Shooters who are real serious about defensive shooting care an awful lot about “bests.” The best pistol. The best holster, best sights, best upgrades, best customizer. Best, best, best. This will of course include the endless, Sisyphean task to find the best ammo.
And they well should. Self-defense is a serious topic, and more yet is self-defense with any kind of lethal force, guns foremost among such implements capable of rendering it.
But sadly for many shooters that particular question is rigged, in as much as the best load depends on what you are shooting and what you need it to do, to say nothing of the constant state of innovation and refinement the ammo industry remains in.
State of the Art circa 1992 is merely okay or average today. Lucky for us, and unluckily for the recipient, there is no crazy space magic formula needed for determining a good performing bullet. The measure of it is simple.
Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of snake oil, bunk and outright lies floating around the world of defensive ammunition. Fortunately, Tom is here to help you cut through the static and sort good from bad.
In this piece we’ll do a quick exploration on what performance standards we want for self-defense ammo and then I’ll make some recommendations for the best performing bullets you can get today.
Table of Contents
What Factors Matters for Self-Defense?
No matter how long you have been shooting, unless you have been fortunate enough to be drinking from a pretty small fountain of knowledge you are likely a believer in some myths regarding bullet performance in human beings.
Now, that’s not to say that, at one time a long, long time ago, that it was not considered good info, but time marches on and we have a lot more figured out today than we did back in the 1980’s, 70’s and even beyond.
I won’t make this a big treatise on wound ballistics since we have already covered the topic in detail elsewhere on this site, but I will hit the most important highlights so you can better understand how I, and some people a whole heck of a lot smarter than your favorite gunwriter Tom here, make declarations on what is good and bad in the world of bullets.
It is elementary, Watson. Putting a bullet to someone will result in their incapacitation from one of only a few methods, either singly or together. They are 1.) physically from loss of blood volume and/or blood pressure, or damaging and/or destroying vital structures in the brain or spinal cord; and 2.) they give up when shot, often called a “psychological stop.”
Whether or not they live or die is secondary and coincidental to the prime goal of stopping them from continuing their violent act that got us to shooting them in the first place. Put another way, the first is a physical stop and the other is a mental or emotional one.
For the former category, going the route of blood loss, the bullet literally and simply cuts a hole in the target, damaging vessels, arteries and organs necessary for the delivery of blood around the body, maintained at the needed pressure to support action and life.
The more blood we let out, and the more air we let into the “system” the better. The quicker we can accomplish both, the better.
We should aim for “high value” targets in the human anatomy, and even basic defensive pistol training reflects this: the heart, aorta and major vessels of the trunk and limbs are all preferred targets since they will produce the best effect. Grisly work, but that’s the basics.
Hits to the brain and spine, nervous system targets, will produce a stop by damaging the critical infrastructure needed to control the limbs and organs, or even fundamental life support.
This is why a headshot that results in a bullet entering the cranial vault and piercing the brain so often results in instant or nearly instant incapacitation. Similarly a spine hit, while not necessarily immediately fatal, will usually drop someone where they stand.
While both are difficult to hit compared to the typical center mass torso shot, these are two more high-payoff targets and the headshot in particular is taught as a problem solver when a person is not responding to hits in the body, or the situation is very high risk, like a hostage situation or one where a terrorist may be ready to trigger explosives if confronted.
Even when targeting the head or spine, even with great hits, they are still not totally sure things; humans can be remarkably tough.
What about Psychological Stops?
A “psych” stop is a fancy way of saying the bad guy just gave up and stopped fighting, or thought his goose was properly good and cooked since he got shot and just lays down to die.
It is a strange thing: some people will get lit up with dozens of rounds and go on fighting like the devil himself, a dead man walking, until every drop of blood nearly has drained out of them.
Some other people will take a minor wound, even a scratch hit, and then flop down and subsequently die, thinking that, when shot, you die. And that’s just what they do.
The bottom line with psychological stops is that we are happy when they occur, but we must never, ever, make the mistake of counting on them.
Lots of folks do, assuming that, as soon as they shoot the baddie they will flee or fall, smote by God himself. That may happen, but it often doesn’t. This is one thing we cannot control, as it is totally up to the bad guy.
By comparison, so long as we do our part well, we have much more control over getting a physical stop. If we let out enough blood or lower blood pressure enough movement will become impossible.
If we can deprive the brain of enough oxygen staying awake will be impossible. While this too is not an exact science in the heat of battle, it is reliable as our biology is inescapable. No amount of hatred, rage or will to win will keep someone going when they leak too much blood on the pavement.
The Bottom Line
To have a better chance of stopping the attacker, we need to let blood out of our attacker at a rapid rate or damage the brain and upper spine.
To reliably do either of the above, we need pistol bullets that will pierce the attacker’s body deeply under all conditions and no matter what they are wearing in order to strike and damage high value organs and vessels in the body along their path.
Now it makes sense to consider what kinds of bullets will do that best.
How Do Bullets Cause Damage?
Bullets cause damage by poking holes in things. Laugh all you want, that’s science. Really.
If you want it to sound more like sexy and emotionless science, consider that bullets inflict damage by destroying tissue directly along its path by crushing it, in essence literally boring a hole through whatever is in front of it with the diameter of the hole and thus the volume of destroyed tissue corresponding almost 1:1 with the frontal diameter of the bullet.
Since the vital structures we need to hit the most are either deep within and centrally located in the torso or limbs for protection, in the case of the heart, aorta and major arteries, or encased within the skill and protected by the rib cage and spinal cord in the case of the brain and spine, we need a bullet that will reliably penetrate to these depths and defeat these protective measures to ensure success.
Keeping those two objectives in mind, what is best then? More holes, bigger holes, faster. That’s it. A bigger hole destroys more tissue and lets more blood out than a smaller hole.
While that is only about 10 or 12 inches travelling through the body, at most, to get to those targets we should select a projectile and load that will reliably yield 18” +/- in calibrated ballistic gelatin to ensure that the bullet can actually travel 10 or 12 inches in the body after going through a limb, glass or heavy clothing.
A bullet needs weight, mass, to maintain momentum, as a human target is fairly tough for such a tiny ting to do work in. For that reason, bullets that do not breakup when they enter the body are best, and ones that retain nearly all or all of their weight reliably are the most desirable yet.
This is most important when utilizing hollowpoint bullets (and you should be) as they expand, or “mushroom” to increase their frontal diameter when entering the target, thereby destroying more tissue than a same caliber bullet that does not expand.
Very simply stated, handgun bullets will only do direct damage along the bullet’s path of travel. Nothing more. Which brings us to…
Myth, Misunderstandings and Misconceptions
There is more than a little pigeon religion surrounding the sweet science of wounding potential. Some are more egregious, not to mention persistent than others.
Probably the most forgivable is the American love of classic big bore rounds for self-defense. Hey, didn’t I just get done yapping, above, about “bigger holes is mo’ bettah!” I did. But you run into diminishing returns with handguns.
Statistically, once you enter the .36 to .38 caliber bullet class, and above, they all work pretty much the same. I know, I know, clutch those pearls. But it is true. You do not gain really anything, using modern ammo, when you step up to a .40, .44 or .45 caliber projectile.
What you do is give up more advantages, things like capacity, controllability and ammo that does not cost an arm and a leg. But that is the subject of another chat.
You have doubtless heard of terms like “energy transfer,” “hydrostatic shock,” “stopping/knockdown power” and temporary cavitation. On the subject of handguns, they are all meaningless, or at least meaningless for determining which bullet does better against bad guys.
Knockdown power and stopping power is one of the oldest, and the lamest. First things first, bullets don’t knock people down. People may fall down when shot, or they may drop if shot well, but a bullet will not knock someone off their feet. Even the grandpappy .45!
Hydrostatic shock is a junk science term and not germane to discussion of handguns. Sometimes it is used as a placeholder for temporary cavitation, a real concept describing the stretching effect of elastic tissues experienced when a high speed projectile enters the body.
Sometimes seen as the double whammy because it may result in the destruction of tissues that are not directly impacted by the bullet.
Just one problem: handgun bullets, as a rule, do not travel fast enough to reliably induce this effect. Rifle bullets do, though, and boy does it suck if it happens to you! That again is the subject of another article.
Energy transfer is also hokum. It seems worshippers at this particular altar seem to think the “energy” of the bullet dumping into the target somehow disrupts or destroys things. Not the case.
The bullet’s energy (kinetic energy) is put to work destroying tissue directly in its path, just like I said. It seems folks that believe such are counting on hydrostatic shock or something else upon impact. I’m not sure, but I am sure they are wrong.
The only, only, only things that matter, with handgun bullets, are the destruction of vital arteries, organs and other structures to cause maximum blood loss and central nervous system damage. The end.
Ranking the Best 9mm Ammo
Bullets are typically tested in something called calibrated ordinance gelatin. It is said that this gelatin is a close analogue in density and feel to human tissue, and that is why it is used for testing in the first place.
What it really does is furnish us with data that shows us what a bullet will more or less reliably do when it hits a body, and that is why the FBI’s ballistics unit uses for their endeavors. It is tricky stuff to create, store and work with, but it remains the standard for a good reason.
The FBI and other labs will test bullets on bare gelatin and also on gelatin with denim or other fabrics and glass over it to give the bullet a reasonable obstacle before it strikes the gelatin.
Things like dummies, jugs or buckets of liquid, animal carcasses and so forth do not make for good analogues for the testing of bullets designed for anti-personnel use.
In accordance with the above testing protocols, some loads who consistently high performance, both in consistently good penetration, good weight retention and reliable expansion even after piercing clothing or glass.
Additionally, all of the following brands are manufactured to high standards using top quality components and undergo strenuous quality control before being sent from the factory, ensuring you will be getting only the most reliably feeding, and igniting cartridges for the serious business of protecting your hide.
Any one of the following loads will be entirely adequate for defensive use in most handguns so long as it is tested in quantity and found reliable in your gun! Ranked in overall order of effectiveness.
- Federal HST, 124 gr. +P – Consistently reliable and deep penetration combined with top quality assembly and repeatable, wide expansion and weight retention makes this a sure pick.
- Hornady Critical Duty, 135gr. +P – Another consistently good round, but one that does not expand quite as wide as the HST above.
- Remington Golden Saber, 124gr. +P – Deep penetration, superb expansion and equally good weight retention. A winner.
- Speer Gold Dot, 124gr. – A time tested stand-out, remains viable and competitive today due to ongoing line improvements.
- Winchester Ranger T-Series, 147gr. – Vicious expansion and very good penetration make this law enforcement standby a great choice for defense.
While all of the above ammo would make for a fine defense load for your favorite 9mm, Federal once again reigns supreme with the stellar HST line. Make sure you test any of the above with your EDC or home defense handgun to ensure reliability, and then you’ll be set for sure against things that would harm you.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.