forum home > articles home

I was recently asked the following question:

What is your process for choosing defensive ammo these days?  Do you start with one of the newer highly touted brands and if it works that's the one you stick with?  I can't believe you would buy 100 rounds (each) of all the top brands.

The gun magazine pundits like to tell us that in essence, we should spend a several hundred dollars on premium handgun ammo in order to thoroughly test it in our guns.  That might be ideal but while the regular guy understands that, real life often precludes us from spending the cost of a new gun just to test ammo--and then do it all over again each time we acquire another gun.  To that end I thought I'd talk about how I buy and test defensive ammo, why I use what I use, and how I do it without going broke.

Step One

Before I shoot any ammo or even buy it, I decide on the loads I want to test.  Seems obvious but it shouldn't be done willy-nilly.  I've read great deal on the topic including books and literature from The Wound Ballistics Association, Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow, the Firearms Tactical Institute, the FBI, and other professional sources.  From that I have come to some conclusions that affect my preferences.  The caliber will be a given based on the handgun at hand.  The bullet weight will depend to some extent on the barrel length of the gun.  In some calibers I prefer the original or standard bullet weight for the caliber--for example 230grs for the .45ACP, 124grs for the 9mmP.  In others I go lighter.  In general if the barrel is extra short I will go lighter in order to regain some lost velocity.  Subsonic ammunition loses velocity faster than supersonic ammunition, and conversely benefits most from lighter and faster ammunition, as long as one doesn't go overboard and go so light that momentum, an integral aspect of stopping ability, is compromised.  There is no place for 90gr 9mms and 165gr .45s in my opinion.  For more on this see my article Choosing Caliber and Ammunition.

I almost always choose premium jacketed hollowpoints.  While these are the most expensive, they are also the latest technology.  You can buy JHP ammo in white box versions these days (at right) but they use older generations of JHP bullets, and they are simply not as good as premium JHPs.  The two most significant features of modern JHP ammunition using premium bullets are, first, the ability to truly balance the critical twin needs of  bullet penetration and bullet expansion.  Second, premium bullets will expand at much lower velocities than older JHPs would.  Older bullets would rarely expand much under supersonic speeds.  Since many cartridges never achieve supersonic speed even at the muzzle, this made JHPs in those calibers wishful thinking at best.  Another feature of premium loads is the use of flash-retardant powders.  Most people either can't or don't test their defensive ammunition in low light, yet if we ever have to use it odds are it will be in low light conditions.  If you buy a premium load, odds are good that it will be loaded with proprietary low-flash powders.  That, by the way, is one reason I stay with the big ammunition manufacturer's products.  I confess here that I don't know for a fact that the smaller companies don't use low-flash powder, but since they almost all buy all their components from someone else, I don't know if they have access to it.  I believe if you stick to CCI/Speer, Federal, Hornady, Remington, or Winchester ammunition you will have the best results.  In addition, Cor-Bon has come a long way, but they still buy components from other makers.  Dittos on Double-Tap, Buffalo Bore, and that darling of gun writers, Black Hills. 

Low Power "Personal Defense" Loads

One comment on what I see an unfortunate trend among ammunition makers of which we should all be aware.   With the huge numbers of states passing concealed carry laws in the last ten years there has been an influx of people to the defensive shooting world that don't have a lot of background in guns.  To take advantage of these folks makers are marketing a number of loads marked right on the box as personal defense loads.  At right is an example from Federal, although they are not alone.  What's wrong with this?  These loads are almost always reduced power loads intended to provide new shooters a load that offers reduced recoil.  No one tells them that along with reduced recoil these loads also offer reduced effectiveness.  There is no free lunch.  Anytime you make the bullet smaller or lighter, any time you reduce velocity, any time you design the load to penetrate less or expand less, you reduce its effectiveness.  ALL of these things are important, all affect how well the load will work.  If you have bought any loads that make reference to personal defense, you should run them across a chronograph to see if these are in fact reduced loads.  If you're lucky they'll say "low recoil" right on the box, like the Federal loads in the photo and you'll know they are less effective from the get-go.

Skip the Exotics

I have no personal use for exotic loads like Glaser Safety Slugs or Mag-Safe ammunition.  Both are variations on a theme, using shot of various sizes either loose or embedded in epoxy and set into a bullet jacket.   The resulting "bullets" are then loaded to high velocities.  The idea is that upon striking the bad guy they have an explosive affect and send shot in all directions.  This is true but the number one problem with these loads is that they have insufficient penetration.  They break up on contact with soft tissue and in many cases simply create a messy surface wound without reaching anything vital.  And as far as projectiles going in all directions--the individual shot is very small and light, so the multiple wound paths won't be very effective individually.  I have heard far too many people say they use these for home defense because they were designed not to penetrate walls.  WRONG!  There is a myth about Glasers being non-penetrative because they were supposed to have been designed for air marshalls to use on commercial aircraft.  Anyone who has ever seen a James Bond movie "knows" a hole in the fuselage will suck everything out at high speed, right?  Absolutely not.  An airliner can have several holes and not only retain its structural integrity but maintain pressure.  The truth is that Glasers will penetrate sheet metal just like any other bullet, and they will penetrate your drywall or plaster walls even more easily!  The design was intended to penetrate hard objects and not break-up until reaching tissue.  The lack of penetration with Glasers is lack of penetration in tissue, not walls!  I used to be in regular contact with a Glaser engineer, and we discussed this topic in depth.  I've also tested this ammo personally on everything from car doors to pumpkins.  And can you afford to pay $3 a round for this ammo?  At that price can you test it thoroughly enough to know it will work in your semi-auto pistol?  Don't waste your money.

The FBI in the early 1990s established test criteria that the major ammunition makers have used to develop excellent defensive loads.  The loads that meet this criteria are the premium JHP loads from the major makers.  That is what I choose to use and I believe you should too.

Step Two

Once I have decided on the load I want to use, I generally buy one box of each load, usually the 20 or 25 round box, occasionally a 50 round box.  I take these to the range and do some initial testing.  With standard barrels I don't always chronograph my loads, and I don't really think you need to unless you just really like to know the details.  With short barrels I'm often more concerned about losing velocity, and I tend to chrono those loads sooner rather than later.  If you have a chronograph and the time to shoot a few over the skyscreens, by all means do so--knowledge is power.  My primary goal at this point however is to test hand-held accuracy while keeping any eye on reliability.  Your handgun should be broken-in before this point (for more info on break-in see my article Handgun Prep, which is specifically about defensive handguns), and you shouldn't be having any problems with reliability.  Still, unless your gun chokes round after round on a given load now, you're going to test reliability in depth on a subsequent trip.  For now find a load that is accurate in your hands.

By in your hands I mean don't sit down at the bench and shoot for groups.  This is utterly irrelevant to defensive ammo!  If you can't shoot accurately while holding the gun in your hands, the finest bench-rested groups will do no good at all.  The only time you might want to resort to bench testing is if nothing at all shoots well in your hands and you suspect the gun has problems.  I agree that you do need to know the gun itself has no problems and that you the shooter don't have any problems interfacing with this particular gun, its sights, or its trigger style.  If so, you aren't ready to be testing defensive ammo, and should be working to either get the gun or yourself fixed.  If it is you and not the gun, there is usually nothing wrong that some instruction and a thousand rounds of practice ammo won't fix.  You must be very familiar with any gun you load for self-defense.  I shouldn't have to say it but there are just too many people buying their first defensive handgun today who don't understand what is at stake here.  If after some practice you don't improve or you just don't like the gun, there is no shame in trading it off for something different.  There is a type of gun and type of trigger system for every taste.  Your gun should fit, be comfortable, the sights should work well with your vision, and you should be able to shoot it accurately!

Why this emphasis on accuracy?  Aren't the gun magazine pundits always testing new guns and reporting that they were "accurate enough for combat?"  Yes, they are.  And they are wrong.  Remember that gunzines make money by selling advertising.  The same companies whose products are under review are buying advertising in the magazine.  There is no such thing as total objectivity in a commercial gun mag, thus we read things like a new gun being "accurate enough for combat."  Yet when they put on their black ninja tactical hat these same pundits will also tell you that shot placement is everything and that the target on a human body that will shut them down right now is fairly small.  The latter bit is correct!  And because of that I think we should choose the most accurate ammo we can that still meets our other criteria.  Since we can choose to use an accurate or an inaccurate load, why would we ever choose the inaccurate one?

Okay, so what is accurate?  Forget two inch groups at 50 yards; this isn't Bullseye competition.  You should, however, be able to stay on a paper plate at 25 yards shooting at medium speed and at ten yards you should be able to shot groups the size of a fist at the same speed.  At high speed--if you are up to the point--you should not miss the paper plate at all at the same ten yards.  This is a standard you maintain, not your performance on a "good day" or when you are "warmed up."  This is standard, not a goal.  Your goal should be to improve beyond that. 

By the way, paper plates are cheap and make good targets.  Recycled 8.5"x11" typing paper is another good choice, but I like pie plates because they are round.  An accurate pistol and ammunition combination will shoot round groups.  They may not win at Camp Perry but they will win a gunfight if everything else is in place.  Your groups should not be strung out vertically or horizontally.  If they are, determine first if it is you or the ammo, and if it is the ammo try another load. 

Generally when I go to the range for my first test outing I find one or two loads that shoot nice round groups and also gather together clannishly on the paper.  Other loads will be more scattered out, or will sometimes string out in a line as mentioned above.  I know from long experience that I personally have a tendency to string shots vertically (but not horizontally) when I'm not bearing down, and if I have that particular result I'll reshoot to find out if it was me or the ammo.  The group shown at left is a good example of a round group with a little of my normal tendency to string vertically--that one at the top right was me not the gun or ammo.  The group was fired at 12 yards and measured about 4".  A little large but I fired it one-handed with my weak hand.  The key here is that you can see the gun and ammo (this was a Springfield XD) showed a decided proclivity toward nice round groups, telling me it had a real tendency to be accurate with this load, even though the group wasn't as small as it might have been.  Normally if a load and gun is not an accurate combination you will not see these nice round shapes.  

About malfunctions...they are are the product of three or four distinct parts of the reliability equation, and these are the shooter, the ammo, the gun, and with semi-autos, the magazines.  If you are shooting a first rate modern defensive pistol from Glock, HK, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson or another top manufacturer, reliability should be 100%.  If one or two loads seem to be a problem and everything else is perfect, it may be one of those unusual compatibility problems.  I'd eliminate the problem loads before your next outing.  If there are reliability problems with all loads however there is a good chance you are the problem.  It may be something as simple to fix as locking your wrist--a loose wrist at the moment of firing allows the gun to move and your arms absorb recoil energy that the reciprocating slide needs needs in order insure 100% function.  If you try to lock your wrist and your name brand pistol still malfs with frequency, see if an experienced shooter can try your gun, as well as watch you shoot to see if you are doing something you shouldn't inadvertently.

If the gun is older or a new model of  an older design (1911, Hi-Power), or is one of the second tier brands, you may have problems that may not be ammo or shooter related--though that possibility still exists.  If every load you test malfunctions  and you've eliminated something you are doing as the cause, it is the gun or the magazines because today's best ammo is just too good to fail across the board.  See your dealer or the maker if the gun is new, and see a gunsmith if the gun is used.

By the end of day one I will have one load (or more) that showed good accuracy and hopefully zero malfunctions.  That's it for the first outing.

Step Three

At this point we've got one or possibly more loads that were reliable as far as we've gone and which produced satisfactory accuracy.  Now it is time to spend a little money.  Here you come to a crossroads.  If you are equally happy with all the loads that made the first cut it is probably time to look around and see which is generally available for the best price.  I shop online for the most part to get that best price.  While I buy my guns and lots of other gear locally, it's a fact that your local gun shop just doesn't have the best price on ammunition, often being close to the outrageous MSRP.  Either way, if one of your satisfactory loads is the cheapest you can simply buy that load.  If you're not ready to choose between load A and load B, buy both.  I would say that  you should buy 100 rounds minimum and if you can, 200 rounds.  I understand that premium ammo is expensive, and that is why we only tested a little of several brands our first time out, and it is why I say it is okay to settle on one load here for the second time out.  Your choice.  One load is going to cost you at least $75 for 100 rounds, so spend wisely.

Range testing this second time should consist of some accuracy shooting again, especially if you've got a different lot from that tested last time.  Premium ammo is remarkably consistent but it pays to be as thorough as you can be when testing.  You are also going to test for shootability--if you find that a certain load simply kicks to much for comfort it's no good.  The most likely scenario is that you've chosen a +P load for a small or light gun.  Plus P ammo is almost never necessary, and by staying with standard pressure ammo you reduce felt recoil.  It's worth a try.  (If you have any questions about +P, see my forum article +P Ammunition)   If you find that a load leaves a lot of detritus in your gun or the flash is so bright you can see it in daylight, those are also reasons to choose another load. 

If the ammo presents no problems with accuracy or shootability, it is time to get down to what is most important, reliability.  Shoot your gun now using rapid fire.  Shoot it two-handed and one-handed and shoot it with your weak hand.  Most of us have a strong and a weak side, and we are likely to grasp the gun with less force when we shoot weak-handed.  A gun and load combo that seems 100% reliable when we are shooting two-handed with our strong hand may not function 100% when we use our weaker hand.  It may simply be that we are not used to shooting weak-handed and we are not keeping our wrist locked, but the fact is that in a defensive shooting we must be prepared to shoot with either hand, either because we are using one hand to fend off an attacker, we've injured one hand or arm or been wounded, or even find ourself shoved into a corner or on the ground with one arm trapped under our body.  We need to know that our chosen ammo will work under all conditions.  Try drawing and shooting as fast as you can while still ensuring safety.  In the heat of an attack we may not get the best grip on our gun and a fast draw often results in less than a perfect grip, replicating what might happen for real if we try to go to fast, get sloppy, have sweaty palms, or are even bleeding.  Again, a load that works under ideal conditions will show any shortcomings when conditions are not ideal.  Now is the time to find out.

If you have malfunctions at this point you need to decide if it is the ammo, the gun, the magazines or you.  When you inject the kind of shooting I recommended to you here it gets a little complicated and I can't tell you the reasons why you might have problems.  What I would suggest is that you shoot some more and see exactly what sort of shooting caused malfunctions.  If you can narrow it down you might find the answer.

Let's expect, however, that you won't have any malfunctions, even when shooting one-handed, weak-handed, or with a less than ideal grip on the gun.  If so, you are in business, and you have identified an ideal load or loads for your gun. 

From here it is time to buy another hundred rounds of this ammo.  I like to shoot a little of my carry ammo every once in a while and replace it with fresh ammo from the box.  As your gun wears in and springs settle, if any potential problems occur when shooting up the old stuff you can solve them before they bite you on the street when you're shooting for real.  If you follow this approach you really wont spend too much money, and what expensive ammo you do buy you will be using wisely.

Works for me.


Please post any comments or questions on the forum message board and you will receive a prompt reply. 

copyright 2007 by the author and, all rights reserved.


Uploaded: 9/16/2007