Bullets fired from handguns do only one thing: poke little holes in stuff. If the little hole doesn’t go through something that’s necessary for a human being’s body to remain upright and functioning, that person can still go about their business, which may include trying to hurt other people.
Commercial hollow point technology is decades old and there are dozens of different bullet designs on the market for all of the popular handgun calibers. So aside from the marketing materials put out by the ammo manufacturers, how are we supposed to know which bullets are the most effective?
The Lucky Gunner team recently set out to compare more than 115 different handgun loads and see how they stacked up to one another in identical conditions: That is, from a relatively short-barreled pistol, through four layers of fabric and into synthetic ballistic gel. With photographs and high-speed motion video documenting each round’s performance, the difference between loads can be staggering. In all, Lucky Gunner tested loads in the four most popular handgun calibers: 380 ACP, 9mm Luger, 40 Smith & Wesson and 45 ACP.
In general terms, results from the exhaustive ammo tests indicate the newer technology from most manufacturers is better than the old. Additionally, rounds specifically marketed toward law enforcement agencies and designated as “LE” rounds typically fare better than rounds exclusively marketed and sold to civilian shooters.
Testing Standards Explained
Lucky Gunner’s goal was to test as many loads as possible in order to determine how they compare to the Federal Bureau of Investigation standard recommended penetration depth of 12-18″ in Clear Ballistics synthetic gelatin. This ballistic gel solution is much easier to work with than organic or natural gelatin and allows for testing without the constant need for refrigeration.
The tests also aimed to learn how well the bullets expand when they encounter a barrier of heavy clothing before entering the gel. Whenever feasible, Lucky Gunner tried to duplicate the testing protocol reportedly used by the FBI, but their first priority was to be consistent, using the same procedure and conditions for every load tested.
Each shot was fired with the muzzle approximately 10 feet from the surface of the gelatin block. The FBI used to test handgun ammo at 20 yards as well as 10 feet, but they found very little difference in the data at these two distances. The FBI currently uses the 10-foot test for handgun ammo so that’s what Lucky Gunner did as well.
Heavy Barrier of Clothing
To get an idea of how a bullet will perform under various real world conditions, the FBI tests each load with a variety of barriers placed in front of the gelatin. They start with a plain block of “bare” gelatin with no barrier, and follow up that test with a barrier of heavy clothing, and then hard barriers of steel (to simulate an auto body), plywood, wallboard, and auto glass.
Because non-law enforcement self-defense are unlikely to involve firing through walls or cars, the bare gelatin and heavy clothing tests are most relevant for the average civilian gun owner. In order to test as many loads as possible, Lucky Gunner opted to skip over the bare gelatin testing and conducted all of our testing only with a heavy clothing barrier. Most shooters train to fire at the vital zone or “center mass” high in the chest area of the target, which is an area typically covered by clothing.
As seasoned shooters know, clothing can present a challenge for some hollow point loads because the opening in the bullet can become clogged with clothing material and fail to expand once it reaches living tissue. This failure to expand gives the bullet a lower probability of striking a vital area, and also leads to the potential for over-penetration. Expanding bullets lose velocity quickly and are more likely to stay inside the target, but a hollow point that fails to expand can maintain enough energy to exit the target and potentially harm bystanders.
Lucky Gunner used the same type of fabric specified in the FBI heavy clothing test, which calls for the following:
1. Cotton t-shirt material (approximately 5.25 ounces/yard, 48 threads/inch)
2. Cotton shirt material (approximately 3.5 ounces/yard – 80 threads/inch)
3. Malden Mills Polartec 200 fleece
4.Cotton Denim (about 14.4 ounces/yard – 50 threads/inch)
For the ammo tests, the four layers of fabric were stacked together and placed against the front of the gelatin block, secured with clothes pins to a bar suspended above the test block.
How Did Your Rounds Fare?
It’s impossible to say what load is “best” for all shooters. We have different needs and it is quite possible that one load could be suited perfectly for a shooter living under one set of conditions and be severely lacking for a shooter living under different conditions. For instance, say you carry in a beach community and four layers of fabric is way too much barrier for you to reasonably expect a threat to be wearing.
Popular Loads – At A Glance
The variance in loads for each caliber is obvious when identical test protocols are followed for each load. For instance, in 9mm Luger, the tests found loads with an average penetration depth ranging from 8-inches all the way to what most shooters would consider extreme over-penetration of more than 22-inches.
Popular loads such as the Speer Gold Dot 115 grain 9mm load performed quite well when compared to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s standards
Another popular load, the Federal 147 grain HST round averaged just about 15-inches of penetration in the five-shot tests and had a 5-shot average diameter of slightly more than six-tenths of an inch. That expanded diameter was larger than more than a dozen of the 45 ACP loads included in the testing.
What Does It All Mean?
If you look through all the data collected as part of this study, it’s tempting to try to sift through the numbers and determine once and for all which load is “The One Bullet To Rule Them All”. If that kind of data analysis gets you excited, then go for it. If, on the other hand, you just want to find a decent ammunition for your carry gun, you probably don’t need to go through all of that trouble. Lucky Gunner stresses it did all of this work on these tests so shooters don’t have to obsess over the ballistic performance aspect of their carry ammo.
Ballistics testing doesn’t tell us anything about the felt recoil of a load. The tests also haven’t addressed accuracy or muzzle flash (which can be an issue in low light). And maybe most important of all, no gelatin test can tell you if a given load will run reliably in your self-defense pistol. These are all factors that shooters will have to test on their own at the range with their specific firearm.
Once you find a load that works, whatever you decide, try to keep all of this in perspective. Choice of caliber and bullet are not the most important aspects of successful self-defense. Awareness, proper mindset, marksmanship, and discernment of when to use your firearm are generally far more critical to your survival than choice of gear. Having said that, knowing your carry ammo works not only provides peace of mind, there’s a chance that choosing a solid defensive load could be the one factor that tips the scales in your favor in a fight for your life.
Editor’s Note: The test is so large it was too difficult to publish here. So if you are a data type, and if you are reading this I would suggest you are, then visit this site and see this test: http://www.luckygunner.com/labs/self-defense-ammo-ballistic-tests/