Concealed Carry & Home Defense

HOOBER: Here Is When Ball Ammo Is Probably Your Best Choice

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Guns and Gear Contributor
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By Sam Hoober,

Efficiency is good, but there is a danger in oversimplifying ideas that actually have nuances that can really matter. Here’s one such example:

The notion that you should only carry jacketed hollow points or other expanding ammunition.

That’s the simple version, and by and large it’s true but there are some situations in which that is actually too simple. In some instances, FMJ is not only a better choice as a defensive loading, it may be the only viable choice.


Here’s the more nuanced version that’s closer to the truth.

In most conventional pistol calibers like 9mm, .45 ACP, .357 Magnum and so on, you should only use expanding projectiles like a jacketed hollow point for defensive purposes. Given expansion thresholds, however, certain calibers and loadings will not exhibit reliable expansion with JHPs. As a result, a full metal jacket or wadcutter is a more viable loading for self-defense.

It applies mostly to small pistol calibers that propel a light projectile – say, less than 100 grains – to modest velocities of, say, less than 1,000 feet per second. That is well below the expansion threshold of most hollow point designs.

For instance, standard pressure .38 Special has always had a lousy track record when it comes to expanding ammunition and especially when used in snubby revolvers. The old Metro load (158-gr +P LSWCHP) through a 3-inch or 4-inch barrel is a proven performer but also proved drastically less effective when fired from a Chief’s Special or Airweight.

However, a 148-gr wadcutter actually makes a viable carry load. With good placement, overpenetration isn’t really a concern through a snubnose revolver and failing to expand due to clothing or too low a muzzle velocity is a non-issue.

Further, the reason why expansion is important has nothing to do with wounding.

A slightly wider hole in a non-critical area doesn’t matter. A slightly narrower hole in the right place has still done critical damage. The reason expansion actually matters is to slow the bullet down in a hydraulic medium, e.g. flesh, and keep it from coming out the other side with lethal momentum!

Therefore, the critical aspect of ammunition when it comes to terminal ballistics is adequate penetration first, and reliable expansion second. If there is less ability to penetrate tissue due to low mass and low velocity (say a light bullet at low velocity) then expansion is actually less of a concern.

See? Nuance. So here are some other instances where FMJ is not only a viable choice of carry ammunition, but possibly even the best choice. Have a look at LuckyGunner’s gel tests to see some data on the topic.

.22 LR is more viable for self-defense than some people want to acknowledge, though placement is (of course) of paramount importance. While an expanding projectile, such as CCI or Winchester’s hollow point varmint loads, would be ideal, the reality here is that plain ol’ round nose lead is not likely going to drastically overpenetrate if fired from a pistol at combat distances, if it does at all.

However, the hitch with .22 LR is reliable ignition. The cheaper the lot of .22, the less reliable it will be. Therefore, you’ll want to make sure you’re buying quality. A hollow point (CCI Velocitor is almost universally well-regarded for the purpose) is better, but LRN is certainly viable.

It’s been said more than once that .25 ACP and .32 ACP aren’t the best choice for personal defense because they are light projectiles at low velocities. Since that is not conducive to reliable expansion of JHP projectiles, that would mean FMJ or – if you can find it – lead round nose is a better choice.

.32-caliber revolvers are never going to have a renaissance, but have gotten slightly more popular; the hipster snubbie du jour is an LCR or LCRx chambered in .327 Federal Magnum, though typically loaded with .32 H&R or .32 S&W Long as .327 Federal in a snubbie stings.

.32 S&W Long is a light, wimpy revolver cartridge from the black powder era…but lead round nose is, again, a viable choice of carry ammunition for the same reasons as .25 and .32 ACP. There may be a very few people that have legacy guns in this chambering (they were formerly used by some police departments) and that would apply there as well.

Then we come to the issue of 5.56mm ball.

We’ve all heard by now that 5.56mm tumbles and/or fragments. Well, that’s not really true of all loadings and you also have to bear in mind that there is, just as with hollow point pistol ammunition, a fragmentation threshold.

The longer the barrel, the better, and remember too that – as Clint Smith is fond of saying – God and Gene Stoner got together, because 5.56mm tends to fragment more reliably from a 20-inch barrel than from a 16-inch barrel or shorter.

If you have an AR pistol in 5.56mm or .223 Wylde, this means you.

Here, load choice is critical.

What is generally understood is that the common 62-grain loadings, meaning M855 and M855A1 clones, exhibit “fleet yaw” meaning that the yaw effect (tumbling) was not consistent, whereas XM193 – the original 55-grain load – did not suffer from the fleet yaw problem or at least hasn’t been demonstrated to suffer from it to the same degree.

Further, XM193 fragments reliably down to about 2600 fps or so, meaning a carbine-length barrel (typical muzzle velocities of a 16-inch barrel are about 200 fps less than that of a 20-inch barrel) is still well within the fragmentation threshold. Ostensibly, M855 is still within its fragmentation threshold at 2600 to 2700 fps, but it isn’t new information to say that M855 and M855A1 are not prized for their terminal efficacy.

Dr. Gary Roberts, one of the foremost experts on terminal ballistics of right now, doesn’t recommend use of either XM193 or M855/M855A1 for defensive purposes, instead advocating for open-tip match (OTM) or jacketed soft points, but also cautions that not all “XM193” is made equal.

Therefore, if you had to choose one, the 55-grain load and preferably in 5.56mm NATO rather than .223 Remington (higher pressure and therefore velocity) is the better choice, but a soft-point load would be better.

So, we have acknowledged a terrible truth. Sometimes hardball is actually okay, but only in specific instances. If you have a handgun chambered for one of the more typical and traditional defensive calibers like 9mm, go with something that expands.

Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.