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Personal Defense Ammo: Picking the Right Tool for the Job

Personal Defense Ammo: Picking the Right Tool for the Job

Graham Baates is a contributing author from  We would like to thank him for contributing this article.

Clark Armory Discharged Rounds vs Undischarged Rounds

"The first step in narrowing down what you spend your hard-earned money on is to determine just what your need is."

Making sense of the chaos

Walking down the ammo isle of your favorite sporting goods or gun store can be confusing.  Run home and hop online to find a clearer answer can be even more confusing.  It seems that every load out there is the greatest thing ever and promises to turn your 2”-barreled .25acp into an elephant gun that won’t over-penetrate.  So how can we know which round is best for us?  Absurd advertising and flashy packaging aside there are a lot of good rounds out there that are well engineered and very well may perform as advertised in the right conditions, but what are those conditions and how do they apply to you and your gun?

The first step in narrowing down what you spend your hard-earned money on is to determine just what your need is.  Are you looking for a defensive round for your house gun where over-penetration could lead to harming little Jimmy or a neighbor?  What about your duty gun, or is this ammo you’d like to use for training or competition with steel targets?  How about one round that will perform perfectly in all conditions?  How about a million dollars?  I know I’d take some if you’re offering, but the truth is that most of the projectiles out there were designed with a specific purpose in mind and developed for a specific caliber at a specific velocity.  Brand X hollow point might work beautifully at 850 fps from a 5” barreled .45, but is the jacket the same thickness on their 9mm round?  Knowing that the majority of customers will never test this not all manufacturers adjust details like that, so how will it perform at 1,150 fps?  What if your gun is a sub-compact and that velocity is more likely to be closer to 900 fps?  

Without getting lost in all the variables that suddenly make your list of choices look longer and scarier the best way to know how it will perform in your conditions is to test it.  Ideal testing would put the round you’ve chosen in your gun, then fire several rounds to check for consistency and accuracy as well as the ability to cycle in your gun.  All you need is some quiet time at a range, a chronograph, and a block of ballistics gel to test how the round will perform at the distance you foresee potentially using it.  Easy enough right?  Just about $500 of equipment plus the ammo and range time.  Fortunately we’re in the information age and someone else has probably already tried it, or done a test in similar enough conditions to yours that you can just watch a brief video and determine if it’s right for you.  I know because I have spent thousands producing such videos.  

Things to consider:  What makes one round perform differently from another in the same gun and conditions breaks down somewhat to three main factors:

  1. Projectile weight and propellant burn rate:  In your barrel length and rifling how much time does the round have to get up to the velocity it needs to be stable and hit hard enough for the projectile to perform as intended?  Projectile weight is almost always marked, but the propellants are a mystery of black magic and trade secrets.  Without going too far into science it’s just safe to assume that each load will have a different blend.
  2. Projectile Composition:  What is the bullet made of and how is it made?  Different thicknesses, densities, and forms of the same materials will perform differently.  This is another trade secret that the average consumer is unlikely to be able to identify.
  3. Your ability with that gun:  This may hurt the ego a bit, but let’s face it.  If you are hardly comfortable with standard range ammo how will you perform with a spicier exotic round?  Or maybe that exotic round will shoot softer and be better for you in a high-stress situation?  We won’t know unless we try.

The only realistic solution for the average gun-owner is simply to do some research as to what others have experienced, and try the round that you think matches your needs.  Regardless of whose research you read or watch take it all with a grain of salt.  Despite the fact that I have personally been trying to run a fair testing of several rounds the guns used in my videos are not your guns.  Use third-party reviews as a guide and then try the ammo for yourself in your own gun.  I too used to hide behind the old advice to simply cycle a few rounds or fire one magazine’s worth through the gun before sticking with the remainder of the expensive rounds as my carry ammo; not wanting to waste another $10 of ammo, but let’s think about the fallacies of such logic.  This is the ammunition that your life or the life of a loved one may depend on.  Is it really worth saving $20 because you think the round is good enough?  How many times in any given week to you waste $20 on something more frivolous than your life?  

Pick something to try and make an event of it.  Invite a friend along and have him or her try half the box while you try the other.  Are your experiences the same?  Or just burn an entire box on your own to be certain it’s right for you, then pick up a second box that goes in the gun for carry.  This may seem all a bit overwhelming, but you’ve already decided to carry a gun for defense and chosen a tool for that job.  You have your wrench, deciding which socket is the next step.  


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

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