Empty out your magazine or cylinder and take a look at the cartridges you had loaded. Did you still have FMJ’s loaded from your last trip to the range? Even if you do have self-defense ammunition, how much thought did you put into that choice? Possibly you did some research and already have your ideal self defense ammunition.
Whether you fall into any or none of these categories, becoming familiarized with what today’s self-defense ammunition is capable of is an important part of being a responsible gun owner. Ignoring this aspect of carrying a firearm could lead to underperformance when you need it the most, or the collateral damage caused by over penetration.
There is a litany of self defense ammunition available, all with varying degrees of claims about temporary wound cavities, penetration, secondary and tertiary wound channels, even zombie stopping abilities. How do you cut through the misinformation of advertising and focus on what matters most? First, we are going to share some terminal ballistics information with you to illustrate exactly what is happening when these high performance rounds are impacting their intended targets. That will lead us to discussing how to interpret a manufacturer’s label and debunking some of the claims you’ve heard. By the end of this story, you will be armed with the knowledge to be critical about the self-defense ammunition you carry.
We all know what happens when we pull the trigger, but what happens when that bullet impacts your target is just as important. Terminal ballistics is the study of “how a projectile behaves when it hits its target and transfers its kinetic energy to the target. The bullet’s design [and] impact velocity plays a huge role in how the energy is transferred.” – Hornady
Those two topics specifically; bullet design and impact velocity are the topics we’ll dive into today. Of the two, impact velocity is a factor that has been misinterpreted or misapplied in some ways. In the world of higher velocity rounds like rifle cartridges, a 5.56 NATO ball is going to impact its target around 3,000 feet per second, creating the massive temporary wound cavity due to hydrostatic shock.
This is the ideal way that a round should perform, but due to the technological limitations of handguns and their ammunition, most handgun bullets travel at less than 1,600 fps. Even higher pressure cartridges like the +P and +P+ aren’t even close to breaking into the threshold speed required to replicate the massive temporary wound cavity that rifle rounds create.
The role that the speed of the bullet really plays is in regards to penetration. Since the temporary wound cavity isn’t going to cause the catastrophic damage that a rifle round would, the handgun bullet expanding and penetrating deep enough is more likely to stop the threat. Standards vary across the world, but United States federal and local level law enforcement standards look for 12 to 18 inches of penetration to consider a round effective. Why this number? 12 to 18 inches of penetration in ballistic gel replicates the same density of tissue that a round would encounter entering nearly any angle towards the thorax of the chest.
Unfortunately for their marketing departments, impact velocity is something that can only be conveyed by stamping it on the packaging and hoping that customers know what they’re looking for. Bullet design however is where manufactures can really set themselves apart. Some design features are developed for better reasons than others and likely why you’ve seen some variation of the collection displayed below.
The truth is, no amount of “radically invasive projectile” or ‘zombie rounds’ will consistently perform through hard and soft barriers unless they were purposely made for that. Enter your bonded hollow point collections. Firstly, why a hollow point? And why, specifically, a bonded hollow point? Hollow point bullets have a recognizable divot of varying degrees that cause the bullet to mushroom as soon as it comes in contact with flesh.
The reason this happens is due to the hydrostatic pressure created in that divot. Human beings are made up of 80% water, a substance that doesn’t compress well (or at all) so when you have that small amount of water-based flesh collect in the hollowed out point, the force behind it is going to cause the hydrostatic pressure to take the path of least resistance to escape the hollowed point. This is when the bullet peels back along its perforations, resulting in the recognizable mushrooming.
Most higher quality bonded hollow points will perform better after hitting barriers like denim, drywall, and sometimes even auto glass. However, not all hollow points are created equal. In the most extreme of tests, we shot at ballistic gel through auto glass. Most of the non-bonded hollow points either disintegrated upon impact or had very limited penetration by fragments of the bullet that made it through the glass. However, the bonded hollow points retained most of their integrity after passing through the glass and still achieved significant penetration.
The hydrostatic pressure built up in the hollow point causes the bullet to split along perforations and mushroom out.
Non-bonded hollow points through auto glass. The dust on the face of the ballistic gel is actually from one of the bullets disintegrating after hitting the glass. Other rounds fragmented and penetrated less than 6 inches.
Bonded hollow points retaining their integrity and penetration after passing through auto glass.
The main factor that kept the bonded hollow points intact was that the Gold Dots’ jacket and core were bonded at the molecular process via heating through their proprietary Uni-Cor® process. What the failure of the other non-bonded bullets demonstrated was the inability of those bullets’ core and jacket to stay together. Some manufacturers claim to have bonded cores and jackets but due to the process not having a widely accepted standard, there is a varying degree of bond strength. Some will even use an adhesive similar to JB-Weld to bond their bullets just to save money but still make that claim.
In conclusion, the shiniest package may not be the ideal self-defense ammunition for your purposes. It is also important to rotate these rounds as well, as these cartridges get exposed to more everyday dirt and hand oil from unloading and rotating magazines over the year. Generally, it’s a good practice to shoot off your self-defense ammunition once every year.
After your first purchase, be sure to grab an extra box just to train on and discover any stoppages or issues caused by the ammunition. For the performance, we can most confidently recommend Speer Gold Dot on .380 up to .45 and Federal HST for 9mm to .45. Both had consistent penetration within the 12 to 18 inches standard. If you end up doing some more of your own research, be sure to remain critical of the bullet’s bonding process, penetration through barriers, and ballistic gel penetration between 12 and 18 inches.
We know you may not be ready to go out and do you own testing, that’s why research is so important. There is a wealth of information available to you that answers all of those checks. What do you carry for self defense and why? Share your experience with us in the comments!
For more from Marc Holley, Owner and Executive Instructor at Atlas Defense, click here!