Ballistics by the inch

Reprise: So, You Say You Want Some Self-Defense Ammo?

My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. This is the second in an occasional series of revisiting some of my old articles which had been published elsewhere over the years, perhaps lightly edited or updated with my current thoughts on the topic discussed. This is an article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 2/16/2011. Some additional observations at the end.

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You need to choose self-defense ammunition for your gun. Simple, right? Just get the biggest, the baddest, the most powerful ammunition in the correct caliber for your gun, and you’re set, right?

Wrong. Wrong, on so many levels.  For a whole bunch of reasons. We’ll get to that.

Shooters have earned the reputation as an opinionated breed and arguments over ammunition are a staple of firearms discussions, and have been for at least the last couple of decades. Much of this stems from the fact that every week it seems, you’ll see “fresh” claims from manufacturers touting this new bullet design or that new improvement to the gunpowder purportedly to maximize power or minimize flash.  And the truth is there have been a lot of improvements to ammunition in recent years, but, if you don’t cut through the hype you can easily find yourself over-emphasizing the importance of featured improvement in any given ammunition.

Perhaps it’s best to consider it by way of example.  While the basic hollowpoint design has been around since the 19th century, I remember when simple wadcutters or ball ammunition was about all that was available for most handguns. Cagey folks would sometimes score the front of a wadcutter with a knife (sometimes in a precarious manner—please don’t do this Taxi Driver-style with live ammunition) to help it ‘open up’ on impact. Jacketed soft point ammunition was considered “high tech” and thus distrusted. And yet, these simple bullets stopped a lot of attacks, killed a lot of people and saved a lot of lives.

I’m not saying that you don’t want good, modern, self-defense ammunition. You probably do. I sure as hell do. I want a bullet designed to open up to maximum size and still penetrate properly at the velocity expected when using it. If you are ever in a situation where you need to use a firearm for self-defense, you want it to be as effective as possible in stopping a threat, as quickly as possible.

Modern firearms are not magic wands. They are not science-fiction zap guns. How they work is they cause a small piece of metal to impact a body with a variable amount of force. That small piece of metal can cause more or less damage, depending on what it hits and how hard, and how the bullet behaves. Here’s the key that a lot of people forget: as a general rule, location trumps power.  All you have to do is meditate on the fact that a miss with a .44 magnum is nowhere  near as effective as a hit with a .25 ACP.  And when I say “a miss” I’m talking about any shot which does not hit the central nervous system, a major organ, or a main blood vessel (and even then it matters exactly which of these are hit, and how). Plenty of people have recovered from being shot multiple times with a .45. Plenty of people have been killed by a well-placed .22 round.

Hitting your target is what is most important and for most of us that is harder to do with over-powered ammunition we’re not used to shooting regularly. Chances are that under the stress of an actual encounter, your first shot may not be effective at stopping an attack. That means follow-up shots will be needed, and you’d better be able to do so accurately. If you can’t get back on target because of extreme recoil, then what’s the point of all that extra power?  If you can’t get back on target because you’ve been blinded by the flash of extra powder burning after it leaves the muzzle, well hell, that’s not good either.

Nestled up alongside power is having an ammunition that will actually work well in your gun. Some guns are notoriously ammunition sensitive and you  don’t want to just be finding out  your gun doesn’t particularly care for an ammo when you really need it to go boom. Check with others (friends or online forums) who have your type of gun, and see what ammo works for them. Then test it yourself, in your actual gun. Some people won’t carry a particular ammunition until they have run a couple of hundred rounds of that ammunition through their gun. Personally, I’ll run a box or two through the gun and consider that sufficient;  you’ll know after that if your gun generally handles  that ammunition with any problems.

So, once you have an idea of what ammunition will work in your particular gun, how do you choose between brands? As I’ve previously discussed, you can’t necessarily trust manufacturer hype. So, how to judge?

Well, you can do some research online. The fellows at The Box of Truth have done a lot of informal testing of ammunition to see how different rounds penetrate and perform. The Brass Fetcher has done a lot of more formal testing using ballistic gelatin. Ballistics By The Inch (which is yours truly’s site) has a lot of data showing velocity for different ammunition. And most gun forums will have anecdotal testing done by members, which can provide a lot of insight.

But don’t over-think this. Handguns are handguns. Yeah, some are more powerful than others, but all are compromises – hitting your target is the single most important thing. And like I said, ammunition can help, but only to a certain extent. We’re talking marginal benefits, at best, whatever the manufacturers claim. So relax;  all of the big name brands are probably adequate, and you’d be hard pressed to make a truly bad decision, so long as the ammunition will function reliably in your gun and you can hit your target with it.

Of course, as you do more research, and get more experience, you’ll probably find you like some ammunition more than others, for whatever reason. That’s fine. It just means that you’re ready to join in the (generally genial) arguments over such matters with other firearms owners. Welcome to the club.

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Some additional thoughts, six years later …

Bullet design has continued to improve, with new and occasionally odd-looking designs and materials being introduced regularly. Some of these are *really* interesting, but I keep coming back to the basic truth that the most important factor is hitting the target. No super-corkscrew-unobtanium bullet designed to penetrate all known barriers but still stop inside a bad guy is worth a damn if you miss hitting your target.

And that means practice (and training, if appropriate) is more important than hardware. What I, and a lot of shooters concerned about their self-defense skill, will do is to use practice ammo for training when they go to the range, to keep their basic skill set honed. And then supplement that with a magazine or two (or a cylinder or two) of their carry ammo, so they refresh their knowledge of how it feels and behaves in their gun. This can help keep practice costs down (since good SD ammo can be expensive), but also keeps carry ammo fresh.

Jim Downey

March 18, 2017 Posted by | .22, .25 ACP, .44 Magnum, .45 ACP, Data, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Join the party.

All along, we’ve said that if someone wanted to take the time, trouble, and expense to do some additional research along the lines of our protocols, that we’d be happy to include their data on our site. This is particularly true if it helped expand the selection of “real world guns” associated with the data for a given caliber/cartridge. Well, for the first time someone has expressed an interest in doing just that, prompting us to come up with an outline of what standards we feel are required for making sure it relates to our previous tests.

The biggest problem is that ammo manufacturers may, and do, change the performance of their products from time to time. This is why we have on occasion revisited certain cartridges, doing full formal chop tests in order to check how specific lines of ammo have changed. That gives us a benchmark to compare other ammo after a period of several years have passed, and shows how new tests relate to the old data.

But without going to such an extent, how can we be reasonably sure that new data collected by others using their own firearms is useful in comparison to our published data?

After some discussion, we feel that so long as any new testing includes three or more of the specific types of ammo (same manufacturer, same bullet weight & design) we had tested previously, then that will give enough of a benchmark for fair comparison. (Obviously, in instances where we didn’t test that many different types of ammo in a given cartridge, adjustments would need to be made). With that in mind, here are the protocols we would require in order to include new data on our site (with full credit to the persons conducting the tests, of course):

  1. Full description and images of the test platform (firearm) used in the tests. This must specify the make, model number, barrel length, and condition of the firearm. Ideally, it will also include the age of the firearm.
  2. That a good commercial chronograph be used. Brand isn’t critical — there seems to be sufficient consistency between different models that this isn’t a concern. However, the brand and model should be noted.
  3. Chronographs must be positioned approximately 15 feet in front of the muzzle of the firearm used to test the ammo. This is what we started with in our tests, and have maintained as our standard through all the tests.
  4. That five or six data points be collected for each type of ammo tested. This can be done the way we did it, shooting three shots through two different chronographs, or by shooting six shots through one chronograph.
  5. All data must be documented with images of the raw data sheets. Feel free to use the same template we used in our tests, or come up with your own.
  6. Images of each actual box of ammo used in the test must be provided, which show the brand, caliber/cartridge, and bullet weight. Also including manufacturer’s lot number would be preferred, but isn’t always possible.
  7. A note about weather conditions at the time of the test and approximate elevation of the test site above sea level should be included.

We hope that this will allow others to help contribute to our published data, while still maintaining confidence in the *value* of that data. Please, if you are interested in conducting your own tests, contact us in advance just so we can go over any questions.

 

Jim Downey

September 9, 2016 Posted by | .22, .223, .22WMR, .25 ACP, .30 carbine, .32 ACP, .32 H&R, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .38 Special, .380 ACP, .40 S&W, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .45 Super, .450 SMC, .460 Rowland, 10mm, 9mm Luger (9x19), 9mm Mak, 9mm Ultra, Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., General Procedures | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Six shooter.

Well, well, well, BBTI made it to six years of shooting fun and research!

Yup, six years ago today we posted the first iteration of Ballistics By The Inch, and included data for 13 different handgun cartridges. Since then we’ve continued to expand on that original research, including some extensive testing on how much of an effect the cylinder gap on revolvers has, what performance differences you can expect from polygonal over traditional land & groove rifling, and added another 9 cartridges, as well as going back and including a very large selection of real world guns in all the different cartridges. This blog has had 100,000+ visitors and the BBTI site itself has had something like 25 – 30 million visits (the number is vague because of changes in hosting and record-keeping over time).

We’ve had an impact. I’ve seen incoming links from all around the world, in languages I didn’t even recognize. There’s probably not a single firearms discussion group/blog/site out there which hasn’t mentioned us at some point, and our data is regularly cited in discussions about the trade-offs you make in selecting one cartridge or barrel length over another. I’ve answered countless emails asking about specific points in our data, and have been warmly thanked in return for the work we’ve done. And on more than a few occasions people have pointed out corrections which need to be made, or offered suggestions on how we could improve the site, sometimes providing the results from their own crunching of our data.

When we started, it was fairly unusual to see much solid information on ammo boxes about how the ammunition performed in actual testing. Now that information is common, and expected. Manufacturer websites regularly specify real performance data along with what kind of gun was used for that testing. And the data provided has gotten a lot more … reliable, let’s say. We’ve been contacted by both ammo and firearms manufacturers, who have asked if they can link to our data to support their claims of performance — the answer is always “yes” so long as they make it clear that our data is public and not an endorsement of their product. And we’ve never taken a dime from any of those companies, so we can keep our data unbiased.

And we’re not done. We have specific plans in the works to test at least one more new cartridge (and possibly revisit an old favorite) in 2015. I try to regularly post to the blog additional informal research, as well as sharing some fun shooting and firearms trials/reviews. There’s already been one firearms-related patent issued to a member of the BBTI team, and we’ll likely see several more to come. Because we’re curious guys, and want to share our discoveries and ideas with the world.

So, onward and upward, as the saying goes. Thanks to all who have cited us, written about us, told their friends about us. Thanks to all who have taken the time to write with questions and suggestions. And thanks to all who have donated to help offset the ongoing costs of hosting and testing — it makes a difference, and is appreciated.

 

Jim Downey

November 28, 2014 Posted by | .22, .223, .22WMR, .25 ACP, .30 carbine, .32 ACP, .32 H&R, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .38 Special, .380 ACP, .40 S&W, .41 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .44 Special, .45 ACP, .45 Colt, .460 Rowland, 10mm, 6.5 Swedish, 9mm Luger (9x19), 9mm Mak, 9mm Ultra, Anecdotes, Data, Discussion., General Procedures, Links, Shotgun ballistics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Short and fun.

Another quick post about getting together for a bit of shooting weekend before last. This time, let’s look at some semi-auto carbines.

The first two are a pair of Beretta CX4 Storms, one in 9mm and the other in .45ACP. You can see them here with the pump guns:

Table selection

I’ve previously reviewed the Cx4, and would only add that each time I shoot one of these guns I just enjoy the hell out of them. At just under 30″ overall length and weighing 5.75 pounds, they’re light, easily maneuverable, and very ergonomic. Great little pistol caliber carbines.

Now, see that gun partially visible off to the right in the pic above? And here’s another shot of it with the other pumps and carbines:

Selection

See that short little thing third from the left? Yeah, it’s an AGM-1 carbine in 9mm. Here’s a much better pic of it:

AGM

It’s an old-school bullpup, made in the 1980s in Italy. None of us had seen one before, and since it was a used gun it came with no paperwork or information. In picking it up, it felt almost too small to be civilian-legal (I mean non-NFA regulated), but the overall length is a tad over 26″ and the barrel is barely 16 and 1/8th inch. It has a little more heft than the Cx4, and most of the parts are heavy stamped steel. It uses Browning Hi-Power magazines. Interestingly, it was intended to be a modular design you could easily convert over to either .22lr or .45ACP, though I doubt the parts to do so are very common now.

But it was a surprisingly nice little gun to shoot. And when I say little, I mean it — damned thing is shorter than my arm. It was accurate, had a nice trigger, and almost no recoil. All of us were able to put a magazine full of bullets into a one-inch hole at 11 yards the first time we picked it up and tried it. Cool gun. If you ever happen to stumble across one in a shop, don’t be afraid to give it a try.

 

Jim Downey

November 25, 2014 Posted by | .22, .45 ACP, 9mm Luger (9x19), Anecdotes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Goodness gracious …

… great balls of fire*:

That’s one of the other BBTI guys shooting a Kel-Tec PMR-30 last weekend.

How was it to shoot?

Actually, pretty nice. Has a surprisingly good trigger. In general, I like Kel-Tec guns for what they are: reasonable quality at a very affordable price. And I downright love my Sub-2000 in 9mm.

But I won’t be getting a PMR-30 anytime soon. Because at the 4.3″ barrel length, it just doesn’t take real advantage of the .22WMR cartridge — you only get about a 20% improvement over a .22lr cartridge.

Unless you like making fireballs.

Jim Downey

*With apologies to Jerry Lee.

November 19, 2014 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, 9mm Luger (9x19), Anecdotes | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And now for some newer guns.

Last week I posted about some historical reproductions. Now let’s have a quick overview of some newer guns we got to try on the same trip to the range. I’ll include some *very* brief comments, and may return to do longer reviews later when I have some additional time.

First up, the USFA ZiP .22LR, shown with 25-round mag for additional grip purchase:
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Comments: Ugh. I hated this gun. Seriously. It’s awkward to hold, worse to shoot, all sharp angles and weirdly thick. It’s the kind of ugly that isn’t even interesting. The design requires you to put your hand right up close to the muzzle to cycle the action. Since it was brand new, I’ll forgive it having problems cycling properly (this is fairly common with rim-fire guns which are brand new), but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to have to shoot it enough to break it in.

Bottom line: if someone insisted on giving me one of these, I’d just turn around and sell it to use the money for almost any other purpose.

 

Next, the Excel Arms MP-22 .22mag Accelerator:

 

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Comments: Nice gun. Shot very well, and the 8.5″ barrel is sufficiently long to get some benefit out of the .22WMR cartridge.  The heavy bull barrel also does a good job of taming the recoil and muzzle-flip, as can be seen in this vid:

 

Next, the SIG 232 .380acp:

 

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Comments: SIG SAUER’s version of the classic PPK. Just what you’d expect: quality, accurate, easy to shoot for even someone with large hands, as can be seen in this image of my buddy who has even larger hands than I do:

 

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Next, the Glock 42 .380acp:

 

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Comments: I did not expect to like this gun. I was REALLY surprised when I did. Seriously, it is the best-shooting Glock I’ve ever handled. For such a small gun, it fit my large hands comfortably and was easy to shoot well. With Glock quality and reliability, this may be the first .380acp I would seriously consider as a CCW gun.

 

Next, the Kimber Solo Carry 9mm:

 

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And here’s a vid of shooting it:

 

Comments: Kimber quality. Lot of power in a small package, and I felt it in the web between thumb and forefinger of my dominant hand. But that was just a sting, not uncomfortable, even shooting premium SD ammo. Another good candidate for CCW.

 

And here’s a quick look at an old classic: Winchester Model 70 XTR Featherweight in 6.5 Swedish (6.5mm x 55mm)

 

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Comments: Like I said, a classic. And as such, a known quantity. But the first time I’ve shot one in 6.5 Swede, and I was pleasantly surprised by how little recoil there was.

Well, that’s all that I have images of, though we also shot a Chiappa M1-22 and a KelTec PMR-30 .22 mag. Again, both are known quantities and shot as expected. Oh, and my buddy gave my Steyr S9 a go, and you can see that vid here.

As noted, I may revisit any of these with a longer review sometime later, but don’t hold your breath.

 

Jim Downey

 

August 26, 2014 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, .380 ACP, 6.5 Swedish, 9mm Luger (9x19), Anecdotes, Discussion. | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rimfire Roundtable

Well, it’s too damned cold in most of the country to go out to the range, so if you’d like to see hear why I didn’t stay in radio as a career, and maybe enjoy some good discussion about rimfire cartridges and guns, take a listen to this new podcast:

Episode #26 Rimfire Roundtable #1

On this show I was lucky enough to round up three guys uniquely qualified for the first ever Rimfire Roundtable. We discuss what we would like to see come from the firearms industry regarding rimfire, better supplies of ammunition aside. I hope you enjoy our discussion and let us know your ideas too.

It’s about an hour long, all told, and in spite of my participation fairly interesting/informative. Check it out if you have some listening time!

 

Jim Downey

January 7, 2014 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, Anecdotes, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

With charts! Graphs! Slo-mo!

John Ervin at Brass Fetcher Ballistic Testing has put together another great video presentation, showing in several ways how Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) ammo performs in comparison to Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) ammo for 9 different handgun cartridges. It’s long (22 minutes), but very nicely documents just exactly how the two different bullet styles behave at handgun velocities. Here’s the video:

 

 

The cartridges covered are .22 LR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9mm Makarov (9×18), 9mm Police (Ultra), .38 Special, 9mm Luger (9×19), and .45 ACP.  His data and presentation makes a great companion to our own data, and I really recommend that you set aside the time to watch the video at your earliest convenience.

 

Jim Downey

October 22, 2013 Posted by | .22, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .38 Special, .380 ACP, .45 ACP, 9mm Luger (9x19), 9mm Mak, 9mm Ultra, Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

.22 Magnum article.

My .22 Magnum article looking at our data and my conclusions is now up over on Guns.com. Here’s an excerpt:

Bottom line

For me, the take-away lesson from these tests is that the .22 Magnum is a cartridge that is best served out of rifle barrel. At the high end we were seeing velocities that were about 50 percent greater than what you’d get out of a similar weight bullet from a .22 LR. In terms of muzzle energy, there’s an even bigger difference: 100 percent or more power in the .22 Magnum over the .22 LR.

But when you compare the two on the low end, out of very short barrels, there’s very little if any difference: about 10 percent more velocity, perhaps 15 percent more power. What you do notice on the low end is a lot more muzzle flash from the .22 Magnum over .22 LR.

While you do see a real drop-off in velocity for the other magnums from very short barrels, they tend to start at a much higher level. Compare the .357 Magnum to the .38 Special, for example, where the velocity difference is 30 to 40 percent out of a 2-inch barrel for similar weight bullets, with a muzzle energy difference approaching 100 percent. Sure, you get a lot of noise and flash out of a .357 snubbie, but you also gain a lot of power over a .38.

Go check out the whole thing!

Jim Downey

June 5, 2013 Posted by | .22, .22WMR, .357 Magnum, .38 Special, Data, Discussion., Links | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment