s and five had .38 specials. Two of the agents had backup .38 special revolvers (Hanlon and Risner) and both would use them at some point during the fight.” (

      Matix and Platt used a 12 ga shotgun, Ruger Mini-14 (.223), and a pair of .357 Magnum revolvers (S&W and a Dan Wesson).

      The agents lost the initiative and never regained it after taking pistols to a gunfight with a pair of Vietnam combat vet Infantrymen armed with rifle and shotgun. Had nothing to do with ballistics and everything in the world to do with tactics. In fact, the 9mm’s that scored hits performed very well. 1 .357M round disarmed Platt of his rifle, but didn’t take him out of the fight. It was a 9mm that went through Matix’s arm and into his chest cavity, severing a major artery near his heart that stopped him. It’s the poor carpenter who blames his tools.

    3. Ken. I agree with you blaming the ballistics of a round for the tactical failure of the agents was dishonest. The agents only half heartedly believed they would find these perpetrators by driving up and down the strip. They knew these guys were extremely violent and armed with at least one semi auto rifle. They weren’t prepared mentally and did not prepare for the encounter their bravery notwithstanding. Unlike the Hollywood shootout where the confrontation was new and real the LAPD did not have the firepower to stop those guys, famously raiding a nearby gun shop for rifles. I had long a long discussion with one of my Department’s range officers (I was a cop at the time for the Hollywood and FBI shootouts) and we agreed that 12 gauge rifled slug probably could have ended the latter shootout more quickly but LAPD was at the time only allowed to carry buckshot rounds.

  6. Sorry, I do not have a favourite “light load” as my favourite handgun rounds to shoot are the 9×23 Winchester and the 10mm Auto. And I have just celebrated my 75th birthday. I can hit the target with both of these, so why would I opt for something less powerful?
    I do agree that for anyone who cannot handle a powerful handgun round that lighter calibres are desirable– better to have a low-powered gun than no gun at all.

  7. .357 Sig has a unique recoil with little muzzle lift. It is underated as a good defensive round because of its expense and scarcity. Of all my firearms, and I have most of the ones tested, the Sig is my favorite.

  8. I use 45 Colt cowboy loads in my replica revolvers. I would consider a big 250 grain lead bullet, even at a reduced velocity in the 750 FPS range, as a good defensive loading. I have seen YouTube videos and articles touting the heavy 158 grain lead wadcutters for the 38 snubbies as a good defensive load. There is some merit to this. As a plainclothes cop in the late 70’s I carried a SW Model 36 with semi jacketed +P 158 grain loads. Recoil was a bear and the weapon was not rated for +P but we shot them anyway. I shot +P 158 sjhp out of my off duty gun as required by my Department which also was a 36. The frame, after many years did stretch but it took a long while. many years did stretch

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