In Search of the Ultimate Self Defense Handgun Ammo

There are several age old debates among gun enthusiasts. One of those debates, is the debate for the best ammo for a defensive pistol. Folks will flex their egos while engaging in this debate as they go off on tangents about the best caliber, best projectile, best penetration, best expansion, and so on. It’s quite entertaining to watch. It’s fun to engage in as well as long as one has thick enough skin to deal with the furious backlash of those whom disagree. But at the end of the day, the ammo one selects may very well be the ammo one’s life may depend on. So how does one find the ultimate ammo?

Before I begin, I am assuming a personal defense pistol has been selected. If this isn’t the case, I suggest reading my guide on selecting a firearm for concealed carry. With the cartridge selection settled, let’s look at things to consider ordered by importance:

  1. Legal compliance
  2. Reliability
  3. Affordability
  4. Availability

Let’s dive into each of those considerations.

Legal Compliance

As a law abiding armed citizen, the last thing we want is to land on the wrong side of the law due to technicality. Especially, after having defended ourselves in a justifiable deadly force encounter.

There are several different types of self defense handgun ammunition. All of which are generally designed to expand reliably and penetrate enough to neutralize a threat while no over-penetrating and risking harm to unintended targets. The most common design employed for self defense is a jacketed hollow point. However, certain types of ammunition are banned in certain jurisdictions.

It’s imperative that ammunition not legal in one’s jurisdiction is eliminated from the list of candidate ammunition just to stay on the right side of the law.

One other thing to consider, is the ammunition branding itself even if the ammunition is legal. In the event of a justified deadly force self defense encounter, I would prefer to not give the prosecution any reason to attack my character or frame of mind based on the branding of my selected ammunition.

For example, several years a go I bought a box of Hornady Zombie Max ammo. It’s basically the same ammo as Hornady Critical Defense line with a zombie themed box and green polymer tips on the ammo (instead of the typical red tips). I thought it was fun branding and so I bought a box. Never shot it. Have never carried it. Probably never will. For the very reason, that I don’t want to (or have my attorney) explain to a jury how the zombie theme has nothing to do with a self defense event.

Reliability

With the legal considerations out of the way, the next thing to consider is the ammunition’s reliability.

There are several aspects to reliability, but I like to start by looking at reliable expansion and acceptable penetration. Thankfully, there is a wealth of information on the internet regarding that. I like to start by looking at the ballistic test results published by Lucky Gunner Labs. They have test a large number of different self defense ammunition in common cartridges fired from typical defensive firearms. It’s fairly easy to sift through the test results to find a few ammo candidates that demonstrate reliable expansion and acceptable penetration to research further.

With a few candidates in hand, a Google search for my carry gun, an ammo candidate, and the term “ballistic gel test” will generally provide a few other blog posts or videos. Some times the results aren’t the exact combination I am looking for, but generally speaking there is enough for me to determine whether or not to discard the candidate ammunition.

There is one additional aspect to reliability that is arguably more important than researching expansion and penetration. That is will the candidate ammunition fire reliably from one’s selected carry weapon. The actual weapon. Not a weapon like it, but the actual one that will be carrying the selected ammunition.

So for me the next step is to take the candidate ammunition to the range and run at least 100 rounds through my carry gun. Before I do this, I like to clean and lubricate my gun and clean the magazines I will use in order to eliminate the potential of encountering a maintenance related malfunction. I expect to have zero malfunctions at the range. While I’ve never had malfunction as part of my ammunition selection process, I would through out the candidate ammunition and move on to the next one if I did.

Afforability

Let’s face it, self defense ammunition is more expensive than full metal jacket (FMJ) practice/range ammunition. Sometimes much more expensive. Sometimes prohibitively so.

In my opinion, if the ammunition is so expensive that I wouldn’t do a reliability test then it’s not the ammunition for me. Beyond that, it’s a good idea to cycle through carry ammunition from time to time. How often is open for debate. While I won’t make a recommendation, I will share that I like to cycle out my carry ammunition about every three (3) months. Which means every three months, I will go to range and shoot the ammunition I have been carrying.

Why do I cycle out my carried ammo? Well, the ammo that is regularly carried is exposed to the elements indirectly. It’s exposed every day to the ambient temperature and humidity. As it goes in and out of holsters and pockets, it will pick up dust, lint, dirt, and grime. The rounds get exposed to oil and whatever else is on the hands as the ammo is loaded and unloaded from the gun and magazines as the gun gets taken to range, classes, and competitions. All of this is not ideal storage for the carry ammunition, which makes me think it’s a good idea to shoot it and cycle new ammunition from time to time.

This means that whatever ammunition I chose to carry, I also need to afford to shoot from time to time. At a minimum that’s two magazines worth (plus one for the one in the chamber) every three months in my case, which amounts to a box and a half of twenty round count boxes.

Another rule of thumb that I like to follow is, if I’m not willing to pull out my carry gun and shoot a few rounds (or let a friend try a few rounds) at the range because I’m concerned about the cost, then the ammunition is probably not affordable enough for me.

To each their own, but the bottom line is to be certain the ammunition is affordable enough to replace from time to time.

Availability

The availability consideration is very similar to affordability.

I’ve got a friend who pocket carries a small semi-automatic pistol chambered for .380 ACP. One time when we were at the range, I asked him if I could try his pistol. He agreed but made sure to take out the self defense ammunition and loaded it some practice FMJ ammunition. I didn’t think anything of it until he began telling me about how good and wonderful his self defense ammo selection was. He went on to tell me that he would have let me try it, but the ammunition is no longer manufactured and he only has a magazine’s worth plus a few spare rounds. I can’t recall what the ammunition was, but it did get me wondering how long ammunition would remain reliable after being exposed to pocket carry regularly.

Another example, is the Zombie Max ammunition I mentioned earlier. It’s no longer manufactured, which means it’s no longer available. Sure, my understanding is that it’s essentially the exact same ammunition in Hornady’s Critical Defense ammunition line and could be replaced by it. But I like the fun factor of the branding and green polymer tips so I hesitate to use it due to it’s lack of availability for replacement.

Both of these stories are indicators to me that it is time to find a different self defense ammunition to carry regularly.

What does Uncle Zo carry?

Depends on the gun as I don’t have just one firearm that I carry for self defense. But since folks are curious I will share what ammo I typically carry.

Depending on the gun, for defense against other human threats I will typically carry:

When I’m out hunting, I will typically load the 10mm with Underwood Ammo 10mm 140 grain Xtreme Penetrator.

One other thing I like to do that I will share is that I try to match the load and projectile weight of practice ammunition to the those of the self defense ammunition. For example, I practice with standard load 9mm 124 grain ammunition as such I don’t use 9mm +P loads for my carry ammo. I believe keeping the practice and self defensive ammunition as similar as possible will improve my chances of surviving a self defense encounter. I’m not suggesting everyone should do this. Rather just sharing what I do.

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Author: Uncle Zo

Just an average Joe who loves to geek out on firearm mechanics and ballistics.

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