What’s the best way to pick ammunition for self defense? Here’s how I do it.

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I received an interesting email the other day asking how I select defensive ammunition. Here’s how I go about picking the load that rides in my self-defense handguns!

Dustin asks:

“I was wondering if you could give an overview of how you select defensive ammo for your revolvers. Do you accuracy test different loads? If so, at what distance do you expect the rounds to perform? How do you handle POA/POI issues with your fixed sighted revolvers? Do you select different loads for your J frames than your larger pieces? Any suggestions on this matter is much appreciated. I have heard much banter on this subject from different trainers.”

(While his question specifically asked about revolvers, most of the selection process is the same for semiauto and revolver so I’ll cover them both here.)

The first thing I do is to limit my candidates to those from major ammunition manufacturers, as opposed to the many “boutique” ammunition companies. It’s not a performance issue (though it may be); it’s more an issue of their post-sale support.

The big ammunition manufacturers, aside from employing real engineers to actually design their own bullets, also understand the legal side of ammunition: they keep exemplar stock of their past ammo lots for comparison and forensic purposes. If I’m involved in a defensive shooting and things like gun shot residue (GSR) tests become important, investigators will want to test with ammunition identical to what I had in the gun. I know that Federal will have that ammo on the storage room shelves; Bob’s Bait & Ammunition Company? Probably not.

How do you tell? You can ask; in my experience, if you don’t get an affirmative answer it’s probably a sign that they don’t. Also look for police duty (not practice!) ammunition contracts; police departments generally require that their duty ammunition makers keep back lots and that they provide proper chain-of-evidence assurances.

The next step is to look for a modern hollowpoint design, one that’s intended to expand and hold together under a variety of conditions. In general that means a bonded hollowpoint bullet. I look for one that has been around long enough to garner some actual shootings (which are usually going to come from police agencies, which — again — is a good reason to look at ammo the police are using.)

The bullet weight is a factor in the selection process. I’ll usually look at the weight range of projectiles available and pick something on the heavy side of the (very approximate) median. In 9mm, for instance, that means 124 grains to 147 grains; in .38 Special, that usually comes to 130 to 158 grains. Sometimes, of course, I know that a specific gun doesn’t work well with a certain bullet weight, and I’ll pick something else; more on this a little later.

By this time I’ll have identified at least a couple of possibilities, though usually one will be a clear first choice and one a clear second (or third.) I’ll acquire a box or two of each and go into testing mode.

My first test criteria is, as you might understand, reliability. In a revolver it’s not so much of an issue, as one of their advantages is that they’ll function with anything that meets cartridge specifications, but autoloaders aren’t always that predictable. I like to shoot a bare minimum of 50 rounds, preferably 100, of the selected ammo to check for functioning (assuming a gun that I already have experience with, of course; if it’s a new-to-me gun, I’ll do basic function testing with cheap ball ammo before even bothering with the far more expensive defensive fodder!) Any malfunctions at all removes that ammunition from contention — if it doesn’t work, I don’t want to rely on it!

Auto or revolver, during this testing I’m also looking to see if the ammunition shoots to point-of-aim. There are exceptions, but in general windage usually isn’t an issue as it tends to be pretty consistent once the gun is properly adjusted. Elevation, on the other hand, will definitely change (sometimes dramatically) with bullet weight and velocity. If the gun has elevation-adjustable sights that’s obviously not an issue, but most autoloaders (and most of the compact revolvers) have sights that do not adjust for elevation.

This is where a bit of experience comes in. I have a pretty good idea what weights/velocities shoot to point-of-aim with all my guns and selection ammunition within that range. The firing test is just to confirm that choice. If it’s a new gun, however, I’ll sometimes find that an adjustment needs to be made to match the point of impact with the point of aim. If it’s gun without adjustable sights, that means a) replace one of the sights with something higher/lower; b) if the point of impact is low, taking a file and removing metal from the front sight to bring the impact point up; or c) switch ammo to a different weight/velocity, then re-test.

I do this testing at around 10 yards. Bullet drop doesn’t become a factor until you’re considerably further away, and there’s really no point in testing point-of-aim at long distances; 10 yards is more than enough to see if the ammunition is going where you want it to go.

Precision, or how closely the rounds impact to each other (group size), is the last thing I worry about. Once I’ve made it this far in the selection process I’ve never found a round that was dramatically different in group size from another — and certainly not to the point that it would affect my ability to neutralize a threat at any plausible distance. I use the precision test as a tie-breaker, in case I’ve found more than one load which met all my criteria and needed some way to make a choice. (Frankly, with the ammunition shortage we’ve experienced lately the choice usually comes down to what I can actually find!) Precision testing has traditionally been done at 25 yards, and always using a rest.

I’ve never found really bad ammunition, at least not at this point in the process. Precision issues are usually, in my experience, more a function of bullet weight than anything else. Some guns just don’t shoot certain projectile weights as well as they do others and that tends to be bullets on the extreme ends of the weight spectrum (particularly the very light examples.) That’s why I stick with bullets of “normal” weight for the caliber.

In .45ACP, for instance, it’s possible to find 165 grain bullets while the most common weight is 230 grains. I have seen guns which did not shoot the 165 gr projectiles very well at all, but were always perfectly happy with anything above 200 grains.

The answer to the last part of Dustin’s question — do I choose different ammunition for small guns as compared to the larger ones — is “it depends”. There are various versions of ammo out there sold specifically for shorter barreled handguns, the purpose being to ensure expansion at the slightly reduced velocities of uber-short barrels.

In general, the only time I consider this is if I’m dealing with the extremely small guns (in a revolver, anything under a 2″ barrel and in a semiauto, anything under 3.5″.) In these guns I’ll either a) tend toward the lighter end of the bullet spectrum, which tend to maintain velocity from short barrels better than the heavier bullets, or b) pick a load specifically designed for the shorter guns.

What I usually end up doing is picking the load which works well in my smallest guns, and using that in the bigger ones as well (provided, of course, that it passes testing in those guns.) My personal view is that a little extra velocity out of the longer barrel isn’t going to cause issues in the same way that reduced velocity out of a shorter one might.

Once I’ve gone to all this trouble to pick a round, I don’t change it. I buy up a bunch of it, put it in storage, and then forget about it. There are far more important things to worry about!

This brings me to my final (and probably most important) point: we spend more time than we should obsessing over bullet details, and far less time than we should worrying about developing our defensive shooting skills. Decide on your criteria, figure out which ammo meets them (and works in your gun), then spend the rest of your time, money, and mental energy on your skills.

That’s going to make far more difference in the outcome of an attack than which bullet you used.

-=[ Grant ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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