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Choosing the Best Self Defense Ammo

Choosing the Best Self Defense Ammo

Which round to choose?

The deeper I look into the selection of defensive ammo available to the public the less certain I am of what to select. When I was new to shooting it was easy to choose; hollow points and not +P. Recently it seems there’s been a renaissance of new ammo loads. What’s more, a lot of them make magical claims. This impeccable round functions flawlessly, performs accurately, and somehow vaporizes the bad guy while not creating a blinding flash and, doesn’t over penetrate. It also accomplishes this in any handgun.

This ideal round, sadly, does not exist.

Just as handgun selection is always a matter of compromise so is picking the round it fires. It’s a zero sum game. To gain in one area you must give from another. That micro-compact is not going to have all the features and comforts of a full-size and you know that, so why expect it from ammunition? It seems as if manufacturers are betting that if they make the packaging flashy enough and charge you enough you won’t want to test more than a couple shots. After all who likes paying $2 for what looks like the same hole in the paper as the $0.20 shot?

How does the average consumer choose the best ammo for their needs?

With this in mind we set out to test some of the common and not-so-common rounds available on the market today. Not every gun is the same and so we tested in both a 3.2” barrel and a 4” barrel as both are representative of most defensive guns.

What difference could .8” of barrel make you ask?

The answer ended up being a lot.

What happens when the  9 mm projectile hits a block of ballistics gel? Well it all depends…

Less barrel means less time for pressure to build resulting in a less velocity and less available energy to cycle the gun. Adding to this, unless the rifling rate was increased for that shorter barrel there is less time to stabilize the round. Manufacturers do what they can with spring rates to keep them reliable with most range ammo, but the exotic stuff advertising nearly twice the velocity of normal ball and the stuff advertising reduced recoil achieves those things in different ways that may not result in enough energy to cycle the gun.

Different powder burn rates also affect at which point in the barrel the round can achieve its maximum velocity. Adding to the complexity is the reduced room for rifling. Either the rate has to be increased, or we take our chances on a bullet that hasn’t been guided as much before it leaves the gun. It was  surprising to see the same round function wonderfully in a 4” barrel and fail in a 3.2”.  Conversely, we have noted some of the faster rounds stabilize just right from the 3.2” and yet keyhole from a barrel .8” longer!

One would assume that a lot of research, development, and testing must go into ammunition before risking the liability of mass production and public consumption, but why do we never see recommended applications labeled on the box? We know that the manufacturers are aware of this when we find one manufacturer with three or four different loads in the same line, but why they might have three or four different lines I do not understand. Is there really such a thing as budget defense? Would General Motors put lesser seatbelts in their Chevy Line than in their Buicks? Does a Lincoln have better airbags than a Ford? It is entirely possible, but disturbs me none the less.

To see tests released so far check the playlist here:

Keep in mind we used our own carry guns to test the ammo and they happen to be from the same manufacturer, which helps reduce variables. The Walther P99 AS and Walther PPS. Recognizing that Walthers are not as popular as Glocks, we used a Glock 19 for the gel test as its rifling and barrel length probably represent what a lot of people use for a defensive gun. This testing will be an ongoing series so check back with the playlist from time to time. (If you have a particular brand you’d like to see, or if you’re a manufacturer and send us a box and we’ll add it).

Loads in the test so far include:



Graham Baates is an Army veteran of 15 years who now works as a firearms instructor and journalist.  His work can be found under the name GBGuns on the blog and YouTube channel

Photos courtesy of Graham Baates.

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