Ammunition selection for small handguns

Following my blog post yesterday morning on the selection of concealable firearms, I had a number of comments and e-mails about my ammunition recommendations for .38 Special snubnose revolvers.  I said that I used Buffalo Bore’s full wadcutter load.  I was criticized for this, because it’s not an expanding load (i.e. a hollow point or soft point bullet), and therefore might lead to overpenetration.

Folks, there’s a very important point to remember.  Bullet expansion is a function of two things:  bullet velocity and target composition.  The last factor is something we can’t control, except by aim, and even that isn’t guaranteed.  If you shoot someone in the torso, and it’s mid-winter, and your bullet has to penetrate a down outer jacket, then a jersey, then a shirt . . . by the time the bullet reaches flesh, its hollow point may already be clogged with cloth and other materials.  In that condition, it can’t be guaranteed to expand properly, even if fired from a long enough barrel to impart sufficient velocity.  This is why some manufacturers (particularly Hornady) prefer to pre-fill their hollow point bullets with some sort of soft polymer, to prevent them filling up with extraneous material, and preserve their expansion capabilities as they pass through clothing into flesh.  Such bullets can work very well;  but some of them may take longer to expand than conventional hollowpoints, leading to overpenetration.  You pays your money and you takes your choice . . .

I mentioned Hornady in the preceding paragraph.  That company uses a pre-filled cavity in its bullets to aid in proper expansion, but it also constructs bullets differently for the law enforcement and civilian marketsYou can read a detailed explanation of the differences here, and I highly recommend that you do.  It explains the criteria for each intended purpose very clearly.  Hornady’s 175-grain .40 S&W Critical Duty load was selected by the FBI in 2017 as its standard-issue ammunition in that cartridge.  That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s equally optimal for civilian purposes, of course, but it’s an important endorsement for Hornady.  However, there are many other top performers available from other manufacturers.  In 9mm. Parabellum, for example, a number of police departments (including the LAPD) prefer Federal’s HST ammunition, in 124gr. +P and 147gr. bullet weights (as do I).  For recoil-sensitive shooters carrying lighter, smaller firearms chambered in 9mm., my buddy Lawdog recommends the Hornady Critical Defense “Lite” load, offering a much more controllable recoil impulse.  I’m going to test it soon.

The other variable in expanding ammunition performance is the velocity at which it’s fired.  A shorter barrel simply can’t propel bullets as fast as a longer one, because there isn’t time for all the propellant to be burned.  Some ammunition manufacturers design certain rounds for short barrels, with faster-burning propellant, and designate them as such (for example, Speer’s “short barrel” .38 Special load).  However, even this doesn’t guarantee expansion.

In a very well documented series of tests using shorter-barreled pistols chambered for various cartridges, Lucky Gunner tested almost every available defensive round.  You’ll find the details here.  They’re well worth your time to read in detail, and look up the results of your favorite load.  I quote from the test results;  bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

As expected, .380 ACP turned in the weakest overall performance of the four calibers we tested, but a few loads fared surprisingly well. Most loads showed either good penetration but no expansion, or decent expansion with sub-par penetration. Only a couple of loads managed to show decent numbers for both.

There were several 9mm loads showing adequate penetration with a decent amount of expansion as well. Some of the loads became partially clogged with the heavy fabric which prevented complete expansion and led to slight over-penetration in the 18-22 inch range. Only a few loads completely failed to expand on all five shots, and the fragmenting bullets were among the few to fall shy of the FBI’s 12-inch penetration depth minimum.

The majority of the .38 Special loads showed consistent penetration depth into the ideal 12-18” range, though most were at the lower end of the range. Bullet expansion was not as encouraging. Out of the 18 loads we tested, 12 of them had at least one bullet become clogged with fabric and completely fail to expand. Five loads were unable to expand with any of the 10 rounds fired. The extra velocity of the 4-inch barrel improved the performance for a few loads compared to the 2-inch numbers, but in general, the poor performers yielded unimpressive results regardless of barrel length.

Under-penetration was very uncommon for the .40 S&W loads. On the other hand, some of the bullets had trouble with the heavy clothing barrier, leading to expansion failure and penetration that exceeded the 32″ maximum depth of our dual gel-block setup.

As with .40 S&W, some of the .45 ACP loads became clogged up in the heavy clothing and showed severe over-penetration, but the loads that expanded successfully did so with impressive results.

That’s why I’ve chosen to use the Buffalo Bore wadcutter round in my .38 Specials.  It’s already delivering a full-caliber “punch” without the need to expand, and its performance in combat is well-proven (consider, for example, the legendary Jim Cirillo‘s preference for it in the New York Police Department’s “Stakeout Squad“, where he “survived more gunfights than Wild West legends Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok combined”).  I have no doubts about its effectiveness, even without expansion being a factor.  As for the risk of overpenetration, I’ll accept that in return for its known combat effectiveness.  YMMV, of course.

For the same reason, I don’t carry an expanding bullet in my .380 ACP pistols.  I use Buffalo Bore’s hard-cast solid bullet, which relies on me to put it where it needs to go, and offers solid, dependable penetration once I do so.  I can’t rely on most .380 rounds to expand, given environmental variables;  therefore, I’m going for a known performer, that I can depend on to penetrate deep enough to reach vital organs.  Buffalo Bore says of this load, and of standard .380 rounds in general (CAUTION – they don’t mince their words, and are very graphic in their description of injury):

The 380 auto inhabits a valuable and useful place in our society, mostly because of the easily concealable, tiny pistols chambered for it. However, because of the very limited size of the cartridge, it is plagued with limited power and therefore most of the existing ammo in 380 auto suffers from not being reliable as a man-stopper. We’ve studied and played with nearly all of the existing available 380 ammo and find it wanting as a reliable means of self-defense, especially against a large, insane, drugged up/pain-free, determined attacker.

Here’s the problem:

The current 380 auto frangible ammo delivers a large amount of surface trauma but lacks serious penetration. For example, if you shot me or another sane man in the face with modern frangible 380 ammo, it would blow off a big portion of my cheek and send a few teeth down my throat, I would undoubtedly fall to the ground in shock and pain, but I would be very much alive and functional if I could get past the shock and pain as that frangible bullet would have stopped somewhere inside my face, never making it to my brain. However, if you shot a drugged up maniac in the face with that same frangible 380 ammo and blew half his cheek off, he would keep right on coming because he is insane and is not thinking like you or I. Plus, he is likely pain free and fear free and won’t know that half his cheek is missing and if he did know, he would not care. So whatever 380 ammo you shoot him in the face with, had better go through his face and blow his brain stem out the back of his head, because only a CNS (central nervous system) hit with a 380 is going to stop him. Likewise, a torso hit to the sternum needs to penetrate deep enough to blow all the way through his spine in order to shut him down spontaneously. If you fail to shut him down instantly, you and your loved ones are going to have to find a way to survive while you wait for him to bleed out and pass out. The best chance of survival for you and your family is to shut down the attacker instantly. So, we’ve designed a few 380 auto standard pressure loads to keep you and your loved ones alive under the worst of scenarios.

. . .

You can expect 20+ inches of straight-line penetration in flesh and bone with this load. If you are worried about over penetration with this load, DON’T! You chose to carry a tiny under-powered 380 auto pistol and the trade-off is that you are now going to have to stay alive with that pistol and over penetration will be the least of your worries if you end up needing this gun to save yourself or your family.

I agree with Buffalo Bore’s comments.  In firearms chambered for more powerful rounds than .380 ACP or .38 Special, I’ll carry expanding bullets with greater confidence in their performance.

I highly recommend reading the information provided at the links above, particularly the different criteria for law enforcement and civilian self-protection ammunition, and the results of detailed ammunition testing.  You’ll learn a lot.



  1. A soft lead WC or SWC works well on the range punching nice clean holes in paper. If they hit something solid or semi-solid they expand very well.

    That said I prefer Federal's HST in my 9mm and 45. Or even the Hydra-shok. The most important is being able to hit what you are shooting at.

  2. Thanks for the research and links. I carry the Critical Duty in my full size, and Critical Defense in my pocket pistols.

  3. I find the whole over penetration line somewhat amusing given the low percentage of shots that actually hit an attacker.

  4. I've always wondered about the gun-gurus who expound about expanding bullets AND snubnosed or micro guns. Since, as you pointed out, velocity and contact surface are the two factors affecting expanding bullets.

    Sometimes FMJ, for all it's flaws, IS the correct round. Especially in wintertime outside, where multiple multiple thick layers is common.

    There's a reason other than so-called humanitarian reasons the military uses ball ammo. It works in all conditions, maybe not the best, but good enough. Like military camo outfits vs hunter outfits, the camo is 'good enough.'

    Seasonal loads. That's a "Box of Truth" I'd like to see!

  5. One thing I do with my .380 ACP pistol is to run alternating FMJ and expanding bullets in the magazine. The expanding bullets may not expand, but if they don't I'm no worse off, and if they do then they may stop the attack quicker.

  6. A good, name-brand high performance ammo that's heavy for caliber (124-147 vr. In 9, 230 in .45) is the choice, then it's up to me to put it in accurately. But for my 2" .38, I load 148 gr. HBWC, loaded backwards over 5gr. of Unique, seated to the last lube groove. Accurate in my gun to 25 yds, if that hollow skirt doesn't expand it'll most likely tumble on impact, and recoils ok in my S&W 49.
    Ut as you say, the 3 most important things are bullet acement, ×3….

  7. my personal weapon is .45ACP. the solution is alternate ball and hollow point rounds of the same bullet weight and power in the magazine(unless you must adhere to the Geneva conventions). ballistically, at under five meters, it makes little difference to the target whether it is getting hit with either round. it is enough for me to survive the encounter and the target be left wondering what just happened while I make my exit from the area.

  8. I once met a guy who said that his preferred .45 ACP loadout was:
    1: ratshot
    2: FMJ
    3: Hollowpoint
    4: Black Talon
    5: incendiary
    6: explosive

    and if none of those worked,
    7: silver with a cross cut on the tip

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