FAQs About Ammo: Part 2

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In Part 1 of our Ammo FAQs series, we addressed questions, myths and misconceptions related to bullets and ammunition calibers and cartridges. In Part 2, we’ll examine other questions — and some urban legends — related to self-defense and concealed carry ammunition.

Are Hollow-Points Illegal?

Yes, hollow-points are illegal.

No, hollow-points are not illegal.

So, there you have it. The real answer is that it depends on where you live and what you consider “legal.” In the vast majority of the United States, there is no law against the possession and use of hollow-point ammunition. In fact, the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers in the country are carrying hollow-point ammo in their duty guns as you read this. While difficult to measure, one can assume that most legally armed citizens are also carrying hollow-point ammunition.

However, some places do restrict hollow-point ammunition. Since laws change frequently, you must always check to make sure you’re up to date. New Jersey provides an example of hollow-point ammunition restriction. In New Jersey, you can own hollow-point ammunition, and you can store it at home, but there are strict laws regulating how you can transport and use it. We can’t cover all the details here, so check the NJ Attorney General website.

The other “legal” consideration pertains to the use of hollow-points in warfare. While it seems a bit silly to have laws governing warfare (isn’t the very definition of war what happens when civility and discussion break down?), certain treaties and accords prohibit the use of expanding ammunition. The Hague Convention of 1899 banned the use of bullets designed to expand or flatten in the body. The United States was not a signer of that agreement so technically was not bound to its terms. However, the U.S. agreed to a second Hague agreement in 1907 that prohibited the use of ammunition designed to cause unnecessary suffering. As a matter of practice, the U.S. Military has not used expanding ammunition since, although that has begun to change as of 2018.

A group of 12 flattened bullets of differing weights and calibers demonstrate how hollow-point ammo expands during contact

Some hollow-point ammunition (such as the Black Talon) gets a bad rap, but in terms of end results, it’s all pretty similar. (Photo by Tom McHale)

Why Are Hollow-Points Banned?

Remember that we’re talking about very few places where hollow-point ammunition is banned. In those areas, there is a general perception that hollow-point bullets are designed to be extra lethal and inhumane. It seems to me that the act of shooting someone with anything, while possibly warranted in self-defense situations, could be considered inhumane. So I’m not sure of the distinction.

Similar reasoning exists for the ban of hollow-point expanding ammunition in warfare, although the arguments can be real head-scratchers. The Hague Conventions seemed to determine that an expanding bullet that might require fewer shots to stop a soldier is less humane than a non-expanding one that requires more hits. Why this particular aspect is called out while killing enemy soldiers with fire and explosions is deemed OK continues to be a mystery.

What Is Black Talon Ammo?

Black Talon ammo was introduced by Winchester way back in 1991. Because it had a scary-sounding name and the bullet was coated with a dark gray material, it quickly developed its own library of urban folklore. According to legend, it was armor-piercing, produced razor-sharp “talons” on expansion that would slice almost anything to shreds and caused the Earth to wobble on its axis. OK, so maybe the Earth-shifting thing is an exaggeration, but we only threw that in because the others are fantasy too.

So, what is Black Talon really? It’s essentially the same as any other hollow-point ammunition with the exception of that black Lubalox coating. The coating was only present to protect rifling of the barrel. In fact, newer versions of Winchester ammo, such as the SXT and PDX1 line, have strikingly similar designs to the Black Talon. Nothing to see here folks; it’s an ordinary hollow-point round.

What Does +P Ammo Mean?

To understand what +P, or increased pressure, ammunition is, you must first understand that each caliber has carefully defined performance attributes. In the United States, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturing Institute, Inc. (SAAMI) coordinates these specifications. One element of cartridge standardization is internal operating pressure. For example, the 9mm cartridge has a maximum defined operating pressure of 35,000 pounds per square inch, and the .45 ACP limit is 21,000 psi. SAAMI also specifies “proof” pressure levels (for case and barrel testing) that are far higher than one would encounter in normal ammunition lot variance. For most handgun calibers, the proof pressure ceilings are 1.3 to 1.4 times greater than the defined SAAMI maximum.

Ammunition with a +P rating carries a 10 percent increase over standard maximum pressure. That still keeps the operating pressure well below the higher proof guidelines but is more than the SAAMI standard, hence the “+” identification. The idea is that higher operating pressure can yield increased velocity, all else being equal.

SAAMI does not define +P specifications for all calibers, but it does publish data for some common ones. For example, the 9mm and .45 ACP calibers carry SAAMI +P pressure ratings of 38,500 and 23,000 psi.

Two black boxes of Speer brand Gold Dor personal protection 9mm handgun ammo, plus six full cartridges with copper hollow-point bullets and nickel casings. Nearby are six flattened bullets.

Weight and velocity significantly impact expansion performance. These two bullets are the same weight. The one on the left is a +P version that travels at higher speed, hence the improved expansion performance. (Photo by Tom McHale)

For the concealed carry user, +P ammo means more power but at the cost of more muzzle blast and recoil. In addition to control issues, you also must check with your handgun manufacturer to make sure your firearm is rated to handle +P ammunition.

What Is the Strongest Bullet in the World?

Defining the strongest bullet in the world is a bit like trying to identify the most powerful car. Are you talking about a car that can carry the most weight? Or perhaps the one that fits the most people? Or maybe you consider the most powerful car the one that goes the fastest.

As with automobiles, the “power” of a bullet can be defined in different ways. Without spiraling into a black hole of physics, you might consider bullet “power” using two conventions: kinetic energy and momentum. Let’s take a quick look at each.

Kinetic energy is the most common measure of ammunition “power” and is expressed in foot-pounds of energy. For example, a solid 9mm round might generate 350 to 400 or so foot-pounds. Kinetic energy is a measure of destructive power, so you might make a loose analogy to a power drill. That has potential destructive power thanks to its high velocity measured in revolutions per minute, but it won’t knock things over. The underlying math of kinetic energy emphasizes velocity, so light and fast bullets can have very high kinetic energy measures.

Momentum represents the ability to impart force and move an object. Rather than destructive force, like a power drill, momentum represents the energy capability to move mass. A bullet with more momentum will do a better job of moving an inert object on impact.

Let’s consider some examples to better understand these concepts. A standard 124-grain 9mm bullet traveling at 1,150 feet per second generates 362.4 foot-pounds of kinetic energy and 20.37 pounds-feet per second of momentum. To put those numbers in perspective, a PGA Tour golf ball drive delivers 127.8 foot-pounds of kinetic energy but more momentum than the 9mm with 28.86 pounds-feet per second. A 16-pound bowling ball carries just 173.4 foot-pounds but a whopping 422.40 pounds-feet per second of momentum.

So, what’s the strongest caliber? That depends on how you define “strongest.” It also depends on how the specific cartridge is loaded. Bullet weight, shape, power charge and type, and even the primer can all have an impact on velocity and the resulting energy. With that said, in the handgun world, some contenders for “most powerful” include the .500 Smith & Wesson and .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum. The .500 firing a 400-grain bullet can generate 2,877.1 foot-pounds of kinetic energy and 102.9 pounds-feet per second of momentum. The .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum with a 360-grain bullet delivers 2,885.1 foot-pounds and 97.7 pounds-feet per second.

Are Heavier Bullets Better?

Three rounds of ammo standng atop a target with a handgun lying nearby in the background. The three cartridges have different bullet weights and therefore different velocities.

Is a heavier bullet better? It depends on the job at hand. These 450 SMC loads range from 160 to 230 to 255 grains left to right. (Photo by Tom McHale)

Whether a heavier bullet is better depends entirely on the job at hand. If you’re trying to knock over bowling pins or steel plates in a competition, we can make a case to use heavier and slower bullets. For self-defense, there are a myriad of other factors to consider.

All else being equal, a heavier bullet will travel slower than a lighter one. That can be great for penetration, but if you are also counting on bullet expansion, that lower velocity may impact results. For example, if we look at 9mm ammo, it’s easier to get a lighter 115- or 124-grain bullet to expand than a 147-grain version. Of course, bullet manufacturers make adjustments to the projectile design to cause expansion at lower velocity. But physics is physics, and at lower speeds, it’s tougher to balance penetration and expansion.

Did we answer your question? Is there more that you want to know? Let us know in the comments. Or keep the conversation going at USCCA.com/community.

About Tom McHale

Tom McHale, Certified NRA Instructor for pistol and shotgun, is passionate about home and self-defense and the rights of all to protect themselves and their loved ones. He has completed dozens of training programs and will be completing the USCCA Certified Instructor program in the near future. Tom has published seven books on guns, shooting, reloading, concealed carry and holsters, including two for the USCCA: Armed and Ready, Your Comprehensive Blueprint to Concealed Carry Confidence and 30 Days to Concealed Carry Confidence. He has published around 1,700 articles for a dozen gun and shooting publications. Between writing projects, you can find Tom on the range.

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