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, and it originally ran 2/16/2011. Some additional observations at the end.


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.


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

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