Home Defense Handgun Ammunition

By David Tong

The last twenty years has been a watershed in the creation of the modern jacketed hollow point (JHP) handgun bullet. Much of the research began with the disastrous 1986 Miami FBI shootout, when two rifle-armed felons confronted a number of FBI agents. While both criminals were ultimately killed, several FBI agents also died and those who survived their wounds retired early. It was a bad scene.

There were some tactical mistakes made, including the agents not wearing their soft body armor and using a mixture of revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, which prevented the interchange of ammunition when reloading. However, the fundamental flaw was the agents not aiming. "Spray and pray" tactics failed to result in a swift and successful conclusion to the gun fight. (It ended when one wounded agent had the presence of mind to focus on the front sight of his .38 revolver and squeeze the trigger, killing the second felon.)

Reluctant to admit the fundamental problem was bad marksmanship and training, the FBI focused instead on a single 9mm 115 grain Winchester Silvertip hollow point bullet (out of dozens of rounds fired) that hit the forearm of one of the perpetrators and, after expanding, failed to reach the man's heart.

After much recrimination and theorizing, the Bureau decided to standardize on the powerful 10mm Auto caliber for its new issue pistols. They further decreed the new ammunition must use bullets with no less than 12 to 15 inches of penetration in 10% ballistic gelatin, sometimes layered in front with denim or leather clothing to simulate the types of garments that might be worn by felons. In addition, the bullets had to penetrate a variety of hard barrier surfaces, including automotive safety glass, sheet metal auto bodies and door panels at various angles. The advent of modern computer aided design and modeling helped engineer bullets to meet these requirements.

It has become near gospel that bullets that fell short of these penetration standards were seen by law enforcement, and consequently by most civilians, as sub-standard. We should pause to consider this assertion when selecting bullets for home defense.

Let us face some facts here. We armed civilians are probably not ever going to get into a serious firefight with multiple assailants who are slinging lead at us from behind cover. We are not going to need bullets that can easily penetrate windshield glass, obliquely hit door panels, or punch through both sides of a car.

In fact, just like the cops, we legally armed citizens are responsible for the damage that each and every bullet creates if it misses the target. We should consider using bullets that have somewhat less penetration than the FBI standard.

The marketing of JHP ammo to the civilian market has largely paralleled that sold to police agencies. In fact, it has become near dogma to advise people like you and me to purchase the same ammo our local police agency uses, because of the exhaustive testing and vetting of these rounds. Yet, considering the difference in toughness between a steel car body and the typical 2x6 and two-panel drywall construction of the average house or apartment building, it becomes obvious these controlled expansion bullets have excessive penetration, even compared to shotguns with #1 or #4 buckshot in non-magnum shells, or a .223 rifle using jacketed soft point (varmint) ammo.

I have personally shot into sample wall construction test structures with all of the common handgun calibers from 9mm (.35 caliber) on up and it offers very little protection to whatever is on the other side. Hardball is the worst, but even among the modern JHP bullets, some designs favor penetration over expansion.

This is one of the reasons why many police departments have moved away from the 9mm submachine gun and gone to the .223 carbine. The rifle round, due to its much higher velocity, actually penetrates less when both are using expanding bullets. The .223's far greater velocity makes bullets open up faster when encountering anything resembling strong resistance.

There are many types of JHP bullets on the market. Some, such as the Hornady XTP, are known for deep penetration with somewhat less violent expansion. Another example of this type of bullet might be Remington's Golden Saber Bonded, where the brass jacket is electro-chemically bonded to the lead core to retain weight and enhance penetration.

There are now factory loads in several calibers that are optimized for use in short barreled handguns. These usually feature lighter than standard weight bullets of "soft" construction, intended to expand at lower impact velocities.

There are other rounds that use dramatically lighter bullets. A company named Liberty Civil Defense Ammo makes a 9x19mm round featuring a 50 grain JHP traveling at 2,000 fps. They claim it will penetrate 12 inches of ballistic gelatin.

The Germans, who have been innovators in many firearm technologies, started the ball rolling not long after the 1972 Munich Olympic game massacre of Israeli athletes. Their counter-terrorism unit, known as GSG-9, wanted an ultra-light bullet driven at very high speed. They wanted a round that would not pose the problem of excess penetration within aircraft.

The result was the Geco Aktion-Safety bullet. Geco, a division of Dynamit Nobel Industries, came up with a machined copper 9mm projectile weighing 86 grains that left a four inch barrel at the then unheard of velocity (for autoloaders) of 1,550 fps.

In the U.S., Glaser came up with their high velocity, pre fragmented, Blue tip Safety Slug. This bullet uses a copper jacket containing a core of compressed #12 lead "dust" shot capped by a round, blue plastic tip. The Glaser Silver tip Safety Slug uses a core of compressed #6 lead shot for somewhat greater penetration.

Glaser safety slugs are available for most handgun calibers, from .25 ACP to .45 Colt. Their 9mm Luger +P cartridge uses an 80 grain bullet at a MV of 1500 fps from a four inch barrel. Testing has shown no over-penetration when fired into ballistic gelatin about the width of a human torso and the Safety Slugs break-up in wall board. Glaser Safety Slugs have a good reputation as "stoppers" in typical civilian frontal shooting situations.

All of the major ammunition manufacturers catalog lighter than standard weight JHP bullets for the common home defense handgun calibers. Cor-Bon Self-defense JHP ammunition, for example, offers a 90 grain bullet at 1500 fps in 9mm Luger +P, 110 grain bullet at 1500 fps in .357 Magnum and 135 grain bullet at 1325 fps in .40 S&W. These velocities were taken in four inch barrels.

I would hate to shoot any of these high velocity rounds indoors, as the muzzle blast is deafening. Actually, any firearm is deafening when fired indoors without ear protection. Visit an indoor range and shoot some of your chosen home defense ammunition (with ear protection!). This will provide some mental preparation for what gunfire sounds like inside a building, as opposed to on an outdoor range without confining walls to reflect the sound.

No matter what load you choose, you must shoot enough of the actual rounds in your handgun to ensure that you can hit with them at house-gun ranges and that they function normally.

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