Stacking Loads: A Look at Escalating Levels of Penetration

Stacking Loads, Pile of Bullets

To be clear, the subject of this report is the alternating of different loads in a handgun. The first couple of loads may be one type and the following loads another, there may even be different loads interspersed in the magazine.

Stacking loads is a subject that has come up in my training classes, correspondence, and even in institutional service. Let’s look at the practice and see if it makes it a few steps up the logic ladder.

I will cover a few experiences that first brought the practice to my attention. An experienced officer I served with in the later 1970s, carried Glaser Safety Slugs for his first two rounds up, followed by 125-grain .357 Magnum hollow points.

He felt the Glasers would not ricochet and would stay in the body. If the adversary remained on his feet or made it to cover, the Magnums were the ticket.

An uncle carried a hollow point up first in his 1911, followed by ball rounds — he was not confident of the feeding reliability of his 1911.

Another officer carried a number of special-purpose loads on his belt, including armor-piercing ‘just in case.’ He felt the Glaser was useful for safely dispatching injured animals and the like.

He even carried shot cartridges for snakes because we got a lot of snake calls. Our range instructor was very much against any such practice. He felt that the only means of achieving real proficiency with the handgun was consistent practice.

A load that was reliable and accurate was his criteria. No two loads will fire to exactly the same point of aim. One of the oddest combinations ever found was the six-shot revolver issued to police in the Netherlands prior to World War II.

The first two cartridges were blanks, followed by two ‘gas loads,’ and finally two ball rounds. I once tested a load from Europe that featured ‘survivability’ as criteria. It was unimpressive! Let’s look at the practice of ‘stacking loads.’

Colt Python and Wilson Combat 1911 with magazines and speedloader
Spare magazines and speedloaders may seem to invite alternating loads, but the author finds no point in it.

Ways of Stacking Loads

Among the most common thoughts on stacking loads, is to load a low-penetration, rapid-opening hollow point first, or a frangible bullet. In a revolver, it may be the first two loads in the chambers.

In a semi-automatic pistol, it may be the first few rounds in a magazine. This doesn’t make sense for several reasons. First, modern hollow-point loads designed to expand, are formulated for optimum expansion.

The Hornady Critical Defense, as an example, meets my criteria for a defensive loading. If I need more penetration, I may choose the Hornady XTP or even Critical Duty. IF I could only choose one, I would be confident with any of the three.

Once I have chosen a proper loading, I will then test that loading and make certain my handgun is properly sighted-in. As for penetration, loading FMJ loads to ensure penetration is adequate isn’t a great idea.

I have tested the majority of modern defensive loads in the major calibers. As it turns out, full-power hollow-point loads penetrate as well as FMJ loads against light cover — sometimes better.

The nose of the hollow point closes, and the round penetrates. So, if you anticipate firing at felons behind cover, then use a modern loading such as the Hornady Critical Duty, not a full metal jacketed load.

FMJ loads with their rounded nose sometimes bounce. They may even bounce off bone and if they strike a human target they will produce a caliber-diameter wound and exit.

If your pistol doesn’t feed hollow points well, you need a change in pistols, not ammunition! Most of the feeding problems with the Colt 1911 and Browning Hi-Power several generations ago, were related to the ammunition, not the handgun.

A properly designed projectile and a cartridge with the correct overall length will feed in vintage 1911 handguns and Hi-Powers.

Colt 1911 and Browning Hi-Power
The author’s Hi-Power 9mm and Commander .45 are carried loaded with general-purpose JHP loads.

Another part of alternating loads, is to carry one load in the handgun and another on the belt.

Some years ago, a number of agencies specified the double-action revolver, .38 Special or .357 Magnum, and gave officers the choice if they were able to qualify with the Magnum, but they could only carry .38 Special in belt loops or speedloaders.

The rationale was that all officers could share .38 Special ammunition, but not all could share the Magnums. Since a reload is seldom needed, this was a bit out there, but made sense at the time.

On the other hand, several federal agencies approved the .38 Special for general issue, but approved .357 Magnum revolvers that had to be carried with .38 Special ammunition. In ‘special circumstances,’ Magnum loads could be loaded.

If you carry a modern self-loading pistol with good quality defensive loads, it is unlikely that the JHP loading will penetrate significantly less than a backup loading of FMJ ammunition.

If you are carrying one of the loads designed to fragment in a few inches of gelatin, you have an under-penetrating load I do not recommend for personal defense. It will be too late to slam a magazine home once the low-penetration load has failed!

As I stated, a load such as the Hornady Critical Defense offers as much, if not greater, practical penetration as FMJ loads, but with much more effect on a target if the shooter puts the bullet in the right place.

1911 with two spare magazines
Loading one spare magazine with a hollow-point load and the other will ball ammo isn’t the best choice.

A program for stacking loads I do find has merit, is to load the first cylinder of the revolver with a shotshell when you are hiking, spelunking or even hunting.

My friend Ralph Longshore was a legend for hunting down and busting illegal stills. He encountered a lot of snakes in the backcountry and carried a CCI shotshell the first shot up in his .38 revolver. This makes sense.

He encountered a lot of snakes and very few armed guards at stills, cinema aside. Many of the bootleggers owned dogs, and dogs are a good alarm. It was a rarity to find a manned still.

It is reasonable to limit penetration on some calibers — the .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP will penetrate some 36 inches of water or gelatin, depending on the load, with non-expanding ammunition.

A high-quality hollow point will exhibit 14 to 18 inches, ideal for most uses. A psychological term I have used often is the ‘protection barrier.’

Those not sufficiently insulated from fear and monsters do not rest well. They have vague doubts considering their ability, perhaps even absolute doubts. Hardware cannot make up for this.

A serviceable handgun and a quality loading are good, but only practice and frequent trips to the range are any indication of your survival. Another step I have actually seen in my class, was a young man alternating ball and hollow points in his magazine.

He would carry many 115-grain loads, some ball rounds, and a few 147-grain 9mm loads. He had been confused, I suppose, by so many diverse recommendations, that he felt that he would cover all the bases.

I think that thinking about the load in the gun would be a terrible distraction, and this young man was a very poor shot when he first came to me.

It took time and discipline to raise his level of marksmanship to a factor that gave him a reasonable degree of confidence. He changed his loading habits along with his shooting habits.

After all, it is the first three or four cartridges that decide the fight, sometimes less. Getting on target and making an accurate shot is the single most important personal-defense criteria, given a caliber of .38 Special or 9mm Luger and above.

The difference between loads is really small compared to the difference in shot placement.

Expanded Hornady Bullets
The Hornady XTP and Critical Defense by Hornady are excellent personal-defense loads.

Another type of stacking loads might be in the wild, on the trail and while hiking. Preparing for protection against wild animals is reasonable. They usually only attack if sick, old or wounded — or if you intrude on their territory.

Like many of us, the big cats and bears like a certain amount of space between them and humans. In this type of world, it may be reasonable to load a single shotshell first in case of dangerous snakes.

Reptiles are actually easy to kill, and a walking stick is not as loud and very effective in most cases. If the snake is under your shoe, then certainly the danger of shooting your own foot is present if you lose your composure!

For animal defense, a cylinder full of hard-cast SWC bullets is the only answer for bear, beginning with a .44 Magnum revolver.

Wild hogs have proven dangerous in my home state the previous year, and the same loads would be ideal for taking out large hogs.

For the big cats and feral dogs, a fast-moving Hornady XTP in .45 ACP or .357 Magnum would be right, no stacking loads there.

I have looked over the subject, and after looking at the scenarios I have encountered, I see a lot of problems and little merit in alternating loads.

Save for the occasional need for shotshells when going into snake territory, I think that a good general-purpose load is best. That doesn’t mean I always carry the same load in a particular handgun.

As an example, when carrying the Smith and Wesson Model 69 .44 Magnum around town and traveling, I deploy the Hornady .44 Special 180-grain XTP.  At about 1000 fps, this is a fine personal-defense load.

When I am hiking and in territory frequented by dangerous animals, I load the .44 Magnum with 240-grain XTP loads. It hits hard on both ends of the gun!

Likewise, I carry the .357 Combat Magnum with 125-grain hollow points for general defense, but in those just-in-case scenarios, I carry 180-grain XTPs over a stout charge of H110.

However, I don’t carry both loads at the same time, I can’t see the need.

.44 Magnum S&W model 69
If you deploy the .44 Magnum for animal defense, then heavy SWC loads are best.

The Shotgun Excepti0n

This is when stacking loads DOES make sense.

Rifles are also best served with a good general-purpose load, no surprises there. There are varmint loads, deer loads and bear loads, but no reason to alternate the loads in the magazine.

A firearm that lends itself to stacking loads is the shotgun. This is the old buck and ball combination — buckshot followed by a slug. Here is the reason: buckshot is fairly short-range and also fairly low-penetration.

This is good for home defense. Buckshot usually stays in the body and it isn’t likely to be dangerous at longer range. Dealing with an adversary behind cover or one that has created distance and taken cover is another matter.

In that case, the Hornady American Gunner slug is good medicine. I might consider loading buckshot for the first four shells and slugs as the last two in my Benelli M4, just in case.

The shotgun also lends itself to rapidly shoving a slug into the loading port if need be.

three 12-gauge loads
Birdshot is for small birds, buckshot for personal defense, and 12-gauge slugs for deep penetration.


In the end, stick with a proven general-purpose load that exhibits a good balance of expansion and penetration and you will be well served.

Concentrate on marksmanship and tactics. If you are in choice country, a handgun with shotshells is good. For the shotgun, buck and ball may rule.

What loads do you choose to carry? Have you ever tried stacking loads? Let us know in the comment section below!

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 (17)

  1. Nathan
    GET RID OF THOSE FMJ 9mm loads!

    FMJ 9mm is a notoriously poor manstopper, and over penetrative as well. Stick will all hollow points. It is easier defend a shot or two than a flurry of shots. While you are waiting for those FMJ bullets to take effect you will be shot.
    As for birdshot in a shotgun, never for me. It penetrates perhaps 3-5 inches of gelatin, very poor results. Use buckshot.

  2. In my EDC, I load either two good performing defensive rounds to an armor piercing round or alternate every round. In my military and LE career, I’ve had a several situations where this has proven very beneficial (or would have been had I had the option-LE rules, bah!). It means you have the means to penetrate armor or cover, if you have to, and poking a hole every third round isn’t going to be a factor for an unarmored bad guy with good shot placement. I wouldn’t do this in a rifle (I’d just carry a 6.5 Creedmoor or .308), but in a pistol, different loads will have a negligent effect on where rounds impact at any pistol encounter range. If you dont believe me, think of all the LE training with FMJ, but qualifying with duty ammo. I think this will be best practice with what is coming, btw, if you look at Antifa sites and their plans for the increasingly active civil war currently developing in America.

  3. I stacked for a few years in the early 90’s, until I noticed some serious accuracy differences that convinced me it wasn’t a good practice in spite of the so called “expert” opinions. Logically, it makes more sense to pick a cartridge that performs all around well in the various tests that are done, and stick with it. Who is realistically going to remember the order sequence in a fight or flight situation? Very few if any.

  4. I stack all the time, it makes sense especially when conditions change so can your load out.
    Carry any .40 for example, while in urban setting your likely threat are two-legged types, carry corbon defense loads, go to the cabin an hour away where packs of wild dogs and black bears are prevalent do a mag change with 200g hard cast.

    I also stack my shotgun loads for at home use, 2- #8 bird shot, 2-#4 buck (3″) then 2-hard cast slugs.

    In states where I am poisonous snakes are very prevalent, i always carry a cylinder or two of birdshot In my wheelguns. Not worried if needed for self-defense and the first shot a bad guy gets is a face full of bird shot, a jhp is coming next.

    I also stack in the summer in my carry gun due to the risk of collateral damage, meaning not getting over penetration and hitting a bystander. People are wearing much less clothing in summer months which could lead to over penetration with rounds like the underwood, as opposed to winter as people are wearing multiple layers and thick coats. In summer I load 2-jhps, usually golden saber, then 1-underwood, so on and so on. In winter, i load full mags of underwood.

    With an AR-15 for home defense load up a mag of 40-55g v-max tests show it wont over penetrate many homes walls. Load another mag of hornady barrier in the event you encounter cover issues, vehicles walls etc…this stack has been used in close personal protection in specific environments where over penetration is a critical issue, similar to the 5.7×28 40g vmax loadings and concept.

  5. I’ve never been a fan of stacking loads. I agree with your concluding statement. For self defense, I prefer finding a good round that has consistent penetration (12-18 inches, per FBI recommendation), consistent expansion and a consistent feel and recoil. That way I won’t be surprised if I’m ever in a firefight and forget I’ve stacked my loads!

    I selected my rounds based on calibre. for a guideline, since I can’t afford to test multiple brands, loads and bullet weights for each calibre, I went to another retailer. They were pretty thorough, and my feeling is, “if they have gone to all the trouble to test these rounds, why should I do it?”

    For .45 ACP, I selected the Winchester 230 gr Ranger T Series: consistently within the 12-18 in. penetration range at an average of 14.5 inches, and a very consistent expansion and retention of an incredible 1.00 in!

    For 9mm Luger, I selected the PNW Arms 115 gr Tac Ops SCHP round: very consistent 13.5 in. penetration and very consistent expansion and retention of .69 in. Unfortunately, these rounds are no longer available. The Barnes 115 gr TAC-XPO +P, the Corbon 115 JHP +P or the Corbon 115 gr DPX are good substitutes with very similar test results, especially the Barnes if one’s firearm can use +P rounds.

    And for .380 ACP, I selected the Hornady 90 gr FTX Critical Defense: a very nice round that yields a quite consistent 13.2 in. penetration and a very consistent expansion and retention of .52 in.

  6. My shotgun is #4 buck, #1 buck, and then slug. I have a 15 shell belt at the ready with 6 different choices.

    The 357 magnum revolver is loaded with 125 grain Hornady with 125 and 158 grain speedloaders close by. Snakeshot is on speed strip.

    My 9 mm pistol though is all 124 grain +P Gold Dot.

  7. The best first round for snakes is a sharp machete. I killed lots of Vipers in Vietnam with one swipe of a government issued machete and no one ever heard the shot.

  8. I used to stack SD HP and then ball. I felt i couldn’t afford enough of the SD round to fill the magazine and practice with. I was also thinking about barrier penetration. As i became somewhar wiser, i stopped the practice. Only xtp loads now. 124 grain @1230fps in 9mm, 155 grain @ 1420fps in 10mm, and 180grain @ 1375 in .44 mag. I do also run some hardcast lead in certain instances for backcountry.
    Good article, as always.

  9. I am a firearms instructor for a large Sheriff’s Department. I concur with most of this rationale. However, although it is counter-intuitive, buckshot at close ranges(home defense) is a significant over penetrator. Ballistic gel tests show penetration exceeding 24 inches.

  10. I have been doing this for 20+ years. I carried a .38 Special. I load “rat shot” in the first cylinder and 4 jacketed hollowpoints in the others. I was a traveling salesman and was in motels most of the time. I needed something “safe” for the first shot. If that didn’t persuade the attacker, I had the rest to stop it.

  11. I am one that stacks loads, but not for the purpose mentioned here. My 1st 2 shots are fmj, in my 9mm. After that, all +p JHPs. My reasoning is legal. It is not illegal to use expanding bullets in my state, but that does NOT mean a jury under the influence of an anti-gun prosecutor/judge won’t find you guilty, purely because you ‘wanted to kill in a bad way’ or some such nonsense, with HPs. Most encounters are cleared up within 2 shots, so my 1st 2 are fmj. If they do not do the job totally, the next shots will. I use only 124 grain, to keep things as consistent as I can, and my gun (Canik – CZ 75 clone) hits pretty close to the same impact with either. Close enough for anything up to 25 yards, easily. After that it is not self defense. In fact, anything even 25 yards away will land you in legal hell.

  12. STR8 Shooter

    The opposite would be true today, for reasons outlined. A hollow point with its open nose takes a bite of glass. A RNL or FMJ would be more likely to bounce. Of course thirty years ago there was a different generation of hollow points. The originals were not that great and some, as an example, would leave the jacket in glass and the core would rattle into the vehicle with little energy—- so— with the technology of the time, he had a point.

  13. An acquaintance is a ex government law enforcement type who apparently worked a lot of very dangerous cases and was in a lot of shootouts. His advice was that you should not have a hollow point up first if you expected to have to engage fleeing vehicles. Apparently they had bad experience with the hollow points skipping of whereas ball or LRN would break the glass for subsequent rounds to follow.

    I’ve no reason to doubt this even though it sounds odd. Though his heyday was at least 3 decades ago when a lot of vehicles had some pretty severe slopes.

  14. That Dutch loading is indeed odd, stuffing a mix of six cartridges into a five shot revolver. 😉

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