Defense, Training and Range Ammo: Choosing the Right Ammo for Your Needs

» THERE SEEMS TO BE A GREAT DEAL OF CONFUSION when it comes to something as simple as ammunition selection. Ammunition selection is simple if addressed properly. I do not say simple to belittle the importance of selecting the proper ammunition for each situation. I mean we should choose ammunition based upon performance, value, and reputation and then move on to other important things such as proper training.

The initial step is to choose an appropriate handgun. The handgun must be reliable, of quality manufacture, and it must chamber a cartridge that is capable of saving your life. This means at least .38 Special or 9mm Luger caliber. The next step is mastering the handgun. To do this we must expend time, money, and ammunition. You will spend more on ammunition than on the handgun during its life, and wise choices will save money.

The majority of ammunition fired will be range ammunition, also called training loads or practice ammunition. This ammunition should not be regarded as low quality. For example, Winchester USA is often accurate and completely reliable and the other major makers offer a practice line comparable to Winchester’s “White Box” loads. These loads are intended for practice or target use and contain a non-expanding bullet. Typically the bullet will be a round nose jacketed type in the self-loading handgun calibers such as 9mm, .40, and .45. In the .38 Special the bullet may be a round nose lead or jacketed.

These loadings often give good accuracy and though they aren’t cheap, they’re not expensive. Since there is no complex hollow-point design, the bullet simply isn’t expensive to manufacture; R&D was accomplished over a century ago.

The packaging of the [Winchester] training line is modest without the dynamic graphics of more expensive loads in the highly competitive personal defense lines.

There seems to be a great deal of confusion when it comes to something as simple as ammunition selection.

The packaging of the training line is modest without the dynamic graphics of more expensive loads in the highly competitive personal defense lines. These loadings are often as reliable and accurate as premium defense loads, but some do not incorporate case mouth seal and primer seal into the cartridge and the result is less resistance to oil, solvent, and the elements.

This might give us pause when considering this ammunition for personal defense, but these loads are still excellent choices for training. Simply select a load with a bullet weight similar to the load you use for personal defense.

For example, if you employ the Winchester 230-grain PDX carry load, then the Winchester USA 230-grain FMJ would be a good training load. It will probably strike very near the same point of impact as the JHP load, and although the personal defense load will be faster on average it is, as they say, close enough for government work.

Here we have four Hornady XTP bullets fired at increasing velocities into ballistic gelatin; notice the differences in expansion as the velocities increase. Though a projectile may be marketed as high-expanding, the firearm from which it is launched makes a big difference in its performance. Generally, the shorter the barrel on a gun the less velocity will be achieved, sometimes to the point of little to no bullet expansion at all. Like everything else in concealed carry, compromises must be made.

Here we have four Hornady XTP bullets fired at increasing velocities into ballistic gelatin; notice the differences in expansion as the velocities increase. Though a projectile may be marketed as high-expanding, the firearm from which it is launched makes a big difference in its performance. Generally, the shorter the barrel on a gun the less velocity will be achieved, sometimes to the point of little to no bullet expansion at all. Like everything else in concealed carry, compromises must be made.

These training loads may not have case mouth seal and they may not exhibit a cannelure in the cartridge case to prevent the bullet from being pushed into the case after repeated chamberings, but then sometimes premium defense loads don’t either. They rely upon a tight friction fit to maintain cartridge integrity and resistance to the elements. Other training loads use special lead-free bullets for use in ranges that demand low airborne emissions, and there are also special frangible training loads such as those offered by Rimrock Ammunition. These loads use bullets of sintered metal and are designed to break apart when they strike steel targets and can enhance safety when training on steel or around vehicles at close range.

A popular and economical resource is remanufactured ammunition. At one time it was popular for companies to require a brass trade-in on remanufactured loads, but today forward-looking companies such as Black Hills Ammunition buy quality fired brass in bulk and offer the remanufactured loads at an attractive price. These loadings are loaded on the same machinery and with the same care as Black Hills premium ammunition; they simply use once-fired brass.

The true culprit is metallurgy: the steel cases do not expand to fully grip the chamber as well as brass cases do, thus allowing a certain amount of powder blow-by.

Some of these loads use lead bullets, another economical advantage. The Black Hills 200-grain SWC load has fallen among the most consistently accurate economy loadings in my experience, proving reliable after thousands of rounds fired in practice. In a situation in which hollow-point loads are unavailable, they are reliable enough for service use, but a quality expanding bullet is always preferred.

Another resource is economy grade ammunition with steel cases. Steel cases have proven a useful resource in this age of shortages and have proven reliable in my personal handguns. However, they are stiffer than brass-cased ammunition and are sometimes regarded as dirtier than brass loads. The true culprit is metallurgy: the steel cases do not expand to fully grip the chamber as well as brass cases do, thus allowing a certain amount of powder blow-by. Just the same, the steel-cased loads from Wolf Performance Ammunition have proven reliable, useful, and accurate. In many ways, if you do not reload then there is no need to purchase brass-cased ammunition.

Training and defense are each separate and important considerations, so much so that Winchester has recently introduced a new line aptly named Train & Defend. Each box is marked for the proper use, and this is a worthwhile product that will clear up confusion among some self-defense shooters.

When considering modern personal defense loads there are any number of choices, but the load chosen must be completely reliable in your personal handgun. In over 40 years of testing quality handguns and training in self-defense shooting, the majority of malfunctions I have experienced have been caused not by inexpensive training ammunition but by ammunition designed for personal defense.

Feed reliability had been compromised by exotic bullet styles and cycle reliability compromised by non-standard bullet weights and high pressures. Properly designed personal defense loads are as reliable as any product can be, and to understand the differences in personal defense loadings we have to understand the projectiles loaded in them.

In law enforcement and military contexts, a projectile’s ability to penetrate auto glass while still retaining its threat-stopping capabilities is essential. As such, many cartridges have been tailored to this need. They are, however, costly when compared to other loads and not entirely necessary in the minds of many private citizens. As with every other aspect of your EDC gear, the decision is entirely up to you.

In law enforcement and military contexts, a projectile’s ability to penetrate auto glass while still retaining its threat-stopping capabilities is essential. As such, many cartridges have been tailored to this need. They are, however, costly when compared to other loads and not entirely necessary in the minds of many private citizens. As with every other aspect of your EDC gear, the decision is entirely up to you.

The handgun bullet should expand in order to limit over-penetration, important for public safety and to increase wound potential. You do not wish to send a bullet into the neighbor’s house or penetrate a wall a block down the street. Frangible ammunition such as the Cor-Bon/Glaser Safety Slug will break up on hard surfaces or when meeting resistance in the body, but be certain such lightweight, high-velocity bullets cycle reliably in your handgun. Frangible ammunition usually penetrates less than 10 inches in water testing and sometimes as little as 6 inches, presenting a personal decision that must be weighed against the need for a bullet that must not ricochet.

There are few loads that offer good wound ballistics without an expanding bullet and their names begin with “4:” the .45 ACP and .45 Colt cut a large wound channel and make a larger hole on exiting. Public safety demands an expanding bullet to limit over-penetration and ricochet, but in the small bores an expanding bullet is needed to maximize wound potential.

There are several types of expanding bullets, the most common of which is the standard cup-and-core JHP with a lead core inside of a copper jacket. These bullets are versatile and effective. Select a loading that guarantees 10 to 12 inches of penetration and expands to 1.5 times its original diameter and you have a good choice for personal defense.

Another class of bullets includes the Cor-Bon Pow’RBall and the Hornady Critical Defense. These bullets include a polymer component in the nose that instigates expansion.

Next are loads using a bonded-core bullet, in which the core is chemically bonded to the jacket so that the bullet and the jacket do not separate upon meeting resistance. Police service loads are typically bonded-core types. The advantage is in penetration, though expansion is often less than the standard JHP. You need to think long and hard if you need this type of penetration.

Peace officers must be prepared for the worst-case scenario, not the average, and many police shootings involve felons behind light cover or vehicle glass. The Winchester PDX is among the best examples of the bonded-core load. Their standard 230-grain .45 ACP JHP as offered in the Winchester M1911 line is a good load with excellent expansion, but you must decide whether these fit your personal scenario.

Then there is the new breed of solid copper bullet. Variously referred to as the X bullet, the DPX, or the Barnes bullet, these all-copper bullets feature a soft nose that expands into a petal shape while the base is solid and maintains its integrity. There is no separation of the core and jacket because the bullet is one piece. While expensive, the performance of these bullets is often impressive, comparable to a bonded core bullet but with a lighter bullet driven at a higher velocity.

Another class of bullets includes the Cor-Bon Pow’RBall and the Hornady Critical Defense. These bullets include a polymer component in the nose that instigates expansion. Some regard this as a superior system to the sump system in which the hollow nose must fill to upset the bullet, and the bullets seem to perform as advertised in gelatin. An advantage is that the nose profile is superior for feed reliability in self-loading pistols. The Cor-Bon Pow’Rball will feed reliably in any handgun that will feed FMJ ammunition, which is a great advantage in the many older-model handguns still in use that were designed before the introduction of JHP ammunition.

When all is said and done, the handgunner has more choices than ever in quality, reliable ammunition. The proposed differences in ballistic performance may be important, but the bottom line is that the load must be reliable and the user must practice often.