Bullet Basics

I wish I could take credit for the old saying, “Don’t agonize over ammo,” because many people, especially those new to carrying a firearm, experience a certain amount of confusion and even anxiety when choosing defensive ammunition. However, as with most things in life, keeping things simple is usually the best way to go. Shooters often focus on caliber debates, such as 9mm versus .45. But the same arguments occur, often even more so, when debating different bullets within the same caliber.

Unfortunately, too many folks form their opinions based on ballistic gelatin tests. Gelatin tests have their place, but they also have severe limitations. A friend of mine is a reloader, a knowledgeable shooter and an E.R. surgeon with substantial experience in treating gunshot wounds (he works in Chicago). He knows forensics far better than you or I. He once told me that “gelatin tests show what a bullet does … in gelatin. But the human body contains bones, blood vessels, organs of differing density and elasticity, all of which react differently when struck by any bullet.”

Some shooters are obsessed with velocity. But velocity is simply one component of an ammunition’s performance, and surprisingly, not the most important. Don’t get hung up on energy numbers; they seldom relate directly to the round’s ability to stop an attacker. Bullet type, weight, construction and jacket material matter as much as, if not more than, velocity or energy numbers. For example, a 55-grain .223 traveling at around 2,900 feet per second typically generates about 1,000 foot-pounds of energy. A 250-grain .45 Long Colt traveling at around 800 feet per second generates barely 350 foot-pounds. But guess which round will more immediately stop a hog, black bear or 250-pound methed-up attacker?

There’s a lot of great ammo around today. Here are some of my personal favorites among the more popular defensive calibers:

.380 Auto — 90-grain Hornady FTX, 99-grain Federal HST, 90-grain Corbon.

9mm — 124- to 135-grain hollow-point, Speer Gold Dot, Hornady Critical Defense (preferably +P, especially for short-barreled, subcompact guns).

.40 S&W — Any 155- to 180-grain hollow-point. For law enforcement, preferably 165-grain Speer Gold Dot, Hornady Critical Defense, Hornady Critical Duty or Federal HST.

.45 ACP — For full-sized guns with barrels from 4.25 to 5 inches, any 230-grain, quality hollow-point from Speer, Federal (HST), Remington, Hornady (including its 220-grain Critical Duty Flex-Lok). For guns with barrels 4 inches or less, the 200-grain versions work best.

.38 Special — For guns with barrels under 3 inches, Speer Gold Dot 135-grain, Winchester SXT 130-grain or any of the 110- to 125-grain JHP loads from practically everybody.

.327 Federal — Less-common caliber, but more than capable with a quality round such as Speer’s Gold Dot 100-grain hollow-point.

.357 Magnum — Just about any 125- to 140-grain defensive hollow-point from the major manufacturers will do the job, even in a snubby revolver.

.44 Special — Revolver cartridge recently experiencing a renewed interest. I would go with Speer’s Gold Dot 200-grain hollow-point.

I strongly advise my students to avoid exotic or “magic” bullets. They typically feature ultra-light, super-fast bullets (to generate those “energy” numbers). They are often unreliable and usually overly expensive and can mean trouble in court. Many have bizarre bullet designs that look menacing to a jury.

Bottom line: Stick with quality name-brand ammunition, ideally labeled “personal protection” or “self-defense.” Remember, if you have an auto-pistol, you must test your ammunition thoroughly for functional reliability in your own gun. Then, practice, practice, practice. Speed and accuracy matter far more than whatever bullet you have in your gun.

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