“Ammunition for beginners” doesn’t mean there is one type for those new to shooting and another for experienced shooters. But new shooters may need a bit of a tutorial on choosing the right ammunition, as the many options can be frustrating. And everyone seems to have an opinion on what the best choices are. Some shooters swear by Federal, Remington, Speer or Winchester. But frankly, price and shipping cost are sometimes the bottom line. However, there is more to keep in mind than just cost. For one thing, there is a huge difference between training or practice ammunition and service-grade personal-defense ammunition.
Some Basic Ammunition Knowledge
First, let’s look at the different parts of the cartridge. The cartridge is sometimes called a bullet. This is incorrect and can lead to misconceptions. The cartridge case is the brass, steel or aluminum casing that contains the powder charge. The bullet or projectile is loaded into the cartridge case, with some of the bullet in the case and some exposed.
The bullet is held in place by a taper crimp in self-loading pistol cartridges and a roll crimp in revolver cartridges. A primer in the cartridge case head is struck by the firing pin or striker of the handgun to ignite the powder charge. The powder charge burns rather than detonates — an important distinction. The burning gas pushes the bullet down the barrel.
Choosing Ammunition: Practice Loads
The primary difference in types of ammunition is the bullet. The basic load is a cartridge with a round-nose lead (RNL) or full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet. The least expensive projectile is a lead bullet. Many factory lead bullets are swaged from soft lead. They have a certain amount of antimony or tin to harden the soft lead. These lead bullets are usually loaded in revolver calibers. Remington’s WheelGun line is among these. These loads are intended for inexpensive practice. Lead is simply less expensive than other bullet materials.
The typical non-expanding bullet doesn’t create good wound potential. The .38 Special and 9mm have been poor performers with RNL or FMJ bullets. The larger calibers — .45 ACP and .45 Colt — are a different story. Most practice loads are available in the same bullet weight as personal-defense loads. This means they will strike the same point on the target. A general rule is lighter bullets strike low and heavier bullets higher.
A self-loading pistol caliber usually has greater velocity, and the bullet nose is banged up a bit as it is cycled through the feed ramp and into the chamber. The typical FMJ bullet uses a relatively thin copper gilding jacket to cover and protect a lead core. The lead core may be exposed at the bottom. In the case of the Speer total metal jacket (TMJ), the bullet will be covered to prevent lead in the air.
Just a few offerings for the self-loader use a lead bullet. These usually feature a harder bullet with greater antimony or tin content. A true hard-cast bullet is much harder and less likely to leave excess lead deposits in the barrel. As an example, the Black Hills Ammunition .45 ACP 200-grain SWC is an exceptionally accurate loading that doesn’t lead badly. (Leading the barrel is leaving deposits of lead in the rifling.)
Steel is harder on extractors, and the steel case doesn’t expand and adhere to the chamber in the manner that a brass case does. This results in some powder blowby. Foreign powder technology combined with this blowby often results in a loading that deposits more powder ash in the firearm. These are termed “dirty” loads. I would avoid steel-cased ammunition.
By the same token, lead bullet loads sometimes generate more smoke on firing. This isn’t powder smoke. It’s the lubricant used to help prevent leading the barrel. This is a consideration more than a concern.
Keep It Simple
The simplest bullets have a round nose. The flat-nose wadcutter-type bullet used in target-grade ammunition is seated flush with the cartridge case. These are light loads in general. The .38 Special 148-grain wadcutter loaded by Federal Cartridge and Black Hills Ammunition, as an example, generally breaks 670 to 750 feet per second. These loads are more expensive than some, as they are designed to be more accurate.
Match-grade loads are held to a higher standard of care and, as a result, cost more. For practice, a simple RNL bullet in a mass-produced load is fine. The Remington WheelGun, Federal American Eagle and Black Hills Ammunition Cowboy loads are affordable and offer good accuracy for practice.
Handloads, Remanufactured Ammo and Returning Ammunition
Handloading is an excellent hobby. Loaders resize the expensive part of the cartridge — the cartridge case — by running it through a sizing die. They then recharge it with a new primer and powder and crimp in a projectile. This is a fairly advanced skill that absolutely demands attention to detail and good safety skills. Handloads are sometimes sold at gun shows. Never, no matter how much you think you trust someone, use another person’s handloads.
Then there is remanufactured ammunition. Remanufactured ammunition uses a spent cartridge case and is loaded on the same type of machinery as new ammunition. After a comparison of the price of remanufactured ammunition and factory generic loads, I would strongly prefer the factory generic.
With factory generic, you can be certain the handgun will function properly. When using remanufactured loads, loads by regional makers or handloaded ammunition, firearm function issues may be attributed to the ammunition. Quality ammunition removes this variable.
Due to legal and insurance concerns, most shops cannot accept the return of ammunition. They may if it is in the original packaging, however. Never dump ammunition in a box or other container. There is a reason for the factory’s protective packaging. The caliber will be marked on the barrel of a revolver and on the barrel hood or slide of a self-loader.
When firing a new handgun, I use proven standard factory loads in the initial break-in. I do not deem the pistol reliable until I have fired 100 rounds or more. Affordable ammunition goes a long way in testing handguns. As for accuracy, the standard for a service-grade handgun is a 4-inch group from a solid bench rest at 25 yards. Very few beginning shooters will approach this standard. Just the same, generic loads are accurate enough for most chores and are useful in action pistol competition. For any reasonable training chore, RNL and FMJ loads are fine. These loads will cover 99 percent of your shooting needs.
To recap: Know the handgun and the caliber and the type of ammunition that you need. Stick with a proven maker and purchase generic-type ammunition for training.
The Personal-Defense Load
The first step in choosing defensive ammunition is that it must be reliable. Ballistic performance matters little if the ammunition does not feed, chamber, fire and eject. A bullet that expands in the adversary’s body increases wound potential by increasing the frontal area of the bullet. The balance of expansion and penetration must be just that: balanced. Too shallow a penetration and the bullet will expand on a belt buckle or fail to penetrate heavy clothing. Too much penetration and the bullet may fail to expand in the body.
The semi-wadcutter is a bullet design that uses a flat nose, tapered to a driving band and shoulder. These bullets are designed to produce more damage than round-nose bullets. An RNL or FMJ bullet slips through tissue. The flat-nose SWC is far less likely to bounce off bone and cuts rather than slips through tissue.
Personal-defense ammunition is more expensive than training ammunition. Generally, 20 rounds of personal-defense ammunition cost the same or more as a box of 50 rounds of training ammunition. A number of very good loads are offered in 50-round boxes and perform well in testing. For example, the Federal Train and Protect line is affordable but expands well. Winchester offers a White Box line of JHP loads. Remington’s JHP loads in several calibers are available in bulk packs. Black Hills Ammunition offers 50-round boxes in many calibers, and Fiocchi’s JHP loads are also affordable. These loads are well-suited to personal defense.
We should consider bullet weight. Generally, lighter bullets are faster and heavier bullets are slower. The 115-grain 9mm at 1,100 feet per second and the 147-grain JHP at 950 feet per second operate at about the same level of pressure. A given amount of pressure may drive a lighter bullet faster. The middle-of-the-road bullet weights are best. A 124-grain 9mm or 200-grain .45 ACP is a good choice. In revolver calibers, a lead hollow-point offers good expansion at lower velocity. The .38 Special 158-grain LSWCHP is among the best choices for personal defense.
+P loads are designed to offer greater velocity and energy. They are most useful in the .38 Special and 9mm Luger to increase velocity and ensure bullet expansion. These loads generate greater recoil as well and are not the best choices for subcompact and compact handguns. The larger .45 ACP doesn’t need +P loads. A proven standard-pressure loading is a good choice. I deploy the 9mm +P only in a full-sized 9mm handgun such as the SIG P226, where recoil isn’t as great a factor. Alternatives include Black Hills Ammunition EXP. This 9mm is an extra-power loading that is faster than most but not loaded to +P pressure.
When choosing ammunition, you’ll likely encounter confusing and conflicting information. For training and practical ammunition, let both economy and performance be your goal. When selecting personal-defense ammunition, choose a loading with good performance that is completely reliable. Remember, shot placement is more important than any other single factor in wound potential, and the single greatest predictor of survival in a gunfight is prior training.