Ammo & Gear Reviews

Is High-Velocity Ammunition Worth It for Handguns?

Guns and Gear Contributor
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By Joseph Terry, Gun Digest

My opinion is, for the average shooter, probably not.

Handgun ammo comes in many different loadings within caliber. High-velocity ammunition varieties (often referred to as “+P”) come with higher combustion pressures and more sophisticated bullet designs. Advanced projectiles upset more (increase their frontal area) to create a larger wound channel, and higher pressures produce more energy transfer into the human body. The desired result is faster incapacitation, and if you know you can handle it, this is a good thing. For experienced shooters the extra cost is well worth it.

What’s the Problem with High-Velocity Ammunition?

The problem is higher pressures bring more recoil and muzzle flash. In some loadings, this means a lot more recoil and flash. This is especially significant when the gun must be fired at night.

High-velocity handgun rounds can create a muzzle flash or “bloom” (especially in today’s shorty handguns) so distracting that it can take you out of the fight tactically by destroying your night vision.

With a lot of practice, you can learn to tolerate the recoil and using a tactical light properly can reduce the flash effects. In my experience, most civilians and many cops don’t practice enough to overcome either side effect of the high velocity loadings. The increase in stopping power may then be offset by poor shot placement. And if you have not fired your “duty round” in the dark, you really have no idea what you are carrying.

Standard Velocity Ammunition May Offer Better Results

I teach my rookies that the most significant factor in surviving a gunfight is the ability to put an aimed round of adequate ballistics in the center mass of the adversary before they get one into you. That doesn’t mean that you rush the shot. It means that you quickly decide you need to shoot and smoothly present the gun, acquire the front sight and press the trigger.

Plus P ammunition has no positive bearing on that dynamic, and in fact, may retard it. If you fear the recoil or flash of the weapon, you will likely not be smooth and decisive when it counts. A solid torso hit with a standard velocity hollow point is better than a miss with your super-zipper-zombie-zapper any day.

Ammo choices have also been complicated by the shortages caused by the recent panic buying situation. Most folks don’t store a lot of ammo and you may find that your usual loading has vanished from the shelves. If that happens, I recommend a lower velocity loading than a higher one as an alternative unless you can get quickly to the range and try out the new stuff.

I don’t want anybody to feel under-gunned with standard velocity loads. Shot placement trumps bullet energy, and there is no such thing as a guaranteed fight stopper pistol bullet. (Remember, a handgun is what you take if you don’t think you are going to get into a gunfight.)

So in a gun store with staff you trust, ask them to recommend a standard velocity, hollow point load and practice with it. If you practice regularly with the ammunition you use for personal defense you should be just fine. When in doubt, go with standard velocity.

(Note: If you are really interested in how bullets do their job and what actual autopsy data suggests are the best loads for your gun, get the definitive work in the field, Handgun Stopping Power, by Marshall and Sanow. It is very readable and I recommend it highly.)

And remember, please, every person has unique needs and capacities and every armed encounter is different. When developing your defensive tactics always get a second opinion.

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Joseph Terry is a retired law enforcement firearms instructor. Terry is the author of Gunfighting in Teams and Prepared and Armed: Team Shooting Tactics for Home Defense available at LivingReadyStore.com. His work with Living Ready also includes the How to Avoid Gunfights Online Course from Living Ready University.