How to Choose Self Defense Ammunition: Your Life Depends On It

Just when you think you have ammunition figured out—training versus defensive versus hunting—it hits you: There are a lot of defensive loads on the market. How do you know which self-defense ammunition best suits your needs? Is one type of defensive bullet better than another? Read on to get the answers to these questions and a few more.

man with pistol extended as if in self defense situation
It does matter what ammunition you use in your carry gun. (Photo credit: NPR)

What is Self-Defense Ammunition?

Self-defense ammunition is designed to perform in a certain way on human attackers. They’re made to expand on impact while simultaneously slowing down and creating a significant wound cavity. That might make you think of hollow point (HP) ammunition, and it’s accurate that many defensive loads are HPs, but some have different bullet types. The most commonly seen bullet types on defensive ammunition include:

  • Hollow Point (HP)
  • Soft Point (SP)
  • Hollow Point Polymer Insert/Polymer Tip (such as Hornady FTX, Flex Tip)
  • Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)
Hornady Critical Defense self defense ammunition
Hornady Critical Defense is a long-standing, proven line of defensive ammunition. (Photo credit: Hornady)

Is it Okay to Use Target Ammo for Self-Defense?

In short, no. Ammunition designed for target use is significantly different in design and performance than defensive loads. For example, full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition does not expand on impact and has a tendency to over-penetrate. Because it doesn’t expand, it creates a narrow through-and-through hole instead of a larger wound cavity. Target loads aren’t made to stop threats, they’re made to practice your marksmanship on targets.

Types of target ammunition include:

  • Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)
  • Total Metal Jacket (TMJ)
  • Total Synthetic Jacket (TSJ)

What’s the Best Self-Defense Ammunition?

The answer to this depends on your gun. Not all ammunition performs to its greatest potential in every gun. Taking the time to figure out which defensive load works best for you is worth the investment of time and money. Here’s what you should look for in self-defense loads:

  • Reliable cycling
  • Consistent expansion
  • Fantastic weight retention
  • Meeting FBI ballistic gel penetration standards
  • Non-corrosive

What is Ballistic Gel Testing?

To better understand defensive ammunition, it helps to know what kind of testing goes into its creation. When it comes to judging penetration depth, the standard to follow is the FBI ballistic gelatin test. The FBI’s testing process was developed in the aftermath of the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout, an incident that left agents dead and the FBI searching for better ammunition and duty guns.

FBI Miami shootout aftermath
The aftermath of the FBI Miami Shootout lead to an enormous amount of studying and analysis and eventually resulted in the FBI’s ballistic gel testing protocol. (Photo credit: Tactical Tangents Podcast)

If you’re looking for testing information, it will be available from most ammo makers but you can do your own testing as well. It simply requires strict adherence to testing protocol, which is why it can be a lot easier to research the ammunition and see what the manufacturer’s own testing shows.

The ballistic gel utilized by the FBI to adhere to their testing protocol is 10% ordnance gelatin that’s made using either Kind & Knox or Vyse 250-A. The percentage is calibrated according to weight. According to FBI research, this produces the best possible tissue simulant for testing ammunition. To test a gelatin block, a 0.177-inch steel BB is fired from a distance of 10 feet—which is measured from the muzzle of the BB gun—at a velocity of 590 feet per second. A variation of 15 feet per second higher or lower is allowed. The BB should penetrate 2.95 inches to 3.74 inches in depth.

Ballistic Gel testing
Ballistic gel testing requires strict adherence to a number of steps. (Photo credit: Norma Ammunition)

Other steps are taken for proper testing using ordnance gelatin, too. For example, the FBI stores their gel blocks in a refrigeration unit set to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and only removes the block immediately prior to testing. Also, a series of steps and specific barriers are used while assessing the performance of ammunition. Barriers utilized for testing include:

  • Bare ordnance gelatin
  • Heavy clothing
  • Steel
  • Wallboard
  • Plywood
  • Automobile glass

It’s important to note the barriers used are also quite specific, not random pieces of clothing or wood. They’re also used in combinations for testing rather than only on their own. And when it comes to automobile glass, it’s a specific glass set at certain angles.

A total of five test shots should be fired to collect an average. Shots are fired at a distance of 10 feet from the muzzle of the gun to the front face of the block of ordnance gel.

According to the FBI, the ideal penetration depth ranges between 12.0 inches and 16.0 inches. If a bullet fails to perform over 12.0 inches it’s considered an incredible failure; after all, one reason the FBI came up with this protocol is that their agents’ ammunition failed to penetrate deeply enough during the aforementioned 1986 FBI Miami Shootout. If it penetrates too far, it’s an over-penetration risk. The FBI also uses a point-based system in evaluating their results but for our purposes, the average penetration depth of five shots is enough.

Should I Train With Self-Defense Ammunition?

Yes, you should spend time training with self-defense ammunition. Defensive loads recoil and perform differently than target loads, so you need to familiarize yourself with point of aim versus point of impact and hone skills like rapid target re-acquisition.

How much you train with defensive ammo rather than target rounds depends on budget and personal preferences. Ideally, you’d fire at least one box of defensive loads for every couple hundred rounds of target ammo you go through. Of course, if you shoot at a higher round count, the balance will be different.

Will Self-Defense Ammo Work in My Gun?

Self-defense ammo will cycle in your gun. If it doesn’t, there’s a much larger issue at hand.

Glock 17
Your gun should reliably cycle self-defense ammo. If it doesn’t, take it to a gunsmith to figure out what’s wrong. (Photo credit: Glock)

That doesn’t mean your gun will reliably feed each and every type of ammunition that exists. Some ammunition works better than others in different guns and it’s up to you to find out what performs best with the gun you carry. This is also why you need to spend time shooting various rounds at the range. With enough testing and practice you’ll be able to figure out what the most accurate, consistent performer is for your daily carry gun.

What Brands of Self-Defense Ammo Work Best?

“Best” can be subjective because it depends on a variety of factors but there are certain brands of ammunition that have proven themselves to be more reliable than others. Some of those brands include:

It can get pricey trying to figure out which defensive load works best for you and your specific gun.

Barnes ammunition with Glock 20 Gen4
Barnes ammunition is a proven reliable performer and their defensive loads are fantastic. (Photo credit: Kat Ainsworth Stevens)

You can narrow the options down by reading gun reviews of your firearm model from reliable sources that include ballistics charts and by checking ballistic charts produced by ammunition manufacturers. Then it’s up to you to test them out for yourself.

SinterFire Special Duty Self-Defense ammunition
Sinterfire produces frangible, lead-free ammunition, including some great defensive loads. (Photo credit: Sinterfire)

Remember, you are your own first responder, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re as well-prepared as possible.

self defense ammunition
Self-Defense-6: There’s a lot of different defensive ammo on the market today. Take the time to read reviews before evaluating its performance in your carry gun. (Photo credit: Kat Ainsworth Stevens)

What’s your choice of self defense ammunition? Let us know in the comments below.

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