There are tons of options when it comes to self-defense ammunition. In years past, the decision was generally as easy as “buy hollow points.” However, these days there are so many different types of self-defense ammunition, how do you know which ones to get? Even if you have a brand you’ve heard good things about, each manufacturer often makes several different lines. So where do you start?
Fortunately, for all the different options on the market, there are also tons of resources available to determine if a given option is any good. It is generally very easy to find very thorough testing data online. This is probably one of the reasons there are so many choices, as the greater availability of information breeds competition. But if there is one thing that this wealth of information has taught me, it is that just “getting hollow points” is definitely not good enough. Despite the many different options, very few of them actually seem to perform as advertised. Chances are, the generic hollow point ammo that was considered good enough in the past is very unlikely to actually expand on target, thus not providing meaningfully better performance than regular target ammo.
First, it is important to understand what qualities are required in good self defense ammo. While the purpose of hollow point ammunition is expansion, that expansion can’t come at the expense of adequate penetration. FMJ ammo penetrates just fine, but doesn’t expand, and some hollow point ammo expands too much, or even breaks apart (whether by design or not), causing inadequate penetration. In general, it is better to penetrate and not expand than to expand but not penetrate. The bullet has to penetrate sufficiently to reach the vital organs, and has to expand sufficiently to reduce the chances of over-penetration and create an effective wound cavity. So to have a good self defense round, you need just the right amount of both, a Goldilocks bullet if you will.
So what is “adequate” penetration? The FBI standard gel test requires that a given bullet penetrate a minimum of 12 inches of ballistic gelatin after passing through heavy cloth (which can clog many low-quality hollow points and prevent expansion. Note that this does not equate to the same amount of penetration in an actual target, as there are many other factors such as bone that come into play). Further, the FBI standard looks for a maximum penetration of 18 inches in gel. So when evaluating any given carry ammunition, you should make sure that this round (fired out of a gun with a similar barrel length to yours, as this significantly impacts velocity) will penetrate between 12 and 18 inches of standard ballistic gel. This lets you rule out a lot of options from the get go. Some will fail to expand, and this usually results in penetration in excess of 18 inches. Some expand too much and fail to penetrate enough, or are designed to break up on impact, which looks impressive in a gel block but which, in reality, means that the efficacy of the round was wasted on superficial wounds. Note that penetration in excess of 18 inches is not necessarily grounds to disregard a certain load if the expansion was good and consistent, and if the penetration in excess of 18 inches was not more than an inch or two. However, if there are other options that expand just as well and fall right into the 12-18 inch mark, those should be considered first. They likely have less recoil than their more aggressively penetrating counterpart, anyway.
Once you’ve eliminated over and under-penetrating rounds, you have to look at the consistency of expansion. Again, poor expansion likely eliminated many of the rounds due to over-penetration. But there may be some rounds that expanded most of the time, only failing to expand some times. These rounds might be ok, but keep in mind the standard gel test is much more likely to cause reliable expansion than an actual living target, riddled with bones and with an uneven density of flesh. So if a round can’t manage to expand consistently in gel, it is much less likely to expand consistently in flesh. Even rounds that expand every time in gel may not always expand in flesh, but if they can reliably handle the gel at least you have the best chance of expansion when it counts.
Finally, there may be some rounds that expand reliably and penetrate properly just looking at raw measurements, but still might not be as good as others. You should look at factors like core-jacket separation and weight retention as well. This is when the lead core separates from the copper jacket of the bullet, causing it to be less effective, or when bits of the bullet are otherwise lost during it’s path through the target. While it does expand, the main benefits of the expanded bullet are lost, and the primary penetration is just accomplished by the lead core alone. This is fairly common with some rounds like Remington Golden Sabers. A good bullet has the case and jacket bonded together to prevent this.
So once you have narrowed it down to bullets that penetrate properly, expand reliably in gel, and hold together properly on target, the last consideration is reliability in your gun. It is possible that your choice of ammo, while the ammo performs perfectly, might not cycle reliably in your specific gun. This also does not mean that there is a problem with your gun. There are many different bullets with a wide variety of shapes, and many different guns that vary in their dimensions. Every once in a while, a certain gun will just not be compatible with a certain bullet, even though there is nothing wrong with either. Beyond reliability issues, some rounds are just more accurate in some guns than in other guns. So it is incumbent upon you to thoroughly test your chosen round in your chosen gun. This can get fairly expensive as premium self-defense rounds are much costlier than target ammo, but this is your life you’re talking about, so it is worth the money. You should at least run a few boxes of the stuff through your gun to make sure it runs right and shoots straight before you load your gun up to bet your life on.
So where do you find all this wonderful information? My favorite site is LuckyGunner Labs. This is the most comprehensive, thorough, and consistent test (not to mention easy to interpret, with pictures and video to boot) that I’ve seen. It also contains a detailed writeup of the same things I’ve covered in this post. If we look at the results of this test, we can easily see which rounds are good choices and which should be avoided. It is also important to note that these tests were performed with compact, concealed carry style guns (average barrel length of about 3.5 inches), so larger guns will likely have deeper penetration. If a given round is just slightly below 12 inches of penetration in a 3.5 inch barreled gun, it will likely penetrate adequately out of a 4+ inch barrel gun. However, if it is already penetrating quite far in the small gun, with the bullet on the verge of coming apart, it will probably not be a good choice for a longer barreled gun.
It is also prudent to note that if a given bullet is effective in one caliber, it might not be that great in another. It is important to look for data as close to the gun you will be using as possible. For example, Federal HST rounds are excellent performers in most calibers. However, in .380, they don’t seem to expand and penetrate much too far.
Looking at data like this can also be pretty eye opening about what does and does not matter in a defense load. It is surprising to see that, in many loads, the standard pressure and the +P counterpart seem to perform more or less the same. Sometimes, the increased velocity of the +P round increases penetration, when other times it may penetrate a little less due to improved expansion. One of the most interesting things is how different bullet weights in the same line of ammo can perform very differently. For example, in 9mm, Speer Gold Dots are one of the best performers, except for the 147 grain, which doesn’t appear to expand very reliably (likely due to the reduced velocity of the short barrel pistol used, and would probably expand quite well our of a full sized gun). So again, even if you know what is good and what you like, you need to make sure that the specific bullet weight you choose works as well as whatever test you saw.
If you don’t want to look at all the data yourself and just want my take on it, I would say you should generally start your search by looking at Speer Gold Dots, Hornady Critical Defense, and Federal HST. These rounds are generally the most consistent good performers, and are generally easy to find in stock anywhere and not terribly expensive. However, before stocking up on a given load, at least look into the tests for that specific load. If you’re packing a .380, the Hornady Critical Defense are really the only loads that fit the bill. The Gold Dots expand very well but don’t quite penetrate enough, and the HSTs seem to clog with cloth and not expand at all. However, in other calibers, the balance may shift. In 9mm for example, the Gold Dots seem to be the best balance of consistent penetration and expansion, with the exception of the 147 grain of course, and without even needing the increased recoil of +P. The HSTs also do very well, but penetrate a bit more aggressively, and the pictures make me a little concerned for the weight retention if hitting something hard like bone. The Hornady Critical Defense looks a little anemic by comparison, and if your barrel was any shorter than the one in the test it would not be my first pick. Hornady has the Critical Duty line as well, but it is designed for full size guns and is just barely expanding well in this test.
All of this can be a little overwhelming, I know. But with the wonders of the internet, at least you can get a very good idea of what you should use, instead of just having to rely on someone’s recommendation or the manufacturer’s marketing, or just hoping that your hollow point of choice will actually work as advertised when your life is on the line. In general, if you stick with rounds that have a proven track record (Gold Dots have been around a long time, and the competition is pretty much just starting to get competitive), and avoid the latest gimmick, you’re doing a better job than most. Once you have been messing with guns long enough, ammo choices become as interesting, if not more interesting, than gun choices. Throw handloading into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a whole new hobby.
Piece be with you,