Miss Fitz' Guide to Guns, Part III
Ammo You Can Bet Your Life On
By Claire Wolfe
April 1, 2004
In Part I and Part II of her Girls' Guide to Guns, Miss Euphemia Fitz, madam ... er, respected doyenne of Hardyville's Young Ladies Academy, discussed types of self-defense handguns and how to buy them. Now, she takes on that hottest of hot gun topics - the ammo you might rely on to save your life.
Last time around, we shopped for a sidearm.
I ended up buying a used Glock 22 - that's the full-sized .40 caliber model. It came with a 15-round pre-ban magazine -- a prize for just $375. I liked it so much I later went back to the same seller and bought a new Glock 23 - the .40 cal. compact. One's for patrolling the halls of the Young Ladies Academy, where I want the rowdy out-of-town boys to understand that Mama packs a big, black gun to protect her girls, and one's for carrying discreetly in company that might be shocked, just shocked, by the sight of a firearm. I was spoiling myself, buying two where one would have done, but I'm worth it. And I can use the same ammo in both and call myself positively sensible.
Why a Glock? Because I wanted "pull trigger go bang." I didn't want to have to worry about flicking a safety while some big bruser's roaring at me with a knife. I wanted reliability. I like the polymer frame. Glocks are super-quick to disassemble and clean. And the .40 cal seemed like a good compromise between the smallest and the biggest calibers in our list of five possibles.
Why not a revolver - which everybody always says should be a woman's first gun? I could tell you it's because I prefer the higher capacity of the semi-auto. Which is true. But really, I'm just not a revolver kind of gal. It's just me, but I feel more reliable handling a semi-auto.
You can listen to all the experts in the world. But once you've considered some solid basics, you're going to make your decision on what works well for you. That's true for choosing a firearm. It might even be more true when you choose ammo. So on with it, shall we?
The first thing you need to know
The first thing you need to know is that most self-defense use of firearms doesn't involve shooting anybody. A bad guy usually gets the hell out of your way when he knows you're willing and able to shoot his valuables off.
Just having a firearm and the skill to use it can make a difference. Police interviews are full of statements from crooks like this: "I chose her because she looked like somebody who wouldn't have a gun."
In most real-world contretemps, ammo isn't even going to enter the picture. But just in case, you want it to be good. You want ammo that won't malfunction in your weapon and that will do the job if it hits an attacker.
If you do have to shoot somebody, here's a pretty good description of both the psychology and the physiology of a gunfight.
Now, here's what you look for in good self-defense ammo ...
Your ammo should be 100 percent reliable
Always buy factory-new, brand-name ammo for self-defense (specific recommendations below). Do not use the hand-loads that Good Old Joe next door offers you - no matter how careful a reloader Joe might be. Do not buy cheap ammo or ammo labeled "remanufactured" for self defense. Your life's worth an extra few bucks, isn't it?
You want a round that will perform 100 percent of the time. That means it'll perform the same way 100 percent of time - not hitting high this time and low the next. That means it'll feed in your particular firearm 100 percent of the time - and you know it will because you've tested it.
Your test will probably be simpler than the one described here. Don't be daunted by the material behind that link. Merely going to the range or the plinking quarry, and seeing how different ammos perform when shot under the same circumstances (same gun, same stance, same distance from the target, etc) is enough for most of us. But that link shows how the big boys do it.
Your ammo should have reliable penetration
Reliable penetration means it should be able to travel at least 12 inches into soft human tissue. A big man might have a chest 14 or 16 inches deep. If you have to shoot him, you want to be sure to have a round that can reach his spinal column through his chest. Or reach his heart even if he's turned half-sideways, his arm is in the way, or you're on the ground and have to shoot up at an angle through his body.
For revolvers and pistols, the type of ammo that penetrates best is usually full-metal jacket (FMJ - a round-nosed lead bullet coated with copper).
However, most gunfolk don't carry FMJ as a self-defense round, because penetration is only part of the picture.
Your ammo should have good expansion
Most cartridges sold specifically for self-defense have jacketed-hollowpoint bullets (JHP). These bullets are designed to expand upon impact. When a bullet expands, it also slows down, so it tends to penetrate less.
There are two ideas behind JHP:
- To do maximum tissue damage
- To prevent the bullet from penetrating so far that it goes clear through the attacker and hits a bystander.
Check out these pictures of wound channels (don't worry; no actual gore, just experimental shots into ballistic gel) and hollow-point bullets retrieved after test-firings. You'll see the kind of expansion I'm talking about.
Penetration vs expansion
Most self-defense trainers and cops will tell you JHPs are the way to go. But not everybody agrees! If you thought firearms themselves could bring out some pretty heated opinions from gun guys, just mention the words "penetration vs. expansion" or "under-penetration vs. over-penetration" to those same guys - and stand back. Waaaaaay back. Especially if you have the science lab guys on one side and the street-experience guys on the other.
(If you want to see the thick data from one of the top ballistics experts in the world, Dr. Martin Fackler, here it is.)
Everybody agrees, though, that if you don't have enough penetration to hit vital organs, expansion alone won't do it. They also agree that you can't count 100 percent of the time on expansion. If you had to fire at an angle through very thick, strong glass (like a windshield) or layers of thick clothing, your expandable bullet might not expand in the attacker's body at all. The bullets are designed to expand in such circumstances, but they might get damaged or deflected by thick glass. Or they might get "cocooned" in cloth, for example, and not be able to spread.
But as a couple of the guys kindly pointed out, failure to expand because of "cocooning," effectively turns your JHP into an FMJ and probably gives you greater penetration.
The premium JHP rounds sold for self-defense are designed to have a good balance of penetration and expansion.
So I'm sticking with premium-brand JHPs.
The best JHPs are tested to go through leather, glass, and even car doors and still expand when they hit flesh. And if some ninja's coming at you with body armor, shoot him in the gut if the chest shots don't teach him the lesson he needs to learn.
FBI Special Agent Urey Patrick, who wrote an analysis of police ammo needs for the U.S. Department of Justice, also points out: "No law enforcement officer has lost his life because a bullet over penetrated his adversary, and virtually none have ever been sued for hitting an innocent bystander through an adversary. On the other hand, tragically large numbers of officers have been killed because their bullets did not penetrate deeply enough."
But keep remembering: What you gotta do is what works for you. The gun you choose and your own personal preferences are going to be part of your choice. There are reasons you might choose FMJ over JHP - and you'll hear some of them if you keep on reading.
The diameter and weight of the bullet
Special Agent Urey Patrick says, "Bullet selection should be determined based on penetration first, and the unexpanded diameter of the bullet second, as that is all the shooter can reliably expect."
The caliber of your firearm (as we saw in Part I) dictates the "unexpanded diameter" of your ammo. Your .357 Magnum revolver shoots a bullet roughly 36/100ths of an inch across. Your .45 ACP, 45/100ths of an inch, and so on. A 9mm bullet is about 35/100ths of an inch in diameter.
A heavier bullet is also generally more effective than a light one.
So all other things being equal, a .45 is superior to a 9mm. But all things aren't equal.
What works in your gun
ZooT_aLLures, one of the boys on The Claire Files forums, says, manufacturing tolerances "give each and every firearm a sort of personality. ...In most cases the 'personality' of a given firearm along with a certain brand and style of ammo will outperform all others in that particular firearm."
Revolvers have a reputation for being able to "feed" anything - that is, to load and fire any variety of ammo (in the right caliber, of course), whether the bullet is jacketed or plain lead, whether round-nosed, hollow-pointed, or flat.
Semi-autos have a reputation for being fussier about ammo. They can malfunction if the bullet is an unusual shape or if a particular box of ammo was manufactured slightly off-spec.
But your gun is your gun. Even in my limited experience, I've seen revolvers malfunction like nasty little SOBs. And I've seen semi-autos feed and fire total garbage ammo without a hiccup.
So when you're looking at self-defense ammo, ideally you need to buy a box or two of every type of cartridge that interests you - a process that can get pretty expensive. Shoot at least 50 rounds of each type of ammo through your self-defense gun. A good ammo shouldn't malfunction or misfire at all.
If you can't afford to test that much pricey self-defense ammo (and it does get pricey, -- figure 2-3 times the cost of your practice ammo), then you might just want to carry FMJ. Even then, though, make sure you carry a name brand you've practiced with.
Some old or cheap semi-autos might not feed anything but FMJ. If that's all your gun will shoot, then FMJ is also your best self-defense round, no matter what any ballistics test says. But if your gun feeds JHP without a problem, a premium-quality JHP is the round to use.
You and your self-defense ammo
Your ammo not only needs to work in your gun, it needs to work for you. Your gun & ammo combo has to feel right in your hands.
Once you've settled on the self-defense ammo that fires reliably in your gun and that you can shoot with confidence, you should get some less expensive practice ammo. Generally, your practice ammo should have the same (or similar) weight of bullet as your self defense ammo. That lets you practice with an ammo that feels like your self-defense choice when you fire it, but doesn't bust your budget. But above all, your practice ammo and your self-defense ammo should have the same point of impact. That is, when you stand in the same place and shoot in the same way, your practice ammo should make essentially the same bullet groupings on your target as your self-defense ammo does.
See Ammo Basics, below, for more about bullet weights and additional information about calibers.
No guaranteed results
Gun guys talk about "stopping power." That is, you're not necessarily out to kill your attacker - just to halt him, make him fall over, stop him from coming at you.
But Special Agent Patrick - and a lot of experienced people - point out that there is no "magic bullet" for stopping anything as unpredictable as a human being or a large animal. Patrick writes:
The human target can be reliably incapacitated only by disrupting or destroying the brain or upper spinal cord. Absent that, incapacitation is subject to a host of variables, the most important of which are beyond the control of the shooter. Incapacitation becomes an eventual event, not necessarily an immediate one. If the psychological factors which can contribute to incapacitation are present, even a minor wound can be immediately incapacitating. If they are not present, incapacitation can be significantly delayed even with major, unsurvivable wounds.
In other words, some dude who's on serious uppers or who's so busy listening to the voices in his head that he doesn't see your firearm might not even notice a wound, even if it's bad enough to eventually kill him. Someone in the midst of an adrenaline rush might not even feel the pain of a fatal wound. These guys can keep coming at you unless you've hit them in the brain or the spine - yep, even sometimes if you've hit them in the heart. On the other hand, as Patrick also says, most people who get shot - and who know they've been shot - fall down immediately. But barring a central nervous system wound, falling is as much a psychological reaction as a physical one.
In every encounter, luck, psychology, a good aim, good timing, and an almost infinite number of other factors play a part. Your job is to be as prepared as you can be with a substantial weapon, good ammo, good skills, and as much presence of mind as you can muster.
Because fortune favors the best prepared. And a woman pointing a serious-looking gun in a serious-looking way could be one heck of a psychological factor to any sane bad guy.
The top self-defense ammos
Cut to the chase. Although you'll still need to determine what works best for your particular caliber and your particular gun, these brands and types of ammo are both the most often recommended and the easiest to find at gun stores and sporting goods stores. They are all made especially for self-defense:
- Speer Gold Dot
- Remington Golden Saber
- Cor-Bon JHP
- Federal Hydra-Shok
- Winchester Silvertip
Less easy to get, but strong performers in lab tests are:
- Winchester Ranger (available here)
- Federal Tactical (sold only to cops)
The quality and performance, even in these top brands, vary from caliber to caliber.
The Winchester Silvertip and Federal Hydra-Shok are older designs, and the Silvertip was also implicated in one of the most notorious FBI shootout failures of all time. But many trainers still recommend these brands - and quite possibly if you live in a small town, one of these will be the only brand easily available to you.
If you want to do more deep evaluation, here are helpful, easy-to-follow photos and lab test results on various ammo, courtesy of Morgan Johnson, one of the helpful folk who reviewed this article. For a list of specific recommendations in our chosen calibers, look here.
As always, judge and test for yourself. Never forget, what matters is what works best in your gun and in your hands.
If your state doesn't allow hollow-points - which all of the above are -- a Hardyville gent named "securitysix" recommends the Federal EFMJ (Expanding Full-Metal Jacket). But then, he also recommends moving to another state. In Hardyville, our itty-bitty government wouldn't dare "allow" or forbid us our self-defense tools. We use what works best, whatever that may be, and don't allow bad guys any advantage.
Next up: Training to use your guns and ammo.
Thank you once again to the folks of The Claire Files forums - this time in particular to Plinker-MS, Caesarl, Rick, kbarrett, Hasher, Ian, Chris, enemyofthestate, RN/MEDIC and all the wise contributors to the ammo discussion thread. And of course, to Misfit and her scandalous cousin.
The cartridge you load in your revolver or pistol has four parts:
- A metal case (usually brass) that holds the other components;
- A primer (basically a small firecracker) at the bottom of the case. The primer explodes when the gun's firing pin strikes it;
- A charge of smokeless powder that gets sparked by the primer;
- The bullet, which is then blown out of the case and hurtles toward your target at a velocity somewhere between 800 feet per second and 1500 feet per second.
In choosing a self-defense ammo, the bullet is your biggest preoccupation.
The bigger the caliber, the wider the diameter of the bullet. Bullet diameter, however, is only part of the question. Remember back in Part I, I said you'd be looking at five different calibers, and those were:
- .357 Magnum
- .44 Special
- 9mm Luger (aka Parabellum)
- .40 S&W
- .45 ACP
When you go to buy ammo, make sure both parts of the caliber designation - both the number and the word -- on the box match what your gun is chambered for.
When you're buying premium jacketed hollow-points for self defense, this will be easy because those rounds are usually made in the above calibers. But with all ammo, and especially your FMJ practice ammo, you have to be careful not to accidentally buy .44 Magnum (rather than Special) or .45 Long Colt (rather than ACP) or 9mm x 18 or 9mm Makarov (rather than Luger). If you do get the wrong ammo, you'll usually know right away; it won't fit properly in your gun. Just something to be aware of when you shop.
When looking for self-defense ammo, bullet type is the big factor you're considering. So here's a tiny primer on bullets.
There are probably hundreds of bullet shapes and types. But they basically all fall into three categories.
- Bullets that are solid masses of lead. They may be rounded or flattened, plain lead, or lead that's coated (jacketed) with copper. But they're designed to strike the target in one lump and penetrate it. The FMJ mentioned in text is this type.
- Hollow-points. Also lead and usually jacketed - but these have a hole of some sort in the business end. They're designed to expand in soft tissue.
- Frangibles. (Also called pre-fragmented bullets or PFBs.) These are usually expensive special-order items, with the best known brands being MagSafe and Glaser. Instead of a solid bullet, they feature compressed metal powder that disintegrates upon impact, doing devastating, but shallow, tissue damage. They were designed not to go through walls of airplanes, apartment buildings and such. They're good for not risking children in the adjoining room. Bad if your attacker is wearing heavy clothing or body armor. Most experts do not recommend them for self-defense because of their inadequate penetration.
Bullets are weighed in grains. Using a handy-dandy mass-weight conversion calculator, we discover that a grain is 0.002285714285714 of an ounce. (You had to ask, didn't you? Believe it or not, article reviewer Plinker-MS tells me that's an old English measurement, based on what one average grain of wheat weighs. Seven thousand grains to the pound. Seriously.)
In general, the bigger the caliber, the heavier the bullet. But within each caliber, you can buy a range of bullet weights. For instance: .45 ACP bullets from Cor-Bon come in weights from 165 grain to 230 grain. With .357 Magnum, you might choose a 110-grain bullet or 125-grain bullet. With my .40 S&W, I could have chosen 135-grain, 150-grain, or 165-grain.
Most self-defense shooting is done at short ranges where the weight of the bullet isn't the most enormous factor. A heavy bullet has a little more of a kick when you fire it. A lighter bullet usually travels at higher velocity. If you don't have the budget to try a lot of different types, go for the heaviest bullet for the sake of whatever little extra wallop it might give or a medium bullet for medium recoil.
Comments On The Spinal Column And Ammo Penetration
By Morgan Johnson for "Miss Fitz' Guide to Guns, Part III"
The matter of penetration is hotly debated, but bless you (despite my atheism) a thousand times for including the specification! My only concern is your mentioning of the spinal column.
Critics of the scientific approach to wound ballistics have remarked that the spinal cord is *very* thin, about as thin as your pinky finger, and not an easy target to hit. This is an accurate, and valid criticism. The criticism does not, however, destroy the argument for deep penetration. In shooting for blood, we aim for COM (center of mass) as accuracy is not likely, further, we keep shooting, until the threat has ceased.
The use of adequate penetrating ammunition allows for at least the possibility of hitting the spinal cord and disrupting the fight, particularly one that has enough penetration to reach the spinal cord, and then has enough energy to break through the bones protecting it (ammo that penetrates 10" probably will not).
The main, most probable, and most exemplary need for penetration is the arm, which can add several more inches, and was the tissue structure that got in the way in the 1986 Miami firefight, which lead to the adoption of scientific wound ballistics. The ammunition used in the 1986 Miami firefight was Winchester's Silvertip, which was designed under the old NIJ (National Institute of Justice) RII (Relative Incapacitation Index) standard. Silvertip ammo is Gen I engineeered, and does not reliably handle clothing, nor is it designed for adequate penetration. The RII was based on *assumed* criteria without *any* real world testing, the same is NOT true of the current gelatin testin
Morgan Johnson passes along these
recommendations for handgun ammo
Barnes 105 gr JHP (copper bullet)
Speer Gold Dot 124 gr +P JHP (53617) *
Winchester "Ranger" 127 gr +P+ JHP (RA9TA)
Remington "Golden Saber" 147 gr JHP (GS9MMC) *
Speer "Gold Dot" 147 gr JHP (53619) *
Winchester "Ranger" 147 gr JHP (RA9T)
Speer "Gold Dot" 155 gr JHP (53961) *
Winchester "Ranger" 165 gr JHP (RA40TA)
Remington "Golden Saber" 180 gr JHP (GS40SWB) *
Speer "Gold Dot" 180 gr JHP (53966) *
Winchester "Ranger" 180 gr JHP (RA40T)
Speer 230 gr Gold Dot (23966) *
Winchester 230 gr Ranger Talon (RA45T)
Winchester 230 gr +P Ranger Talon (RA45TP)
Items marked with an asterisk are readily available through normal distribution channels. The other's a litttle more difficult, but acquireable.
For the Gold Dot line, Black Hills loads and distributes all of these, they are available through Georgia Precision
Winchester's Ranger line is available through ProLoad
Remington's is available commercially.
I cannot say with any degree of certainty what to choose for the .357 Magnum, or the .44 Special.
The Remington 158gr +P LSWCHP does well in pistol lengths above 3" for
the .38s, so it should do as well out of the .357s. I could venture a guess that moderate velocity 158gr, and 180 gr loads would tend to do well, though they are at risk for over-penetration. Speer makes a 125gr, and 158 gr Gold Dot load that is readily available.
For the .44 Special, which is even more neglected by ammunition companies than the revolver cartridges, I wouldn't know where to start. Full Wad Cutters wouldn't be bad though.
Part IV: Learning to save your life
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