There are any number of key phrases that will trigger a debate between gun owners: “1911 versus striker-fired,” “concealed carry versus open carry,” “9mm versus .45 ACP” — the list seems endless. Another point of interminable debate, discussion, claims and opinions is the question, “What is the best defensive ammunition?”
People have a mixture of informed and not-so-informed opinions, but what they share in common is that their opinions are often based on their own defensive decisions. In other words, the right answer from one individual to the next depends on a complex set of decisions, including past experiences, the gun he or she carries, concerns over so-called “stopping power,” potential overpenetration, clothing worn by a potential assailant, cost, legal concerns and a slew of other factors.
While there is no single “right round,” there are notable differences and similarities between some commonly available defensive rounds that can be revealed by testing them at the range.
What might be right for someone living in a state with a strong legal history of supporting private-citizen use of force might not be right or even legal for another person in a state hostile toward guns. Climate that affects clothing and concealment choices might also impact a person’s decisions. The answer to “what is right?” depends on the individual.
Therefore, there is no “right” answer to, “What is the best round?” It will differ greatly from person to person, gun to gun and situation to situation. While there is no single “right round,” there are notable differences and similarities between some commonly available defensive rounds that can be revealed by testing them at the range.
Fortunately, we saved you the time and money by sharing the results here. Testing velocity, penetration and the “power factor” will help you determine which round is the right fit for you.
Velocity testing was conducted by averaging the feet per second of 10 rounds at 10 feet per load tested. All ammunition was shot from the same Gen 5 Glock 17 with a 4.49-inch barrel. The velocity was measured using a LabRadar Doppler Radar Chronograph on a closed indoor range.
Penetration tests were conducted at 10 feet by shooting multiple rounds into a 16x6x6-inch block of 10 percent ballistic gelatin covered by four panels of denim at the front.
Power factor was calculated using the grain weight of the round and the average velocity. A SAAMI (Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) rating is provided if the round is rated at +P or +P+.
The range of velocities across the 10 rounds measured the variance (slowest measured bullet speed subtracted from the fastest).
The comparative objective data is displayed in Table 1.
Analyzing the Results
The two rounds with the highest power factors were the +P+P and +P+ are designators identifying ammunition as carrying a higher internal pressure than is standard for ammunition of its caliber. (CCI/Speer Gold Dot Personal Protection Short Barrel) at 434 and +P+ rounds (Federal Premium Hydra-Shok) at 413. Interestingly, the +P designed for short-barreled guns actually had a higher velocity than the +P+ when shot from the full-frame Glock 17.
Overall, the velocities ranged from a high 1,255 feet per second with a 124-grain bullet (434 power factor) to a low of 961 feet per second with a 147-grain bullet (301 power factor). Differences from round to round in feet per second varied from a high of 56 (Hornady Critical Defense FTX) to a low of 11 (Federal Premium Personal Defense Punch).
All but one of the rounds easily shot straight through the denim-shrouded gel block. The only round to stop within the gel block was the Hornady Critical Defense. Additional tests were conducted using a second block, but the transition from block to block at the 16-inch mark resulted in inconsistent bullet paths and unreliable results. However, across all bullets, with the exception of the Hornady Critical Defense, penetration seemed to be consistently around 20 to 22 inches.
The only round to stop within the gel block was the Hornady Critical Defense.
The subjective issues of “felt recoil” and consistent “flowering” (opening of hollow-points, sometimes also called “mushrooming”) of the bullets were examined by multiple shooters. Across the shooters, there was little ability to consistently identify faster or slower rounds, with the exception of the +P and +P+ rounds that were identified in blind tests as having greater felt recoil more than 50 percent of the time.
The rounds used in testing were all examined for consistent flowering, and there was little difference across rounds beyond greater grain weight predicting a very small increase in overall diameter of the spread. However, it was noted by all shooters that the SIG V-Crown (both types) had the most consistent and symmetrical flowering.
Only You Know What’s Right For You
When asked, “What defensive ammo would you recommend?,” I often respond with the answer that it varies from person to person. Most importantly, make sure to use only ammo you trust and that works well in your gun. A word of advice: Rather than trying to become an expert on ballistics, penetration, power factor, wound channels and interactions with intervening barriers, just ask your local law enforcement agency what its officers load into their firearms.
It may not give you the very best tactical option, but there is a good chance these officers have tested the ammunition and hopefully paired it for likely encounters. It also reduces the small chance that, if you are forced to use it, the type of ammo you selected could be used against you in court since your lawyer would have the quick answer of, “My client employed the same rounds in self-defense that our law enforcement agency uses.”
The goal, as in all self-defense questions, is to become informed and to make choices that make the most sense for you.
CCI Ammunition: CCI-Ammunition.com
Federal Ammunition: FederalPremium.com
SIG Sauer: SIGSauer.com
‘The Ammunition Shortage Wrangle’ of ‘53
In 1953, a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services investigated reported ammo shortages during the Korean War. The shortages allegedly affected the success of American military operations in Korea. The committee interviewed a dozen high-ranking army officers and officials, including Gen. James A. Van Fleet, former Secretary of Defense Robert A. Lovett, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army J. Lawton Collins and others. Blame for the shortage passed between army officers and the Pentagon. Gen. Douglas McArthur even weighed in and, in a reply letter to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, stated, “The overriding deficiency incident to our conduct of the war in Korea was not in the shortage of ammunition or other materiel, but in the lack of the will for victory, which as profoundly influenced both our strategic concepts in the field and our supporting action at home.” In truth, the shortage was caused by various factors — not a single reason or individual.
— Frank Jastrzembski, Associate Editor