I know I’m not the first person to write about selecting duty or carry ammunition. In all honesty, this probably isn’t the first article this week on the topic. However, when I wrote about filing my front sight a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that this was an important step. Before I get too far down the road from that article, I want to address my criteria for choosing defensive carry ammunition, and how I settled on the .357 Short Barrel Gold Dot.
Internal & External Ballistic Factors
There are important factors around how the ammunition interacts with the gun. Some of these factors are extremely important while others are less so.
Ignition reliability: The top three factors for ammunition selection are: reliability, reliability, and reliability! Knowing that your rounds are all going to fire is of paramount importance. I’ve shot some “tuned” revolvers that have difficulty with certain ammunition. My 640 Pro with Apex spring kit has had a light strike with Winchester PDX1, a cartridge I’d otherwise be perfectly satisfied to carry. Unreliability is a deal-breaker, though.
I don’t mean to imply that unreliable ignition is a common problem. The vast majority of ammunition will function perfectly well in the vast majority of guns. But, as you are shooting the ammo to assess the other factors listed here, ignition reliability should be in your awareness.
Recoil and control: I believe this is the second most important factor. You must be able to shoot the gun accurately and quickly. Excessive recoil slows recoil recovery, which slows successive shots. Each of us has to find that intersection of power and control. I wrote about this at some length a few weeks ago.
Accuracy: This seems to be overlooked occasionally with handguns. Regardless, the accuracy of a given load should be a factor when choosing defensive carry ammunition. If your handgun’s sights are non-adjustable (as is the case with most handguns) you should select a load that shoots as close as possible to point-of-aim. You should also favor loads that group consistently well in your gun.
Case Extraction: This is important if you have to reload, and a problem that is somewhat specific to revolvers. Some rounds operate at pressures that cause the cases to expand. This can lead to sticky extraction which is a more pronounced problem in guns lacking full-length ejector rods. I want those cases to come out when I work the ejector. Note that this is a secondary factor to reliability, accuracy, and the ability control recoil. The rounds in the cylinder are much more important than the ones in your speedloader.
Cleanliness: Ammunition designed for longer barrels can leave a lot of residue and unburned powder behind when fired in guns with shorter barrels. Now, I’m not the guy that carries a squeaky clean revolver, but – unburned powder and find its way under the extractor star. This can prevent the cylinder from closing and bind up the gun. Of course all ammo will be a little dirty, but if it is extremely dirty you might consider moving on for the sake of reliability.
Muzzle flash: This is a very minor factor, but perhaps deserves some consideration. Most modern defensive ammunition utilizes “flash suppressed” powders. If you have the opportunity to safely fire a couple of rounds of your top candidates in darkness, it’s probably not a bad idea. Unless it is absolutely blinding, I wouldn’t rule out an otherwise suitable candidate because of muzzle flash.
Terminal Ballistic Factors
I’m not going to beat up on this category. Plenty of others have written about bullet performance, and have given a better account of the situation that I could begin to. I will summarize the key points, however. It is difficult and expensive to perform these tests on your own. In selecting my own defensive carry ammunition I am generally relying on the results of the Lucky Gunner .38/.357 tests.
Penetration: In the absence of another meaningful standard, I default to the FBI standard for penetration. The Standard (big “T”, big “S”) dictates penetration between 12 and 18 inches. The infamous 1986 Miami Shootout was the provenance of this dictate. I am happy with anything that consistently penetrates to these prescribed depths, though I wouldn’t automatically rule out anything that is slightly (let’s say an inch or two) under or over.
Expansion: With modern bullet technology there is little reason to select a bullet that doesn’t expand at all. The prevailing wisdom these days seems to be that a bullet should expand to about 150% of its original diameter (for a .38/.357 this would be an expanded diameter of .535 or greater). I consider this a rule of thumb. I will accept a little less expansion in exchange for reliable, consistent, predictable expansion at the velocities generated in my gun. It is important to note that expansion should occur after interaction with layers of heavy clothing, and test results should reflect this.
An important note in regards to expansion: barrel length influences velocity, and velocity influences expansion. Too little velocity and the bullet doesn’t expand (and very likely way over-penetrates). Too much velocity and the bullet can (potentially) over-expand or fragment. You should look for gel tests that have occurred with a barrel length similar to your gun’s. The Lucky Gunner test was pretty unique in that it included tests for both 2″ and 4″ guns. As LG also demonstrated, velocities between two- and four-inch barrels can be significantly different.
Weight Retention: One other factor to consider here, and one that is far less prevalent today than in yesteryear, is weight retention. It is undesirable for the bullet to fragment as this is not conducive to effective penetration. I am looking for something in the neighborhood of 99 to 100% weight retention.
There are couple of mechanical concerns, the first two of which deal more with reloading the revolver than anything else. I’ve mentioned them before but they are worth hauling out again here.
Bullet Shape: Bullet shape becomes a big factor when we talk about reloading the revolver from a speedloader. Some shapes are much harder to get into the chambers than others. For example, I’d hate to have to put the new Federal .38 HSTs in a speedloader. Loading them would require a near perfect alignment with the charge holes. Some bullets might seem like a great shape but turn out not to be in practice. For example I recently tried out the Hornady Critical Duty loads. They are very pointy, but the rubber plug on the tip of the round is very grippy. I found that unless I nail the reload and hit all six cylinders perfectly this slowed my reloads down a lot.
Case Construction: I’ve mentioned this before but I greatly prefer cases that are nickel-plated over plain brass. These tend to avoid corrosion and remain nice and slick, allowing them to slip into chambers more easily. Nickel-plating also aids in case extraction.
Waterproofing: If you stamp the word “waterproof” on anything, it will catch the eye of this old jarhead. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see that word appear on a box of ammo. Instead I look for primer sealant on the case. This is usually pretty easy to see if it’s present. Speer, for instance, uses a blue primer sealant. It’s harder to tell if a case-mouth sealant is used. In reality this is a tertiary concern for me, but it might be a bigger concern for you if you live in hot, humid environments, work outdoors, or spend a great deal of time in and around water. If this is a huge concern for you, you may have to devise your own test for ascertaining whether or not your cartridges are waterproof.
Practical (read: Boring) Factors
So, all of that was the sexy, fun stuff. But there are a few prosaic considerations to think about here. I don’t see these written about very often, but they are definitely worth some thought.
Cost: How expensive is the ammunition? I know, I know – how much is your life worth? If one box of ammunition is all you needed this might be a fair statement. But I contend you probably need a little bit more than a box or two. You need to verify reliability. You need to test accuracy. You need a few “extra” rounds. You need to rotate those rounds out occasionally. I don’t think you need to shoot 200 rounds before you deem your ammo “good to go” but you should have more than a 20-round box.
There is decent expanding ammunition that doesn’t cost a fortune. A good example is the .357 Remington Golden Saber. At around $300/case of 500 this is less than half of what you would spend on a similar quantity of super high-end, premium ammo, and it performs well.
Availability: Finding a certain brand, caliber, and bullet weight in the premium defensive ammunition lines can be notoriously difficult. Some gun shops carry certain things, and others don’t. The internet has alleviated this somewhat, but certain rounds can still be hard to find. This is one of those practical things that may drive your decision somewhat.
Long-term Availability: Though I tend to stock up on ammunition, I like to have a reasonable degree of certainty that my preferred load will be around for a while. For this reason I strongly favor ammunition from established manufacturers. There’s nothing wrong with upstart and boutique companies – even upstart ammo companies. I like to support them when I can, but I’m not going to adopt a carry load from them. When choosing my defensive carry ammunition I’ll go with a company that has been around a long time, and has a well respected product line that has seen decent adoption by law enforcement.
There are some factors that should give you pause when choosing defensive carry ammunition. The firearms and ammunition industries are not immune to gimmick products. There are some contraindications that will make me second guess a particular load or brand. The questions I’m going ask are:
Is this a new round that is making all sorts of fantastic claims about “extreme” this or that, or some newly discovered bullet technology? I’m content to leave “multiple wound channels” and “extreme penetration” to shotguns and rifles, respectively. Do the cartridges come in blister packs? That’s a bad sign. Are the cartridges designed to either, a. not expand and provide penetration that can be measured in feet instead of inches, b. provide radical expansion at the expense of penetration, or c. fragment and not retain weight? If the answers to any of the above are “yes”, I’ll pass. Is the ammunition way more expensive than premium ammunition from more established manufacturers? That’s a practical factor I can’t ignore regardless of how “great” this new bullet is.
Choosing Defensive Carry Ammunition: Putting It Together
So these are all a bunch or seemingly disconnected factors, but putting this together isn’t all that hard. I’m going to start with some bullet performance data from trusted sources since this is the stuff I am not going to try to do myself. There are tons of online resources out there that document bullet performance. I am a fan of the Lucky Gunner’s test. I was also fortunate enough to help out with that test, firing a few of those shots and digging a lot of those bullets out of the blocks, so I tend to lean that way. If my bias puts you off, a little poking around on Google and YouTube will yield plenty of other results.
After I’ve narrowed down the candidates based on what I believe to be adequate penetration, expansion, and weight retention, I’m going to see what I can find. Online shopping makes it easier to find what you’re looking for, but certain rounds (the Winchester Ranger line comes to mind) can still be hard to find. Once I’ve found what I’m looking for, I’ll assess its availability, both in the short and long terms. If it looks like something I’ll be able to lay in a decent supply of, and still be able to buy a couple years from now, I’ll buy a couple boxes and move on to the next step.
The next step involves shooting some of the ammo. There are a couple of sub-phases to this. The first portion will be spent running the gun pretty hard and checking a few things. Can I control the recoil over multiple shots? Are the cartridges hard to get into the cylinders during reloads? During each reload I’m also going to be cognizant of extraction – do the cartridges all come out fairly easily?
The next portion is some slow-fire and possibly even rested fire. This is to determine the accuracy in my gun, – i.e. does it shoot point-of-aim (or close to it) and does it hold an acceptable group? Throughout both of these phases I’m aware of the other factors. Is it reliable? A single light-strike is enough to turn me off to an entire line of ammunition – in THAT gun. Is it overly dirty? If I have the opportunity, I’ll fire a cylinder or two in low light to assess the muzzle flash, but as previously stated this is a tertiary consideration for me at most.
The Bottom Line
Do you have to be this anal about choosing defensive ammo? Honestly, probably not. In fact, you’ll probably be just fine with any premium jacketed hollowpoint, provided you can hit with it and control it. But I’m a detail guy. So there’s the details as I see them – use them as you see fit.