Skip to content
Defensive Ammo High Level Analysis

Defensive Ammo High Level Analysis

The internet is full of gel tests and reviews of pretty much any type or brand of ammo you can imagine. A quick Google or YouTube search and you can watch a test of everything from homemade shotgun projectiles to the biggest name brand self defense ammo. These videos differ greatly in terms of quality and reliability of results. None-the-less, they are useful in terms of helping shooters narrow their selection of self defense ammo.

Most of these tests only review one particular round at a time and are therefore, single points of data in a sea of ammo options. Often it seems that YouTubers are so deeply engaged in tests to identify the best hollow point that the question of, “Why hollow points at all?” isn’t even considered.

This high-level question requires a step back and an analysis of the results a shooter is seeking to achieve with their ammo selection. These results should take a number of things into consideration. Two of the major considerations are: “What is the target?” a charging grizzly may require ammo with different characteristics than a home invader, and “How far away will the target typically be?” buck shot, for example, quickly losses its energy in flight.

To keep this article from turning into a novel, we will focus on ammunition available for common pistol calibers.  Within this caliber constraint we will present a few of the most common defensive ammo designs and discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) and Wad Cutter Ammunition

These two types of ammo are certainly not all the rage in the self defense community but since they are often used as a baseline point of reference, they are worth discussing. FMJs (including total metal jackets and other similar jacketed projectile rounds) are pieces of ammunition loaded with a projectile that consist of a lead core wrapped in a copper jacket. Wad cutters are rounds whose projectiles are generally flat-nosed bullets made from solid lead and have no jacket.  Both of these styles are generally the most affordable ammo for any given caliber and are commonly referred to as “plinking rounds.”


FMJs and wad cutters are cheap, cycle without error in nearly all firearms, have a heavy-for-caliber projectile and penetrate very far into fluid.


Both of these types of ammo have essentially no expansion in fluid and consistently shoot-through targets creating a minimally-sized wound channel as they go. 

Hollow Point Ammunition

Hollow points are certainly the most utilized and talked about type of defensive ammo. As their name suggests, hollow point ammo is loaded with a projectile that has a cavity built in its nose.  This cavity helps the bullet expand in fluid which in turn causes a much larger wound channel than FMJs and wad cutters.  Hollow point projectiles are made out of a variety of materials with differing depths of cavity.  The Federal HST for example, features a lead core wrapped in a copper Jacket.  This is by far the most common hollow point design. 

Federal HST Bullet 

Less common designs include:

  • Lehigh Defense’s Maximum Expansion which are machined from solid copper and have a much deeper cavity. These hollow points are design to expand to a wider diameter but are often lighter than their lead counterparts and therefore penetrate less deeply in fluid.

Lehigh defense Maximum Expansion

Allegiance PowerStrike Ammo

ICC Duty and Defense



Hollow points mushroom upon impact and in doing so create a much larger wound channel than FMJs and wad cutters.  This also reduces their chance of shoot-throughs and helps ensure all of the bullets energy is transferred into the target.


The major drawback of hollow points is the reduction of penetration depth. Most will still penetrate over a foot or so but this may not be sufficient in the charging grizzly bear scenario mentioned above.  Due to the hollow point’s open nose some firearms don’t cycle certain hollow points very well.

Penetrator Ammunition

This is a relatively new class of defensive ammunition and is most often used in smaller caliber pistols or for big game hunting/protection (think charging grizzly bear). Penetrator ammo is loaded with a projectile that is made to penetrate much like an FMJ while creating a larger-than-FMJ wound channel. These bullets are usually machined from solid metal such as copper and are intended to be more “bone blind” than hollow points. It is not uncommon for even small caliber variants of these rounds to penetrate passed two feet in fluid and larger caliber variants to go much further. Even up to and through the heart of those charging grizzlies.  The most common example of this type of ammo is Lehigh Defense’s Xtreme Penetrators.

Lehigh Defense Xtreme Penetrator 


Penetrator rounds travel further into fluid than hollow points do and create a larger wound channel than FMJs.  They are also available in a wide variety of velocities increasing the punch of pocket pistols.


Over penetration. Penetrators have a tendency to do just what they are intended to do and sometimes they go straight through and out the back of the target.  Additionally, they generally create a smaller wound channel than hollow points do.

Frangible Ammunition

Most of the shooting community is still quite skeptical about using frangible ammo in defensive applications but they do have some unique characteristics and so are worth a mention.  Frangible ammo is loaded with a compressed metal bullet that is designed to break apart upon impact with a hard surface.  These rounds are traditionally used for training but a few manufactures are now producing frangible hollow points that create very large initial wound cavities and still penetrating to an acceptable depth.  The most notable of these frangible hollow points is ICC’s Duty and Defense.

ICC Duty and Defense Ammo



Even larger wound cavity in fluid than hollow points. Additionally, their frangibility means that they will quickly lose all their energy after striking a wall or other hard surface. This reduces the chance of collateral damage. Frangible bullets are generally lighter than FMJs, hollow points, and penetrators and therefore have less felt recoil.


As a rule of thumb, frangible rounds don’t penetrate as deeply as the others mentioned.  Their light recoil also means that some particularly tight firearms don’t cycle them very well.


What do you shoot?  Do you swear by standard hollow points or do you prefer one of the other types mentioned or something totally different?  Start the discussion in the comments below.



Previous article Subsonic Ammo: Does It Live Up to the Hype?
Next article TNOutdoors9 Tests G2 Research R.I.P. Ammo