Federal Syntech Defense: Ammo Test

See how the new hollow point, polymer-jacketed defensive rounds performed, including results of our ballistic gel test.

Federal’s new Syntech Defense ammo in 9mm
Federal’s new Syntech Defense ammo in 9mm.Tom McHale

Federal Syntech ammunition, launched a couple of years ago, turned a few heads with its bright red polymer jackets. But those bright colors are not some marketing gimmick. In fact, there are good reasons for discarding copper jackets in favor of advanced polymer coatings.

Until now, most of the benefits have been demonstrated through the company’s Range, Action Pistol, and Match offerings. However, there’s a new kid, and a new color, on the block.

The Federal Syntech Defense offering with its distinctive blue noses, are intended for serious use. Let’s take a closer look.

The Syntech Family

Federal Syntech Ammo
There are three primary types of Federal Syntech Ammo. Left to right: Range and Action Pistol, Training Match, and Defense.Tom McHale

Since its original introduction as a practice total synthetic jacket (TSJ) design, the Syntech family has grown to include some performance variants.

Syntech Range

syntech range ammo
Syntech Range ammo is the original round from the Syntech line intended for target shooting. • $16.99Federal

The original, now known as Syntech Range, is easy to identify thanks to its lipstick red projectile color. When you make bullet “jackets” out of synthetic polymer, there’s no reason you can’t make it in any color you want. As we’ll see, the color coding comes in handy.

The Range family is for plinking, practice, and competition if you like. The bullets compare to traditional FMJ loads with round noses for 9mm, round-nose, flat-points in .40 S&W, and round noses for the .45 ACP offering. The 9mm is available in 115 and 124-grain options while .40 S&W and .45 ACP weigh in at 165 and 230 grains.

Syntech PCC

syntech pcc ammo
Syntech PCC ammo is optimized for use in pistol caliber carbines. • $16.99Federal

New this year is a Pistol Caliber Carbine load for 9mm. Specifically designed for reliable feeding, carbine accuracy, and appropriate velocity for longer barrel use, this load weighs in at 130 grains.

Syntech Action Pistol

syntech action pistol ammo
The Syntech Action Pistol loads were specifically developed for competition shooting. • $16.99Federal

Available in 9mm 150-grain, .40 S&W 205-grain, and .45 ACP 220-grain, these loads were specifically developed for competition. You can use them however you like, but they’re built to play by the rules and meet power factor requirements for those three calibers.

The heavier bullets with flat-nose designs are also intended to do a better job of knocking down steel plate and popper targets.

Syntech Training Match

syntech training match ammo
Syntech Training Match rounds are loaded to shoot to the same point of impact and offer similar recoil function as Federal HST defensive loads. • $16.99Federal

For serious self-defense and tactical training, you might consider the distinctive purple-tipped Training Match series. If you carry the outstanding Federal HST defensive or tactical loads, you’ll find that the Syntech Training Match rounds are loaded to shoot to the same point of impact and offer similar recoil function as the HST loads.

The 9mm Training Match is available in both 124 and 147-grain loadings while the .40 and .45 weigh in at the standard 180 and 230-grains.

Syntech Defense

syntech defense ammo
Federal Syntech Defense ammo have hollow point bullets designed to fragment into four pieces creating distinct wound channels.Federal

The new kid on the block is the Syntech Defense cartridge. Colored blue for easy identification, these are not traditional hollow points but fragmenting bullets designed to create multiple wound channels.

These bullets have a hollow cavity in the nose that capture fluid as they travel. The pressure drives fragmentation of three sections of the nose in different directions, creating unique wound channels.

federal syntech defense ammo
New to the family is the Syntech Defense. Identifiable by its blue color, the projectiles appear to be hollow points but are designed to fragment in organic targets.Tom McHale

The heavier base of the bullet continues on a straight path, penetrating deeply. Syntech Defense is available in 138-grain 9mm, 175-grain .40 S&W, and 205-grain .45 ACP packagings.

So, what’s the big deal about Syntech Ammo? I have to admit I thought it a bit of a gimmick with its “plastic” coatings and brightly colored bullets. After using the original Syntech for the past year or so, I’ve changed my tune.

Looking at a variety of criteria, it’s a solid performer across the board. Let’s consider some reasons it makes sense.

Shooting Steel

One benefit of losing the copper jacket is that there’s less fragmentation when shooting steel targets. With traditional bullets, the copper jacket is harder than the interior lead filling, so it’s generally the copper fragments that create the greatest fragmentation risk to shooters and bystanders.

I’ve seen copper fragments from standard FMJ ammo bounce back a full 25 yards with enough force to embed in a bystander’s forearm. On the other hand, the lead portion, thanks to its softer nature, tends to flatten on impact. With a properly angled steel target, the lead portion will dive straight to the ground.

Syntech Range ammo
I’ve shot hundreds and hundreds of rounds of Syntech Range at steel targets and there is virtually zero fragmentation that bounces back towards the shooter. With a properly angled target, the lead core pancakes and drops to the ground.Tom McHale

Since the Syntech bullets have no copper jacket, there’s little to fragment in the traditional manner.

Can pieces of lead still bounce and fly in unanticipated directions? Sure. Don’t use the Syntech design as an excuse to shoot steel at unsafe distances. But you will see, as I have, that the overall amount of fragmentation is a fraction of that of jacketed bullets. If you’re a steel target shooter or competitor, this is a BIG benefit to using Syntech ammo.

Fouling

One raison d’être of the Syntech ammunition if that it runs cleaner and doesn’t foul the barrel as much as traditional jacketed ammunition. As there is no copper at all in the jacket, there is no copper fouling. Ever. Even though pistol rounds don’t shed copper jacket material into barrel grooves as much as rifle calibers, it will build up over time. Not so with the Syntech.

Nor will the polymer coating build up in the barrel. I’ve fired hundreds and hundreds of rounds during this testing and there is no trace of blue, red, or purple goo inside the bore. That makes sense when you think about it.

Syntech Training Match ammo
The Syntech Training Match ammo is calibrated to the Federal HST self-defense loads in the same bullet weight. They’ll feel the same, hit to the same point of impact, and keep your gun running cleaner.Tom McHale

While the material is tough enough to stay in place as the bullet travels down the barrel, it’s far, far softer than metal and any residual trace will get pushed and/or burned out by subsequent shots. By the way, I did recover whole bullets from ballistic gelatin, so I was able to verify that the jackets remain intact as the bullets are fired, so there will be no long-term lead build up in the barrel either.

You'll still get the normal carbon and powder residue. Even through the bullet material runs cleaner, you're still burning powder. However, the bottom line is this: easier cleaning. The hard stuff, like lead and copper, just doesn’t contact the inside of the bore so there’s nothing to accumulate.

Temperature

Another reason for the polymer jacket approach is operating wear and temperature. With traditional bullets, each and every shot subjects the barrel to extreme abuse. Copper on steel contact is forced, under high pressure and temperature. Over time, this wears out the barrel, even though the steel is harder than copper jackets.

The Syntech with its polymer coating is far gentler on the barrel interior and, in theory, will run a lot cooler. That polymer coated bullet should travel down the barrel with a lot less friction than a copper jacketed projectile. Less friction means less heat, as heat energy is a direct output of friction.

According to internal tests at Federal Ammunition, the Syntech bullets produce 12 percent less friction and 14 percent less heat than standard jacketed projectiles.

experiment tools and ammo
It was a nice idea, but the experiment to measure friction heat didn’t quite go as planned.Tom McHale

Have you ever had a really neat idea only to find it didn’t quite work out as planned? Well… I thought it would be cool to test the friction and heat theory, I used some modern technology in the form of an infrared thermometer.

My plan was to use a Beretta 92X pistol to fire a bunch of standard and Syntech rounds at the same rate and measure the barrel temperature after each session. The Beretta’s open slide design meant that I wouldn’t have to disassemble the pistol to get a quick reading of barrel temperature. I’d be able to do that seconds after I fired the last shot.

After being careful to start with equal barrel temperatures, I fired several magazines of Syntech Defense and more traditional copper-jacketed Blazer Brass ammo.

After measuring the after temperatures of each scenario, it was clear that what little barrel heating occurred was more a result of burning powder than friction. In each case, the barrel only heated up about 10 or 15 degrees. Back to the drawing board.

Velocity

I ran the Syntech Defense through three different guns to test out actual velocity. On an 80-degree day here in sunny South Carolina, I shot strings through my Shooting Chrony Beta Master Chronograph to get average figures.

The new Sig Sauer P320 XCompact pistol with its 3.5-inch barrel launched the blue polymer bullets at 1,040 feet per second. I also fired through a Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 4.25-inch barreled pistol and measured an average velocity of 1,070.2 fps thanks to its longer barrel length.

Sig Sauer P320 XCompact and a Smith and Wesson M&P 2.0 with syntech ammo
I tested the Syntech Defense with two pistols, a Sig Sauer P320 XCompact with a Trijicon RMR optic and a Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 with an APEX Tactical barrel upgrade.Tom McHale

I also tested the Syntech Defense with the new Ruger PC Carbine with a free-floated barrel. This would make an interesting round in that platform as I suspect the extra velocity from the longer carbine barrel would not risk over expansion as the bullets aren't designed to expand. At a higher velocity, perhaps the fragmenting effect would be enhanced and the fragments might penetrate deeper.

From the Ruger PC Carbine 16-inch barrel, I got a couple hundred feet per second bonus with the velocity averaging 1,240.7 fps.

Accuracy

So, is the Syntech Defense 9mm accurate? I tested that out using two different pistols: a SIG Sauer P320 XCompact outfitted with a Trijicon RMR red dot sight and a Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 with a 4.25-inch barrel.

Smith & Wesson M&P syntech defense
This Smith & Wesson M&P has a custom fitted barrel and shoots exceptionally well. The Syntech Defense averaged 1.78-inch, five-shot groups at 25 yards.Tom McHale

I should note that the M&P is accurized. I fitted an Apex Tactical semi-drop in barrel to it some months ago and it’s no longer in the ranks of "acceptable" service pistols. It’ll shoot on par with just about anything. To remove my eyes as a source of sighting error with the M&P, I mounted a Bushnell handgun scope using a UM Tactical Rail Adapter.

Anyway, I set up targets at 25 yards and shot multiple groups with each pistol. The SIG Sauer with its 3.5-inch barrel delivered average groups of 2.28 inches while the Smith & Wesson M&P with the Apex Tactical barrel shot into 1.87 inches. Not bad for plastic-coated bullets, eh?

I also did some accuracy testing using the Ruger PC Carbine. After mounting a Steiner P4Xi 1-4x28 scope, I fired five-shot groups from 50 yards. The average group size measured 2.02 inches at that longer range.

Penetration

The oft-overlooked performance attribute of defensive ammunition is penetration. While picture-perfect expanded bullets look great when posed on a block of ballistic gelatin, that doesn’t do much good unless bullet mass penetrates deeply enough to cause damage to vital areas.

The FBI testing protocol calls for 12 to 18 inches of penetration in 10% ballistic gelatin. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, consider that a large adult male can easily have a “straight-on” 12-inch depth from chest to back. An overweight or exceptionally muscular person can easily exceed that.

Now think about angles and extremities. While it would be convenient for self-defense purposes, few if any attackers are going to dutifully stand still, arms at sides, and face you directly should you have to encourage them to stop trying to kill you. Arms will be in the air. The body might be angled relative to you. Add motion to the mix and who knows what path a defensive round will have to take to reach a vital area.

When you think about it, that 12 to 18 inches can get used up pretty easily. The FBI ballistic technicians are pretty smart people.

Syntech Defense 9mm defense barrier
I shot the Syntech Defense 9mm through the FBI Heavy Fabric (4-layer) barrier and into gelatin. Just as advertised, the bullet split into four sections. Three branched off into separate wound channels and the bullet base penetrated deeply.Tom McHale

I fired the 9mm Federal Syntech Defense into ballistic gelatin blocks using two different scenarios, both of which are part of the FBI testing protocol.

While the FBI folks test a wide variety of barriers because officers may have to shoot through barriers like car windshields, automotive steel, and wood, armed citizens are far more likely to only encounter heavy clothing and perhaps drywall in a home-defense situation. Yes, I realize that anything can happen, but I prefer to be data driven for testing like this. In the overwhelming majority of self-defense shooting encounters, there are no barriers at all in play, so I tested accordingly.

First up, I covered the 16-inch gelatin block with the FBI four-fabric layer material. This consists of denim, insulation fabric, and two cotton layers. The idea is to replicate a person wearing an undershirt, shirt, and insulated jacket.

In this test, the bullet performed as advertised. The three fragments penetrated to a depth of nine inches. The difference in depth between all three was less than a half an inch. The solid base portion of the projectile continued on a near-perfect straight path and penetrated to a depth of 20.5 inches.

Fortunately, I routinely put a second block behind the first in case rounds go farther than the length of the 16-inch block. Results? While the FBI might prefer 18 or fewer inches of penetration for the bullet base, I’m not complaining. This ammo performed perfectly as advertised.

Next up, I tested one of the FBI barriers that might be more likely to apply to a home-defense scenario. While I’m not aware of any cases where homeowner and invader shot it out through walls like a scene from The Matrix, I’m sure there’s got to be an example or two somewhere.

non-fragmented bullet
When I shot through drywall, the bullet clogged up and didn’t fragment. Then again, drywall is arguably the toughest barrier that inhibits normal expansion performance.Tom McHale

I placed a sheet of standard drywall in front of the heavy four-layer fabric and fired through the drywall and four layers of fabric into the ballistic gelatin. In this scenario, the “hollow point” clogged up with drywall dust and the bullet didn’t fragment as desired.

My backup block was sideways, and the whole bullet penetrated both the 16-inch long block, the six-inch backup block, and stopped at the expired bullet-proof vest I use as a backstop for gelatin testing.

The projectile obviously didn’t have much lunch money or enthusiasm by the time it struck the vest, so it was moving slow at that point. Although it exited the gel, it didn’t even penetrate the fabric cover of the vest. Let’s call penetration about 22 inches.

Expansion / Fragmentation Results

The whole point of the Syntech Defense ammo is to fragment when it hits organic targets. At first glance, the bullets look like blue plastic hollow points. The core of the projectile is lead, but it’s covered with a polymer material instead of a copper jacket.

The interior of the bullet is designed to create three four distinct fragments on impact, or as the hollow point cavity experiences pressure from passing through the fluid of an organic target. The nose of the bullet breaks into three components.

Federal Syntech Ammo
I dig out the pieces and weighed them. While the bullet lost a few grains, the fragmentation worked perfectly.Tom McHale

Internal scoring of the projectile, along with the hollow point design, sends them in three distinct outward directions, kind of like a sideways pyramid. The base of the bullet is supposed to continue along its original path and provide deep penetration.

So, what happened?

In the standard heavy fabric scenario, the bullet performed better than advertised. After passing through the four layers of the FBI testing protocol, the three nose fragments created new paths extending outward from the path of travel.

It was a picture-perfect pyramid pattern. The factory specs call for six inches of penetration, so we’ll call that part of the test a win. As the purpose of this design is to create four distinct wound channels, the fragmentation pattern results were also a resounding success.

weighing a federal syntech bullet fragment
The base I recovered weighed in at 82.3 grains.Tom McHale

I weighed the recovered pieces to better understand how much mass was going where. The three nose fragments that branched off into separate wound channels weighed 53 grains after recovery for an average of 17.67 grains.

The recovered base of the bullet weighed 82.3 grains. That works out to 135.3 grains, so just a small bit of the 138-grain original bullet was lost along the way.

Closing Arguments

I’m sold on the Syntech offerings for practice, competition, and training. I’ve been using the original Range offerings for a year or so now and have had nothing but stellar results. In the practice ammo category, it’s been 100% reliable and accuracy is impressive considering it’s not expensive self-defense or match ammo. The safer performance on steel targets is an added bonus.

The new Syntech Defense offering brings an interesting solution to the table. I’m not much for self-defense ammo gimmicks. It seems every month there’s some new load on the market that promises to defy physics and biology and deliver the energy of a space shuttle booster rocket using some new material ending in “illium” or some such made-up thing. Syntech Defense doesn’t rely on some new unproven gimmick or performance attribute.

Fragmenting bullets are sound science at this point, so the idea of creating multiple wound channels that penetrate to reasonable depths is not a snake oil solution. In my tests, the fragments went nine inches into the gelatin and the heavy base section met or exceeded penetration standards.

So, I see the approach as a bonus. You’ll definitely get deep penetration from at least one of the four unique paths. You’ll also get the likely outcome of three additional ones, even if they don’t go as deep.