The LuckyGunner Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test
By David Tong
A recent ballistic test done by the online ammunition retailer LuckyGunner.com was brought to my attention by Guns and Shooting Online Owner/Managing Editor Chuck Hawks. This test used blocks of Clear Ballistics synthetic ballistic gelatin (see photo above), similar to the medium used by government and police agencies, to test the terminal performance of various factory loads in .380 ACP, 9mm Luger (9x19mm), .40 S&W and .45 ACP. (This Clear Ballistics synthetic ballistic gelatin is expensive, not to mention the cost of 117 boxes of centerfire ammunition used in this testing, so we all owe LuckyGunner thanks for their time, trouble and expense. -Editor)
The loads used were limited to those in stock at LuckyGunner.com at the time of the tests. Unfortunately, many popular loads were not available in one cartridge or another, due to the ongoing Obama Administration ammunition shortage. The result being that different brands and bullets were often tested in the different cartridges, in many cases making direct comparisons impossible.
This test, posted online in October, 2015, used the FBI heavy clothing scenario of two cotton shirts, a fleece vest or jacket and a denim jacket in front of the gelatin block. Five shots of each load tested were fired into the clothed gelatin block from ten feet away. Sometimes a hollow point projectile was plugged with clothing material, which negated expansion and caused excess penetration (acting like hardball). This can, of course, can happen to any HP bullet in any caliber, but some bullets seem more susceptible than others.
The article cited the FBI penetration standard that a bullet should penetrate at least 12 inches into ballistic gelatin and expand to 1.5 times diameter (or more). Penetration beyond 18 inches is considered potentially dangerous to people and property beyond the target. Thus, the desired penetration distance is 12 to 18 inches.
The study used shorter than service length barrels, as most concealed carry civilians choose to carry some kind of compact or subcompact pistol. The pistols used for testing were: Glock M42 .380 (3.25 inch barrel), S&W M&P9c 9x19mm (3.5 inch barrel), Glock M27 .40 S&W (3.42 inch barrel), and Kahr CW45 (3.64 inch barrel). Following is my summary of the results.
It should come as no surprise that the .380 performed worst of the four calibers tested. Some .380 bullets failed to expand and therefore penetrated beyond the 18 inch maximum recommended, or they expanded to approximately 1.5 times the starting .355 inch diameter, but failed to penetrate the minimum 12 inches. This is why I have long shunned the cartridge.
Only one of the 18 .380 loads tested expanded to an average of .52 caliber (1.5x) and achieved the desired amount of penetration (13.2 inches in this case). This was the Hornady Critical Defense 90 grain FTX load.
The darling of most civilians, as well as the majority of the world's militaries, is the 9x19mm NATO. This cartridge has traditionally had a reputation for relatively deep penetration. While it can be an effective cartridge in certain loadings, it suffered from some of the same issues as the .380.
Nine of 39 9x19mm loads expanded to the 1.5x level and seven of those stayed within the 18 inch maximum desired penetration. Perhaps a longer barrel with greater velocity capability could improve expansion and thus decrease over penetration, which plagued 17 loads. Only two 9x19mm loads penetrated less than the desired 12 inches. A service pistol with a four inch plus barrel remains my choice in this caliber.
Pretty much everyone knows that the .40 S&W is the most popular law enforcement round in the US today, probably due to its adoption by the FBI. The LuckyGunner tests results showed that sixteen of thirty-five tested rounds produced .60 inch caliber expansion and near maximum recommended penetration. Two of the rounds expanded to approximately twice (2x) their base diameter. Despite recoil described as sharp, there is little question that the .40 S&W is a formidable cartridge.
Interestingly, in 2015 the FBI reversed its decision in favor of the .40 and announced that they will return to the 9x19mm. While the 9x19's performance has improved markedly since 1986, so have all other calibers and their bullets.
Finally, the .45 ACP. Preferred by many former and current military personnel, SWAT teams and "combat" action shooters, how does it stack up? Eight of twenty-seven bullets managed the 1.5X diameter expansion and stayed within 18 inches of penetration. Two bullets expanded violently but failed to achieve the minimum 12 inches of penetration. 15 of the twenty-eight rounds showed excess penetration (more than 18") and insufficient expansion.
I think the .380 is chosen by people who value comfort above power and are willing to put up with that trade-off. It can work of course, but it seems a thin reed on which to stake one's life. Ammunition choice is very critical in this caliber. This is why nearly all industry experts consider it the absolute power floor of serious defensive pistol cartridges.
The 9x19mm had several very good loads among those tested, including the Cor-Bon 115 grain DPX, Barnes 115 grain TAC-XPD +P and the PNW Arms 115 grain TAC-OPS SCHP. All three showed nearly 0.70 expansion and good penetration. Worth mentioning is the Barnes and PNW cartridges use a pure copper hollow point bullet.
Perhaps the most surprising result was the solid performance of the .40 S&W. Fully half of the rounds tested showed good expansion and penetration. In retrospect, perhaps this is not too surprising, considering the sheer amount of money spent on developing the number one law enforcement pistol round in the US, which is used by over half of the police departments in the country.
Finally, the 106-year-old .45ACP still has a few tricks up its sleeve. As they say, bullets can often expand, but the .45 will never shrink. Look at Federal's 230 grain HST and its combination of chart topping expansion (.85 inch average) and ideal penetration (14.0 inches).
The LuckyGunner website was fairly circumspect in their conclusions, mainly emphasizing that one has to be a practiced, situationally aware and skilled shooter to extract the most from a chosen cartridge and load. LuckyGunner has done an outstanding job in their presentation of the results obtained during their ballistic testing. See Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test on the LuckyGunner website for the complete results.
Copyright 2016 by David Tong and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.