Selecting Handgun Ammunition for Self Defence

| 22 February 2010 | 1 Comment

Originally Posted on 19th August 2008.

Whether you carry a pistol on a daily basis or whether you just keep one in the safe you need to load it with something, and a bullet is not just a bullet. If you are picking a load for self defence purposes, hunting or sport you want it to be able to perform in a manner which will give you the best possible performance. Many people choose their carry load based on the velocity printed on the box or what the person in the gun shop recommended and have no idea what their choice of carry load will actually do. Hopefully this will give you some ideas regarding how you want a bullet to perform in a self defence scenario.

First off let me make it clear that I am not an expert in this field and the ideas here do not claim to be original. They are an amalgamation of ideas printed by people far more knowledgeable than I. There is a lot of misinformation and rubbish around about what loads one should use and what these bullets will and won’t do. People like Dr. Gary Roberts and Dr. Martin Fackler are considered by most people in the know to be the foremost experts in this field and it is worthwhile reading as much of their writings as possible to give you an idea of what performance you want.

We also need to understand what a self defence bullet is required to do and how they work. There is no black art or shock wave energy dump magic happening. People stop for three main reasons.

Firstly, psychological, where they decide oh no I have been shot I must stop. This can happen with any caliber with any shot placement and cannot be relied on.

Secondly, by causing dramatic damage to the Central Nervous System i.e. the lower brain and upper spine. This would be the most reliable means of stopping but obviously from a marksmanship point of view presents the most difficult option. It requires hitting a small area on a potentially moving target under extreme stress. Remember a head shot is not necessarily a brain shot. There are numerous cases of bullets failing to penetrate the skull, especially on angled shots. It is preferable to hit the brainstem which is quite well protected.

Thirdly, by causing a dramatic decrease in blood pressure. This is what we are attempting to do with most common points of aim, namely centre of mass or upper chest etc. Ideally we want to cause as much damage to vital organs as possible, thereby reducing blood pressure to a point where the assailant is no longer able to continue action. The bullet does this by contact; the permanent cavity is the hole the bullet leaves in its wake and what it damages on this path. At handgun velocities the temporary cavity, which is the wounding outside the bullets path, cannot be relied upon as most tissue is elastic enough to resist any permanent damage from this. Organs like the liver or kidneys are less elastic and are more likely to suffer permanent damage. Once again this is not something to be relied upon. At rifle velocities temporary cavity is more destructive due to far higher velocities.

So to my mind the following are the most important factors in choosing what to load in your self defence pistol.

1. Reliability

Your first priority is that the load you choose works reliably in your gun. It doesn’t matter how fantastically it performs on target, if it hangs up on your feed ramp and you have a stoppage. Whether you are using a semi-auto pistol, a revolver or even a derringer, shoot as much of the load you are going to carry as you can afford to. It doesn’t matter what brand of pistol you are using or whether your preferred load works in all your friends pistols you must check it in yours. If your gun will only feed ball reliably, either modify it to work reliably with something else, or carry ball in it or learn to work around its shortcomings.Speer Gold Dot

You need to test fire whatever you are going to carry in the gun and not just hand cycle it. I have owned a couple of pistols that would reliably hand cycle some loads but would have stoppages on firing. The number of rounds you test fire is a difficult one. Most US experts recommend at least 200 rounds and some up to 1000 of whatever you plan on using. Unfortunately, financially, that would be ridiculously expensive for most of us here and at times you may not even be able to purchase 200 of any particular load. Try to shoot off at least a full box out of a full magazine in your pistol.

Reliability also means picking the best quality ammunition you can find. The cheap practice ammo you pick up at the local range or gun shop is not going to be manufactured to the same quality standard as the admittedly far more expensive premium ammunition that is available. If you elect to reload your self defence ammunition, ensure that you pay very careful attention to quality control and pay attention to nothing else when assembling the ammunition you are planning to carry.

Lastly, on this point, check every round that you load in your magazine for any nicks and damage around the case mouth, or anything else that could cause a potential stoppage. Ammo that is cycled regularly will start to show signs of wear and tear such as bullet set back and should be replaced immediately. Bullet setback can be extremely dangerous, potentially leading to a case rupturing and possibly a catastrophic malfunction.

2. Penetration

Select a bullet that will reliably penetrate a minimum of 12 inches of properly calibrated ordinance gelatin. Twelve inches of penetration should ensure that the bullet can reach the vitals on an angled shot, or on a shot that must first penetrate an intermediate barrier, which could be something as simple as an arm. There is no point in having a bullet that expands to a huge diameter, but doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to engage the vitals. This causes, for all intents and purposes, a nasty flesh wound.

Not all shootings are directly frontal. You and your assailant could be moving and introducing various degrees of angling into the scenario. Also, as an exercise, adopt your favoured shooting stance in front of a mirror. You will notice that even on a direct frontal shot, there is a good chance any bullet fired would need to penetrate the arms (maybe including bone) first before trying to penetrate through to the vitals. This could have a very negative effect on the performance of many low penetration and/or fragmenting loads. To reliably achieve this level of penetration with most small caliber pistols (9mm short and below), it would require a non expanding round as most of these cartridges will not be able to push an expanded bullet deeply enough.

9mm Speer Gold Dot 124gr Plus P

Photo courtesy of

When the topic ofpenetration comes, up many people will then comment on over penetration. This can be a concern, especially with ball ammunition in service calibers, but is far less of a concern with most expanding rounds. The argument is that on a direct frontal shot, a bullet that will penetrate 12 inches is capable of exiting the body and posing a danger to bystanders down range. Tests have shown that for an expanded bullet to exit the skin of your back, it has to penetrate the equivalent of 4 inches of gelatin because of the very elastic nature of skin. This will obviously dramatically reduce the down range hazard. Further to that, bullet expansion is not necessarily a given and even the most advanced low penetration hollow point can plug up and fail to expand. Therefore, we as the shooter should be taking other steps to minimize downrange hazard. Don’t just rely on your ammo to do it for you. A shot that misses poses far more down range hazard than one that over penetrates. A shot that under penetrates, and allows the attacker to continue his attack, is far more of a concern. The most famous example of this is the FBI’s famous April 1986 Miami shootout. Early in the fight one of the gunmen took a non survivable shot that did not reach deeply enough into the vitals. After being shot, he was able to kill two FBI agents and wound others before he was eventually shot dead. (As an aside while the Miami shootout was not just an ammunition failure there are many lessons to be learnt from it. It is definitely worth studying)

3. Expansion

The bigger the hole the faster the blood loss or the more likely something vital will be hit. That is the basic idea behind most modern defensive pistol ammunition. An expanding bullet enables a bullet to reach a larger diameter than when it was fired, and the larger the final diameter, the larger the permanent cavity. With modern bullet design, manufacturers have been able to balance reliable expansion with reliable penetration. Some older designs would expand fantastically but then fail to penetrate deeply enough (the silvertip in most calibers was an example of a bullet that did this). Others would fail to expand or expand very little.

Modern designs are also able to expand far more reliably after encountering barriers than previously. Many barriers, such as wood or even heavy clothing, can plug up the hollow point of the bullet and therefore make it unable to expand. Manufacturers have found various ingenious ways to try to reduce the likelihood of this happening. Your car’s windscreen on the other hand does the opposite, flattening, or even fragmenting the bullet and dramatically reducing its ability to penetrate. This is part of the reason that bonded bullets are very popular with many people, me included, as the bullet is more likely to hold together and penetrate sufficiently.

Handgun ballistic gel penetration comparison

The bullets used in the picture below of the bare gelatin shows the temporary wound cavitation of various calibers. The bullets were all Federal HST's. Photo by Doug Carr

The bullets used in the picture below of the bare gelatin  shows the temporary wound cavitation of various calibers. The bullets were all Federal HST’s. Photo by Doug Carr

In Conclusion.

This to my mind is a summary of the important performances one should be looking for in a carry load. This is the hardware side, and while I feel it is important, it is definitely less important than the software side.  The software side is your ability to make the hit and get decent shot placement, your use of tactics, your mindset and your WILL TO WIN. Proper equipment can give you an advantage, and any advantage is worth having.

Remember that handgun bullets don’t do a great job of immediately stopping people, so it’s important to make sure your shot placement is as effective as possible. Be ready to fire as many rounds as it takes to stop them pressing forward with their attack and always have a plan B.

Article by BigT, GunSite SA Forum Member.

Many thanks from the GunSite SA Team for this continbution.

Pictures courtesy of:



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Comments (1)

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  1. john d says:

    if you can have only 1 gun for selfdefence,and an all day carry you cant do any better than the glock 27 in .40 s&w.lots of hitting power,and most tf all very very acurite.i just put 35 shots in the head on target,all with in 1.8 inches at 18 yards,than i took out the number 7 35 shots all with in a i.3inches,all done with 165 gr.fmj you can spend more but you wont get more,its not hard ITS IMPOSABLE TO GET A MORE RELIABLE MORE ACURITE HAND GUN AND DID I MENCHEN VERY EASLY CONCIELD, thanks for reading my 2cents,

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