Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another 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 2/13/2012. Some additional observations at the end.
Would you rather be shot with a modern, Jacketed Hollow Point bullet from a .32 ACP or have someone throw a baseball at you? Seems like a silly question, doesn’t it? But did you know that the ‘muzzle energy’ of the two is about the same? Seriously, it is and that’s just one reason why trying to use muzzle energy as a measurement of handgun effectiveness is problematic.
Calculating Muzzle Energy
First off, what is ‘muzzle energy’ (ME)? Wikipedia has a pretty good description and discussion of it. Here’s the simple definition:
Muzzle energy is the kinetic energy of a bullet as it is expelled from the muzzle of a firearm. It is often used as a rough indication of the destructive potential of a given firearm or load. The heavier the bullet and the faster it moves, the higher its muzzle energy and the more damage it will do.
For those who are trying to remember your high school physics, kinetic energy is the energy (or power) of something moving. You can calculate kinetic energy using the classic formula:
E = 1/2mv^2
Which is just mathematic notation for “Energy equals one-half the mass of an object times the square of its velocity.”
Doing the actual calculations can be a bit of a pain, since you have to convert everything into consistent units, but the formula is there on the Wikipedia page (and can be found elsewhere) if you want to give it a go. Fortunately, there are a number of websites out there which will calculate muzzle energy for you – you just plug in the relevant numbers and out comes the result. We also have muzzle energy graphs for all the calibers/ammunition tested at BBTI.
If you go through and check all the muzzle energy numbers for handguns with a 6″ or less barrel which we’ve tested (BBTI that is), in .22, .25. or .32, you’ll see that all except one (and you’ll have to go to the site to see which one it is) comes in under 111 foot-pounds.
Why did I choose that number? Because that would be the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 mph. Check my numbers: a standard baseball weighs 5.25 ounces, which is about 2,315 grains. 100 mph is about 147 fps. That means the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 mph is 111 ft-lbs.
Now, we’re not all pro baseball pitchers. And I really wouldn’t want to just stand there and let someone throw a baseball at me. But I would much rather risk a broken bone or a concussion over the damage that even a small caliber handgun would do.
The Trouble with Muzzle Energy
And therein lies the problem with using muzzle energy as the defining standard to measure effectiveness: it doesn’t really tell you anything about penetration. A baseball is large enough that even in the hands of Justin Verlander it’s not going to penetrate my chest and poke a hole in my heart or some other vital organ. If I catch one to the head, it may well break facial bones or even crack my skull, but I’d have a pretty good chance of surviving it.
Now, I think muzzle energy is a useful measure of how much power a given handgun has. That’s why we have it available for all the testing we’ve done on BBTI. But it is just one tool, and has to be taken into consideration with other relevant measures in order to decide the effectiveness of a given gun or caliber/cartridge. Like measures such as depth of penetration. And temporary and permanent wound channels. And accuracy in the hands of the shooter. And ease of follow-up shots. And ease of carry.
I’ve seen any number of schemes people have come up with to try and quantify all the different factors so that you can objectively determine the “best” handgun for self defense. Some are interesting, but I think they all miss the point that it is an inherently subjective matter, where each individual has to weigh their own different needs and abilities.
Sure, muzzle energy is a factor to consider. But I think the old adage of “location (where a bullet hits) is king, and penetration is queen” sums it up nicely.
In the five years since I wrote that, my thinking has evolved somewhat. Well, perhaps it is better to say that it has ‘expanded’. I still agree with everything above, but I’m now even more inclined to go with a relatively heavy bullet for penetration over impressive ME numbers. I think that comes from shooting a number of different brands of ammo where the manufacturer has chosen to go with a very fast, but very light bullet to get an amazing ME, with the argument that this is more likely to cause some kind of terminal shock, citing tests showing significant ‘temporary wound channels’ and such in ballistic gel.
But you really can’t cheat physics. If you dump a lot of kinetic energy very quickly into creating a temporary wound channel, then you have less energy for other things. Like penetration. Or bullet expansion. And those are factors which are considered important in how well a handgun bullet performs in stopping an attacker. That’s why the seminal FBI research paper on the topic says this:
Kinetic energy does not wound. Temporary cavity does not wound. The much discussed “shock” of bullet impact is a fable and “knock down” power is a myth. The critical element is penetration. The bullet must pass through the large, blood bearing organs and be of sufficient diameter to promote rapid bleeding. Penetration less than 12 inches is too little, and, in the words of two of the participants in the1987 Wound Ballistics Workshop, “too little penetration will get you killed.” Given desirable and reliable penetration, the only way to increase bullet effectiveness is to increase the severity of the wound by increasing the size of hole made by the bullet. Any bullet which will not penetrate through vital organs from less than optimal angles is not acceptable. Of those that will penetrate, the edge is always with the bigger bullet.
Now, you can still argue over the relative merits of the size of the bullet, and whether a 9mm or a .45 is more effective. You can argue about trade-offs between recoil & round count. About this or that bullet design. Those are all completely valid factors to consider from everything I have seen and learned about ballistics, and there’s plenty of room for debate.
But me, I want to make sure that at the very minimum, the defensive ammo I carry will 1) penetrate and 2) expand reliably when shot out of my gun. And if you can’t demonstrate that in ballistic gel tests, I don’t care how impressive the velocity of the ammo is or how big the temporary wound cavity is.
So I’ll stick with my ‘standard for caliber’ weight bullets, thanks. Now, if I can drive those faster and still maintain control of my defensive gun, then I will do so. Because, yeah, some Muzzle Energy curves are better than others.
Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another 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 8/17/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
It’s a classic scene: Mad Max rolling a shotgun shell between his fingers, trying to see whether it is still any good.
Will it crumble? If it doesn’t, will it still fire?
Only his script-writer knows for sure.
But how much does it have to do with reality? How long will ammunition stay good, and under what storage conditions? Talk about classics – that basic question has been a standard of firearm discussions online going back to before there even was an “online”.
Whether you’ve just found an old box of shotgun shells in the back of your closet or you’re planning ahead for the Zombie Apocalypse, it’d be good to know whether you could trust those rounds to go bang when needed.
So, what’s the answer?
Well, it depends.
Chances are, if the ammunition has been made in the last century, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.
OK, let’s qualify, qualify, qualify that statement. Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.
Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.
Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder and with a non-corrosive primer, and has been stored reasonably well, then it’ll still be good.
Chances are, if it was a quality factory ammunition, made in the last century using modern smokeless powder and with a non-corrosive primer, and hasn’t been immersed in water or subject to prolonged sub-freezing temperature, then it’ll still be good.
Hmm. That makes it sound like there’s not a good chance, doesn’t it?
But I don’t mean to say that. The truth is, if you come across a box (or can or pallet) of ammo made after WWII, and the exterior doesn’t show signs of obvious damage or corrosion, it should be fine. I’ve shot plenty of such ammo over the years – stuff that is older than I am. And it’s likely that if the ammunition was made after the shift to non-corrosive primers in the 1920s – which covers most non-military ammunition – it’ll also be fine. In the West, even military ammunition made since WWII has predominantly been made using non-corrosive primers, and is likely very stable. Eastern bloc countries used corrosive primers until much, much later, which meant not only could they present a problem with barrel damage if the firearm wasn’t cleaned properly, but that there was a chance that the primer would become weak with age and wouldn’t completely ignite the gunpowder in the cartridge.
How about storage? I mean of ammo made recently – how should you store it to increase the chances of it staying good?
The biggest thing is to keep it from resting in water. Sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised.
Some ammunition is sealed (tracer rounds, for example) after manufacture. But most of it just relies on the mechanical qualities of manufacturing to keep moisture out. This is actually pretty good, and serves fairly well in the case of metallic cartridges. You don’t have to worry about a brief exposure to water, from rain or dropping a round into a puddle or something. You should avoid allowing non-sealed rounds from sitting in water for a prolonged period, since such exposure could allow water to seep into the cartridge and compromise the gunpowder. It could also lead to case or primer corrosion, which could weaken the structural integrity or loading problems. So, if you want to store ammo for a long time, keep it in some kind of waterproof container. Double-bagging, using a vacuum sealer, and related strategies should all work fine.
Oh – did you notice that I specified “metallic cartridges” above? Yeah. That’s because plastic shotgun shells are not as water-tight. They’re still pretty good, given modern manufacturing tolerances, but you probably want to be a little more careful with them for long-term storage. Just sayin’.
One other thing to be aware of: freezing can cause some gunpowders to “crack” – to make smaller particles. While it may not seem to be a big deal, it can greatly increase the surface area of each small particle of the propellent. Which can cause it to burn faster. Which can cause over-pressure. Which can cause case rupture or even potentially the dreaded “ka-boom.”
So, there you have it, whether you’re wanting to have a rainy-day stash, just stockpile ammo when you find a good sale, or are wanting to be accurate for your next screenplay – take these things into consideration and you should be fine. Modern ammunition is generally of very high quality, and very reliable. A little planning ahead on your part should maintain that reliability for as long as you want.
Because it’s better to have a gun than a club.
There’s isn’t a lot that I would add to this piece regarding old ammo. But since I wrote this we’ve tested something like an additional 20,000 rounds of new commercial ammo from the biggest manufacturers to boutique ammo from small shops. And I continue to be impressed with just how uniform the quality has been — it’s easily in the 99%+ range. It’s to the point where if commercial ammo fails to fire reliably, I would always first inspect the gun to see what the problems was, because it’s much more likely that the gun has some kind of problem than the ammo.
Which isn’t to say that all ammo will work reliably in all guns. I still advocate that for self-defense firearms in particular, you should always run at least a couple of boxes of a given type/brand of ammo through the gun before considering it sufficiently reliable enough to depend on to save your life. YMMV, of course.
Prompted by my friends over at the Liberal Gun Club, this is another 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 3/26/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
In an earlier article, when I said you’d get about a 15% increase in bullet velocity when using a pistol caliber carbine over a handgun, I lied.
Or, rather, I was neglecting one particular class of pistol ammunition which can develop upwards of a 50% increase in velocity/power in a carbine over a handgun: the “magnums,” usually shot out of a lever-action gun. This would include .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, .41 Magnum, and .44 Magnum.
These cartridges are rimmed, initially developed as powerful handgun rounds, and have their origins in black powder cartridges. This history is important for understanding why they are different than most of the other pistol cartridges and the carbines that use them.
We’ll start with the .357 Magnum, the first of these cartridges developed.
Back in the 1930s a number of people, Elmer Keith most notable among them, were looking to improve the ballistic performance of the .38 Special cartridge. This had been a cartridge originally loaded with black powder. Black powder takes up a lot of space – typically two to four times as much space as smokeless powder of a similar power. Meaning that when people started loading .38 Special cartridges with smokeless powder, the cartridge was mostly empty.
Now, if you were looking to get more power out of a .38 Special, and you saw all that unused space in the cartridge, what would be the obvious thing to do? Right – add more smokeless powder.
The problem is, many of the handguns chambered for the .38 Special using black powder were not strong enough to handle .38 Special cartridges over-charged with smokeless powder. And having handguns blowing up is rough on the customers. Heavier-framed guns could handle the extra power, but how to distinguish between the different power levels and what cartridge was appropriate for which guns?
The solution was to come up with a cartridge, which was almost the same as the .38 Special, but would not chamber in the older guns because it was just a little bit longer. This was the .357 Magnum.
There are two important aspects of the cartridge as far as it applies to lever guns. One is just simply the ability to use more gunpowder (a typical gunpowder load for a .357 magnum uses about half again as much as used in a .38 Special.) And the other is that you can get more complete combustion of the gunpowder used, perhaps even use a much slower burning gunpowder. This means that the acceleration of the bullet continues for a longer period of time.
How much of a difference does this make? Well, from the BBTI data for the .357 Magnum, the Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel gives 1,496 fps – and 2,113 fps out of an 18″ barrel. Compare that to the .38 Special Cor Bon 125gr JHP out of a 4″ barrel at 996 fps and 1,190 fps out of an 18″ barrel. That’s a gain of 617 fps for the .357 Magnum and just 194 fps for the .38 Special. Put another way, you get over a 41% improvement with the Magnum and just 19% with the Special using the longer barrel.
Similar improvements can be seen with other loads in the .357 Magnum. And with the other magnum cartridges. And when you start getting any of these bullets up in the range of 1,500 – 2,000 fps, you’re hitting rifle cartridge velocity and power. The low end of rifle cartridge velocity and power, but nonetheless still very impressive.
There’s another advantage to these pistol caliber lever guns: flexibility. Let’s take that .357 again. On the high end of the power band, you can use it as a reliable deer-hunting gun without concern. But if you put some down-loaded .38 Special rounds in it, you can also use it to hunt rabbit or squirrel. I suppose you could even use snake/rat shot loads, though most folks don’t recommend those loads due to concerns over barrel damage. Shooting mild .38 Special loads makes for a great day just plinking at the range.
One thing that I consider a real shame: you can get good quality lever guns for the .357, the .41, and the .44 magnums. But to the best of my knowledge, no one yet makes a .327 Magnum lever gun. I would think that such a gun would meet with a lot of popularity – properly designed, it should be able to handle the .327 Federal Magnum cartridge, the .32 H&R cartridge, even the .32 S&W Long. Again, with the right powder loads, this would give the gun a great deal of flexibility for target shooting and hunting small to medium sized game/varmits.
So, if you like the idea of having a carbine in the same cartridge as your handgun, but want to be able to maximize the power available to you, think about a good lever gun. It was a good idea in the 19th century, and one that still makes a lot of sense today.
Some additional thoughts …
I’m still a little surprised that no manufacturer has come out with a production .327 mag lever gun, though occasionally you hear rumors that this company or that company is going to do so. But I must admit that as time has gone on I’ve grown less interested in the .327 cartridge, since firearms options are so limited — definitely a chicken & egg problem.
One very notable absence from the above discussion is the .22 WMR (.22 Magnum), for the simple reason that we hadn’t tested it yet when I wrote the article. You can find a later article about it here.
Something I didn’t address when I wrote the article initially was ammunition which was formulated to take greater advantage of the longer barrel of a lever gun. Several manufacturers produce such ammo, perhaps most notably Hornady and Buffalo Bore. A blog post which includes the latter ammo out of my 94 Winchester AE can be found here, with subsequent posts here and here.
And lastly, there’s another cartridge we tested which really should be included in the “magnum” category, because it sees the same increasing power levels out to at least 18″ of barrel: .45 Super. This proved to be more than a little surprising, since it is based on the .45 ACP cartridge. Most semi-auto firearms which shoot the .45 ACP should be able to handle a limited amount of .45 Super, but if you want a lever gun set up to handle the cartridge you’ll have to get it from a gunsmith.
My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. This is another 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 3/7/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
“What is the best barrel length?”
It’s a question I get a lot, thanks to my involvement in Ballistics By The Inch. And invariably, I say in response: “it depends.” As in, it depends on what you’re going to use it for.
OK, first thing: I’m talking about pistol cartridges, not rifle cartridges. Got that? Pistol cartridges.
That’s what we studied with our BBTI project (actually, continue to study, since we’ve done several expansions of the cartridges and ammunition tested already, and have another big expansion coming up the beginning of May.) Now that we’ve cleared that up . . .
Different barrel lengths are good for different purposes. The longer the barrel, the longer the sight radius, and so the easier it is to be accurate with the gun. The shorter the barrel, the easier it is to conceal.
And barrel length has an effect on the velocity of a bullet (and hence the power of that bullet.) How much of an effect? Well, it depends.
No, seriously, it depends. Do not believe it when someone tells you “oh, the rule of thumb is about 75 (or 25 or 100 or any other number) feet per second for each inch of barrel.” That number may be right for one given ammunition in one given gun for one given inch of barrel length – but it will not hold true as a general case. Don’t just take my word on this – look at the actual numbers from tests we conducted, using almost 10,000 rounds of ammunition. You can go to the BBTI site and see the data for yourself (it’s all free, with no advertising or anything), but here are two examples:
Cor Bon 165gr JHP +P .45 ACP ammo was tested at 1001 fps with a 2″ barrel. That jumps to 1050 fps with a 3″ barrel, or an increase of about 50 fps. Going to a 4″ barrel you get 1163 fps, or an increase of 113 fps. But when you go from an 10″ barrel to a 11″ barrel, you only get an increase of 23 fps.
Let’s look at Federal Hydra-Shok 230gr JHP .45 ACP. It starts at 754 fps with a 2″ barrel, and jumps to 787 fps out of a 3″ barrel – an increase of 33 fps. Go to the 4″ barrel and it tested at 865 fps – an increase of 78 fps. And when you go from an 10″ barrel to a 11″ barrel, you only get an increase of 4 fps.
Do you see my point? It not only varies by ammunition, it also varies by which inch of the barrel you are talking about – the inch between 3 and 4 sees a lot more increase than the inch between 10 and 11.
Almost all handgun cartridges show this effect, and it makes sense: pistol cartridges use a fast burning powder, but it still needs a little bit of time to completely combust. The highest acceleration comes at first, and then usually handgun bullets plateau out somewhere between 6″ and 10″, with little additional velocity with longer barrels past that point. The graph of our first example shows this very well:
Some cartridges even show velocity starting to drop off with longer barrels, as the friction of the bullet passing through the barrel overcomes any additional boost from the gunpowder. Notably, the “magnum” cartridges (.327, .357, .41, and .44) all show a continued climb in velocity/power all the way out to 18″ of barrel length (the maximum we test), though the amount of increase tends to get smaller and smaller the longer the barrel.
So, back to “it depends”: if you want a lever-gun or carbine, which uses a pistol cartridge, you’re best off using one of the magnums if you want maximum power. If, however, you want to use a carbine for an additional power boost and better aiming, one with a barrel length somewhere in the “plateau” for a given cartridge makes sense (and this is why subguns typically have barrels in the 8 – 10″ range).
For a hunting pistol, you probably want to have a barrel of 6″ to 8″ to get a lot of the additional power and still have it manageable. This barrel length will also give you a nice big sight radius for accuracy, making it good for hunting or target shooting.
How about for concealed carry? The shorter the barrel, the better, right? Well, if you look through all our data, you’ll see that usually, most cartridges see the greatest jump in velocity (and hence power) from 2″ to 4″. Now, the smaller the caliber and the lighter the bullet, the more the big jump tends to come right up front – from 2″ to 3″. The larger the caliber and the heavier the bullet, the more it tends to come a little later, from 3″ to 4″. Still, you can decide for yourself whether the trade-off in less power for ease of carry is worth it.
And good news for the revolver fans: because the cylinder basically functions to extend the barrel, your 2″ snubby actually functions more like a gun with a 3.5″ – 4″ barrel. Though there is some velocity/power loss due to the cylinder gap. How much loss? That is actually the next thing we’ll be testing, but I’d bet that . . . it depends.
Since I wrote that six years ago, we’ve done a LOT more testing at BBTI, and have now shot more than 25,000 rounds and greatly expanded our data. The cylinder gap tests mentioned above did indeed show that the amount of loss did vary according to a number of factors, but for the most part established that the effect wasn’t as large as many people thought. And we found an interesting exception to the “magnum” rule in one of our most recent tests: it turns out that the .45 Super cartridge behaves like a true magnum, by continuing to gain more power the longer the barrel, until at carbine lengths it is on a par with (or even exceeds) the .460 Rowland cartridge. Since the .45 Super is based on the .45 ACP cartridge, we expected it to perform like that cartridge and level off at about 10″, but it clearly continues to gain out to at least 18″.
I also want to add a couple of quick comments about how concealed-carry guns have changed, though this is more just personal observation than any kind of rigorous research. I think that as concealed-carry has continued to expand, more gear is on the market to make it easier to do, and I think for that reason some people are able to carry slightly larger guns and there are more guns available with barrel length in the 4″ – 5″ range. In addition, sight/optics/laser options have continued to improve, making simple sight radius less of a factor — meaning that for those who do want to carry a smaller gun, it is easier to use it well (though having better sights/optics/lasers is NOT a substitute for practice!) I expect that both these trends will continue.
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.
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.
My friends over at the Liberal Gun Club asked if they could have my BBTI blog entries cross-posted on their site. I said yes, and got to thinking that perhaps I would revisit 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 the first article I wrote for Guns.com, and it originally ran 2/9/2011. Some additional observations at the end.
One of the most bewildering moments for a relatively novice shooter is selecting ammunition. Go online, or into a big-box store, or even into your local gun shop and you can be confronted with a huge array of choices in any given caliber or cartridge design. Most of the boxes have a sort of ‘code’ on the side; some have little charts or even graphs on the bottom. But which one do you want? What does this stuff even mean? Do claims of a certain velocity or energy tell you anything?
Let’s take a look at some terms, first.
Most prominently displayed figure on the box, is the cartridge: .45 Auto, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger and so forth. There can be some confusion on this, so be sure to check your gun to see what it says on the side of the barrel or slide, or is specified in the owner’s manual – that’s the only kind of ammunition you want. There is a difference between a .45 Colt and a .45 Auto, or a .357 Magnum and a .357 Sig, just for a couple of examples – make sure you get the kind of cartridge that your gun handles. It may seem silly to bring this up, but even experienced shooters can accidentally grab the wrong box of ammo sometimes – I have made this very mistake myself.
Next you’ll find a number, listed with either “grain” or just “gr.” This tells you the weight of the actual bullet.
Then there will be some variety of description of the bullet, indicating intended use. It could say “target” or “range” or just “ball” – all of these mean a basic bullet, probably with a slightly rounded nose, or perhaps a conical shape, or just a simple cylinder which might also have a small flat conical front (sometimes called a semiwadcutter or “SWC”). The actual bullet may be just lead or may have a “full metal jacket” – a thin layer of some harder metal such as a copper alloy. “Hunting” usually means a “JSP” – jacketed soft point. “Self-defense” usually indicates some variety of “JHP” – jacketed hollow point. Some premium self-defense ammunition uses proprietary terms such as “DPX,” “Hydra-Shok,” and “GDHP” but these are largely marketing terms you don’t need to worry about too much, at least at first.
Terms “+P” or “+P+” indicate that the cartridge is somewhat more powerful (“over-pressure”) than standard for that cartridge. Most modern guns can handle a limited diet of such cartridges, but older guns may not. If in doubt, check your gun’s owner’s manual or ask a gunsmith.
Particularly on premium defensive ammunition you may see some indication of the “velocity” or “energy” of the cartridge. Here in the US, velocity is given in “fps” – feet per second. “Energy” is given in “ft/lbs” – foot-pounds (the amount of energy needed to lift one pound one foot off the ground, not the confusingly similar term used to measure torque). The faster a bullet, and the more it weighs, the more kinetic energy it has. Sometimes a little chart will be given, showing velocity and energy at the muzzle of the gun, then at one or more distances (bullets lose velocity and energy due to air resistance).
While more velocity and more energy are generally good things for defensive ammunition, don’t get too hung up on these numbers. Why? Because the manufacturers don’t really give you enough information to compare one ammunition to another one easily. They don’t tell you what the barrel length used was (and this can have a huge impact on velocity). They don’t tell you the type of gun used (a revolver and a semi-auto both have different effects on the speed of a bullet). And they don’t tell you the type of barrel used (some barrels are known to be ‘faster’ than others.)
Then why bother at all with this information? Because it can help in some instances. If all you’re going to do is just use your gun for ‘plinking’, you can probably get whatever ammunition is cheapest and suitable for your gun.
But if you’re after accurate and consistent target shooting, or use your gun for hunting or defensive purposes, you want to be choosy. Once you find ammunition you and your gun like, you want to try to stay as close to that ammunition as you can. What do I mean by ammunition you and your gun like?
Some guns will feed and fire some ammunition better than others. The shape of the bullet can make a difference. The weight of the bullet can make a difference. The amount of energy can make a difference.
Ammunition with greater energy will cause your gun to have greater recoil (‘kick’), and that can make it more difficult to shoot. Ammunition which is touted for being “reduced recoil” likely has less energy than other ammunition, that can make it less effective for hunting or self-defense.
Using the same amount of gunpowder, a lighter bullet will go faster than a heavier one. But a heavier bullet will generally slow down less due to air resistance, and will generally penetrate deeper into whatever you are shooting at.
“Target,” “ball,” and similarly-termed ammo is usually less expensive, and is good for practice. It is less ideal for self-defense purposes, because the bullet does not expand the way a hollow point or “JHP” is designed to when it hits flesh. “Hunting” ammunition is usually designed to expand some, but to still penetrate deeply.
Where should you begin? Start out seeing what ammunition others who own a gun like yours use. None of your buddies shooting a gun like yours? Maybe do a little checking online – many firearms forums post anecdotal information showing testing members have done, and there are some good sites that do more rigorous testing for velocity and penetration. See what is recommended, and give it a try.
So, beyond the numbers, what’s a good general rule when pairing ammo with a gun? I’m of the opinion that, ideally, you should try out a box or two of different types of premium ammunition first to see which brands and type your gun likes. Using this as your guide, you can then launch the search for less expensive practice ammunition that is similar in weight and velocity, because that will behave similarly to your premium ammo in terms of point-of-impact and felt recoil.
Since I wrote this six years ago, there have been some noticeable changes in the ammunition industry, and now most manufacturers provide at least some basic information as to how the numbers they use were gathered — what barrel length, sometimes what gun they used — to make it a little easier for a consumer to know what they are buying. I have been told directly by some engineers and sales people at different companies that this is due to BBTI‘s testing and publication of our data, which has forced manufacturers to be more forthcoming.
Something else we’ve experienced in the intervening years was the Great Ammo Shortage (which for the most part has now passed). But it taught the wisdom of always keeping a bit more ammo on hand than you might otherwise need for a single trip to the range, to help ride out similar shortages in the future. I’ll address ammo storage issues in a future blog post.