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Priorities in the Selection of Defensive Handgun Ammunition

1. Reliability

2. Ability to control

3. Terminal Performance

  • Particularly with the popularity of lightweight or ultralight, small-frame revolvers, excessive recoil may be a problem. This may even be an issue for users of small, steel-frame revolvers, more so if they are fitted with small grips for more discreet carry. Target loads using wadcutter - cylindrical - bullets are loaded to relatively low velociy and generate minimal recoil.
  • While these bullets do not expand - also an issue with many hollopwpoint bullets at the low velocities generated from 2" barrels - their relatively sharp edges make them punch a full-caliber wound channel through soft tisuue. This tends to make them more effective than a round-nose bullet, including a hollowpoint bullet that fails to expand. The caveat is that, depending on what bone they may strike and at what angle, the relatively soft wadcutter bullets may not punch as neat a hole through tissue as they do in paper if they deform at the leading edge. Bone fragments, however, may also keep some hollowpoints from expanding as intended.
  • The 148 gr. offerings from the American "Big Three" ammunition makers - Federal, Remington and Winchester - as well as from Brazil's Magtech typically attain a velocity of between 650 and 700 feet per second (fps) from a 2" barrel. Based on testing in synthetic gelatin - which may allow slightly deeper penetration than the original calibrated 10% ballistic gelatin - these loads seem to meet or closely approach the FBI standards for penetration in all protocols except sheet-metal barrier. This should deep enough to reach vital organs, with little danger from overpenetration.
  • Turning to a couple of smaller American ammunition makers:
    • While Georgia Arms advertises their "standard"148 gr. wadcutter load at 750 fps from a 6" barrel, one independent source measured 700 fps from a nominally 2" barrel. They also offer a hotter "snub nose" load rated at a full 750 fps from a 2" barrel, albeit in the price range of some "premium" hollowpoint ammunition.
    • For larger-frame revolvers with short barrels - in which recoil may not be as much of an issue - Buffalo Bore offers a hotter (~900 fps from a 2" barrel) 150 gr. wadcutter load that may be of interest.
  • These cylindrical bullets are usually loaded flush with the mouth of the case and may not allow the fastest reloads. If this is a concern to you, you may choose to charge your speedloaders or speed strips with a standard-pressure hollowpoint, such as Hornady's Critical Defense load, which will not create that much more recoil, should you need to keep shooting after reloading. Particularly if you're willing to carry such an alternate load in speed strips or a pouch, here's a trick that may help you also use wadcutters in a speedloader:
    • Charge your loader with one round of the load with the conventionally shaped bullet and wadcutters for the rest. Orient the loader in its carrier so, that when you draw it, the round with the projecting bullet will align readily with the empty chamber around 11:00 on the cylinder, with the action open. Once that round starts into that chamber, it should take no more than a slight wiggle for the wadcutters to find their alignments.
    • With the longer, alternate round in that chamber, it should end up under the hammer when the cylinder is swung closed. That means that it won't be fired until the last round of that cylinder, if the fight runs that long.
  • For a few decades, ammunition manufacturers have seemingly been designing more effective bullets for defensive purposes by using a set of FBI protocols to test bullet performance in calibrated 10% ballistic gelatin. Many of those bullets have been designed to meet all the FBI standards for use in law-enforcement scenarios, including penetration of intermediate barriers. Others have been designed for less penetration, in the belief that such performance may be more suitable for the scenarios likely to be encountered by private citizens.
  • There is room to debate how accurately bullet performance in homogeneous gelatin correlates with bullet performance in heterogeneous humans but the use of these newer bullets in law enforcement - where we are more likely to see reports of repeated shootings with the same loads - has not suggested that the FBI standards are far off.
  • The original ballistic gelatin is messy, must be used within a specified temperature range and must be calibrated for penetration with an airgun pellet fired within a specified velocity range. More recently, a synthetic gelatin, that is easier to use, has been marketed with the claim that it is equivalent to the original, animal-origin gelatin. This has prompted a plethora of online postings of "backyard" ballistic testing, by YouTubers and at least two online ammunition vendors.
  • One major manufacturer of ammunition conducted a comparison test of the two gelatins. At least with hollowpoints, they are not equivalent. The synthetic gelatin produced less expansion with the resultant greater penetration, Worse, there does not appear to be a consistent conversion factor to translate the penetration measurements in the synthetic gelatin to what the same loads would produce in the original gelatin. If such testing is important in your selection of defensive ammunition, caveat emptor.

4. Secondary Considerations

5. Miscellaneous Comments

6. An Extra Measure of Insurance

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

The Defensive Handgun Tripod

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