On Defensive Handgun Ammo

Guns are tools utilized for defense in the U.S. many thousands of times, both by police and citizenry. Guns are ubiquitous and omnipresent in most states of the Union, and guns are constant companions or bedside defensive tools for people from sea to sea.

But for all their common use and ownership, most gun owners know very, very little about the component that actually does the work of letting the wind out of an attacker’s sails. I am referring, of course, to bullets and specifically bullet performance.

The amount of static and persistent bad information that plagues this topic has made getting good information on the subject difficult or impossible for some. When every “trusted” well of information is contaminated by derp, falsehood and superstition, what is the well-intentioned and well-heeled shooter to do?

Well, turn to this article of course, and let your friend Charles guide you through the basic but essential elements of handgun projectile wounding criteria, so that you can become an informed purchaser and an expert chooser of ammunition.

Stopping the Bad Guy: All Other Factors Secondary

On TV shows and in movies, stopping the dirtbags kidnapping your wife is easy: shoot them with a gun of any kind, even once, and one of two potential outcomes will occur: 1.) they will be rendered insensate with a look of indescribable anguish on their face for a brief moment before falling to the ground as lifeless as a string cut puppet, or 2.) they will be bodily blown through the nearest wall/door/fence, utterly killed.

Man, give me some of that ammo! Sadly, real life is not like media. People may do any number of things when shot, including doing nothing. We don’t need to explode our attacker into his constituent atoms or even necessarily kill him to prevail in an attack.

All we need to do is stop him from doing what he plans on doing to us or our loved ones. Stopping him may mean he simply gives up after being wounded. Stopping him may mean shooting him into submission, so physically and mentally compromised he cannot continue his felonious act.

Stopping him may mean he only gives up when he finally expires from the severity of his wounds. The trick is that, until you shoot him, you won’t know what kind of attacker you are dealing with.

While the ammunition industry has made quantum leaps in projectile design and performance enhancement, leading to modern bullets that perform remarkably consistently across a wide domain of situations, our proper scientific forecasting of what a person will do when shot remains subject to enormous variables.

The two broad categories encompassing the means by which an attacker will be incapacitated are psychological factors and physiological factors.

Understanding Different Stopping Factors

Psychological factors entail things going on in the bad guy’s mind and the results of his perceptions, fears, feelings, etc. His mental state and trajectory, if you will. A bag guy may be wounded and just decided to give up.

He may be shot and simply become enraged, eager to fight on and put the hurt to the person who had the audacity to hurt him. A psychological stop is one where the bad guy essentially gives up or flees when wounded; he is shot, knows he is shot, and decides or reacts in such a way that he values escape or surrender more than carrying on with his plan.

Psychological stops are great when they happen, but also something we cannot count on: only the bad guy get to decide when he is giving up.

Physiological factors as you have probably intuited are the things that the bullet does to the targets body, and the results of that action. These are things we can influence more directly and significantly more reliably, though things like body composition, drugs, etc. all have a part in this calculus also.

The speed and efficacy of a physiological stop is determined in part by what vital tissues or organs are struck. Disruption of these tissues will result in one of two occurrences depending on what type of organ/flesh is hit.

Hits to non-nervous system tissue will result in blood loss. The more blood we let out of our foe, and the faster, the better. Once blood pressure and volume levels get low enough, no amount of will power will sustain action. In short, the more holes in the right places, the better.

Classic targets that result in drastic and rapid blood loss are the major blood vessels and organs in the center torso, e.g. heart, aortic junction, etc., though any severed artery will result in a greater or lesser degree of rapid blood loss.

The other outcome happens when nervous system structures are hit. The standard targets belonging to the central nervous system are the brain and spine. Disruption of either of these delicate and vital structures will very likely result in severe degradation of the recipient’s faculties and motive capability, or even the much-vaunted “instant stop”: lights out, goodnight, game over.

Some of those variables affecting the rapidity of a physiological stop may include general fitness level, severity and number of bullet strikes, motivation, training, drugs and other chemicals affecting their mind and nervous system and a whole host of other things.

Broadly, some people will literally lie down and die when shot, even when the wound itself is not outwardly fatal. Others will continue to fight, very literally, until their last breath and drop of blood has been spent, even when fatally wounded from the outset, the so called “walking dead.”

Bullet Wounding Effects

Bullets, as mentioned, are not capable of propelling a person through the air or blowing them to pieces. At least, no bullet fired from something that is man portable! Bullets instead rely on a very sophisticated and intricately detailed wounding mechanism.

Are you ready? They poke holes in things. That’s it. Bullets, handgun bullets, at least, simply poke holes in things, and whatever is directly struck by the bullet will be destroyed by its passage. This path of destroyed tissue is referred to as the permanent cavity or wound channel.

Larger projectiles crush more tissue, leaving behind a larger hole and (nominally) result in more blood loss. Tissue around or near the path of the bullet may be stretched or deformed, possibly resulting in additional damage. The space left behind from this displaced tissue is called the temporary cavity.

Of the two, permanent cavity is the only one we truly care about as temporary cavitation, while a sometimes spectacular wounding mechanism resulting from high velocity rifle bullet impact, is rarely, if ever a significant wounding factor from handgun fire, even the light, fast, zippy calibers.

The severity of either type of wound mechanism will depend much on the bullet and its path into the body: some tissues are more or less elastic. Bones for instance are much harder to pierce than skin and fat.

The size, amount and location of bullet holes (the permanent cavity, remember?) will be a major determinant of how much and how quickly blood starts leaving the body.

Generally, bigger holes are better than smaller ones, as this means a larger hole in our scumbag attacker and hopefully more bleeding for his trouble. This concept is why larger pistol rounds remain so favored in America, though actual analysis of modern projectiles shows little difference in effectiveness between many of them. More on that in a moment.

What Bullets Work Best?

Broadly speaking, handgun bullets above a certain caliber that penetrate reliably to a certain depth in the target must be chosen to ensure a certain “standard” of performance, this standard being the cold comfort that I am not relying on the attacker giving up in order to get a stop; if I do my part, I know my bullets can get to his pump (the heart) or into the cranial vault for a brain shot.

As for caliber, anything modern cartridge of .36 caliber and above is usually judged adequate so long as it penetrates deeply enough. This certain depth of penetration is at least 12” of human flesh, or 16-18” in ballistic gelatin as per FBI testing protocols.

While you may be thinking, “Gee, it sure isn’t 12” from my sternum to my heart. Why so deep?” you are probably forgetting for a moment that your target is not going to stand there face-on to you in the middle of a well-lit shooting range.

Things like intervening limbs, clothing, barriers like glass non-optimal angles like a broadside or transverse hit could mean your fired bullet must go through an awful lot before it gets to the important bits. You never, never want a load with inadequate penetration.

What about an assailant that is very fat, or heavily muscled? Even with a picture perfect flight path on the shortest route from Point A to Point B the bullet now has to go through even more intervening material (fat or muscle) before it can do work.

In short, most modern “service” calibers make good choices for self defense: .38 Spl., .357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, etc. are all entirely adequate, and with modern hollowpoints the actual performance difference between them is so slight as to not be worth considering. .380 ACP is right on the precipice of acceptable. You are far better applying the energy you’ll spend arguing the merits of any of them instead on training and practice to hit what you are aiming at.

Contrary to legend and myth, none of the above are truly reliable one shot man-stoppers, and none of them are worthless pipsqueaks, either. Handguns are simply not that powerful.

Smaller cartridges like the .25 ACP and .32 ACP are not recommended as primary cartridges due to their small size and lack of penetration. Large, Magnum cartridges like the .44 Magnum, .454 Casull and others are simply too massive, recoil far too much and often penetrate excessively, making them poor choices and potential liabilities.

ammo, Winchester Ranger-T +P
Winchester Ranger-T +P for defensive handgun

Load Selection

If bigger bullets are better, using a bullet that gets bigger when it enters the target makes sense, yes? This is where hollowpoints come in.

A hollowpoint is an expanding bullet that increases its frontal surface area as it passes through a target. This in turn allows it to cut a larger permanent cavity in the target. Many ammo companies produce hollowpoints that are acceptable for defense, and a few produce truly exemplary ones.

When choosing ammo for your defensive handgun, do not even consider older, antiquated hollowpoints unless you have no other option. Despite the protestations of old timers and their users that get attached to and quasi-religious about them, older designs do not hold a candle to our more modern projectiles.

When choosing defensive ammo, look for major, name-brand makers like Hornady, Speer, Winchester, Federal and Remington. All of them make good hollowpoints across several lines, but they are not all the same! Different offerings use different construction and design techniques that result in better or worse performance.

A few consistently good choices are below:

  • Federal – Tactical or HST lines
  • Remington – Golden Saber
  • Winchester – Ranger-T
  • Speer – Gold Dot or Gold Dot 2
  • Hornady- Critical Duty (specifically not Critical Defense, which does not penetrate as deeply.)

Above all, remember this: handgun bullets only wound reliably by the permanent destruction of tissue and organs. Not by hydrostatic shock, temporary cavity or anything else. The most wondrous bullet in the world does little good if you cannot hit what you aim at.

Stoke your handgun with high quality defensive loads and then practice, practice, practice! A simple bullet placed perfectly will prove far more effective than a wonder-bullet grazing a limb.


Handgun effectiveness is shrouded in myth, and sussing out right from wrong and truth from fiction is no small task. But armed with this article, you will be well on your way to separating the bunk from the real knowledge.

Pick a handgun for defense of adequate caliber, then stoke it with good, high quality hollowpoints. After that, get training and practice regularly. That is the best thing you can do.

defensive handgun ammo pinterest image

8 thoughts on “On Defensive Handgun Ammo”

  1. Unfortunately many people are shot everyday in America. I am sure the police know what ammunition is used in most cases. I guess it would be unethical for this information to be made public.

  2. Daddio7,

    It wouldn’t be unethical really. Not tactically smart perhaps.

    Drawing on my police experience, the average dirtbag criminal uses whatever ammo he/she can get their grubby hands on, preferably for free (i.e. stolen). They use the same criteria in selecting their firearms for the most part.

    Granted, some criminals are a little more gun savvy than others, such as some of those who do mass shootings.

    • Most criminals do not want to kill anyone, I am talking about mass shooters who definitely want people to die. For instance the Pulse night club and the Los Vegas shooters. I do think it would be unethical for the police to say they really hope the next one does not use “Super Killum” bullets.

      • Daddio7,

        Well, practically speaking, it doesn’t really matter too much what ammo you use in an AR-15 or something equivalent when you are firing multiple shots at fairly close range. Your targets are not armored and generally not shooting back. Who cares if you’re on a killing spree with 5.56mm 55-grain ball, or 62-grain green tips? Or any other 5.56mm round (of course some of the specialty hunting rounds are more expensive than the common 55 and 62 grain rounds). Any and all will do the trick.

        • One more kick to this horse. The article concerns hand gun ammunition and the vast majority of homicides are committed with hand guns. The lethality and copious magazine capacity of AR-15s is a different discussion. I am of the opinion that this information is not kept for the obvious reason, leaks. If it is not recorded it can’t be put on the Internet.

          • Daddio7,

            If bullets are recovered from shooting victims on autopsy or surgery, they will be forensically examined to tie them in to the shooter’s weapon(s) and/or any shell casings or unfired ammo recovered. That includes identifying the caliber, manufacturer, and actual model of bullet if possible. Yes, it will be documented by the forensic ballistician, if by no one else, and is available in most cases under FOIA once the investigation and trial is closed.

            If the shooter is being prosecuted, the information obtained forensically is necessary in trial even if it is a “Super Killum” bullet. Withholding this information can either damage the prosecutor’s case, or result in a mistrial for failing to reveal evidence to the defense during discovery. It would also be grounds for a reversal on appeal if the missing information slipped by at trial.

            I’ve been the detective-in-charge on several firearms shooting/homicide cases, and commanded the detective bureau supervising more. I would never think to hide such relevant evidence from my report for fear of someone else discovering the kind of ammo that was used.

            However, having said that, I would also state that it is not a good idea to carry, during normal times, defensive ammo you loaded yourself. A prosecutor or civil plaintiff’s attorney would indeed make as much noise as possible about you making your own special “Super Killum” bullet (even if loaded to factory specs). I’ve seen it happen. Stick with actual factory loads in normal times. In a WROL situation, carry whatever.

          • That is what I wanted to hear. I knew some of you with inside LE knowledge would say something. No worry about hand-loading, I have no plans to even start that. I bought my M1 carbine 45 years ago, I still have some of the two boxes of hunting rounds I bought then. I did use a box of new fmj trying to get the new red dot sight zeroed. With,or without, there was no way I could use the open sights now.

  3. Well said, good selections –

    Another issue with critical defense is the squib loadings found over a 2-4 year period by several people.

    Personally I tested several case lots and calibers and had multiple squibs. Hornady had no response, choosing instead to ignore myself and many others


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