New gun buyers are told to select a quality hollowpoint bullet for self defense and then turned loose to deal with a forest of opinion, competing claims, secondhand stories, and magic bullets.
Everything is “Gold” or “Golden” or “Supreme” or “Premium.” There are lots of exclamation points and everything seems to be spelled with an “X.” Advertising copy is laden with jargon about barrier performance and retained weight and cryptic and vaguely unpleasant euphemisms about “expansion in a fluid medium.”
It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
You see, prior to the late 1980s, pistol bullets were pretty much a make-it-up-as- you-go kind of thing. There was the occasional engineer or inventor here and there working on pet ideas for making their bullet work better, but nobody had really sat down and decided on a good definition of “better.” Or “work,” for that matter. Then in 1986 the FBI got in a shootout in Florida that was studied more than any other since the OK Corral, and one of the results was that the FBI decided to sit down and really study what made bullets tick.
The FBI came up with a complicated series of performance criteria. They fired bullets into ballistic Jello (another euphemistic “fluid medium”) and measured how much they expanded and how deep they went. Then they covered the Jello in denim, or put it behind a piece of wall board, or a simulated car door, and measured the results again. The FBI fired a lot of different bullets in these tests.
This was easy for the FBI to do, because they buy bullets by the hundreds of thousands. When you buy bullets like that, manufacturers are happy to make bullets that do what you want. Pretty soon all the major manufacturers had offerings designed to do well when measured against the FBI’s new criteria.
This was good for state and local police forces too, most of which don’t have the resources (read: “cash”) that the feds enjoy. Instead of having to go through lengthy and expensive testing of their own, when the time came for them to renew their ammunition contracts, it was easiest to belly up to the bar, point at the G-men, and say, “I’ll have what they’re having.”
So here’s the magic secret: If you buy ammunition in a service caliber, from 9mm to .45, and you pick one of the major brands that are used by police—it all works pretty much the same. It’s true! All those different bullets were designed to do the same thing: Look all pretty and mushroomed-out after being pulled out of a deep hole in denim-covered Jello. Thanks to the magic of computer-assisted design, high-speed cameras and all the other tools engineers have at their disposal, they all do it pretty well, and pretty similarly, too.
So if all the tactical hype seems confusing, the easiest thing to do when shopping for that magic bullet is to point at the police and the G-men and say “I’ll have what they’re having.”
[ Tamara Keel has been shooting guns as a hobby since she was eighteen, and has worked in the firearms business since the early 1990s. Her pastimes include collecting old guns, writing, and being bossed around by house cats. ]