Ammo Test: Self-Defense Loads

Knowing what goes into self-defense loads and what it’s supposed to do is informative, but until you know how it actually performs—after all, this is ammo that you may rely on to save your life—the job is not complete.

So we gathered together some common types of brand-name self-defense ammunition, created realistic test targets, and found out.

Four Essential Qualities of Self-Defense Ammo

Quality self-defense ammunition needs to do these four things, consistently and reliably:

  1. Absolutely, positively fire when you pull the trigger.

  2. Penetrate to an adequate depth.

  3. Expand properly and reliably through a range of scenarios.

  4. Stay in one piece throughout all that commotion.

In a perfect scenario, most self-defense ammunition should penetrate between 12 and 18 inches and expand to 1.5 times original diameter (or more) without breaking into pieces.

The FBI performs all sorts of scientific tests to make sure that ammunition will work as designed when it encounters various barriers. In law enforcement use, ammo might have to pass through not only heavy clothing, but objects such as automobile glass, walls, and sheet metal. The challenge for ammunition makers is finding the right balance between the opposing characteristics of penetration and hollow-point expansion. If a bullet expands too easily, it may slow down too rapidly and under-penetrate. That's analogous to a belly flop from the high dive. You'll make a commotion, but won't go very deep.

Testing ammunition performance is serious business. Here, a chronograph measures velocity just before a bullet will pass through two layers of automotive steel, through FBI fabric and finally into a ballistic gelatin block.

At the other extreme, if the bullet doesn’t expand, it won’t deliver maximum effect to the target, and might even pass completely through, presenting a danger to bystanders. That's like a perfect fingers-and-toes pointed dive--there's very little splash, and you may bonk your noggin on the bottom of the pool.

It’s a tough balancing act for ammunition designers considering the infinite number of potential variables.

There are additional challenges for ammo designed to be used in a concealed carry gun. For example, some people like compact guns with shorter barrels for ease of concealment. A shorter barrel means less velocity, so the bullet may not perform to its design standard. If there’s not enough velocity, there may not be enough energy to force expansion of the bullet, thereby limiting its effectiveness.

One of the toughest tests for concealed carry ammunition is performance through heavy clothing barriers. Just about any modern hollow-point projectile will expand in picture-perfect fashion when you shoot it into water jugs or plain ballistic gelatin. Put a couple layers of clothing in front, however, and things can deteriorate quickly, because hollow points can get plugged up with fabric and fail to open properly.

These and other variables make it important to know what your self-defense ammunition will do from your gun. Just choosing a brand is not enough. Just because Acme Expando-Blaster .45 ACP works perfectly from a 1911 pistol with a five-inch barrel doesn’t mean the .380 ACP version of Expando-Blaster will work from your Ruger LCP. Each combination of gun, barrel length, caliber, brand and bullet weight is a unique situation.

The Tests

For each of these tests, I covered a Clear Ballistics gelatin block with FBI Heavy Fabric material. This cloth is a standardized four-layer fabric consisting of denim, insulation, and cotton. The idea is to simulate jacket and shirt clothing layers. To level out anomalies, I fired five shots of each ammunition type and calculated averages for penetration, expansion, and weight retention. I also measured the average velocity using a chronograph placed 15 feet down range. I also shot the ballistic gelatin blocks from a distance of 15-feet, which is consistent with the range of most self-defense encounters.

Here are the results of my tests of four popular brands of self-defense ammunition, in four common concealed carry calibers.

Note how this Barnes TAC-XDP bullet rotated as it traveled through the ballistic gelatin.

Construction: Solid copper hollow point

Handgun tested: Beretta 92FS

Velocity: feet per second

Weight before firing: 115 grains

Weight after firing: 115.2 grains

Average expansion diameter: .70 inches (9mm=.354 in.)

Average penetration depth: 13.6 inches

The TAC bullet design from Barnes resembles a cereal bowl with its cavernous hollow point mouth. It performs significantly better than Lucky Charms, however, and has developed a reputation for excellent penetration and expansion. As an all-copper projectile, there is no jacket to separate from a lead core, so it will retain all of its weight unless it physically breaks. In this test, all of the bullets weighed slightly more than 115 grains. While I didn’t observe any gel material on the spent bullets, that might explain the apparent weight gain.

You can’t ask for more consistent bullet expansion than this.

The Takeaway: All of the Barnes TAC-XPD calibers I've tested do exactly what they are supposed to do. The solid copper construction means that this ammo will do its job, even after passing through tough barriers.

Every one of the Federal HST .45 ACP bullets expanded perfectly after passing through the FBI Heavy Fabric clothing.

Construction: Jacketed hollow point

Handgun tested: Smith & Wesson SW1911 eSeries

Velocity: 903.7 feet per second

Weight before firing: 230 grains

Weight after firing: 230.1 grains

Average expansion diameter: .90 inches

Average penetration depth: 14.75 inches

Expansion was picture-perfect at exactly twice the original diameter. In addition to great penetration depth, consistency was good, with all bullets stopping between 14.1 and 15.25 inches. None of the projectiles tested lost any jacket material. After the stellar results from the full-sized gun, I also tested it in smaller 1911 pistols, a Commander and an Officer size, and got similar results.

The author tested the Federal HST .45 ACP with a Smith & Wesson SW1911 eSeries Government model.

The Takeaway: Ideal in all categories. I couldn't have asked for more from this load.

Even from the tiny Ruger LCP, I observed great penetration and expansion performance.

Construction: Jacketed hollow point

Handgun tested: Ruger LCP

Velocity: 881.5 feet per second

Weight before firing: 90 grains

Weight after firing: 89.9 grains

Average expansion diameter: .48 inches

Average penetration depth: 14 inches

The V-Crown line is new from Sig Sauer and engineered from the ground up in house. When I recently toured the factory, I saw first-hand how finicky these folks are about each and every part of the design and manufacturing process. The V-Crown bullet design uses features such as a carefully placed cannelure groove in the bullet jacket to help keep the bullet base intact through the expansion process.

It’s rare that .380 ACP bullets will expand properly after passing through heavy clothing. These Sig Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown bullets worked just fine.

.380 ACP, especially fired from a small gun like the Ruger LCP, is notoriously finicky. In my testing over the years, bullets fail to expand more than they succeed when fired through FBI heavy fabric barriers. The Sig V-Crown worked exceptionally well, even from the smallest of .380 ACP pistols. On average, the bullets expanded to 1.35 time the original diameter, with many measuring just under 1.5 times original diameter. Recoil was a bit snappy from the LCP, but that’s the price you pay for light weight and ease of carry.

The Takeaway: Even though it's a borderline caliber, and we ask a lot of it, you can find .380 ACP ammunition that works reliably from a compact handgun.

Three of these Winchester Defend .40 S&W bullets passed completely through the 16-inch ballistic gelatin block. You can see the remaining two inside.

Construction: Jacketed hollow point

Handgun tested: Glock 22

Velocity: 907.7 feet per second

Weight before firing: 180 grains

Weight after firing: 179.2 grains

Average expansion diameter: .69 inches

Average penetration depth: 15.6 inches

Winchester made things easier for newer shooters with the Train and Defend line. The company offers boxes marked “Train” for less expensive practice ammo. For self-defense, just choose the similar looking box marked “Defend.” The idea is that both types of ammo perform similarly in your handgun. Choosing the right ammo for the job couldn’t be easier.

This .40 S&W load is standard pressure, meaning it’s not turbocharged to offer maximum velocity. That means less recoil and less muzzle flip, so you can fire multiple controlled shots quickly. Even with its standard velocity levels, it performs just as it should in the FBI heavy fabric test.

The Takeaway: Don't assume that the most powerful and hardest recoiling ammunition will be the best. Standard pressure ammunition, with lower recoil and better controllability, can do the job too. You'll be able to put more rounds on target in less time.

Home tip! If you have access to a safe outdoor shooting area, you can do some simple tests of your own concealed carry ammunition. Just fill a plastic trashcan with a pile of newspaper, fill it with water, and let it sit for a day. Make sure your newspaper stack is at least a foot and a half tall when wet so you have enough material to stop the bullet. When your "newsprint in a can" is thoroughly waterlogged, turn it on its side, place an old pair of blue jeans in front, and fire away. Digging out the bullets is a bit of a mess, but at least you'll get an idea of what your carry ammo will do. While not a perfect substitute for official FBI fabric and calibrated ballistic gelatin, it'll do.