Choosing a defensive load for your pistol can be a daunting task. If you are not a student of the gun or really into terminal ballistics, like Scott, it is very easy to get bogged down in the hype and marketing from the big-name manufacturers and gun store commando rhetoric. Let’s see if I can cut through some the fog.
Shot Placement is King
There honestly are better things to spend time and money on than a defensive ammunition choice. Practice with your defensive handgun of choice is the absolutely best thing money can buy. There is no substitute for shot placement, and nothing will make you better at making a shot than practice. A hit in a vital area will do far more damage than a miss with the latest and greatest bullet. We all need to realize the benefits of training and practice when considering ammunition choices.
A round that will not reliably feed in your gun is next to useless. Choose a round that feeds well in your blaster and test it out extensively. In this case extensively means more than a magazine or two. At the minimum you should test a two or three boxes to be absolutely positively sure of reliability. The last place you want to practice you malfunction drill is in a gunfight.
We need a performance standard when evaluating the different loads available to us for our favorite carry gun. My extensive research and curiosity have led me to adopt the FBI standard as well as the philosophy of terminal ballistics from Dr. Martin L. Fackler and comparable sources. This means that we are looking for 12 inches of penetration in ballistic gelatin and at the same time the greatest bullet expansion possible through denim and other barriers. This standard should indicate the best loads in a comparable environment.
.22 Long Rifle
A .22LR is easily better than nothing, but I can hardly recommend it for a defensive caliber. The little rimfire is by far the most popular chambering ever, including for pocket pistols and revolvers, so it would be negligent for me not to address this old cartridge. Picking a defensive round for your .22 LR is easy, find a load that your gun likes and practice with it. Rimfire guns can be notoriously finicky about what ammo they will function reliably with, so the key to a defensive .22 round is one that is reliable in your gun. The inexpensive (usually) ammo allows for you to practice a bunch to hone your skills, and verify and test your systems reliability.
The .380 ACP is proving extremely popular in modern pocket pistols, with more and more manufacturers building firearms in this caliber all the time. With the short 9mm you can have expansion OR penetration, but not both. Choose penetration. This means staying away from popular hollow point ammunition marketed for defense, and picking a solid projectile product. Just about any full metal jacket (FMJ) equipped ammo would be a good choice here. The standout choice for me are the Buffalo Bore hardcast flat nose (FN) and FMJ-FN in a modern .380 Auto handgun.
Many people choose to carry a wheelgun, most are found in the form of a .38, snub nosed, 5 shot, small frame revolver. The problem is, when fired out of a short barreled revolver, many modern loads tend to fail to expand after passing through 4 layers of denim into ballistic gelatin. Recommended loads for this particular application are Speer Gold Dot 135 grain +P load, the Winchester 130 grain bonded +P load and the Barnes 110 grain all copper bullet loads from Cor-bon or Buffalo Bore. Hornady Critical Defense 110 grain loads in +P and standard pressure are also good choices that offer reliable expansion when fired out of 2” barrel revolvers.
Now we are talking about a major caliber, and my favorite defensive caliber. Stepping up to the 9mm gives a person plenty of quality options when it comes to defensive loads. Loads with the Barnes all copper 115 grain bullet, Remington Golden Saber 124 grain +P bonded and 147 grain loads, Speer Gold Dot 124 grain +P and 147 grain ammo are all easy to find and they are not too hard on the wallet. There are other really good loadings from Federal HST and Tactical line, as well as Winchesters Ranger-T and Ranger lines, but these cartridges are harder to locate for sale and can be expensive when found.
The .40 S&W is the best duty or carry caliber by measurable amounts. It has superior terminal performance after passing through barricades than other calibers. The recommendations for the .40S&W are similar to the 9mm with the Barnes 140 grain and 155 grain all copper bullet loads, Speer Gold Dot 155 grain, 165 grain and 180 grain, as well as the Remington Golden Saber in 180 grain making the grade with the Winchester PDX1 Defender 180 grain joining the group. As with the 9mm there are harder to find, more expensive loadings that meet our requirements from the Winchester Ranger line, the Federal Tactical and the Federal HST.
The .45 Auto is as popular as ever, and bullet designs are better than ever making John Moses Browning’s (PBUH) cartridge a great carry choice. Barnes makes a great 185 grain all copper bullet , and for .45 ACP we ad Hornady Critical Duty 220 grain +P load to the list, with the familiar Speer Gold Dot in it’s 230 grain load you have plenty of choices in this old warhorse of a caliber. If you can get them, the Winchester Ranger-T and Federal HST and Tactical loads are good to go here also.
There are some calibers I did not cover in my first iteration of this article (listener Bill Anderson called me out on it) so here we go. I do not like to recommend the .357 SIG or .357 Magnum for concealed carry, duty or home defense. These calibers just do not make sense in our current world of excellent defensive bullet designs. Please do not misunderstand my words as condemning these calibers, they have both done the job in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
I do own a couple of .357 Magnum revolvers. I like to stoke these wheelguns with the above recommended .38 Special loads. The short barrel of a carry revolver makes the .357 Magnum act like a .38 Special when it comes to terminal ballistics, so the trade-off of added muzzle blast and recoil of a full bore .357 Mag load just do not make sense in a defensive shooting scenario.
The .357 SIG is basically a hot 9mm load, and it turns out the best .357 SIG behaves very similarly to the best 9mm loadings. The .357 SIG’s significant recoil, muzzle blast and lower capacity, when compared to 9mm just don’t make a lot of sense. Of course there are recommended loads for the .357 SIG in the Speer Gold Dot 125 grain and Federal HST 125 grain, if you can find it.
Whichever caliber, gun or round you choose, remember to test it out your system. Your gun ammo magazines and you all need to be able to work when the need arises. Practice, practice, practice to ensure reliability and maintain your proficiency level to make certain proper shot placement should the need arise.