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Beginner’s Guide to Selecting the Right Ammo

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One of the most important decisions you can make regarding your defensive handgun is the type of ammo you choose. On the surface, the choice seems simple enough, right? Just look around and find a popular brand or use what the gun shop guy told you to use. However, each pistol or revolver performs differently with a given type or brand of ammunition. There are a lot of variables to consider if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your handgun should you ever have to deploy it in a life-or-death situation.

Selecting the Right Defensive Ammo

This article is by no means a comprehensive guide to picking the best ammunition since there’s no one right answer. Instead, it’s simply a primer with a few thought starters and ideas to consider. Especially for those who might be fairly new to defensive carry.

In doing this, we’ll start with the basics. In broad, sweeping terms, there are several types of handgun ammunition available. This includes range ammunition, defensive ammunition, hunting ammunition, and specialty ammunition, such as loads designed for target competition.

While you could use any of the above-mentioned types in a defensive capacity, not all are designed for defensive use. Some hunting ammunition, like hard-cast loads or mono-metal bullets, could easily over-penetrate, endangering bystanders. Similarly, target loads might not offer the terminal performance needed to effectively stop a threat.

We will dispense with those categories and focus on the ammunition that the average person might use on a regular basis for both training and defensive use.

Range Loads

Range loads are what you will typically train with while doing drills and getting in some general practice. This type of ammo is available from a wide variety of manufacturers and will usually include FMJs (Full Metal Jackets) or TMJs (Truncated Metal Jackets). Other offerings, like Federal’s Syntech range ammunition, have a polymer-encapsulated bullet that helps mitigate copper fouling and barrel wear.

Range loads are usually less expensive and can be bought in boxes or containers of 50 rounds or more.

Federal Syntech Range.

This type of ammunition is great for general practice and perfecting fundamentals like stance, sight alignment, recoil control, etc. However, it’s not ideal for actual defensive use.

Generally speaking, the powders used aren’t the cleanest or most efficient available. Likewise, the manufacturing process for range ammo isn’t the most consistent. This results in significant variances in performance from cartridge to cartridge.

On top of that, most range-load bullets have fairly simple designs and are usually not built to expand like a hollowpoint might, resulting in inferior terminal performance.

Premium Defensive Ammunition

Premium defensive ammunition is what you would choose for your daily carry. The bullets from these loads are designed to have optimal penetration and create an effective wound channel that significantly improves the chances of stopping a threat.

The most common type of defensive ammo is your standard hollowpoint loads. However, the designs will vary from one brand to another.

Hollowpoints are designed to have optimal penetration and create an effective wound channel.

There are other types as well, including polymer-filled hollowpoints, as you might find from Speer and Hornady. Not to mention specialty rounds like the solid-copper bullets from Lehigh Defense. While these bullets don’t expand like hollowpoints, they have unique shapes and make use of fluid transfer dynamics for penetration and creating a large wound cavity.

There have been all sorts of different types of defensive ammunition through the decades. Glaser Safety slugs were once a big thing, and at one time, lightweight +P+ hollowpoint loads were all the rage.

Another factor to consider when choosing a defensive load is the weight of the bullet. For example, 9mm bullets can typically be found in weights of 90, 115, 124, 135, 147, and 150 grains. Lighter bullets will generally travel faster, helping to drive better expansion. On the other hand, heavier bullets travel slower and will often have deeper penetration.

You should always test your defensive ammo to ensure it runs properly in your handgun.

The debates over light versus heavy, fast versus slow, and various bullet types and designs are still ongoing and probably will be for quite some time. The trick is finding the best balance between velocity, expansion (or wound-channel creation), and penetration out of your particular handgun. That will require a bit of testing and research on your part.

Testing Your Carry Ammo

Most often, retail SKUs of premium loads are sold in boxes of 20 or 25. However, they are also available in larger quantities via different distribution channels. The reason for the differentiation and why they are sold in smaller quantities is that the premium ammunition is significantly more expensive. Most shooters don’t want to burn up hundreds or thousands of rounds of the “good stuff” practicing at the range.

Like everything else in life, there are no absolutes, and the lines get blurred somewhat when trying to define or categorize certain things. Yes, you don’t want to blaze through cases of premium defensive ammunition at the range. But you still need to practice with a good amount of it before you carry it.

Testing your rounds helps you understand the performance from your particular handgun.

First, you want to verify its reliability through your handgun. Likewise, you want to make sure that it is reasonably accurate out of your pistol or revolver as well. Each gun has its preferences regarding which ammunition will be consistently the most accurate.

Even if it’s reliable and accurate from your pistol, you want to make sure that you can shoot it effectively by being able to manage the recoil. It doesn’t matter if a +P load offers more velocity and better effectiveness if the recoil is such that you can’t stay on target or flinch each time you pull the trigger.

Hybrid Ammunition

Blurring the line a bit more is ammunition that is “hybridized,” like Federal’s Train & Protect ammunition. This is ammunition that is intended for range use. However, it also includes a hollowpoint design that is more effective for actual defensive use.

Federal Train + Protect.

It’s still fairly pricey, so if that’s not your cup of tea, Federal’s Syntech Training Match loads are range loads that offer up the same velocity and point of impact as the company’s premium and highly effective HST rounds.

Federal Syntech Training Match.

With that, you get the general feel of the HST loads while allowing you to train with less expensive ammunition.

Setting Standards

The current gold standard for determining the terminal effectiveness of a given load is the FBI’s testing protocol. In the infamous Miami shootout in the 1980s, then-current 9mm loads (fired by FBI agents) failed to perform effectively. So, the bureau set up a rigorous new testing protocol for handgun ammunition.

This protocol included firing bullets through various media, such as heavy clothing, wallboard, rolled sheet metal, and glass. Then, they measured the penetration of the bullets in calibrated gelatin behind those media.

The FBI tests defensive ammo via a gel block behind various media.

Aside from just measuring the penetration in the calibrated gelatin, the FBI also factored in the expansion of the bullets and the retained weight. Generally speaking, and for the sake of brevity, the desired level of performance is between 12 to 18 inches of penetration in the calibrated gelatin and expansion of the bullet to 1.5X the original diameter.

This level of performance is a good starting point for selecting defensive ammo for your handgun. However, there are a few other things to keep in mind.

Further Considerations

For example, one thing to consider is the size of your handgun, more specifically, the length of its barrel. Barrel length generally determines the velocity a bullet can obtain. That velocity is a big driver in the bullet’s terminal performance.

A specific ammunition type/load may achieve the desired results from the FBI testing protocol in a pistol with a four- or five-inch barrel. However, it may not have the same effectiveness from a pistol with a barrel of three inches or less.

Micro-compact pistols are relatively new to the market and are extremely popular these days. However, they typically have shorter barrels than pistols that were carried or used in decades past. That’s why some manufacturers like Speer and Federal offer loads specifically designed for handguns with shorter barrel lengths.

Your pistol’s barrel length can affect how your defensive ammo performs.

Different powder formulations can burn more quickly and efficiently in a shorter barrel to obtain better results. Since carry guns are usually smaller, it’s quite possible that you could use different ammunition in your carry gun than you would use in your gun at home, which might have a longer barrel.

Beyond that, actual bullet design is also a primary determinant of a load’s given effectiveness. Manufacturers undertake tremendous research and development to engineer a bullet that provides optimal expansion and penetration to improve terminal performance. Hence the extra expense.

Your typical full metal jacket range load is way behind the curve in that department. That’s why, for example, the FBI uses Speer’s G2 load. It has an elastomer-filled cup that forces consistent and uniform expansion and contributes to its penetration through various barrier types.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the information about different ammunition brands, types, and designs is too voluminous to cover everything we would like in this overview. When selecting the right defensive ammo, remember that it’s a delicate balancing act. One that requires research, testing, and patience to find a brand and load that’s best suited for your particular handgun.

Consider factors like technical reports of its terminal effectiveness, price, accuracy, and reliability from your chosen handgun. Even handling and recoil response can and should weigh in on your decision-making process. This all works together to ensure you arrive at the right choice for your defensive needs.

Defensive Ammo: Beginner’s Guide to Selecting the Right Ammo.

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