Selecting the Right Load This Winter

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The winter will drastically change your everyday carry gear, whether by forcing you to add layers and compromising your ability to draw your gun or by impacting a bullet’s penetration into a target. The last thing you want to do is compromise your ability to protect yourself.

You might overlook your everyday carry load in lieu of the right jacket, holster or other accessories, but ammunition selection is critical. What if your attacker is bundled in layers? Will it compromise your bullet’s penetration and ability to stop the attack? The right load must be deployed to achieve penetration at any angle and through reasonable barriers.

Winter carry gear vs. summer carry gear

That’s a lot of garments on the left, and winter carry demands dressing around them. Summer carry, right, is less complicated by comparison.

Putting Ammo Penetration to the Test

Load and caliber are intertwined. You need a gun that is powerful enough to penetrate a target but that doesn’t have too much of a kick. I find that the .357 Magnum and .357 SIG produce more muzzle blast and recoil in compact handguns than is tolerable. The standard calibers — 9mm, .38, .40 and .45 — are the best firearms to adopt.

For the light and fast-handling CZ P-10 S 9mm, I often carry the Black Hills Ammunition 115-grain EXP. This combination offers optimum power for ease of carry. The EXP is an “extra power” loading that isn’t rated +P. Expansion is excellent. Control is good, and this loading leaves little to be desired. However, I would have reservations concerning its ability to penetrate heavy clothing during winter months.

A reasonable alternative would be the Black Hills Ammunition 124-grain JHP. Penetration is greater, and the heavier bullet is less likely to deflect. The Black Hills Honey Badger 100-grain +P resolves any debate about penetration. The load doesn’t penetrate as much as an FMJ but tracks straight and produces damage to the target through fluid dynamics and cutting flutes.

Load Power and EDC Portability Combined

Many of us rely on the .38 Special snub-nosed revolver for backup or daily carry. It is a good combination of power and portability but demands practice. The .38 Special is best served with bullets above the 110- or 125-grain weight. Velocity is inferior to the 9mm, and it simply doesn’t offer an advantage to heavier bullets.

The .38 Special performs better with the Speer 135-grain Gold Dot. Expansion is good against lightly clad targets. During the winter, I carry the Remington 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow-point in my .38s. This loading breaks 840 feet per second and offers a good balance of expansion and penetration.

Expanded bullets

9mm 115-grain hollow-points (left) expand well, but so do 124-grain and 135-grain bullets (right). The heavier bullets maintain a long shank and penetrate well.

In a similar vein, I mostly carry the .357 Magnum as an outdoors cartridge. The much-touted 125-grain JHP offers good wound potential. If it fails, it is because of deficient penetration. A viable alternative for the winter months is the Winchester 145-grain Silvertip. This load cuts deep and expands well.

I have noted that when a small bore performs well, it is because of good penetration; when a large bore fails, it is because of poor penetration (given good shot placement). With the .45 ACP, the balance of expansion and penetration is important — shot placement even more so. That is why I deploy a handgun that I am able to get into action quickly, make good hits with and control well.

The 1911 Commander-size handgun is ideal for my use. Among good standard loads for the .45 ACP are the Hornady 200-grain XTP, the Black Hills Ammunition 230-grain JHP and the Winchester 230-grain JHP. I test ammunition by repeatably chambering rounds and soaking them in oil, water and solvent to test integrity. If they do not pass this test, ballistics hardly matter.

Remington .38 Special

When it comes to the .38 Special, the 158-grain hollow-point (lower) penetrates well. The jacketed hollow-point bullet requires more velocity to peel a jacket back.

There are slight differences in penetration or expansion that may be important to shooters, but little may be accomplished in a tactical sense with one firearm that cannot be done with another. For lighter recoil in the CCO, I like the Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain load and also the Winchester 185-grain Silvertip. Each offers modest recoil and good expansion. During the winter, when an aggressor may be heavily garbed, I prefer the penetration of the 230-grain loads. I don’t see the need for a +P load in .45 ACP.

A caliber I choose to carry with a lighter bullet weight for concealed carry use is the .40 Smith & Wesson. The 180-grain service loads may not be desirable. The 135- to 155-grain JHP loads are better choices for the many citizens placing faith in centimeter rounds. The .40 180-grain JHP offers plenty of penetration. The .40 probably needs the greatest variation in loads during the winter months than any other caliber discussed.

While it is important to consider holsters, jackets and gear this winter, it is even more critical to pay attention to the loads you’re carrying. Consider your needs and bundle up with confidence.


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