Priorities in the Selection of Defensive Handgun Ammunition
If you are faced with an immediate, unavoidable threat to your continued physical well being and your response is to
fire, it is imperative that your ammunition launch its bullet downrange now!
Handgun (and rifle) ammunition is first divided into two major categories, rimfire and centerfire:
Rimfire ammunition, such as the .22 Long Rifle cartridge, has the priming compound distributed centrifugally into the
hollow rim of the case. Assuming that (a) the priming compound is uniformly distributed around the inside of the rim,
(b) it is not crumbled and dislodged from the rim if the cartridge rattles around in a bulk container and (c) the
firing pin strikes with sufficient energy, when the firing pin drives a small section of the rear of the rim into the
front of the rim, enough heat is generated to detonate the priming compound, igniting the powder charge.
In addition to being lower in power than most centerfire rounds, rimfire rounds are prone to less reliable ignition.
A common error among gun-owning men is to purchase a .22-caliber (rimfire) revolver for women in their lives, on the
assumption that they will be more comfortable shooting such a low-power round, with little felt recoil. What they
often fail to realize is that such revolvers usually come with stiffer ("heavier") hammer springs than their
centerfire equivalents, to produce more reliable ignition, making the trigger harder to operate in the normally
weaker female hand.
Autoloading rimfire pistols are notoriously "fussy" about ammo, often cycling reliably with only one or two offerings.
One cause of this "fussiness" may be the slight variations in shape and even size among bullets used in the different
loads. Thus, in addition to low power, they may be rendered even less reliable than a .22-caliber revolver if the
supply of the load with which they best function is interrupted.
For all of the above reasons, handguns chambered for rimfire cartridges are not among my first choices for defensive
Centerfire ammunition, such as the .38 Special revolver cartridge and the 9x19mm (9mm Luger or Parabellum) pistol
cartridge, use a centrally located primer, which is pressed into a "pocket" at the rear of the cartridge case. Assuming
that the firing pin or striker is driven into the center of the primer cup with sufficient force to drive a portion
onto an internal anvil, generating the heat to detonate the priming compound, this ignition system is generally more
reliable and consistent than the rimfire priming system.
Failures of centerfire primers are generally the result of the primer not being pressed fully into its pocket - most
easily detected by touch - or being pressed in sideways or upside-down. The latter defects, unlike defects in rimfire
priming, are easily detectable by visual inspection of the cartridge.
The remainder of this discussion assumes that the user has selected a handgun chambered for a centerfire cartridge
although some of the material may still apply to rimfire cartridges.
If you have chosen to use an autoloading pistol, it is not only crucial that the bullet be launched reliably, but
also that the action of the gun be cycled in response to each shot or you may not be able to take a subsequent shot.
This makes the autoloader more demanding of an acceptable range of power, cartridge length and bullet shape.
Even the best factory can make mistakes. Inspect every round that you load into your guns and their loading devices.
Some users go so far as to weigh each cartridge, in the assumption that a variation of more than one grain (64.8 mg) in
weight may indicate a significant variation in the powder charge. If you are concerned with the velocity of the bullet,
chronograph some samples from each lot that you use (in the gun that you use) to ensure that they are up to your
2. Ability to control
While the ergonomics of the handgun may be the most crucial mechanical component
of hitting with the first shot, the degree to which you recover from the recoil will at least affect the timing of any
To the extent that you are troubled by the recoil of the combination of your ammunition in your handgun, you risk
jerking your shot by anticipating it. An unpleasant combination is not conducive to productive training.
Remember that even within the same caliber, differences in bullet weight and powder charge (velocity) can affect recoil
and your perception of it.
Hornady offers a similar concept except that the polymer inserts are left exposed. These include the Critical Duty and Critical Defense lines. The former
are only offered in the major pistol calibers while the latter include several offerings in the more common revolver
calibers. At least in gelatin testing, these polymer inserts appear to prevent building material and clothing from
interfering with expansion by plugging what would otherwise be an empty cavity.
A somewhat similar concept is offered by CorBon/Glaser under the name of Pow'RBall. Those who favor it like the fact that the
ball embedded in the hollow cavity functions like the polymer inserts described above. It also gives reliable feeding in
autoloading pistols that may balk with hollowpoint bullets. Unlike Federal's limited Guard Dog line, Pow'R Ball is
offered in several other autoloading-pistol calibers and in two revolver calibers, +P .38 Special and .357 Magnum.
Some people are willing to risk - or may actually prefer - the deeper penetration of CorBon's DPX loads, whose all-copper hollowpoint bullets - at
least in gelatin testing - expand even after traversing a few layers of heavy clothing. Some reports suggest that the
DPX bullets do not get significantly diverted from their point of aim even if fired through auto glass at oblique angles.
Copper being less dense than lead, DPX bullets are usually near the lower end of conventional weight for caliber.
Liberty Ammunition takes a different approach with the use of all-copper bullets for handguns. Their
Civil Defense loads
use bullets that are much lighter in weight than conventional for caliber, to attain much higher velocities. The major
weight reduction seems to be accomplished by the use of a huge cavity. They are touted as capable of penetrating
barriers yet fragmenting in flesh.
There are also a few rounds that use pre-fragmented or partially pre-fragmented bullets. Most of these are also
lighter than the customary bullets for their calibers. Most of these rounds are also more costly than conventional
ammunition. They may have special applications in environments where there is an abnormally high risk of ricochet or
overpenetration. The flip side is that they may not always give enough penetration to do their job.
Hollowpoints within the usual weight range for caliber will generally be the best choice for all-around self-defense.
The biggest issue among the various offerings is usually the depth to which they can be expected to penetrate. Those who
consider themselves most likely to fire straight-on into the chest of an assailant may feel more comfortable with less
penetration than those who envision firing into the pelvis or needing to shoot from an angle that could lengthen the
path to vital organs.
My own philosophy regarding hollowpoints or similar bullets intended to deform in flesh is that the primary role
of deformation is to limit penetration, reducing risk to bystanders from bullets that might otherwise go all the way
through their intended targets. If the bullet expands in caliber as it deforms - creating a wider wound track - that is
gravy on the biscuit.
Evan Marshall has compiled what is probably the
world's largest collection of reports of actual shootings with a view to rating the effectiveness of the
various calibers and loadings within each caliber. Whether or not you completely accept his data, his
observations or his partner's attempts to correlate the street results with gelatin performance, not to avail
yourself of the data is to close your eyes to a useful body of knowledge, at least for the ammunition available
at the time they were writing.
If you read the books by Marshall and Sanow (published between 1992 and 2001):
Try to distinguish between street results and the predictions based on performance in gelatin.
Look at how many shootings were actually reported for each particular load. A rating of 80% one-shot stops based on 200
reports is more meaningful than a rating of 80% based on 20 reports.
Do the math yourself - a few typos have sneaked into the tables.
Don't worry about a few percentage points difference. It is impossible to conduct a scientifically rigorous study
involving shooting assaultive human beings. Therefore, small differences in percentages are probably not significant.
Analyze the advantages of different types of loads relative to the scenarios where you envision the defensive use of
your handgun, then try to pick a load which seems to meet your requirements from the better performers in your chosen
4. Secondary Considerations
Accuracy: Most gunfights are won by mental awareness, mental attitude and tactics, not by marksmanship. Unless
you are expecting to engage at long ranges or anticipate hostage-rescue shots, pinpoint accuracy is probably not one of
your first concerns. If you are selecting between two brands of a similar loading and one is noticeably more accurate,
it may be reasonable to pick that brand.
Accuracy is typically thought of in terms of group size - the diameter of a circle in which a skilled shooter can place
a series of shots at a specified distance.
A related concept is how close to the point of aim the shots will impact at a chosen distance. This is why some handguns
are sold with adjustable sights - so that each shooter can regulate that point of impact - for his chosen load and
the distance where he wants the bullets to impact closest to the point of aim.
Disparities between point of aim and point of impact are most commonly seen with fixed-sight revolvers and can often be
resolved by selecting a load with a bullet of a different weight.
Such disparities usually become an issue around seven yards - the distance at which it becomes realistic for most users
to use the sights in a fight - and beyond. If you can neither regulate your sights appropriately nor match a load to your
gun's fixed sights, you should at least determine where to hold for the desired point of impact at the longest distance
at which you feel comfortable using that gun under stress.
Muzzle Flash: Muzzle flash can disclose your position. If you're not behind cover, you probably need to move
immediately anyway. If you are behind cover, you probably need to move soon anyway. Muzzle flash can also cause you one
or more seconds of night blindness. Sensitivity to this may vary from user to user. Like accuracy, if it's a choice
between two otherwise similar loads, this may help you make the choice.
Muzzle Blast: Muzzle blast may leave you with hearing impairment. If you're no longer alive it's a moot point. If
your most likely scenarios are inside confined areas, such as inside a vehicle, it may be wiser to go with one of the
better .38 Special loads instead of the louder .357 Magnum, as an example. A related issue with revolvers is the gas
that exits the barrel-cylinder gap; firing from a protected-gun position will direct some of that gas against the
shooter's body (see comment below). Bullet placement is still the most crucial component of what the bullet will do to
Police Ammunition:If the police in your area use a trustworthy round in a caliber you like and you
can purchase it legitimately, it may be a good choice as a hedge against having your choice of ammunition second-guessed
in court by a hostile attorney.
Nickel-Plated Cases: Most law-enforcement contracts these days specify that cartridge cases be nickel plated. The
primary advantage of nickel-plating is resistance to corrosion. With very high-pressure rounds, the nickel plating
actually helps strengthen the case. An additional factor, which is particularly important with revolvers, is that nickel
has a higher lubricity ("slickness") than brass, meaning that nickel-plated cases can be ejected more reliably from a
revolver cylinder, under less than ideal conditions, than unplated ones.
5. Miscellaneous Comments
Standards for most American ammunition are set by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI). In
some cases, manufacturers have enhanced the performance of older cartridges by increasing the pressure generated beyond
the original limits set by SAAMI. In some cases, such as .38 Special, 9x19mm (9mm Parabellum or 9mm Luger) and .45 ACP,
SAAMI has set a higher range of "+P" pressures, which will normally deliver higher velocities for bullets of the same
weight. Such loads are only intended for use in modern handguns, in good condition. Occasionally, one may also encounter
a "+P+" round, sometimes in a .38 Special case. These are loaded to pressures higher than any SAAMI specification,
usually on special contract to law-enforcement agencies. The .38 Special +P+ loads were intended only for use in .357
Magnum revolvers. There are also +P+ law-enforcement loads in 9x19mm.
When a round is chambered in an autoloading pistol, the bullet experiences a significant impact as it encounters the
feed ramp. Repeated impacts of this nature can cause problems. On the one hand, the bullet can be driven deeper into the
case ("setback"). This can increase
the chamber pressure and with some modern cartridges, such as .40 S&W and .357 SIG, can do so beyond safe limits. On
the other hand, such repeated impacts could loosen the crimp which holds the bullet at the neck of the cartridge case.
This could conceivably result in lower chamber pressures and decreased velocity. Those people who must load and
unload their autoloading pistol routinely are best served by rotating the newly ejected round to the bottom of the
magazine. I would be suspicious of any round that has made more than three trips up the feed ramp and would use a
precision measuring device (e.g., a vernier or dial caliper or a micrometer) to compare its overall length to that of a
new cartridge of the same lot. Arguably, a thin line of nail polish at the junction of the bullet and the case should
show cracking if the bullet has shifted. I would also check to ensure that the bullet cannot be moved or rotated within
This photograph shows the effect of firing about two dozen rounds of standard-pressure .38 Special rounds from
the protected-gun position. Note that the garment damaged by the gas venting from the barrel-cylinder gap of the
revolver is made of perforated polyester and that it was melted, not ignited. No damage, other than soiling, was done to
the cotton undershirt worn under the polyester garment on the day the training took place. Magnum loads, however, would
have vented not only more but much hotter gases, with a great deal more concussion. Similar effects are likely if ported
barrels can vent gases toward the bodies or faces of shooters or their companions.
6. An Extra Measure of Insurance
Ammunition manufacturers may vary their components from lot to lot, especially the powder used to produce the desired
velocity within acceptable pressures. Because this may affect the "signature" produced by tattooing or stippling from
unburned powder granules - something which may be used to help determine how far an assailant was when you fired - it
is important that the firearms examiners use as close a load to yours as possible for such testing.
Author, instructor and legal consultant, Massad Ayoob, makes a very useful suggestion:
Whenever you load your gun(s) with defensive ammo, always keep at least five rounds in the box as a sample from that
lot in the event that you are forced to use it.
Note that this page is devoted to defensive ammunition for handguns. Ammunition for defensive use in long guns is
discussed on the Long Gun Selection page.
The Defensive Firearms Tripod
If you recall my priorities for the defensive use of firearms, the five priorities
can be condensed into three categories: mind set, skills and equipment.
Equipment is the lowest on the list. When you choose it, don't settle for the training
that comes in the box!
The Defensive Handgun Tripod
Don't forget that the ammunition is only one leg of a tripod which also includes the handgun and the holster (with its support).
Material is posted on this page for information and discussion only and purports to be no more than the personal opinion
Stephen P. Wenger.
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