Loading target ammo in your defensive handgun is like installing slicks on your 4×4: They’re good at leading you into a jam and poor at getting you out. While premium ammo is pricey, I challenge you to name a better bargain than a $1 cartridge that could actually save your life. Here are five that were developed to do just that.

For this test, I fired each 9mm bullet into bundles of wet, dry, and damp newspapers at 5 yards from a 5-inch-barrel Smith & Wesson M&P. Each folded newspaper was roughly 1-inch thick and much tougher than a single layer of clothing, including denim. The bundles were bound tightly with plastic ties. (Note that dry newspaper bundles are tougher than flesh and hard on bullets, and represent a torture test of sorts.) I analyzed the results of both wet and dry tests, then compared each bullet to the others.

Over the course of several days and lots of trigger pulling, here’s what I found.

Barnes TAC XPD 115 Gr.

Defensive Handgun Ammo Test
Barnes TAC XPD 115 grain. author photo

Remaining true to its roots, Barnes took another route through the FBI’s protocol. Its TAC-XP bullet eliminates the possibility of the core separating from the jacket because the entire bullet is produced from one monolithic billet of copper. Its hollowpoint peels back into petals, which increases its diameter for stopping power.

It averaged 1,060 fps, penetrated 19.3 newspapers (the most), expanded to .573 inch (the least), retained 100 percent of its weight, and fed perfectly. Cost is $24 for 20 rounds.

Federal Premium Personal Defense HST 124 Gr.

Defensive Handgun Ammo Test
Federal Premium Personal Defense HST 124 Gr. author photo

Federal began developing its HST load in 2000 for law enforcement. It’s finally available to the public, only now it’s called “Personal Defense.” Like all cartridges here, it was specifically engineered to pass the FBI’s rigorous “barrier test,” which mandates that bullets traverse layers of denim, windshields, and other torturous mediums while holding together and expanding inside the target.

Fired at 1,118 fps, it penetrated 16 newspapers, expanded to .879 inch (the most), and retained 78 percent of its weight (the least). In the wet test, it retained 100 percent. Feeding was perfect. $31 for 20 rounds.

The idea is to provide ballistically equivalent practice rounds and high-end self-defense loads in one box, so training is as realistic as can be. Here’s how it shot.

Ammo Test: Federal Premium HST Practice & Defend Combo Packs

Hornady Critical Defense FTX 115 Gr.

Defensive Handgun Ammo Test
Hornady Critical Defense FTX 115 Gr. author photo

The Hornady FTX bullet’s hollowpoint contains a soft polymer material that blocks debris while applying steady pressure to the cavity to control expansion. The bullet also features Hornady’s Interlock band, which mechanically crimps the copper jacket around the lead core.

The test bullets averaged 1,019 fps, penetrated 16.3 papers, expanded to .659 inch, and retained 90 percent of its mass. It fed perfectly and was light recoiling. $28 for 25 rounds.

SIG Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown 124 Gr.

Defensive Handgun Ammo Test
SIG Sauer Elite Performance V-Crown 124 Gr. author photo

While Sig Sauer ammo is brand-new, its V-Crown bullet design is similar to most premium, lead-core projectiles. It features a shallow hollowpoint that’s scored for expansion and a lead core that’s mechanically affixed to the jacket via cannelure.

At 1,149 fps (the fastest), it plowed through 14 newspapers (the fewest), expanded to .775 inch, and retained 83.9 percent of its weight. In wet tests, it retained 100 percent. It had zero feeding issues. $22 for 20 rounds.

Winchester Elite PDX1 Defender 147 Gr.

Defensive Handgun Ammo Test
Winchester Elite PDX1 Defender 147 Gr. author photo

The PDX1 Defender has a “notched,” or scored, jacket that peels back into deadly petals as it encounters resistance, but its lead core is bonded to the jacket. It averaged 971 fps, penetrated 19 papers, and expanded to .799 inch, effectively doubling its size. It retained 96 percent of its weight and had zero feeding issues. In dry newspapers, the jacket expanded rather wildly but did not separate from its core. It is the least expensive of the loads tested, at $21 for 20 rounds.

If you ever have to use your carry gun, it’s going to be during a stressful situation…but how do you practice for it? Sweet-shooting Julie Golob shows five exercises.

Shoot Under Pressure