Reliability testing your defensive ammunition: important but often ignored!

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Last week I headed out to the range to do some testing. Not practice, really (though I did use the opportunity to get in some realistic practice drills), but ammunition testing.

Now you’ve probably seen YouTube videos about ammunition testing, complete with gelatin blocks (or their synthetic equivalent) and breathless talk about penetration and expansion. That’s not the kind of testing I was doing; instead, I was testing some new ammunition in two autoloading pistols that I carry for personal defense.

Why bother?

Whenever you change the kind of defensive ammunition you use in your current gun (or buy a new gun for that matter) it’s important that you test your carry ammunition in that gun to verify that the combination does indeed function as it was intended. Modern manufacturing has given us remarkably reliable firearms and incredibly consistent ammunition, but occasionally (more often than you might think) a particular gun won’t function well with a particular ammo.

In this testing procedure you’re looking for two things: first, that the gun runs reliably with the ammunition you’ve chosen. By “reliably” I mean that the gun feeds, chambers, fires, extracts and ejects perfectly — every single round. If it doesn’t, you shouldn’t trust your life to those rounds in that gun!

(Of course I’m assuming that the gun has run perfectly up to that point. Be honest with yourself; if that gun has always had some sort of issue no matter what ammunition you’ve used, or it seems to be unusually picky about brand or bullet weight, I humbly suggest it’s not an arm that you want to stake your life on. My general rule of thumb is that any defensive firearm has to be able to fire at least 200 rounds in a row, without cleaning and without malfunction, for me to consider it reliable.)

As I said, occasionally you’ll find that a particular gun/ammo combination doesn’t work. This seems to be more common for guns of older design (many .45ACP pistols, such as the 1911, and early  9mm designs like the Browning Hi-Power) partnered with newer hollowpoint ammunition. The older guns just weren’t made with hollowpoint bullets in mind and feeding issues often occur.

Even a specific gun of modern design, like the newer polymer striker-fired pistols, can experience issues with some particular bullet designs. It’s much less common than with the older guns but it does happen.

How to test your ammo

How many rounds do you need to shoot to be certain of reliability? In a gun that I’ve used and found reliable with other ammunition, I like to fire 100 rounds of the ammo in question; again, not a single failure is allowed. In some cases where the gun is very well proven (and the ammunition is similar to what I’ve used before) I might lower that to 50 rounds, but that’s as low as I’m willing to go when my life is on the line!

In a new gun, I’ll put no less than 200 rounds of good-quality “ball” ammo (FMJ round-nosed) through the gun before evaluating it with the defensive ammunition. With both kinds of ammunition I’ll expect reliability, but I pay more attention to what the gun does with the defensive hollowpoints than with the ball ammo. While many manufacturers say a break-in period isn’t necessary, I’ve seen many guns which had a hiccup or two in the first 100 or 200 rounds and then were perfectly reliable the rest of their service lives. That first 200 rounds gets past any break-in time and then the real evaluation can be done.

In my case I was testing my carry gun, a Steyr S9-A1, with some Federal HST ammunition. In this gun I’ve historically run the Speer Gold Dot 124gn +P hollowpoint; it’s a great round, but I was looking for something with a little less recoil impulse and which would be easier to craft a duplicate handload for practice. (I use my handloaded ammo to match the performance of my carry ammo so that my practice will translate exactly to what I can expect firing the real defensive rounds. It’s difficult to match velocity, recoil, and point of impact of a +P factory round with safe handloads. When it comes to making ammo, safety comes first!)

I chose the Federal HST 147gn load because of its sterling reputation for performance, its slightly reduced recoil, and the chance to make safer handloads for practice. This was a big change of ammunition and so I shot 100 rounds of the new Federal through the gun. This Steyr has proven to be 100% reliable, but because I changed weight, velocity and bullet shape I definitely wanted to thoroughly test the new ammo before carrying it.

How’d my gun do?

I needn’t have worried; the little Steyr once again shot perfectly with the 147gn bullets, and I now carry the Federal ammo in complete confidence.

(In a revolver, the whole test is a little easier because you’re primarily checking that the gun shoots to point of aim, or you’re adjusting the sights so that it does. If the gun has been otherwise reliable, a cylinder or two to make sure that every round goes off and the sights agree with where the bullet is hitting should be sufficient.)

If you haven’t tested your carry ammo thoroughly in your gun, you’re taking a chance. Buy a couple of extra boxes of your favorite carry ammunition and take them to the range on your next session. While you’re going through your practice drills you’ll be testing that ammunition in your gun; if it does prove to be a bad combination, wouldn’t it be better to learn that on the range and not in some dark parking lot?

– Grant Cunningham



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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