Federal Premium HST 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP loads pictured with fully expanded bullets.
Contrary to what your grandparents might tell you, the best things are not all behind us. Modern materials and machining have made current defensive ammunition superior in every way to what was available just a few years ago, and there are a number of reasons why.
1. The FBI Ballistic Test Protocol
The single biggest factor that has driven improvement in modern defensive handgun ammunition is the FBI Protocol. For those of you unclear on the history of the protocol, here’s a little background.
|FBI Ballistic Test Protocols always start with a block of 10% ballistic gelatin, and shooting it with a BB verifies its consistency. That BB has to be travelling at a certain velocity, and penetrate a certain depth, before the block can be used. Here is a gel block used for testing at Black Hills Ammunition. The calibration BB appears in the upper left, and the bullet path/cavity has been dyed red for better visibility.|
In 1986, multiple FBI agents were involved in a lengthy gun battle with two armed suspects in and around vehicles in Miami, Florida, that left two FBI agents dead and five others wounded. Although tactical errors and poor marksmanship exhibited by the agents extended the gunfight, the F.B.I. placed most of the blame on poorly performing ammunition, as both suspects were shot multiple times and kept fighting. As a result, they developed the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol for evaluating the relative performance of defensive handgun ammunition.
The protocol involves eight practical tests in which testers fire bullets into properly prepared and calibrated ballistic gelatin. Shots are fired into bare gelatin, gelatin covered with heavy clothing at two different distances, through angled auto glass, wallboard, plywood and even sheet metal. Bullets must penetrate a minimum of 12 inches in every test, and the more expansion, the better.
This test has become so accepted across the nation that most police departments will not issue duty ammo to its officers that hasn’t passed the FBI Protocol. Before this test there was no standard, and now the FBI Protocol is the standard. This protocol has directly affected every company making ammo, and the resulting testing and R&D has been very beneficial to consumers.
2. Better Powders
|Better powders can be found across the board and are one reason that modern handgun cartridges are more accurate. Here’s the new Federal 124-grain HST Tactical load.|
Although bullets get most of the attention in defensive ammunition, if not for the gunpowder pushing them out of the barrel, they wouldn’t have a job. The fact that modern technology has generated as many improvements in powders as it has in bullets simply isn’t as obvious.
Decades ago, high velocity equaled high flash when it came to handgun ammunition. I remember testing early CorBon ammunition 20-plus years ago and being as dazzled by the muzzle flash as I was by the velocities. Now, most manufacturers advertise that their defensive ammunition is assembled with low-flash powder, which only makes sense, as the majority of defensive shootings occur in low-light situations.
Modern powders don’t just offer low flash but also increased velocities (without a dangerous increase in pressure) compared with what was available just a few short years ago, not to mention improved consistency, which translates to increased accuracy. While this increased velocity gets more attention on the rifle ammunition side of the aisle, the fact is that a lot of .380 ammo is now moving as fast as a 9mm used to, and some 9mm offerings post velocities only previously seen with .357 Magnum ammo.
3. Better Bullets
|You’ll never find more highly engineered bullets than those found in today’s defensive handgun ammunition. From left — Barnes TAC-XPD copper solid bullet with proprietary finish, Speer Gold Dot JHP, Hornady Critical Duty with their patented Flex-Tip, Liberty Ammunition’s nickel-coated copper alloy Civil Defense bullet and the G2 Research RIP bullet designed to fragment upon impact.|
In decades past, all a company had to do when marketing ammunition for self-defense was cut a cavity in the tip and call it good. Just because it has a hollow point, however, doesn’t mean a bullet will expand.
First generation Winchester Silvertips were so notorious for not expanding that author Stephen Hunter made that an important plot point in his seminal Bob Lee Swagger novel “Point of Impact” (later butchered by Hollywood into Shooter). The problem was their jackets were too thick, and Winchester wasn’t the only company having this issue at the time. But those days are long behind us.
Modern bullets incorporate so much engineering that most shooters would hardly believe it. Jacket thicknesses now vary between calibers, and even among bullet weights in the same caliber, so as to guarantee the hollowpoint will peel open upon impact.
Some hollowpoints are filled with material to initiate expansion (such as the rubber Flex-Tip in Hornady FTX bullets). Feeding and reliabilty have been improved as manufacturers have discovered how to provide the expansion of a hollowpoint with the bullet profile of an FMJ (such as in Federal Guard Dog ammo).
4. Better Quality Control
|Quality control has never been higher. In addition to CNC-machined dies and optical and laser scanners, nearly every ammunition manufacturer uses the old standby — examination by human hand and eye — to spot any round less than perfect.|
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to tour the ammunition facilities of Wilson Combat, Black Hills, Nosler and Hornady. Every visit was interesting. Most of the ammunition made in those plants is still being made on the heavy equipment built to help us win WWII, but those presses have all been equipped with modern optical scanners, laser gauges and every high-tech scanner and tool you can think of to ensure that the ammo produced is as close to perfect as possible. CNC machines are now also manufacturing the dies that ammunition companies use instead of humans, which results in closer tolerances.
But technology isn’t everything, and there is no substitute for the human touch. At every one of the above facilities, a human being physically examines the ammunition by hand and eye. I was shocked to learn that at least three people hand-inspect every round that leaves Black Hills Ammunition. While perfection isn’t possible, the chances of finding a bad round in your box of ammo has never been lower, thanks to better technology and conscientious employees.
5. Nickel-Plated Cases
|Freeze frame from GoPro camera shows a Nickel plated Federal HST .45 ACP case extracting and the next round feeding into the chamber.|
Not too many years ago, only a few brands of ammo featured nickel-plated cases. But now, almost all premium defensive ammunition features nickel-plated cases. Does it matter?
Nickel cases look prettier for sure, and that certainly affects marketing and sales. Nickel plating is functional as well.
Nickel is slicker than brass, which means it should feed and extract more smoothly from chambers (especially dirty chambers) than standard brass-cased ammunition. Will that make any difference in 99.99 percent of handgun-involved defensive use of force scenarios? Probably not, but the old phrase “Better to have it and not need it” comes to mind.
6. +P Ammunition
|Improved powders and stronger guns have resulted in an increase in the number of +P ammo choices. Although technically +P means increased pressure, in reality, +P ammo provides higher velocities, and velocity is the key to both penetration and expansion.|
While everyone equates “+P” with “increased velocity,” in fact, +P means increased pressure. For a long time, +P ammunition was the exception to the rule, as not a lot of manufacturers rated their handguns for that type of ammunition.
Not only has the steel that handguns are made of improved, so too has the quality control. As a result, these days, it is almost impossible to find a full-size handgun not rated to handle +P ammunition, and a lot of pocket guns are rated for it as well. This is a good thing because usually +P ammo does provide increased velocity. Velocity is the key ingredient when it comes to both penetration and expansion. When combined with modern expanding hollowpoints, +P ammunition provides vastly improved terminal performance.
+P ammunition is, in fact, one main reason the .40 S&W cartridge is falling out of favor with both law enforcement and the general shooting public for self defense. 9mm+P ammunition, loaded with modern, high-tech bullets that penetrate and expand consistently, even out of short-barreled pocket guns, has nearly done away with all of the .40′s perceived advantages.
Here are the contenders for Best New Self-Defense Ammo for 2014:
1. Hornady Critical Duty
The Hornady Critical Duty line has been around for a few years, and now they’re steadily adding more calibers and bullet weights. The latest addition is the .357 SIG, which features a 135-grain bullet exiting the muzzle at 1,225 feet per second (fps).
Critical Duty ammo tends to offer non-traditional bullet weights, such as a 135-grain 9mm or a 220-grain .45 ACP. The reason for this is simple: The engineers at Hornady designed Critical Duty ammo to pass very exacting FBI protocols, and — starting from scratch — they designed the cartridges to meet and exceed those protocols.
Each cartridge is tipped with Hornady’s FlexLock bullet. The hollowpoint cavity is filled with a rubber solid that initiates expansion and prevents the hollowpoint from becoming clogged as it passes through clothing or intermediate barriers such as drywall. The bullets are also cannelured, which helps prevent set-back in the case. The cases are nickel-plated as well for natural lubrication to reduce malfunctions.
2. Remington Golden Saber Black Belt
Introduced as an expansion to the Golden Saber line of hollowpoints, the Black Belt will probably end up replacing the older JHPs. Initial offerings include both a 124 and 124+P 9mm loading, 165- and 180-grain .40 S&W rounds and a 230-grain .45 ACP.
The Black Belt bullets have — unsurprisingly — a visible black belt around their middle. Remington uses this black-colored brass band to mechanically bond the core to the bullet. Bonded core bullets enhance expansion as well as penetration, but most bonded bullets have their cores chemically or electrically bonded. Golden Saber bullets have traditionally been very good looking (as bullets go) because of their hue, and the Black Belts have a very striking appearance as well.
Initially, Remington was marketing Black Belt only to LE/Government agencies — the traditional way to roll out new defensive ammo — with a plan to bring it to the commercial market at the end of this year. However, training and ammo budget dollars are drying up quickly for LE, whereas private citizens still can’t find enough ammo to buy. Look to see Remington Golden Saber Black Belt at gun stores sooner rather than later.
3. G2 R.I.P.
We say the bullet has done its job when it expands but doesn’t come apart and penetrates deeply but preferably doesn’t exit the body (to reduce the chances of injuring bystanders). But not everybody has always agreed that is the best path to follow.
Some companies such as Glaser and MagSafe went a different route, constructing bullets stuffed with smaller projectiles (i.e. shot pellets of various sizes) that were designed to come apart upon impact. The newest ammo of this type is the Radically Invasive Projectile (R.I.P.) from G2 Research.
Instead of being filled with lead shot, R.I.P. bullets are machined from solid copper alloy and feature pointed spears known as trocars. R.I.P. bullets look a lot like a barrel if someone took off the lid and sharpened the tops of the staves on the sides. For those of you who have heard of them, think flechettes. The 9mm features 8 mini trocars (plus the base) for a total weight of 96 grains and an advertised velocity of 1,265 fps.
Upon impact these metal splinters (in theory) will separate and spear deep into the target, perforating organs and blood vessels. G2 Research has some cool videos on their website showing these bullets penetrating water and ballistic gel where the copper trocars perform exactly as advertised. Whether they will do the same (or just collapse inward) when shot into an actual human being with muscle and bone remains to be seen, but kudos to them for trying something different.
4. Liberty Ammunition Civil Defense
Brand new from Liberty Ammunition is their Civil Defense line of ammo. The bullets look like simple hollowpoints, but the secret is in their construction.
The projectiles are made from a nickel-plated copper alloy. The bullets feature massive cavities that are wider than the hollow points in the tips. The tips are mechanically closed just after the cavity is made. Liberty’s 9mm load sends a 50-grain bullet traveling at 2,000 fps, and that reduced weight is due solely to the huge size of the internal cavity and the lighter-than-lead property of the copper alloy construction. They also make .380 ACP, .40 S&W and .45 ACP ammo, all of which feature very light-for-caliber bullets traveling very fast (50-78 grain bullets travelling between 1,500-2,000 fps). The combination of a light bullet moving at a high velocity yields rapid expansion.
During demos, melons and hams literally exploded from the violent expansion of the bullets. But expansion is worthless without penetration. We saw a local police officer shoot a target inside a Jeep Cherokee with a .40 Civil Defense round from his duty Glock. The bullet penetrated the windshield of the vehicle without a problem, staying in one piece all the way through the driver’s headrest before exiting the vehicle. When the officer shot another .40 S&W round into the side of the Jeep, it went through the passenger door, through the driver’s door (in one piece) and kept on going.
The sides of the bullet are actually thicker toward the nose than at the base. When shot into a hard surface, the bullet stays together and penetrates very well. As for how they perform in tissue stimulants, it appears that when hitting meat/melon/water, the base of the bullet is detaching and then blowing through the nose cone, which causes the entire bullet to disintegrate rapidly.
5. Sig Sauer Elite
SIG Sauer jumped into the ammunition market this year with the introduction of SIG Elite Performance Ammunition. As of right now there are five offerings: 90-grain .380 ACP, 124-grain 9mm, 125-grain .357 SIG, 165-grain .40 S&W and 200-grain .45 ACP. We were first able to test fire early production ammo in January 2014 and came away impressed.
SIG ammo features their V-Crown jacketed hollowpoint design, which has a smaller hollowpoint stacked behind/below the main cavity. This is intended to ensure consistent controlled expansion across a wide range of velocities. The bullet has a toothed cannelure to lock the jacket to the core, and the jacket is skived and scored to assist expansion.
The cases appear to be nickel coated but are actually brass coated with “techni-chrom” for enhanced lubricity, corrosion resistance, reliability and extraction. All of the initial SIG ammo offerings are standard pressure loads with modest recoil, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see some +P loads in the near future.
6. Winchester Train & Defend
Winchester doesn’t have any name recognition problems, but they felt there was a lot of confusion in the marketplace over which ammo should be used for what, especially with new gun owners. So they introduced their Winchester Train & Defend.
Not so much “Train & Defend” as “Train or Defend,” Winchester has designed an ammunition system, starting from the ground up with boxes very clearly marked with a “T” or “D” inside a yellow square.
Train & Defend ammo is offered in four handgun calibers: a 95-grain .380 ACP at 950 fps, a 147-grain 9mm at 950 fps, a 180-grain .40 S&W at 925 fps and a 130-grain .38 Special at 925 fps. Projectiles in the Train offering are FMJ bullets; in the Defend line all the choices feature bonded JHP bullets with velocities identical between the two ammo lines.
Winchester Train ammo has lead-free primers for a more user-friendly experience at indoor ranges. Train ammo is sold in 50-round boxes and Defend ammo in 20-round boxes. Defend ammo has nickel-plated cases, whereas the Train ammo has traditional brass cases.
The Train and Defend ammunition lines are aimed at new shooters or those with slight builds and are designed to limit felt recoil. Many instructors say you should train like you plan to fight, and having practice and defensive ammunition with the same felt recoil and muzzle blast is crucial.
7. Nosler Defense
The name Nosler should be familiar to most rifle shooters, as they have been around for decades selling some of the best rifle bullets on the market. Just recently, Nosler jumped into the defensive handgun market with their Nosler Defense line of loaded handgun ammunition.
Currently offered in three calibers (9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP), buyers have their choice of two bullet styles: a traditional bonded core JHP and a polymer-tipped bullet with a bonded core.
Nosler first tipped the cavities of rifle bullets with polymer decades ago in their Ballistic Tip line of projectiles, a design that a number of other ammunition manufacturers are now utilizing. The rounded polymer tip of their bonded performance handgun bullets gives them an FMJ profile and aids in smooth reliable feeding. It also prevents the cavity from getting clogged as it passes through intermediate barriers such as drywall or clothing.
The 124-grain 9mm+P offers a velocity of 1,250 fps. The 200-grain .40 S&W heads out of the muzzle at 1,000 fps (not technically a +P but still hot), and the 230-grain .45 ACP+P has a velocity of 950 fps.