The Best 9mm Ammo in 2017
The first caliber we have selected to kick off our “Best Ammo” series is the extremely popular 9mm Luger.
The Story of 9mm
The 9mm is officially known as the 9x19mm Parabellum. It was designed by Georg Luger and first introduced for the Luger Pistol in Germany in 1902 (that’s where the 9mm Luger name comes from). Today the cartridge is a standard NATO cartridge and is utilized by many law enforcement agencies across the U.S. and the world. I particularly love the “Parabellum” following the sizing of the cartridge. Parabellum is derived from the Latin phrase for “If you seek peace, prepare for war”. Other than the .50 Beowulf and 6.5 Grendel, that seems to be one of the coolest caliber names.
Mr. Luger, a distinguished fellow.
Its popularity is due to a number of things not least of which is the fact that it is readily available and fairly cheap. Some might say that it is popular because it is popular. Like many things, as people demand more, more suppliers supply and competition drives price comes down. As the price drops, more people can afford the rounds and so the cycle continues to what economists call the “Equilibrium.”
This is obviously a broad generalization and a poor description of a key principle of economics. It is, however, particularly interesting the case of ammo for one reason: the government buys a lot of ammo. When governments of the world place orders for hundreds of millions of rounds of 9mm, suppliers setup their lines to fill the order and are then able to run additional ammo for sale to civilians at low cost. Basically, governments help cover the production line setup costs for the manufacturers which lowers the price of the shooting community’s ammo. Love them or hate them, this is one way in which over the long term, governments support our shooting addictions.
Baretta M9, standard issue of the U.S. Army, shoots 9mm.
All of that above is talking about basic plinking ammo. The government buys most of this ammo for military use (note the NATO classification above). Although it is in much smaller quantities, the government does purchase a sizable amount of specialized defensive ammo for law enforcement officers.
Special purpose ammo, like the defensive ammo used by law enforcement, is designed to improve upon a standard cartridge’s stats in one particular dimension (energy, penetration, recoil, etc.). Therefore in order to understand the benefits of a defensive round we must first understand the features and shortfalls of the standard version. Here is where we finally get back to 9mm ammo.
Over the decades, as calibers rise and fall in popularity, the 9mm took over in the 1980’s as it moved into heavy rotation in U.S. Law Enforcement. The “Wonder Nines” was the term coined to describe a semi-auto with a staggered magazine and double-action trigger. The number of rounds one could carry (I can fit 18 rounds in my magazine for my CZ-75, an example of the “Wonder Nines”), automatically gave it a certain performance advantage over most of the police departments’ .38 Specials and .357 Magnum revolvers.
9mm Ammo Specifications
To present the basics of 9mm plinking rounds we will use Federal’s American Eagle 115 grain FMJ and 124 grain FMJ as examples. The 115 grain FMJ has a muzzle velocity of 1,160 feet per second and carries 344 foot pounds of energy. The 124 grain American Eagle travels at 1,120 feet per second with 345 foot pounds of energy. Notice that despite the slower speed of the 124 grain bullet, it carries more energy than the lighter and faster 115 grain bullet (we’ll explore this more below in the “Low Energy” section). All three of these specifications are very common for 9mm plinking ammo. While other options are available, you will generally find 9mm FMJs weighting between 115-125 grains and traveling at a little over 1,000 feet per second. Compare Alchemist’s Z-Clean 9MM rounds here - 100 grain (zinc is lighter than lead) at 1150 feet per second.
American Eagle 9mm
Subsonic 9mm FMJ ammo is the exception. In all calibers, subsonic rounds are heavier and slower than their standard counterparts. These bullets are designed to travel slower than the speed of sound, not break the sound barrier and not “crack” like traditional ammo. We won’t get too deep on subsonic ammo in this article, but if you would like you can learn more about subsonic ammo here.
On the other end of the spectrum from subsonic ammo is “+P” and ”+P+” ammo. +P ammo is ammo that is loaded to increase the speed and energy a bullet carries. This ammo falls into the “special purpose” category and +P loads are most often utilized on lighter than class bullets like the PolyCase ARX. The ARX has a very light 65 grain bullet but travels and 1,620 feet per second. This high velocity gives the ARX 379 foot pounds of energy, which is significantly more than the 124 grain American Eagle. As is the case of the ARX, putting more pressure and speed behind a light bullet increases the energy it carries. Before firing a +P round, it is important to ensure you weapon can handle the extra pressure +P rounds exert in the chamber; not all weapons can.
Since copper and zinc have lower densities than lead (~79% and 63%, respectively), most of your non-plinking rounds are going to be in that +P designation to build comparable force and exceed many traditional self defense rounds.
The 9MM measures in at about .354 inches across which puts into comparable territory of the .38 Special and the .357 Magnum as far as the size of the round. In fact, many times you can use similar tools to clean the barrels of firearms in this calibers.
Now that we have an understanding of the 9mm’s specs let’s talk pros and cons. This is where I ask you to put aside your feelings toward the 9mm, be they good or bad, and view this as an overview of the caliber.
The Best: Price
While this isn’t a ballistic characteristic, price is an import consideration and maybe the most if weapon familiarity is one of your objectives (I argue that it should be). As discussed in length above, the volume of 9mm used by both the government and civilians helps keep the price low. A shooting enthusiast looking for some plinking ammo should expect to pay between twenty and thirty cents per round. As we all know this price can change dramatically based on world events and politics but the price of bulk 9mm is usually stable.
Especially for the pistol calibers, this will be fairly common to all those we discuss. For 9mm there are tons of options in both firearms and ammunition. Nearly every manufacturer makes a 9mm round or two and you would be hard pressed to find a major firearms manufacturer that doesn’t have at least one 9mm offering. While traditionally conceived as a pistol round, 9mm carbines are becoming more and more popular. Beauty of having many options is that if you are concerned about one particular characteristic of the 9mm, there is likely a firearm-ammo combination that can help relieve your concern.
I’d argue this is another major pro combined with the price of the 9mm. This is often the first round a manufacturers produces because of the size of the market and the popularity of the caliber.
Just a few 9mm options.
Compared with other popular handgun calibers, standard 9mm cartridges have relatively low recoil. While recoil varies significantly based on the pistol, lower recoil rounds are easier to shoot for the largest number of people. When discussing this topic someone will always make a comment about how anyone who doesn’t shoot a .45 is a sissy. However, the point is that regardless of how strong or tough a shooter is, the less “bucking” a pistol does when fired, the quicker the shooter can accurately place follow up shots. Which means that a manageable recoil in a smaller round is not only better for defense, but also liability. I’d rather have the opportunity to put more projectiles and more accurate placement against a potential threat than merely carrying a bigger gun (which also has less magazine capacity).
Back on the “sissy” note, there are many people who are actually not physically strong enough to feel comfortable shooting a larger caliber. I don’t think anyone would mock their family member for choosing to carry and 9mm versus a 10mm because they are more confident and comfortable shooting it. Along a similar line of thought, those of us who want to pass our passion for the shooting sports to loved ones, light recoil can often mean a more pleasurable shooting experience
Bad: Low Energy
The dark side of low recoil is low energy. A heavy bullet, fired at high velocity is going to kick hard. 9mm ammo is not loaded with heavy bullets, nor does it fire these bullets at abnormally high speeds. This means that a 9mm bullet leaving the barrel doesn’t carry much energy and much of the energy it does have it loses in flight. On target then, a 9mm round doesn’t have much energy to transfer. Many will debate just how valuable energy transfer really is, but at the end of the day it is a metric with which we can compare ammo.
As mentioned above some 9mm ammo is loaded hot. These +P or +P+ rounds, like the Underwood +P+ Xtreme Penetrator, carry much more energy than standard loads. Underwood’s +P+ XPs, travel at 1,350 feet per second and carry 465 foot pounds of energy. That’s over 30% more energy than the American Eagle FMJs.
Bad: Narrow Wound Channel
The final downside of the 9mm we will discuss is that standard 9mm bullets create small wound channels. 9mm bullets do not have a large diameter (hence the “9mm” name) and therefore make small wound channels in fluid. As with all calibers, there are hollow points and other defensive rounds that increase this wound channel, but you won’t see a 9mm bullet create a larger wound channel than a similarly designed .45 ACP bullet.
The Best 9mm Ammo
So after all that we have arrived at the point of the article: What is the best 9mm Ammo (for self defense)? Of course we aren’t going to name a single, specific round but we will give you a couple options and let you decide which is best for your desired application/firearm.
Hollow points are great if you are looking for a larger wound cavity and no over penetration. These particular hollow points are CNC’d from copper and open up extremely well upon impact. Other great hollow point options include: Speer Gold Dots and Hornady’s Critical Defense.
When it comes to innovation in the ammo industry, it’s hard to look past PolyCase. They have created a polymer/copper bullet that is incredibly unique. This uniqueness manifests itself into a lightweight, incredibly fast projectile (65 grain @1620 ft/sec) resulting in a ton of kinetic energy (379 ft/lbs). This projectile also has frangible properties where, when it hits an object harder than the bullet (such as a steel target), the bullet essentially disintegrates into copper dust for no ricochet. This means you can shoot at incredibly close ranges to get more realistic self-defense training.
In addition, the “fins” on the front of the bullet take advantage of the speed generated by the light bullet, with the objective to create significant hydrostatic shock at the point of impact with a soft target. (can I find a link to a youtube?)
Controversial on this list because some consider it to be a gimmick round, the RIPs are simply good at their job. They deposit the entirety of the kinetic energy into the target with the harmful risk of over penetration and the benefit of energy transfer.
While talking to another ammoficionado, he pointed out something I had forgotten about when considering the difference between hunting and self-defense rounds. You do not need to track what you shoot. How is that relevant? When deer hunting, it is ideal that the bullet pierces the far side of the animal - not so that it bleeds more but so that you can track the animal. The real goal of shooting is to transfer all the energy at the point of impact into the body cavity. If the ammo pierces the other side, there was opportunity to transfer more energy into the target. The main objection to the R.I.P. is that it doesn’t penetrate enough. Given the observation that over penetration is a liability risk and disperses more energy than needed, I’d consider that a benefit.
Similar to the Xtreme Penetrator mentioned in the article, these Xtreme Defenders increase the wound channel size while penetrating further than hollow points. Other great penetrator options include: Ruger ARX and a variety of options from Lehigh Defense.
So there you are, all about the 9mm. If you would like to view some other options, head on over to our 9mm Ammo page. Thanks for reading, we hope you have found this article informative! Let us know which caliber you would like us to discuss next by emailing us as firstname.lastname@example.org