We are very lucky today. The choices in quality self-defense ammunition that are available now are greater than they have ever been. I’ll go into greater detail in a moment, but for now, know that most questions about what ammo you should buy are easy to answer. Most major ammunition manufactures produce a line of self-defense ammunition, and the differences in performance between
ammunition brands is less now than ever before. Find a high quality self-defense round by a name brand manufacturer that feeds and functions reliably in your firearm, and you should be well served.
Hollowpoint bullets have been available for a long time. Contrary to some beliefs, hollowpoint bullets are actually more humane that standard round nose projectiles. The hollowpoint bullet is designed to expand and as doing so, transfer the energy to the body tissue. A round nose bullet will poke a hole into a body, but can more easily over-penetrate, leaving the body and hitting innocents behind the threat. From a medical care perspective, since the hollowpoint transfers energy and causes additional tissue damage, you need fewer rounds to cause the threat to stop. Any emergency room doctor would rather deal with three or four bullet wounds caused by hollowpoints, than eight or ten separate holes caused by round nose bullets.
Following the FBI Miami shootout in 1986, a paradigm shift occurred in bullet design and ammunition performance. FBI Agent Dove, a member of the SWAT team, made one of the first effective shots with his issued S&W 9mm pistol. Dove sent a 115 grain Winchester Silvertip toward Platt. The bullet went through Platt’s arm deep into his chest, stopping just short of taking out his heart, but causing what was essentially a non-survivable wound. While Platt would not survive, in those minutes before the wound would have caused his demise, he was able to wreak havoc, cause a great deal of damage and take several additional rounds before being stopped.
Matix (a former Marine staff sergeant and later a military policeman in the Army) and Platt (who served as an Army Ranger in Viet Nam) were both highly motivated, trained with their weapon systems regularly, and were highly familiar with military tactics used against armed opponents. The incident was thoroughly reviewed, researched, and the many feel the wrong conclusions were reached. Basically, the fault was placed on the ammunition used by the agents. Regardless of whether or not this was the primary issue, this inference spurred an effort to improve the effectiveness of ammunition used for self-defense.
For the next several years, the FBI worked to improve handgun ammunition and its ability to stop bad guys. Per John Hall, chief of FBI’s Firearms Training Unit: “Incapacitation in the law enforcement context, may be simply described as bringing about the immediate cessation of hostile or threatening activities.” The goal was to see how that objective could be achieved. Since not a lot of data was available, the FBI did their own testing and development of testing methods. They decided ballistic gelatin offered the best testing medium, and decided to be effective, bullets would need to penetrate 12 inches into the gelatin – simulating a bullet penetrating deep enough to hit the major vessels deep inside the chest.
The FBI decided that rarely are naked people shot. So they developed testing procedures to ensure bullets were not only able to penetrate deep into the body, but they also need to do so after going through standard obstacles. Plywood, Wallboard, Automobile Glass, Laminated Windshield Glass, Heavy Clothing, Light Clothing, and Automotive Sheet Metal were all used to test the bullets ability to penetrate enough to reach and cause injury to those organs located deep in the body’s core after going through barrier materials.
When the 147 grain 9mm rounds became available, they brought with them a great deal of hype. They were practically guaranteed to give “one shot stops” of bad guys, What the hype didn’t explain, was the load had originally been developed for military special ops teams, who used them in suppressed H&K sub machine guns. The 147 grain bullets took so much space in the 9mm case, there wasn’t enough room for conventional gunpowders to make the bullet travel fast enough to be supersonic. The reputation of fantastic performance came from the bullets being used to quietly shoot sentries in the head. Of course, a head shot drastically increases the likelihood a single round will stop a threat immediately, great for the military, not practical for law enforcement.
Of course our department bought into the hype, and the 147 grain bullets became our 9mm duty round. Fired from a closed bolt, they were reliable in the suppressed MP-5 machine guns. In our Glock 17 pistols, the greatly reduced recoil impulse cause a wide variety of stoppages and feeding problems. Held very firmly in a two handed grip, they were fine, but not all police officers are firearms enthusiasts or have good shooting habits. Having numerous police officers experience function problems on the range with brand new duty ammo, did not inspire confidence, regardless of the hype attached.
We quickly switched to the 127 grain +P+ rated Winchester law enforcement load – the +P and +P+ designation indicates the ammunition is loaded “hot” so additional pressure will be developed when the round is fired. With the more “stimulating” recoil signature, I was unable to get these rounds to malfunction. Limp wrist, upside-down, even handing a loaded gun to our least capable officer – the gun fired, and functioned – every time. Might the 147 load have been more effective on a bad guy? Maybe. But if we can’t get the bullet fired out of the gun, it really doesn’t matter now does it? As a general rule for bullets: more speed or velocity = reliability in function and better bullet expansion. More weight or mass = deeper penetration.
Specific suggestions – best selection in any caliber will most often be a compromise between speed (velocity) and weight (mass). As an example, let’s look closer at the 9mm loads. The 115 grain bullets can be loaded to high speeds (in +P and +P+ loads), the 147 grain bullets have the greater mass for deep penetration, but not the speed. The best compromise round is the excellent 124 grain +P loads – available through many quality ammunition manufactures. An alternative may be the Hornady 135 grain Critical Duty round loaded to +P pressures. In either case, consider those loads where the exterior jacket is locked or bonded to the interior metal core of the bullet – to reduce the chance the bullet will separate into two parts.
For the .40 S&W, which doesn’t offer +P loads due to high standard load pressures – I’d go with the 165 grain loads, there are also 155 and 180 grain bullets, but I believe the 165 loads give that good compromise between bullet speed & weight. The 180 grain .40 bullets take up too much space in the case to let manufacturers load enough powder to get extra velocity. In .45acp, the 230 grain bullet is well proven, add the advantage of a quality hollowpoint design, and a +P load (adding about 70 – 90 FPS of velocity), and you have a great load if you can shoot it well. Cor-bon, Hornady and Winchester all offer +P .45acp loads.
Regardless of your preference, buying a self-defense load made by Winchester, Remington, Federal, Hornady, Cor-Bon, or CCI-Speer (along with others), will get you a quality cartridge and a round that will offer great performance in a self-defense situation.