The debate as to what type of projectile affords greater lethal potential has raged on since prehistoric times. Caveman Zorg favored big, heavy rocks when hunting for his dinner. On the other hand, his companion, Mog, argued that smaller rocks that could be thrown faster were the better choice. Although our tools have grown far more sophisticated, we’re not any closer to a consensus now than we were 100,000 years ago.
One issue we can probably all agree on is that ammunition intended for self-defense is far better than it was ageneration ago. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify that elusive quality we often refer to as stopping power, but handgun ammunition has gotten just about as good as it’s going to get. Those old arguments about 9mm vs. .40 S&W vs. .45 ACP have pretty much played out, and a well-placed hit from a good bullet from any of the aforementioned cartridges will yield just about the same result.
For handgun ammunition to be effective under the widest range of conditions, it must meet two performance criteria. First of all, it must penetrate deep enough to disrupt the function of vital, life supporting organs or major blood vessels. Secondly, it should expand well beyond its original diameter to create the largest possible permanent wound cavity and destroy the most tissue. A hit to the brain with a non-expanding handgun bullet will likely be an instant stop, while a shot through the lungs with the same bullet may not. Generally speaking, expanding bullets that penetrate to adequate levels and expand to destroy more tissue are better stoppers.
Velocity is yet another dimension in our success equation. Rifle bullets fired at high velocity create a temporary stretch cavity (in addition to a crush cavity). The temporary stretch cavity is created by the wake of the passing bullet and even though surrounding tissue may not be directly impacted, damage may occur depending on the elasticity of the tissue. While this quality is typically associated with rifle bullets, some high velocity handgun bullets also create a temporary stretch cavity. The effect is not nearly as dramatic as with rifle ammunition, but how else can you explain the enhanced performance of a .357 Magnum over a .38 Special when firing the same bullet?
Building a Better Mousetrap
The most common type of expanding handgun ammunition remains the jacketed hollowpoint (JHP). Jacketed hollowpoints have been on the scene since the l960s, but have only realized their true potential recently. These bullets typically consist of a lead core with a hollow cavity enveloped by a gilding metal jacket. The jacket extends to the mouth of the hollow cavity and is often pre-stressed with skives to facilitate expansion. On impact, hydrostatic shock causes the jacket to fail as the bullet mushrooms.
For years, the ammunition manufacturers used this familiar formula to create defensive handgun ammunition. Bullet configuration, muzzle velocity, and powders used varied from one manufacturer to the next, but by and large, there wasn’t a great degree of difference in what was available.
But are the new-age expanding bullets really better than what came before? Have they rendered the classic JHP obsolete?
In April of 1986, an event occurred that forever changed the way that many of us think about handgun ammunition. A number of FBI agents became involved in a high volume fire-fight with two heavily armed bank robbers in Miami, Florida. Two agents were killed and five more wounded. Both assailants were ultimately killed as well. In the post mortem exam, one of the assailants was found to have taken a cross torso hit from a Winchester 9mm 115 grain Silvertip, which eventually proved fatal but didn’t provide an instant stop.
In an effort to avert future tragedies, the FBI began a lengthy evaluation process in a quest to identify ammunition that was ideally suited for law enforcement use. Candidate rounds were tested in 10% ordnance gelatin, a simulant that replicates the density of human muscle tissue. The FBI test protocol also included shooting through common barriers such as heavy clothing, steel, wallboard, auto glass, and plywood before impacting the gelatin blocks. A minimum level of penetration of 12 inches was established with a preference toward the deeper end of the scale. Many popular rounds simply couldn’t meet the FBI standard.
To meet the demand for better performance, the major manufacturers revamped their lines and came out with some much-improved offerings. They included the Federal Hydra Shok, Hornady XTP, Speer Gold Dot, and Winchester Black Talon. Some have withstood the test of time, while others served as evolutionary steps to even better ammunition. Make no mistake about it, we’re not done yet. More recent innovations have included CorBon DPX, Federal HST, and Hornady Critical Defense.
But are the new-age expanding bullets really better than what came before? Have they rendered the classic JHP obsolete? Do I really need a bullet that can punch through all that stuff and still perform?
Rest easy grasshopper, this question is on the minds of other pistoleros as well. I would submit, however, that the needs of a private citizen are very different from a Highway Patrolman who may have to engage bad guys from or around vehicles.
New School Ammo
Today, every major manufacturer of handgun ammunition has supplemented their line of traditional jacketed hollowpoints with alternative offerings that enhance improved terminal performance. To achieve this, new bullet designs have come on the scene that represent a significant departure from the classic gilding metal jacket/lead core hollowpoints of old. New materials and technologies are utilized to deliver reliable expansion and adequate penetration, even when shooting through obstacles. Bonded bullets that lock the jacket and lead core together, even passing through hard barriers such as sheet steel and windshield glass, are available from the major manufacturers. CorBon has taken this concept one step further with their all copper DPX bullet, which performs very well against all sorts of obstacles.
No doubt, these improved loads have much to offer, particularly for the law enforcement officer who may have to engage subjects behind glass or other cover. For police officers, a very strong case can be made for the use of a bonded bullet. But what of the armed citizen? The likelihood of shooting it out with armed desperados in or behind automobiles is somewhat remote. High on that list of probabilities remains engaging an unobstructed subject dressed in heavy clothing.
But can an old school hollowpoint still cut it for personal defense? My gut feeling is that some of the better loads would be more than adequate. Short of eager volunteers, I went with the next best way to find out.
My Science Project
To get a handle on this, I rounded up ammunition from four different manufacturers to include a traditional style jacketed hollowpoint, plus one of the same firm’s premium defensive loads. I originally considered testing a few different cartridges but eventually settled on the 9mm Parabellum. Love it or hate it, the 9mm remains the most popular handgun cartridge in the world and more pistols are chambered for it than any other round.
Blocks of 10% ordnance gelatin were prepared and stored in a refrigerator until needed. I didn’t see much point in shooting bare gelatin and opted to utilize two different types of barriers in my informal test.
Police handgun ammunition is often tested against other formidable obstacles, including windshield glass and sheet steel.
As indicated earlier, heavy clothing is the most common barrier in defensive shootings. Clothing may not seem like a formidable obstacle but it can have an adverse impact on bullet performance. Inferior hollowpoint bullets often foul with clothing fibers and fail to expand. To simulate a heavy clothing barrier, I played four layers of denim fabric in front of the gelatin. According to the International Wound Ballistics Association, four layers of denim is equivalent to heavy clothing worn by an assailant and at least two major ammunition companies use this barrier in their own test protocol.
Police handgun ammunition is often tested against other formidable obstacles, including windshield glass and sheet steel. Instead, I opted to use a different intermediate barrier. What about a home defense scenario where you might have to engage an armed intruder partially concealed behind an interior wall?
To create this scenario, I placed a piece of sheetrock approximately four inches forward of a gelatin block covered with a cotton T-shirt. In retrospect, a double sheetrock barrier may have been more appropriate but the single gypsum board provided valuable feedback nonetheless.
For a test gun, I utilized a SIG Sauer P239 9mm, with a 3.6 inch barrel. A service size handgun with a longer barrel would undoubtedly deliver higher muzzle velocities and enhance the performance of certain ammunition types. I was more interested in seeing how this mixed batch of ammunition might perform in a subcompact size pistol that might be carried for self-defense. An Oehler 35P chronograph recorded muzzle velocities of all test rounds.
Traditional technology in my mix of 9mm ammunition included CorBon 125 grain +P JHP, Federal 115 grain +P+ JHP, Hornady CQTAP 147 grain JHP, and Winchester Silvertip 147 grain JHP. Premium bullet offerings consisted of CorBon DPX 115 grain +P HP, Federal HST 124 grain +P JHP, Hornady Critical Defense 115 grain FTX, and Winchester PDX1 147 grain JHP. Three rounds of each sample were fired through the two barriers and into the gelatin.
And the Winner Is…
For the most part, test results were predictable with a few surprises. With the exception of the Winchester Silvertip 147 grain load, all test rounds performed to an acceptable level through the four-layer denim barrier. At a velocity of 916 fps, the Silvertip bullet failed to expand after taking a bite of denim. The same firm’s PDX1 load penetrated to a depth of 14-3/4 inches and expanded to .55 caliber, despite being launched at a slightly lower velocity.
The hands down winner of the day was CorBon DPX 115 grain +P HP.
Performance in the sheetrock test proved to be a mixed bag. Only three test rounds posted consistent results after passing through this barrier and into the gelatin. They included the CorBon 125 grain +P JHP, CorBon DPX 115 grain +P JHP, and Hornady Critical Defense 115 grain FTX. Federal HST 124 grain +P JHP, Hornady CQ-TAP 147 grain JHP, and Winchester PDX1 147 grain were inconsistent performers with some rounds expanding and others not. Federal 115 grain +P+ JHP, Hornady CQ-TAP 147 grain JHP, and Winchester Silvertip 147 grain JHP failed to expand and behaved very much like full metal jacket bullets.
The FBI test protocol also noted similar shortcomings through the sheetrock barrier. Since the need to defeat a sheetrock barrier is a relatively low probability event, I wouldn’t get too excited about less than stellar performance. Getting the job done through the heavy clothing barrier is a far more relevant test for self-defense applications.
The hands down winner of the day was CorBon DPX 115 grain +P HP. The DPX bullet blasted through both barriers without any ill effect and penetrated to ideal levels each and every time. Expanded diameter of all recovered bullets was over .60 caliber. CorBon 125 grain +P was the only traditional JHP to take home a gold ribbon and its performance was only slightly less impressive than the DPX.
Hornady Critical Defense was yet another solid player. Instead of a hollow cavity that can foul with fibers or other material, Hornady uses their patented FlexTip bullet with a polymer plug to facilitate expansion. This standard pressure load represents a viable alternative to jacketed hollowpoints.
Tastes Great; Less Filling
Over the last century, researchers have been trying to find ways to correlate laboratory testing of ammunition with actual street performance. Considering the many variables involved in a defensive shooting, this is indeed a difficult task. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to predict with a 100% degree of certainty, but we can make informed choices when selecting handgun ammunition.
Clearly, any bullet fired from a handgun has lethal potential. We also know that rounds that expand to larger than their original diameter and penetrate deep enough to disrupt life-supporting organs are best. Speed of the bullet may not be a factor with big bore, high momentum bullets like the .45 ACP, but higher velocity helps the cause of medium bore bullets like the 9mm. If a particular round can still work its magic after passing through hard obstacles, so much the better. But the bottom line for personal defense ammunition is performance after passing through heavy clothing.
I would always recommend buying the best ammunition that you can afford. However, you also need to get enough of it to ensure that it will cycle reliably through your pistol. With some of this stuff costing about two bucks a round, that’s a very real consideration. A less costly round with good performance characteristics that you know will run in your pistol is never a bad choice.
Like that beer commercial of old, when a couple of true believers argue tastes great versus less filling, you can have it both ways with modern handgun ammunition. The better offerings serve up all the tactical penetration you will ever need and will reliably expand after passing through a heavy clothing barrier.
In conclusion, the premium loads tested seemed to hold a tangible advantage over the old school hollowpoints. However, I wouldn’t feel the least bit put out using a classic style JHP to protect my hide. As with all personal safety gear, it pays to choose wisely. All equipment, including ammunition, takes a back seat to mindset, tactics, and skill. But if better ammunition can further tip the odds in my favor, I’m all for it.