When it comes to selecting ammunition for your defensive handgun, there is no shortage of advice available.
A nearly universal suggestion is to never use handloads as your carry ammo, and I agree with that piece of advice. Top quality brand name manufacturers have better quality control than most handloaders will ever achieve. But the other reason to avoid handloads is to prevent a prosecutor or civil attorney from claiming that you invented some special deadly explosive copkilling murder bullets in your garage with the express intent of taking a life with them. It’s a bullshit claim, but you want to deny any additional possibility of negative publicity to the people who might want to sue or incarcerate you.
Some people advise that you find out what ammo the local police use, and use the same; the rationale is that while it might not be the best performer, it won’t be the worst either, and you will have some legal cover in the event that you actually have to shoot someone. This seems to be pretty good advice, with the caveat that some departments use law-enforcement-only ammo that will be hard to find unless you go to a gun show. It generally isn’t illegal to own it; the manufacturers simply restrict its original sale to law enforcement agencies. (Overruns might end up in civilian outlets, as will excess/old stock from police inventory). But, you probably want to avoid using ammo marked as law enforcement only, since it opens you up to negative publicity like using handloads would. And who knows, some prosecutor might decide to charge you with owning “illegal” bullets.
So, no handloads, and maybe use what the cops use. But then what?
I mean, if you have looked at the selection of defensive ammo available from the major brands today, there are a lot more choices to pick from than there were even 10 years ago. Our grandfathers had solid handgun bullets, sometimes round-nose, sometimes flat-pointed, some jacketed and some bare lead. But that was about it. The original 9mm load was a 124gr FMJ bullet. The original .38SPL bullet was a 158gr lead round-nose. The .45acp was born as a 230gr FMJ. Our fathers were spoiled by having the choice of solid bullets or a single hollowpoint option per caliber, per brand.
The use of non-expanding ammunition is a bad idea in a defensive handgun (as long as the gun is of an adequate caliber). I had that argument with the late William the Coroner in the comments section of a post, because he favored FMJ .45acp as a defensive round. No expansion means drastically lower stopping power. The results of actual shootings bear that out, across all calibers. No need to rely on internet rumors or pompous gunstore clerks; you can read the results in Street Stoppers by Marshall & Sanow. Or just look at the narrow wound channel that FMJ bullets make in gelatin blocks.
For today’s shooters, hollowpoint designs have improved dramatically, first with the Federal HydraShok which added a post in the middle of the cavity to enhance expansion. The diameter of hollowpoint cavities was studied, and the jackets were pre-weakened to encourage expansion. Then the bullets varied the hardness of their lead to match the intended velocity, to increase the chance of expansion while preventing explosive performance that varmint bullets have. Now we have bullets that use a plastic or rubber insert in the cavity to prevent the cavity from being plugged and increase the propensity to expand (Cor-Bon’s Pow’R-Ball is one example, and Hornady’s Critical Defense/Critical DUTY is another). And there are higher-velocity +P loads for most defensive cartridges, whether they are needed or not.
These developments are almost all good news for shooters, because the ammo we have to choose from today is more effective than ever before.
Even with those improvements, however, there are still choices that a shooter has to make. Those choices may put them solidly into one of 2 schools of thought, or they might be one of the undecideds who have not enrolled in either school. Or, they might not even know or care, and just stick whatever bullets that will fit into their guns and assume they will knock crooks over backwards like they did in Last Man Standing.
The 2 schools of thought are venerable, and inspire fierce loyalty, loyalty that might have long past its expiration date. The schools are: the “light & fast bullet” advocates and the “slow & heavy bullet” stalwarts. Each proclaims that it’s own school is the only school that people should attend. Both cite anecdotes and numbers to prove their cases. And both think that the other school is full of malarkey and attended by chumps. They are the Hatfields & McCoys of the shooting world.
The manufacturers don’t care; they cater to both schools. Look at the selections of just one caliber, 9mm (non +P) made by Remington:
115 gr bullets at 1250fps (341 ft/lb @ muzzle)
124gr bullets at 1125fps (349 ft/lb @ muzzle)
147gr bullets at 990fps (320 ft/lb @ muzzle)
And those are available in several different hollowpoint designs. Other manufacturers have the same situation. Federal and Hornady added a 135gr bullet at about 1060fps to the options as a way of thoroughly confusing people. Not really, they are just giving the many people with different views what they want.
But which is more effective: light & fast bullets or slow & heavy bullets? It depends. And there are a lot of variables to consider. Muzzle energy is not a sole determining factor.
Within a given caliber, heavier bullets travel slower than light bullets and will penetrate deeper due to their greater inertia (and the fact that they don’t expand as fast or as well helps penetration). The “slow & heavy” people believe that blood loss and damage to vital organs is the key to stopping power, and they prefer a deep-penetrating bullet. These bullets also tend to perform better against heavily-clothed targets, and targets behind barriers. But they can overpenetrate as well, and cause a risk to 3rd parties. (After the Miami Shootout, the FBI and many law-enforcement agencies overreacted to some flawed conclusions by switching to ammunition that emphasized penetration over all other factors.)
Lighter bullets move faster and will expand sooner and more violently, transferring energy to a target faster, while penetrating less deeply. The “light & fast” people put their faith in hydrostatic shock and the rapid transfer of energy as the way to stop crooks in their tracks. Lighter bullets don’t penetrate as deeply, but they also rarely overpenetrate. The question of how much penetration is “enough” is the subject of much conjecture.
Why so much confusion? Why such differing opinions? Some people look at certain aspects of bullet performance and ignore others. Some people look at real-world performance. Others look at laboratory testing. We have partial data under widely varying conditions, incompletely gathered after the fact as our only guide. The problem is that we don’t have the option of obtaining actual scientific test data under optimal conditions. That would require shooting a whole bunch of humans and thoroughly documenting the results. Which I want to be clear about NOT advocating.
So, where do I stand on all of this? I think that it’s a caliber-by-caliber decision. And the decisions we can make today are different than the ones we would have made 20 years ago with the ammo options we had back then.
For smaller/mousegun calibers, I lean towards heavier bullets in the hope that a vital organ might be reached. Even with rapid expansion & transfer of energy, the smaller calibers just don’t have enough energy to begin with, so I don’t trust a fast-expanding hollowpoint to do enough damage to shock a perpetrator’s central nervous system into incoherence.
Once you get to .30 caliber or so for handguns, I swing towards the middle-to-lightweight bullets in most situations to increase the chances of expansion while not giving up on penetration (there isn’t a lot of leeway for .32acp however; 71gr FMJs or 60/65gr hollowpoints are all the variety that the major brands offer). I would not sacrifice every last grain of bullet weight possible to gain a little more speed, because I think you have to balance expansion & penetration. Likewise I avoid the heaviest bullets within a chambering. But waiting for a perp to bleed to death just doesn’t remove threats fast enough for my comfort. And I have read many many studies of ammunition performance and considered the photos of gelatin testing, discussions of crush cavities & stretch cavities. Shock is a mystery to medical professionals even today, but it is not imaginary.
For large calibers, I go for lighter bullets. 135-155gr .40S&W (165gr at the most), 165-180gr .45acp (200gr at the most). The velocities of these bigger bullets are already slower than that of the medium calibers, and velocity is the key to expansion. (Note: I prefer 180gr .40S&W in my .40 carbine, since I am gaining about 250fps from the longer barrel and I am confident that it will expand.)
And there are other factors to consider. Heavier bullets recoil more, which means less control and slower follow-up shots.
More important is a consideration that revolver users can ignore: slower bullets mean slower slide velocity, and that can lead to failures to feed. The faster the slide is traveling, the harder it is to limp-wrist the gun and cause a problem. The 147gr 9mm loads are notorious for finicky reliability because of the slower slide velocity (in addition to not expanding well, historically). While the 147gr bullets have been greatly improved in recent years, and might actually expand as promised, the lower slide velocity is still a problem.
Would I switch to a heavier bullet in winter, when people have more clothes on? Maybe, depending on what caliber I was using.
What do I prefer, personally? .38+P Speer Gold Dot 135gr Short-barrel. This is the only .38SPL load from a major manufacturer that I am aware of that is designed specifically to perform out of a short barrel. Since I can’t get a .38 to the velocity of a 9mm bullet of identical weight, I lean more on bullet weight and bullet design (my old carry ammo was 125gr +P Cor-Bon JHP). And .38SPL is a popular cartridge; I have seen factory hollowpoints ranging from 95gr to 158gr (with 110gr being the lightest “normal” offering). That’s a huge variance in bullet weight, but overall cartridge length and feed/eject reliability aren’t an issue for revolvers.
If this Speer load wasn’t available, I would fall back on the Buffalo Bore 125gr +P short barrel load.