This document compiles the current state-of-the-art of the best choices available for self-defense ammunition. It includes a scientific background as to the selection criteria that is used to determine the choices presented. Data is provided for common handgun and rifle ammunition, and a small section on shotgun ammunition. Please read the entire document and familiarize yourself with the background information. The choices presented will then make much more sense
- Terminal Ballistics Background DiscussionOverpenetration inside the home
- Pistol Bullets
- Rifle bulletsShotgun Ammo
- Copyright information
- Revision History
The source for much of this data comes from the excellent site FirearmsTactical.com. Take some time to dig around their website for more data and background information. All pictures, unless otherwise specified, belong to Doctor Gary Roberts, DocGKR.
The important question to be asked, of course, is: What makes a good self-defense load?
The short answer to that question is that ammo should meet the FBI’s requirement of:
1) at least 12″ of penetration in properly prepared ballistic gelatin/soft tissue, and
2) expand to the largest diameter possible in order to cause the largest possible wound.
While some people question the 12″ penetration limit, it is not subject to discussion in this article. The FBI is deemed to be more knowledgeable than most, and it is backed up my Dr. Martin Fackler and others who have spent their life discussing the subject. Duncan McPherson, in his book “Bullet Penetration: Modeling the Dynamics and the Incapacitation Resulting from Wound Trauma” actually argues that 15″ is not an unrealistic requirement a bullet should obtain. He does point out, however, that 11.5″ of penetration shouldn’t completely disqualify a bullet from being acceptable either. While 12″ should be a minimum requirement, 18″ is the approximate maximum desired penetration depth. Beyond that, and the bullet is likely to exit the intended target and retain enough energy to cause others harm if a person should be in the line of fire. Obviously you should never take the shot if you’re not sure of what’s beyond your target and rely on your ammunition to do your job of being prudent.
I will briefly point out that the 12″ penetration requirement stems from the fact that not all shots are frontal-torso shots. Many times the bullet must penetrate significantly more tissue, such as when the person being shot has his arms extended in front of him, if the shot is at an oblique angle, etc. You choose ammunition based on a worst-case scenario, not the best.
“But,” you say, “there’s no way it’s THAT important to have a bullet that’s only marginally better than my favorite load.” That may be well and true. I know you’re not planning on missing, and that you figure you’ll be able to put a couple of shots center-of-mass with no problems. Don’t overestimate your ability when the lead starts flying. There won’t be a perfect Weaver stance involved, trigger discipline will go to hell, and carefully aimed shots will be non-existent. How many times have you seen shootouts on “Cops” where they’re 2 yards apart, shoot a bunch of times, and yet every shot manages to miss?
Not only that, but hitting the VITAL area of your target is exceedingly difficult. The best case scenario – a full-frontal torso shot – is “easy”. The problem is that as the angle of the attacker change, the point of aim has to vary considerably in order to hit the vital structures. For a brief explanation, look at this figure that shows shots that all hit the center of the chest, but none of which bring the bullet path into contact with the vital structures in the thoracic cavity:
That picture was taken from a thread by OddJob (his nick on TacticalForums and The FiringLine). He is a radiographer from South Africa and has written an excellent article on the subject hosted at BrassFetcher.com. Please read that article for more information on the subject.
You plan for a worst case scenario, and that’s why it’s best to choose a bullet that will put the maximum advantage in your corner.
THAT BEING SAID, KEEP IN MIND THAT BULLET PERFORMANCE IS MEASURED IN SHADES OF GRAY, NOT BLACK AND WHITE. THE AMMUNITION RECOMMENDATIONS HERE ARE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE CURRENT STATE OF THE ART, WHICH DOES NOT MEAN THAT THEY’RE THE ONLY CHOICES – ONLY WHAT IS CURRENTLY DEEMED BEST. You are, of course, free to choose any ammo you want, but there are sound reasons for why some ammo types are recommended over others. These recommendations aren’t my own; rather, they have been advanced by the foremost experts in the field. You can choose to disagree with their findings, but don’t expect anyone to give you much credence unless you have some serious credentials and proof to back up your claim.
There are lots of articles written by Dr. Fackler available in the Ammo FAQ, such as The ideal police bullet. As a matter of fact, the article essentially points out exactly what the requirements are and validate the claims that 12″ of penetration in conjunction with a large wound channel are what is required of a good bullet.
One of the errors frequently made is to take anecdotal evidence (“I heard this cop shoot someone with such-and-such ammo, and the guy dropped dead on the spot, so this has got to be great ammo.”) and apply it across the board for that load. The same thing applies to comments like “he was hit in the center of the chest two times and didn’t go down, therefore this load sucks.” Please refer to the figures provided earlier that show how center-of-chest hits can miss vital structures of the body easily depending on the angle of the attacker even when hitting the center of the chest. Statistically, it could have been a fluke; only a large sample size will guarantee that the results are repeatable. You can’t draw conclusions on just an isolated report of a bullet’s performance; keep in mind that a few people have survived jumping out of an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute too, but that doesn’t mean it would be prudent to do that yourself.
An extremely important point to address is the question of velocity. Many people are obsessed with using the highest-velocity ammunition possible. This is a bad choice as penetration is usually DECREASED with increased velocity. Several topics in the FAQ address this issue, but it’s important to reiterate that point here. Bullets are designed to perform properly within a certain velocity range. Too low of a velocity will cause the bullet not to expand and can lead to overpenetration. Too high a velocity, and the bullet’s additional impact energy will lead to violent expansion and/or fragmentation and result in a large loss of momentum; in these cases, the bullet can actually UNDERPENETRATE. Although the following diagram pertains to rifle bullets, the same holds true for pistols as well (the two vertical lines indicate the approximate thickness of a human torso):
If your bullet isn’t listed: While exclusion of a particular ammo may not indicate that it is a poor performer, your best bet is to stick with something on the list. If you have a load which can be shown to meet the proper criteria, IM me and I will include it in the list below. For calibers which aren’t listed, your best bet is to look for ammo loaded with a known good performing bullet type in the bullet weight which follows the guidelines established.
The rest of the article lists loads sorted by caliber which are acceptable to the criteria discussed above. Penetration ability through glass and metal are somewhat deemphasized in this report, as it is not a common requirement for self-defense for civilians. In general, look for bonded-type bullets when barrier penetration is required. These will stay intact after the bullet penetrates the barrier. At the same time, bullets that penetrate through barriers will, by design, also penetrate excessively though common household object. Keep that in mind when selecting a load.
The most important question then becomes how we can measure a bullet’s performance without actually shooting someone. The short answer to that question is a material called ballistic gelatin. It is basically plain gelatin with a specific bloom number that’s been mixed to a specific concentration (10%) and stored at a specific temperature (38F). Once again, the Ammo FAQ includes information on the proper way to prepare ballistics gelatin. Properly prepared gelatin should be calibrated by firing a steel BB at a certain velocity; it should penetrate to a specific depth in order for the block to be useful.
In the future, I’m planning on expanding this section significantly and provide lots of extra information about what ballistics gelatin does and doesn’t do. This will take some time, so I’ll make a brief summary to keep in mind when reading the rest of the material:
- Ballistics gelatin is NOT living tissue. It is a tissue SIMULANT modeling the density and elasticity of muscle tissue.
- Ballistics gelatin is a homogeneous material while the human body is not. There are some variations between the two.
Even though ballistic gelatin has been in use for a while, it is still state-of-the-art. If a bullet performs well in ballistic gelatin, we can predict that it will perform well in actual shootings. While the data is not available to the average person, studies continue to monitor actual gunshot wounds and compare them to the bullet’s performance in ballistic gelatin using modern Xray and other techniques. Even with these studies, ballistic gelatin continues to be the gold standard across the world for modeling a bullet’s performance. Beware of any test data that doesn’t use properly prepared and calibrated gelatin; using modeling clay, water-soaked newspapers, duct seal compound, soap, or any other material provides NO information about the bullet’s actual performance so don’t be fooled.
Water is an acceptable substitute to measure the best-case scenario of bullet expansion since water’s density is virtually identical to that of tissue. Water can’t be used to predict the penetration depth; while there are some conversion factors that attempt to account for this discrepancy, I would not place a lot of weight on it.
A common concern for people when trying to decide which caliber to choose for self defense is overpenetration inside the home. Many believe that pistols calibers would automatically penetrate less than rifle bullets, or that light fragmenting bullets will allow you to not be concerned with overpenetration. In regards to the latter – this is a false assumption. Take, for example, the Glaser Safety Slug. It is a pre-fragmented bullet with very shallow and completely penetration in bare gelatin. When fired through drywall, the bullet fails to expand and behaves as a FMJ solid. Another example would be using a lightweight varmint bullet in an AR, thinking that the shallow penetration in tissue would be sufficient to not worry about persons in adjacent rooms in case of a miss. The question I would ask is this: If you knew that there is a person in a room behind the bad guy and you’re only separated by drywall, would you really risk taking a shot and rely solely on the bullet to not hurt or kill someone in case of a miss?
As far as the idea that pistol bullets will inherently penetrate less than rifle cartridges, take a look at this graph comparing common weapons one might employ in the role of self-defense:
Notice that the penetration of all these calibers using high-quality ammunition is approximately the same, quite contrary to common belief. The reason pistol calibers penetrate quite deeply is, as has been mentioned before, the fact that momentum is the key factor here. The slower, heavier bullets retain more momentum and can thus penetrate as much as a bullet launched at much higher velocity. Bullet construction obviously plays a key role as well.
The situation won’t change very much if drywall is introduced into the equation:
There is not much that has to be said about this picture; the .223 calibers rapidly lose their momentum after penetrating drywall first, while the heavier bullets do not. Note that the pistol calibers in the example above penetrate to approximately 50cm (~20″). That would lead me to believe that the bullets chosen for that test didn’t expand and thus further highlights the need to choose ammunition which passes the FBI test protocols. A Winchester Ranger-T bullet penetrates approximately 15″ (~38cm) after encountering wallboard – about the same as the .308 155gr AMAX.
Velocity seems to be the “holy grail” for a lot of folks when they decide to choose their handgun ammo, and they tend to gravitate towards +P or even +P+ loads. As mentioned above, velocity is not always good or useful. This is something to keep in mind when deciding between a “fast” 127gr +P+ or 147gr load in 9mm for example. Another factor is the ability to control the follow-up shot. If you have two loads which both perform about the same, you might consider going to the slow/heavy bullet due to the fact that the slower load is more easily controlled. Consider the data from Winchester in regards to their 9mm 127gr +P+ load (1250 fps) versus the 147gr load (990 fps) in the Ranger-T line:
127gr = 12.3″ penetration and 0.64″ ED
147gr = 13.9″ penetration and 0.65″ ED
127gr = 12.5″ penetration and 0.68″ ED
147gr = 14.5″ penetration and 0.66″ ED
127gr = 12.2″ penetration and 0.68″ ED
147gr = 14.0″ penetration and 0.66″ ED
In a handgun, the “light and fast” philosophy is taken to extremes by exotic ammo like Extreme Shock and RBCD. Please refer to the Exotic ammo FAQ for reference.
BARREL LENGTH plays a role in this as well. While +P loadings may not be required in most cases, they can compensate for short barrels and the resulting loss in muzzle velocity. For example: In 9mm, the 124gr Gold Dot is a good choice in barrel lengths of 4″ or more. In compact guns of 3.5″ or less, a higher-velocity loading would be advised. This is Dr. Roberts take on the issue:
Actually, all our testing has traditionally been done in 4″ barrels for 9 mm, .40 S&W, and 4.25″ for .45 ACP, although recently most of the organizations we test for have been asking for 5″ barrel data for .45 ACP. There is really no difference in performance between a 3.5″ and 4″ barrel in 9 mm and .40 S&W. In .45 ACP, we see a reasonably significant change in performance going from a 5″ to 3.5″ or less barrels. Since almost all viable pistols in 9 mm and .40 S&W use 3.5-4.5″ barrels, there are no “short barrel” worries for serious end-users. Likewise, almost all .45 ACP platforms worthy of hard use use barrels greater than 4″, so again, the short barrel question is moot…
Please be aware that if you venture into guns with a barrel length of less than 3.5″, you’re in uncharted territory.
In pistol calibers, expanding hollowpoints are preferred to create the largest permanent wound cavity possible. There are a lot of people who pick a load without adequately researching the ammo they trust their life on. The Federal Hydra-Shock is one such example. It was the whiz-bang bullet of its time, but has since been eclipsed by many other bullet designs. The principal weakness of that round are its lack of expansion after passing through clothing.
Properly designed hollow-point ammunition – regardless of caliber – all perform very close to each other when you take expanded diameter and penetration depth into account:
Note how little difference there is between the high-velocity .357SIG and other “slow-poke” rounds. The temporary cavity size is also virtually identical.
The above picture also shows that there is not as big of a difference in overall expanded diameter between the various bullets as you might expect.
The following two pictures taken by AR15.com poster Molon show several popular examples of 9mm 147gr loads to give you an idea for the differences between various hollow-point designs of popular bullets:
If you take all of these criteria into account, the lists should come as no surprise. Please note that all of the recommended pistol loads listed below have been personally tested and vetted by Dr. Roberts. THEY ARE NOT IN ORDER OF PERFORMANCE, SO ANY BULLET ON THE LIST IS CONSIDERED ACCEPTABLE.
- Barnes XPB 115gr HP (35515) such as loaded by Cor-Bon (DPX09115)
- Winchester Partition Gold 124gr JHP (RA91P)
- Winchester Ranger-T 124 gr +P JHP (RA9124TP)
- Winchester Ranger Bonded 124 gr +P JHP (RA9BA)
- Winchester Ranger-T 127gr JHP +P+ (RA9TA)
- Winchester Ranger-T 147gr JHP (RA9T)
- Winchester Bonded 147gr JHP (RA9B/Q4364)
- Speer Gold Dor 124gr JHP
- Speer Gold Dot 124gr JHP +P (53617)
- Speer Gold Dot 147gr JHP (53619)
- Remington Golden Saber 124 gr +P JHP bonded (GSB9MMD)
- Remington Golden Saber 147gr JHP (GS9MMC)
- Federal Tactical 124gr JHP (LE9T1)
- Federal Tactical 135gr JHP +P (LE9T5)
- Federal HST 147gr JHP (P9HST2)
- Federal HST 124gr JHP +P (P9HST3)
You might notice that the list does NOT include any lightweight bullets with the exception of the Barnes 115gr version. The reason – especially if you’ve read the beginning of this article – should be clear already, but Doctor Roberts sums it up nicely as well: “With the exception of the Barnes 115 gr XPB all copper projectile, in general, most 9 mm 115 gr loads have demonstrated greater inconsistency, insufficient penetration, poor intermediate barrier capability, and failure to expand in denim testing than other 9mm bullets. For those individuals wanting to use lighter weight, supersonic 9 mm’s, I think a better alternative than the vast majority of 115 gr loads is to use the slightly heavier 124 to 127 gr bullets or the Barnes 115 gr all copper bullet“
- Speer Gold Dot 135gr +P (53921), specially designed for snubnose guns. Here is an excellent article from Federal’s website which gives you more information than you’d ever want to know about this round, as well as effective ranges and performance evaluation using the FBI test protocol for that round.
|Penetration||Recovered Diameter||Recovered Weight|
More information from Doctor Roberts: “With few exceptions, such as the Speer 135 gr +P JHP and Barnes XPB, the vast majority of .38 Sp JHP’s fail to expand when fired from 2″ barrels in the 4 layer denim test. […] There is no reason to go with .357 mag in a J-frame, as the significantly larger muzzle blast and flash, and harsher recoil of the .357 Magnum does not result in substantially improved terminal performance compared to the more controllable .38 Special bullets when fired from 2” barrels.“
- Corbon 110 gr JHP DPX
|Penetration||Recovered Diameter||Recovered Weight|
Also look at loads using the Barnes DPX bullet as loaded by Federal. Please be aware that Federal lists the “Barnes expander” under their “Vital-Shok” handgun hunting section, while the inferior Hydra-Shok is listed for personal defense. Then again, it’s questionable why one would want the extra recoil/muzzle blast of the .357mag when the .38spl load works just as well.
- Federal Tactical and HST loads.
- Speer Gold Dot 125gr JHP
- Barnes all-copper bullets (140 & 155gr) loaded by: Cor-Bon (DPX40140)
- Winchester Ranger 180gr JHP (RA40T)
- Winchester Ranger 165gr JHP (RA40TA)
- Winchester Partition Gold 165gr JHP (RA401P)
- Winchester Bonded 180gr JHP (Q4355)
- Speer Gold Dot 155gr JHP (53961)
- Speer Gold Dot 180gr JHP (53962)
- Federal Tactical 165gr JHP (LE40T3)
- Federal Tactical 180gr JHP (LE40T1)
- Federal HST 180gr JHP (P40HST1)
- Remington Golden Saber 180 gr JHP (GS40SWB)
DocGKR has evaluated the following loads out of a 5″ S&W 629 revolver and 16′ Marlin 1894P carbine:
Federal 180 gr JHP (C44B), Federal 240 gr JHP (C44A), Federal 240 gr JHP Hydrashok (P44HS1), Federal 300 gr LWC Cast Core (P44E), Hornady 180 gr JHP XTP (9081), Hornady 240 gr JHP XTP (9085), Hornady 300 gr JHP XTP (9088), Remington 180 gr JHP (R44MG5), Remington 275 gr JHP Core-Lokt (RH44MGA), Speer 270 gr JSP Gold Dot (23968), Winchester 210 gr JHP Silver Tip (X44MS), Winchrester 250 gr JHP Partition Gold (S44MP)
Out of all these loads, the Hornady 300 gr JHP XTP (9088) was judged superior to all others, with deep penetration and expansion in excess of 0.70″. Other comments: “The Hornady 240 gr and 180 gr loadings also performed well, the Remington 275 gr Core-Lokt was a good overall performer, the Remington 180 gr and Winchester 210 gr Silvertip loads had excessive muzzle flash, the Hydrashok fragmented badly, the Silvertip did well in the revolver and not the carbine, the Gold Dot did well in the carbine and not the revolver, the Cast Core has VERY deep penetration, but no expansion”. Link to picture of some of the recovered bullets.
Performance data for the Hornady 300gr XTP in bare gelatin:
|Velocity||Penetration||Recovered Diameter||Recovered Length||Recovered Weight|
|5″ model 629||1120fps||20+”||0.71″||0.67″||299.5gr|
- Barnes XPB/TAC-XP 185gr HP loaded by:
- Cor-Bon (DPX45185)
- Taurus (TCB45ACP185HP)
- Winchester Ranger-T 230gr JHP (RA45T)
- Winchester Ranger-T 230gr JHP +P (RA45TP)
- Federal Tactical 230gr JHP (LE45T1)
- Federal HST 230gr +P JHP (P45HST1)
- Federal HST 230gr JHP (P45HST2)
- Speer Gold Dot 230gr JHP (23966)
- Speer Gold Dot 230gr +P JHP
If you want to skip a more detailed discussion of manufacturers, then you can refer to this chart compliments of Arfcom user soulman. He has collected the info from several places on the web that summarizes the bullet performance of many of the most popular choices:
Keep in mind that Doctor Roberts has also tested many of these loads. If in doubt, use the numbers for Doctor Roberts’ tests further down this page if there are conflicts.
The Barnes XPB bullet offers some very good performance. It uses a very large, deep hollow-point in a solid copper bullet that seems to have no problems expanding through many barriers. Being a solid-copper bullet, the weights tend to run lighter for equivalent loads when compared to lead-core bullets, but in this case should be of no concern. The XPB is being sold by Barnes as the TAC-XP starting in 2009. There are no differences between the XPB and the TAC-XP, with the exception of changes to the TAC-XP in .44 according to Barnes customer service. The latter bullet was changed to allow for better performance in .44spl loads.
Ballistic Gelatin Performance Data from Barnes
- .380ACP TAC-XP, 80gr
- .38spl TAC-XP, 110gr
- .357SIG TAC-XP, 125gr
- 9mm TAC-XP, 115gr
- .40 TAC-XP, 140gr
- .40 TAC-XP, 155gr
- .44spl TAC-XP, 200gr
- .45ACP TAC-XP, 160gr
- .45ACP TAC-XP, 185gr
Cor-Bon is offering the full line of Barnes bullets in the DPX line of ammunition. Taurus used to sell these as the copper “Hex” bullet in a limited range of calibers. Federal has also started offering the DPX in their handgun bullet lineup. Please be aware that Federal lists the “Barnes expander” under their “Vital-Shok” handgun hunting section, while the inferior Hydra-Shok is listed for personal defense.
This load shows excellent performance in all media thanks to its deep hollow point and solid copper construction. It tends to be lighter than conventional ammunition since no lead is used. While it does come in just slightly below 12″ of penetration, it is still recommended:
Note by Doctor Roberts: “Like the HST loads, the Barnes XPB bullets performed very well in both bare gel and 4 layer denim; the only area of concern was a propensity for the Barnes XPB bullets to have difficulties with auto windshield intermediate barriers. The Barnes bullets would frequently begin to yaw off course after only a few centimeters of travel in gel and would often veer to 90 degrees and exit the gel blocks in under 10 cm–this phenomena requires further study.”
One of the drawbacks to the Winchester Ranger-Ts are that they are generally not available to civilians, nor are the bullets available as components (neither are the inferior SXTs). Federal no longer sells the Hydra-Shok as a component either. Only the Speer Gold Dots are easy to find if you’re looking to roll your own.
Here are some recovered samples of Rangers (RA45T) after being fired through 4-layer denim:
As mentioned earlier, the Hydra-Shocks are not up to par, as is clearly evidenced by this report on the .45 Hydra-Shok on firearmstactical.com. Also note that even when the Hydrashocks do expand, the expanded diameter is very small.
The new HST loads show excellent results on the other hand. Federal – on their LE website – has posted the results of a bunch of workshops they have hosted which includes primarily the HST and Gold Dot loads. I have re-hosted them on the AR15.com ammo server.
Some people like the Federal EFMJ since it’s a “FMJ” design that is supposed to expand. While it does decrease feeding issues somewhat due to its shape, there’s also a high failure rate in the neighborhood of 20% when it comes to reliable expansion. The other negative for this bullet is that it lacks sharp edges which slice though tissue and make a larger permanent cavity than a more rounded profile which tends to push tissue out of the way only to have it return to its original shape. Some pictures of Dr. Roberts results:
Apparently, some municipalities and/or states do not allow JHP bullet designs, so that’s where these might come in useful.
While there are some Golden Sabers that make the list, be aware that the GS is an older design and may have issues with core/jacket separation. There is a new generation of GS bullets marketed to law enforcement only that has bonded jackets. No data is available that I’ve been able to find.
- Hornady 2011 TAP product brochure
- Gelatin shots of the Hornady’ LE handgun ammo lineup.
- Hornady Tactical Application Police – Ammunition Test Report and Application Guide. Only the last few pages deal with pistol ammunition, but it is well worth the read.
- .38spl: Hornady FTX vs. Speer 135gr GDHP vs. CorBon 110gr DPX
- Federal HST in 9mm (P9HST2), .40S&W (P40HST1), and .45ACP (P45HST1)
- 9mm: Winchester Ranger Bonded (RA9BA) vs. 147gr Federal HST
- 9mm: Federal HST and Remington Golden Saber Bonded
- 9mm: CorBon 115gr DPX vs. 147gr Federal HST
- 9mm: Fiocchi Expanding Mono-Bloc
- .40S&W: Winchester Ranger Bonded vs. Federal HST
- .40S&W: Corbon 140gr DPX vs. Federal HST
- .40S&W: DoubleTap 155gr GDHP vs. Speer 155/165gr GDHP
- .45ACP: Corbon 160/185gr DPX vs. Federal HST
- .45ACP: Speer 200gr +P GDHP
- .45ACP: Winchester RA45T vs. Federal P45HST2
- Hornady Critical Duty in 9mm, .40S&W, and .45ACP compared to established loads
The criteria for rifle ammunition is essentially the same as for handgun bullets, and many of the same design factors apply. One important difference for rifle ammunition is that the velocities are much higher, and the effect of the temporary cavity starts contributing quite a bit towards creating damage, especially as one moves up in caliber/velocity. There are expanding rifle bullets which will do the job just like for handguns, as well as fragmenting bullets. As previously discussed, the heavier bullets perform better here also. If a bullet fragments, there should be sufficient mass in the largest fragments to ensure penetration to the 12″ level for optimum performance. This disqualifies many varmint bullets; while they show dramatic fragmentation, the fragments sometimes penetrate to only 6″ or so. This creates impressive surface wounds, but may not penetrate deeply enough.
The 7.62×39 is approximately the equal of a .30-30 rifle cartridge, but there are very few bullet designs which perform adequately unfortunately.
For comparison, here are some pictures of how some military rifle bullets perform in ballistic gelatin:
In the above diagram, the lines at 20cm and 30cm represent:
20cm (8″): The distance through a human torso in the ideal frontal torso shot.
30cm (12″): The minimum recommended penetration distance
As is readily apparent, FMJ ammunition – in general – is a poor performer. It penetrates deeply, but neither expands nor fragments. The well-documented performance of the M855 as a fragmenting bullet in the diagrams above is an exception; the fragmentation contributes significantly to its performance. Please refer to the Ammo FAQ for further discussion. You will note that M193/M855 are NOT on the recommended list below. If you want to know why, jump ahead to this link.
I’m omitting hunting rifle data, since I assume most people will not bother to use their lever-action rifles in a self-defense situation.
Note about Barnes bullets: The TSX is being sold by Barnes as the TAC-X starting in 2009. There are no differences between the TSX and the TAC-X.
While the M855-type ammunition generally meets performance requirements, there have been quite a few reports in inadequate fragmentation. Please remember that this is military ammo, and while the fragmenting properties are well documented and understood, there is no requirement for the bullet to fragment when being tested for acceptance. There can be significant variations in constructions which could make some lots perform much worse than others. For this reason, it is not on the list. While the M193-type ammo is not nearly as complicated of a design, it is also not inherently as devastating as the heavier OTMs listed below. Since this article is about the BEST choices for self-defense ammunition, it is omitted also.
As far as ammunition choices listed below are concerned, keep in mind that some manufacturers might offer the same bullet loaded to .223 chamber pressures and also at 5.56 chamber pressures. The latter allow for approximately 100-200fps more velocity and subsequent better performance. This is the case for the Hornady TAP ammo.
An excellent article written by Molon shows the performance of various types of heavy OTMs, including all the Hornady TAP variations and Mk262 77gr OTM ammunition, velocities, accuracy, etc. It is one of the most comprehensive on the subject I have ever seen and will pretty much tell you anything you need to know. CLICK HERE TO READ THAT ARTICLE.
Included in the article are comparisons of pretty much all components that make up this ammo, including reports of the type of bullet used, the type of powder, primers, velocities through different barrel lengths, accuracy, etc. It also includes pictures of shots into ballistic gelatin of 40/55/75gr TAP, as well as some 77gr loads.
Your rifle’s twist rate plays a large part in choosing the right bullet. The most common twist rate is 1:9, and it should (make sure you test it to be sure) stabilize 75gr bullets, and some even work with 77’s. 1:8’s can stabilize pretty much everything but the longest 100 gr bullets, and 1:7’s can use any bullet listed. If you’re stuck with 1:12, your choices are narrowed down significantly.
Summarizing Doctor Roberts’ choices results in the following list (make sure to read about the importance of barrier penetration just below the list):
If Barrier penetration is NOT an important factor AND your rifle can stabilize them (1:9 minimum twist rate):
- Hornady 75gr OTM loads
- Nosler 77gr OTM loads
- Sierra 77gr SMK loads
If Barrier penetration is NOT an important factor AND your rifle can’t stabilize the heavy 70+ grain bullets:
- Sierra 69gr SMK loads
- Hornady 68gr OTM loads
- Winchester 64gr JSP (RA223R2)
- Federal 64gr TRU (223L)
- Hornady 60gr JSP
If your rifle is 1:12 twist rate and can only shoot lighter-weight bullets:
- 55gr Federal bonded JSP load (LE223T1 or P223T2)
- Barnes 55gr TSX/TAC-X
- 50gr TSX loaded by Black Hills*
If Barrier penetration IS an important factor (most of these should work with 1:9 barrels, but use common sense in regards to twist rate requirements)
- 62gr Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC) bonded JSP (XM556FBIT3)*
- 64gr Winchester solid base bonded JSP (Q3313/RA556B)*
- 50gr TSX loaded by Black Hills*
- Speer 55 & 64gr Gold Dot JSP(5.56)*
- Federal 62gr Mk318 Mod0 (T556TNB1)*
- 62gr Federal bonded JSP Tactical (LE223T3)
- 55gr Federal bonded JSP load (Tactical––LE223T1 or identical Premium Rifle––P223T2)
- Swift 75gr Scirocco (usually requires 1:7 twist)
- 60gr Nosler Partition JSP
- Remington 62gr bonded JSP
- Federal 55gr TSX (T223S)
- Speer 55 & 64gr Gold Dot JSP (.223)
- Federal 62gr Fusion JSP (Same construction as the Gold Dot)
Loads marked with * are 5.56 loads and indicate preferred loadings. CLICK HERE FOR GELATIN PERFORMANCE RESULTS OF SOME OF THE AFOREMENTIONED BARRIER LOADS.
BARRIER BLIND LOADS ARE PREFERRED: There has been a shift away from fragmenting ammunition and toward barrier-blind bonded loads.
Doctor Roberts’ latest take on this: “For LE and other individuals not restricted by the Hague convention, because of their good terminal performance across a wide spectrum of potential engagement scenarios, the bonded barrier blind projectiles have moved ahead of the fragmenting OTM loads we previously recommended, as the best general purpose loads available.”
Also: “If you are, then why are you concerned about properly engineered blind to barrier 5.56 mm loads, since ALL of the current effective barrier blind ammunition penetrates NO more than service caliber handgun ammunition in the event of a miss. For that matter, the recommended 7.62 x 51mm loads for 16” rifle use, like the Rem 150 gr Core Locked Ultra Bonded, penetrate the same depth as handgun rounds…
The better bonded loads like TBBC, are definitely MORE effective than the TSX style all copper bullets, as they expand better, retain more mass, and offer a larger surface area, especially through intermediate barriers.
The current generation of LE barrier blind loads like 5.56 mm Federal 62 gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC) bonded JSP (XM556FBIT3) and 5.56 mm Winchester 64 gr solid base bonded JSP (Q3313/RA556B) developed for the FBI, are at 5.56 mm pressures using appropriate crimped & sealed primers, sealed case neck, same trajectory as M855 so it matches many common ACOG BDC’s, etc… The new Black Hills 5.56 mm 50 gr TSX loading is another 5.56 mm offering which offers many of these same features–it matches closely with 5.56 mm 55 gr M193 practice ammo…”
To summarize: Fragmenting loads are still fine if you can anticipate unobstructed shots, but even a home owner may have to deal with barriers and could potentially benefit from barrier blind loads. Should you panic and throw out all your heavy OTM stuff? Not at all – you might simply want to keep the above paragraphs in mind.
If using a short-barreled weapon: The same guidelines apply as for barrier penetration loads. SBRs usually have insufficient velocity to achieve fragmentation velocity.
As per Doctor Roberts: “Keep in mind, that with non-fragmenting bullet designs, heavier bullet weights are not necessarily better, especially at closer ranges and from shorter barrels. As long as penetration and upset remain adequate, it is possible to use lighter weight non-fragmenting bullets and still have outstanding terminal performance. With fragmenting designs, a heavier bullet is ideal, as it provides more potential fragments and still allows the central core to have enough mass for adequate penetration. In addition, heavier bullets may have an advantage at longer ranges due to better BC and less wind drift.”
The following pictures show the profiles of several shots into ballistic gelatin:
Note the somewhat mediocre performance of the early version of the 77gr SMK used in Mk262. It doesn’t fragment but splits into to large pieces. Newer versions are supposed to perform better.
In regards to barrier penetration of the Barnes bullets, keep the following in mind: When the TSX passes through auto windshield glass “the jacket ‘petals’ fold back against the core, or the ‘petals’ are torn off; this results in a caliber size projectile configured a lot like a full wadcutter, leading to deep penetration.” While acceptable, it does mean that there are better choices. The TSX/TAC-X is a very versatile bullet though, and offer good penetration. THE NEW 50gr TSX APPEARS TO BE AN EXCEPTION.
Also refer to the following posts by brouhaha and tatjana:
1) Multiple round, high velocity 5.56 75 grain Hornady BTHP vs 77 grain Nosler BTHP performance in bare gel.
2) Multiple Round, High Velocity (NATO Pressure) 5.56mm 77 grain OTM (Mk262 Mod 1) performance in bare gel.
3) High Velocity (NATO Pressure) 5.56mm 77 grain OTM performance versus NIJ Level IIIa body armor.
While these are not bad bullets, you will note that they are subject to large variations in neck length (distance the bullet penetrates before fragmenting); this variability is not desirable. In case of the short neck length, it is indeed an effective bullet. When 855 doesn’t begin to fragment until 8″+, it will not be very effective on front torso shots and thin individuals; this explains the dissatisfaction of US combat troops with M855 in some cases. This is due to a phenomenon recently discovered called the “fleet yaw issue”. It was first discussed in an article titled Small Caliber Lethality. There is variation from one rifle to the next about how much the bullet will yaw. The bullet leaving one rifle may exhibit more yaw than the same bullet shot from another rifle.
The bullets go through this yaw process on the way to becoming stable, and can yaw by as much as 4 degrees at short distances. You can see in the graph above that the bullet becomes very stable from about 100-400 meters, but the greatest variability – unfortunately – is within CQB range. The angle of attack has a profound impact on how a bullet behaves when striking tissue. Consider the two bullets in the picture below::
When you overlay a low-AOA bullet on a human torso, you can see that this might mean the bullet won’t begin it’s yaw cycle and fragment until after it leaves the body, making a hole not much bigger than a conventional .22LR:
You could engage a target at one distance with a large AOA and great bullet performance, while a few yards more might mean a smaller AOA and poor bullet performance. When M855/193 fragment quickly, they can be very effective. Unfortunately, they could just as easily exhibit poor performance without the end user really knowing how well his particular rifle/ammo performs.
The following data is verbatim from an article by Doctor Roberts on M4Carbine.net:
Barnes 85 and 110 gr TSX JHP — These all copper, lead free bullets bullets offer good expansion and penetration. They would be useful as both an LE barrier load and for hunting medium game.
Hornady 110 gr VMAX PT — This is a great fragmenting bullet and is perfect for CQB/LE SWAT entry work; it is also a good choice for light to medium game:
Hornady 110 gr OTM (loaded by Hornady) — This is a good fragmenting bullet for military use where PT bullets like the AMAX are prohibited, as it offers similar terminal performance to the 110 gr AMAX. It has far better terminal performance than the SMK 115 gr OTM. In addition, it has better glass performance than the 115 gr OTM’s.
Hornady 115 gr OTM (loaded by Remington) — This load has dominated recent military terminal performance testing because of it’s early yaw and superb fragmentation, even at reduced impact velocities. It has far better terminal performance than the SMK 115 gr OTM.
Sierra 115 gr OTM (without cannelure) — This first generation SMK is very accurate, but offers somewhat variable terminal performance and is not a great combat, LE, or hunting choice–it is best suited for match target shooting.
Pictures of the preceding two loads in ballistic gelatin:
Sierra 115 gr OTM (with cannelure) — This second generation SMK offers improved feeding reliability and much more consistent terminal performance with early yaw and ideal fragmentation. It is a good choice for military combat and non-barrier LE use.
Remington 115 gr JSP — Good expansion and penetration make this an excellent choice for law enforcement use through glass and other intermediate barriers, as well as into vehicles. It is also an excellent choice for hunting medium size game.
Sierra 110 gr Pro Hunter JSP — This is a good bullet for law enforcement use through glass and other intermediate barriers and would be a great load for Highway Patrol and State Police who are working primarily around vehicles. It is also a great hunting load for medium size game.
Just like making sure your AR15 has a true 5.56 mm chamber and proper barrel twist, it is also critical in 6.8 mm to use the original AMU/”Murray” chamber, as well as the superior 3 or 5 groove 1/11 or 1/12 barrel twists–the Remington SAAMI spec chamber is too tight (like a .223 chamber) and the 1/10 6 groove barrels needlessly increase pressures and reduce velocity.
It is very important to keep in mind that the proper 6.8 mm velocity is 2600 fps +/- 50 fps for 110-115 gr projectiles when fired from a 16″ barrel. Government organizations who purchase 6.8 mm should specify in their purchase contracts a minimum acceptable velocity of 2500 fps with an objective velocity of 2600 fps for 16″ barrels firing the 110-115 gr projectiles. For duty use, flash suppressed powder, crimped primer, waterproofing, and bullet cannelure should be mandatory requirements.
From Doctor Roberts: “The best ammunition choices for the M1 Carbine are the Remington 110 gr JSP (R30CAR) and the Corbon 110 gr JHP DPX loading using the all copper Barnes X bullet. The Remington load has an average velocity of 1864 f/s, expands to around .54” to .58” and penetrates 13” to 16” whether in bare gelatin, through automobile windshields, or Level IIIa body armor. This is comparable intermediate barrier performance to many good .223 loads. Likewise, the Corbon DPX load penetrates 18.9″ and expands to 0.56″ in bare gelatin. The Winchester 110 gr JSP also works reasonably well, but has a bit smaller permanent wound channel compared to the Remington or Corbon DPX load. In addition, the new Speer 110 gr Gold Dot carbine load appears very promising based on the factory test data released at SHOT 2009”
New data shows that the 110gr Speer Gold Dot bonded soft point load is also a very effective performer. Penetration is in the 16-17″ range through most of the FBI barrier test with near perfect expansion. Velocity at 10ft averages right at 2000fps.
- Lapua 125gr JSP
- Winchester Super-X 123 gr Power-Point (X76239)
- Hornady 123gr VMAX
These loads show good terminal performance in bare gel and through car windows.
The recent loading of the 124gr Wolf “Military Classic” HP shows promising performance. This ammo is made by Ulyanovsk using their 8M3 bullet, and has been shown to fragment in several tests:
7.62x39mm Sapsan 124 gr JHP (Ulyanovsk Machinery Plant) from 16” AKMS
BG: vel=2297 f/s, pen=15.0”, Max TC=10cm@18cm, RD=0.63”, RW=100.5gr
Note that Russian ammunition manufacturers change components frequently and do not notify customers. The Military Classic line could change without anyone being aware of the change.
- Hornady 155 gr TAP (with AMAX bullet)
- Federal 150 gr Nosler Ballistic Tip
- Winchester Supreme 150 gr Ballistic Silvertip
- Loads using the 165 gr Sierra Game King
The preceding list is by no means complete; there are other “ballistic tip” type loads that are close enough in performance to the Federal load, for example. Read on for more information.
When moving up to the .308, some truly devastating are available and the wound profile is impressive. Notice – once again – the underpenetration of the lightweight bullet in the bunch:
Some of the preferred bullets used by the long-range community are the 168 and 175SMKs. These do not make the best choices for shorter-range shots where instant incapacitation is needed due to the variability in their terminal performance:
If barrier penetration is needed, the Nosler 180gr Accubond is the best choice, also having superior accuracy. Be aware that this bullet will penetrate through-and-though in almost all cases.
In summary from Doctor Roberts (source):
— For military snipers and others needing long range accuracy, the SMK 175 gr OTM is the way to go.
— For intermediate barrier penetration, the bonded rounds like the BH loaded Nosler Accubond, Federal loaded TBBC, Hornady Interbond, Swift Scirroco, as well as M993 AP are the best choices.
— At this time the Hornady 155 TAP offers outstanding accuracy nearly on par with SMK’s, as well as more consistent terminal performance, better incapacitation potential and superior performance through glass intermediate barriers than SMK’s; as a result, the Hornady 155 gr TAP using the polymer tip AMAX bullet is the probably best general purpose choice for LE snipers. BH also loads AMAX bullets. The Nosler 150 gr Ballistic Tip PT, Hornady and Nosler 155 gr OTM, Federal 165 gr TRU JHP, Sierra Game Kings, and Weapons Unlimited Hostage Rescue JHP also work well.
The current .308 rifle loads that best meet these requirements when fired from a 16″ barrel semi-auto, include the Remington 150 gr Core-Lokt Ultra Bond JSP, followed by the Speer 150 gr Gold Dot JSP, and Swift 150 gr Scirroco bonded PT.
The following information is data from Barnes that I’ve rehosted on this server. Please be aware that the PDF files are very large and may take some time to download.
- Methodology used for the experiments
- 5.56mm 55gr TAC-X
- 5.56mm 55gr RRLP
- 5.56mm 62gr TAC-X
- 5.56mm 70gr TAC-X
- 6.5 Grendel 120gr TAC-X
- 6.5 Grendel 120gr TAC-TX
- 6.8SPC 85gr TAC-X
- 6.8SPC 85gr RRLP
- 6.8SPC 95gr TAC-TX
- 6.8SPC 110gr TAC-X
- 7.62×39 123gr TAC-X
- 7.62×51 110gr TAC-X
- 7.62×51 140gr RRLP
- 7.62×51 168gr TAC-X
- 2010 Federal Law Enforcement Ammunition Catalog
- Federal .223 Rifle Data Book (with pictures of gelatin shots including barrier performance)
- 2010 Speer Law Enforcement Ammunition Catalog
- Hornady 2011 TAP product brochure
- Gelatin shots of the Hornady’ LE rifle ammo lineup.
- Hornady Tactical Application Police – Ammunition Test Report and Application Guide
- .223: Mk318 Mod0
- .223: Barrier Rounds
- .223: Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (TBBC)
- .223: Winchester 64gr Bonded
- 7.62×39: 123gr Hornady VMAX
- Various 6.8mm and .300Blk rounds
- .308: 130gr Barnes TSX (CorBon load)
- .308: 150gr Swift Scirocco Bonded (Remington load)
There is now a separate Shotgun Ammo FAQ available here. It incorporates most of the data below.
The single biggest mistake people make is to assume that the power of the shotgun is such that it negates having to select proper ammo. Through no experience or research they might come to the conclusion that birdshot is a perfectly acceptable choice for self defense? Why? Because the “feel” it’s adequate for the most part.
Nothing is further from the truth. Once again, the shotgun ammunition needs to perform the same function as rifle and pistol ammo, which is to penetrate about 12″ into ballistic gelatin. Fragmentation/expansion are usually not an issue in shotgun ammo, so that factor can be ignored for the most part.
For an excellent article which explains it better than I could, please read “Shotgun Home Defense Ammunition on firearmstactical.com.
The summary from that article states:
|Number 1 buck is the smallest diameter shot that reliably and consistently penetrates more than 12 inches of standard ordnance gelatin when fired at typical shotgun engagement distances. A standard 2 ¾-inch 12 gauge shotshell contains 16 pellets of #1 buck. The total combined cross sectional area of the 16 pellets is 1.13 square inches. Compared to the total combined cross sectional area of the nine pellets in a standard #00 (double-aught) buck shotshell (0.77 square inches), the # 1 buck shotshell has the capacity to produce over 30 percent more potentially effective wound trauma.In all shotshell loads, number 1 buckshot produces more potentially effective wound trauma than either #00 or #000 buck. In addition, number 1 buck is less likely to over-penetrate and exit an attacker’s body.
For home defense applications a standard velocity 2 ¾-inch #1 buck shotshell (16 pellet payload) from Federal, Remington or Winchester is your best choice. We feel the Federal Classic 2 ¾-inch #1 buck load (F127) is slightly better than the same loads offered by Remington and Winchester. The Federal shotshell uses both a plastic shot cup and granulated plastic shot buffer to minimize post-ignition pellet deformation, whereas the Remington and Winchester loads do not.
Second best choice is Winchester’s 2 ¾-inch Magnum #1 buck shotshell, which is loaded with 20 pieces of copper-plated, buffered, hardened lead #1 buckshot. For those of you who are concerned about a tight shot pattern, this shotshell will probably give you the best patterning results in number 1 buck. This load may not be a good choice for those who are recoil sensitive.
While #1 buck might be ideal IF the the shot is hardened, the reality is that these loads might be hard to find. If finding hardened #1 proves elusive, 00 buck is a great choice instead.
All content is copyrighted by AR15.com. A lot of the data (pictures, charts) come from Dr. Gary Roberts, and I have obtained his permission in posting it. I have also re-hosted some of the PDFs from various manufacturers so I don’t have to re-adjust links as the source documents are moved around or deleted; I always give credit where credit is due and have not attempted to hide where it came from. If you are the owner of any of the information and believe a copyright has been violated, let me know right away so I can fix the problem.
10/27/2006: Initial release.
10/30/2006: Incorporated feedback from Doctor Roberts, including major updates to 6.8mm, .30carbine, and .308 section. New bullets added for 9mm, .357SIG, .40S&W and .45ACP.
11/10/2006: Updated information on Barnes bullets to list Cor-Bon as the primary distributor.
12/26/2006: Minor update to list of 9mm ammo
1/3/2007: Update to include paragraph to point out bullet performance is measured in shades of gray.
1/5/2007: Added Wolf MC to the list of 7.62×39 ammo
2/5/2007: Added links to more Federal HST workshops, added more info on .38spl Gold Dot.
2/17/2007: Changed some links to diagrams of military rifle bullets performance in gelatin
4/4/2007: Updated availability of Barnes XPB loaded ammo to include Federal
5/14/2007: Added russian rifle caliber wounding effects link
5/28/2007: Added info from OddJob’s post in TheFiringLine
1/26/2008: Correction to Speer .40 180gr GDHP load (thanks to mcornell)
4/18/2008: Added data for .44 magnum
4/23/2008: Changed links of DocGKR’s photos to point to the Arfcom server
5/8/2008: Rev 2.0, moved into HTML format
6/19/2008: Added pics of 75gr gelatin shots, updated recommended pistol bullets.
6/21/2008: Added pics of Molon’s pistol bullet comparison
10/21/2008: More info/pics about .38spl and .44mag
10/31/2008: Added some info from DocGKR about short barrel ammo.
11/20/2008: Added links to Federal’s wound ballistics worksops
1/26/2009: Added Speer Gold Dot .30 carbine load
2/4/2009: Updated .223 rifle loads by DocGKR, minor cosmetic changes
2/16/2009: Improved formatting, added bookmark quick links
2/19/2009: Added new test info by Doctor Roberts
2/21/2009: Updated 6.8SPC info, simplified the look of a few reviews
2/22/2009: Minor update to Barnes stuff, shotgun load selection.
2/28/2009: Minor update to the Federal/HST info.
3/15/2009: Added info for 200gr GDHP
5/21/2009: Added info for M855/193 and fleet yaw issue
8/1/2009: Added section about overpenetration
1/4/2010: Added link to Shotgun Ammo FAQ.
2/4/2010: Added Hornady LE rifle ammo.
2/5/2010: Added Federal/Speer catalogs.
10/5/2010: Revised recommended loads for .223
3/1/2011: Revised recommended barrier loads per Dr. Roberts’recommendations
4/23/2011: Added PDF for Barnes ballistic gelatin data.
9/9/2011: Added numerous DocGKR tests to handgun and rifle sections.
11/18/2011: Some major cosmetic changes, started a section of ballistic gelatin
12/3/2011: Added more info to Hornady’s ammo information.
2/9/2012: Added comaprison chart by soulman
5/10/2012: Updated preferred pistol bullet list
5/26/2012: Added Winchester Ranger catalog
7/6/2013: Added new data on 6.8/.300Blk and Hornady CD rounds from DocGKR