Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Defensive ammunition when you can't use hollowpoints

I've had an interesting series of exchanges with a correspondent in New Jersey concerning the best handgun for self-defense there.  Since many of my readers live in states with firearms laws that are as restrictive as NJ's (and in some places, such as New York and Connecticut, show signs of getting even worse), I thought the subject might be of more general interest.

The first point is that in New Jersey, it's virtually impossible to get a carry permit unless you have outstandingly good political connections.  The 'system' there is designed to issue as few permits as possible.  Furthermore, there are severe restrictions on the carrying and use of hollow-point or expanding ammunition in one's handgun.  (That restriction doesn't apply to law enforcement personnel, of course . . . yet another reason for resentment.  If it's good enough for cops, why shouldn't it be good enough for honest citizens whose taxes pay those cops and buy their ammunition?)

These restrictions upset the normal calculation about what cartridge or round New Jersey gun-owners (and others suffering under similar restrictions) should use for self-defense.  Modern bullet technology has brought many common defensive handgun cartridges to a much higher level of performance.  However, if that technology can't be used, cartridge effectiveness must be assessed in terms of older measurements.  I'm obliged to the anonymous editor of the Firearms History blog for his very useful articles on the following systems of measurement:

Follow each link for more information about the formula in question.  Not all are useful in a defensive context, but they're all informative.  (We've discussed some of them in articles here.  As an old Africa hand, I'm partial to the Taylor KO measurement as an indication of the effectiveness of solid [i.e. non-expanding] bullets.  It squares with my experience of shooting in Africa, be the target an animal or an enemy.  In particular, I agree with its bias towards larger-diameter bullets when dealing with solids.)

To get back to the self-defense situation, if gun-owners are restricted in their use of expanding handgun ammunition, they have to choose the most effective cartridge available under those restrictions.  That immediately argues against most smaller calibers, because (according to most of the above formulas, and also on the basis of hard-earned experience) they're less effective than larger ones in a defensive role.  Furthermore, one of the primary advantages of smaller cartridges is that one can fit more of them into a handgun of a given size compared to larger cartridges.  However, if (thanks to restrictions on bullet technology) each cartridge is rendered less effective, more of them will be needed to neutralize an opponent than larger ones;  and if magazine capacity is also legally restricted, that means that a greater percentage of your rounds will be needed per opponent than if you used larger ones.  Example:  if it takes 4-5 9mm. Parabellum ball rounds to stop an assailant, and you only have 10 of them in your gun, you'll use up to 50% of your 'rounds on board' to stop each opponent.  If it takes 2-3 .45 ACP ball rounds to do the same thing, and you have 10 of them in your gun, you'll be able to deal with twice the number of attackers for the same expenditure of ammunition.

Despite modern attempts to reinterpret historical data, it's clear that throughout the blackpowder era, bigger, heavier bullets did a better job of stopping a fight in a hurry than smaller, lighter ones.  That's why the most widely used handgun cartridges up until the invention of smokeless powder were over .40" in caliber;  for example, the US .44-40, .44 American, .44 Russian, .44 Bull Dog, .45 Colt and .45 Schofield, and the British .450 Adams, .442 Webley.476 Enfield and .455 Webley.  Although smokeless powder allowed the introduction of newer, smaller cartridges with similar (or improved) effectiveness compared to their blackpowder predecessors, this was not always the case.  Bigger, heavier cartridges still tended to do better than smaller ones at ending an attack, as the infamous Moro rebellion demonstrated.  It was the experience of that conflict that prompted the US Army to replace its newly-issued Colt M1892 revolvers chambered in .38 Long Colt.  As General Leonard Wood reported in 1904:

“Instances have repeatedly been reported during the past year where natives have been shot through and through several times with a .38 caliber revolver, and have come on, usually cutting up the unfortunate individual armed with it. The .45 caliber revolver stops a man in his tracks, usually knocking him down.”

This led initially to the reissue of older Colt Single Action Army revolvers (the famous 'Peacemaker' of the so-called 'Wild West'), and ultimately to the adoption of the renowned M1911 pistol and its .45 ACP cartridge.  It remained the US Army's standard sidearm until the adoption of the Beretta Model 92 in 1985, and is still issued by specialist units.  As late as the 1980's, during investigations following the notorious 'Miami Massacre' that sent shock-waves through US law enforcement, it's reported that "the FBI rated the .45 ACP twice as effective as the 9 mm".  That certainly correlates with my experience of handgun use in Southern Africa during that period.

Please note that I'm not by any means opposed to the use of smaller cartridges, provided that modern bullet technology is used.  My daily carry pistols are chambered for the 9mm. Parabellum cartridge, for reasons outlined here.  I load them with either Winchester Ranger T-series 127gr. JHP +P+ or the more recent Hornady Critical Duty 135gr. JHP +P rounds, and trust both to do a good job in defense of my life if necessary.  The latter round in particular is attracting serious interest due to its performance under all likely circumstances, as outlined in this video from Hornady.  It's reported to be the only range of handgun ammo to pass every FBI test criterion with flying colors.

However, if for some reason I couldn't carry expanding ammunition, my instant response would be to revert to handguns chambered in .45 ACP or .40 S&W [respectively my first and second choices], loaded with the best-quality ball rounds I could find.  That's why I keep firearms in my safe chambered for both cartridges.  Furthermore, as Jim Higginbotham points out, it's hard to make a .45 ACP bullet perform badly!

The late, great Jeff Cooper used to opine that an adequate defensive bullet in a handgun, irrespective of bullet type, shape, etc., should be at least .40" in diameter, weigh at least 200 grains, and exit the muzzle at a velocity of at least 1,000 feet per second.  Multiplying those factors together, we arrive at a total of 80,000.  If we use those factors and that total to assess the effectiveness of the most common semi-auto pistol cartridges, using ball ammunition, we can see how they stack up against each other:

  • .45 ACP:  .451" x 230 grains x 830 fps (US Army standard ball) = 86,096
  • .40 S&W:  .401" x 180 grains x 1,020 fps (Winchester Q4238) = 73,624
  • 9mm Parabellum:  .355" x 115 grains x 1,190 fps (Winchester Q4172) = 48,582

Those values are pretty much in line with what the older measurements (referred to above) give us in terms of bullet effectiveness, and in line with extensive experience 'on the street'.  They also bear out the FBI's finding during the 1980's that the .45 ACP round was about twice as effective as 9mm. Parabellum.  The more modern 'intermediate' .40 S&W round (introduced in 1990) falls between them in performance according to Cooper's scale.  I'm confident enough in either .40 S&W or .45 ACP ball to use them for defensive purposes if necessary.  As long as I put enough of them in the right place(s), they'll get the job done.

Of course, one can never rely on a single bullet being sufficient to stop an attacker.  I've covered this extensively in three articles dealing with 'The myth of handgun "Stopping Power".'  For that reason, the most effective cartridge/bullet combination should be chosen, and enough of them should be delivered to do the job.  If the magazine capacity of one's pistol is restricted, this means that expending four or five smaller rounds on each attacker can rapidly empty one's gun, rendering it useless until reloaded.  Far better to have larger, more capable rounds in the gun, each one as effective as possible, so that the same magazine capacity will allow one to deal with more attackers.

What handgun to carry it in?  That's very much a matter of personal preference.  Some prefer the 'old reliable' 1911 pistol, and I certainly can't argue as to its effectiveness.  Some more modern full-size .45 ACP pistols, such as the Glock 21, the Springfield XD or the Taurus 24/7, have improved on the 1911's limited ammunition supply, and hold 13-14 rounds.  Unfortunately, as far as my hands are concerned, this makes their grips too 'fat' for comfort.  I prefer a narrower grip that I can grasp more firmly.  My choice is the Ruger SR45.  Its magazine holds only 10 rounds, but that allows its grip to be much slimmer, making it easier for me to grasp;  and the gun's slightly greater weight helps me to absorb the cartridge's recoil during extended practice sessions (don't forget, I have health limitations, so that's an important factor for me).  Some other gun writers don't like the Ruger SR series, but I do.  Ed Head, instructor, Rangemaster and former Operations Manager at Gunsite Academy, offered high praise in his review:  "If I could go back in time to my Border Patrol days I would take the SR45 with me for a duty pistol. It’s that good."  Mine have proven reliable in my hands, and it's easy to disable their magazine safety (a feature I detest on any defensive handgun).  I've standardized on this model as my full-size .45 ACP pistol.  In .40 S&W, I've standardized on the Glock Model 22 and Model 23 (just as, in 9mm. Parabellum, I've standardized on other Glock models).

Small .45 ACP pistols tend to be uncomfortable to shoot for extended periods, because they don't have the heft or the weight to absorb as much recoil as larger weapons.  There are many possibilities out there, ranging from the Glock 36, to Springfield's XD-S, to Kahr's CW45 (the model I use) and many others.  I don't normally carry a small pistol chambered for such a big cartridge, because I find it painful to practice with them for extended periods.  However, if I were denied the ability to carry expanding ammunition and/or a high-capacity magazine, I'd live with the discomfort and switch to my Kahr CW45 in a heartbeat for deep-concealment scenarios (i.e. pocket or ankle carry - I'd rely on my Ruger SR45 for 'normal' holster carry).  I also have a Glock 27, which would be my 'go-to' small pistol in the .40 S&W cartridge.

One final point.  Big cartridges such as the .45 ACP are relatively expensive compared to their smaller counterparts, because their manufacture consumes larger quantities of metals, propellants, packaging, etc. (and, being heavier and bulkier, they cost more to ship).  That's one reason why I keep on hand similar handguns chambered for smaller rounds, so that I can train with them at lower cost.  For example, a Ruger SR45 can be 'twinned' with a Ruger SR9 for training;  a Glock 22 with a Glock 17;  a Glock 23 with a Glock 19;  a Springfield XD-S in .45 ACP with its sibling in 9mm. Parabellum;  and so on.  Over time, the savings in ammunition add up;  and because the firearms are identical to one another in every important respect, training on the smaller-caliber weapons is directly transferable to their bigger brothers.  All one needs to do is fire the larger cartridge sufficiently to remain familiar with its recoil and trajectory.



Anonymous said...

Some thoughts-
I once had the pleasure of French fitting a custom case for a pair of flintlock "traveling" pistols- so named because of their small size, designed for protection against highwaymen,ruffians and various scofflaws.
Single barrel, produced in the late 1700's, and the bore was about .75". When reloads took a minute for an expert, bores were big!

Be very careful with similar guns in both 9mm and .40 cal- especially when using the same brand and type of ammo- a .40 round will load quite nicely into a 9mm Glock magazine. It will obviously not feed or fire. The relatively small size difference can be missed- the difference between a .45 and 9mm , not so much- those could probably be told by feel in the dark.

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Everything is a personal choice with many factors to consider. For me it is a five round revolver in .44 Special with wad cutter rounds. Not pleasant to practice with but mine is approaching 1,000 rounds with no malfunctions.

Anonymous said...

I still prefer the old 1873 Colt .45 round. I have had very good results obtaining kills on deer size game with 255gr hard cast SWC bullets @ 1000fps. This is a round that allows you to load black powder or Pyrodex in a "powder drought" under a 255 soft lead bullet and still get 900fps from a revolver with a 5 inch tube.---Ray

Anonymous said...

One thing that I think might be worth considering is bullet shape. Handgun hunters that use cast lead bullets seem to almost universally agree that a flat meplat seems to work better then a roundnose. Semi auto pistols will be more limited in what bullet profile will feed reliably, but I would go for the largest flat nose possible if not allowed to use hollowpoints.

STxRynn said...

During this time of year, the layers of clothing necessary to keep warm can defeat a hollow point anyway. It can fill the cavity with layers of cloth and then fail to expand.

In winter, my carry doesn't change much, due to my location... But up north, where it gets colder, I wouldn't be hesitate to swap to larger calibre solids.

I agree with Anon. The flat point is going to punch a better hole than a round nose at slower velocities. My dad saw some terminal ballistic evidence as a police officer. He told me that a RNL projectile from a 38 Spl had been know to move intestines, not penetrate them. It seems only logical that a flat nose would be less likely to move as opposed to punch thru. Cavitation and shock are important to stopping, as well as a heavier bullet. It's hard to stop a train quickly, just like a heavier bullet.

But then comes the risk of over-penetration. It's doubly important to know where that bullet is going after it exits the target if you are mandated to carry solids. If a bullet dumps ALL it's energy and remains in the target, all the better.

Life is full of compromise, thankfully, technology has given us a ton of choices.

Thanks for linking to the historical info. Information is there for all who would be informed in their opinions.

Jim22 said...


Your choice of the Kahr pistol intrigues me. I have owned one Kahr semi-auto pistol. For some reason I had a lot of trouble with their trigger. I shoot mostly striker-fired pistols and found the change from a straight-back trigger movement to one that pivoted at the top to be difficult to adapt to. I kept shooting low with it.

Oddly, I don't have the same trouble with double-action revolvers.

Maybe it was just the gun I had or maybe it was me. I didn't like the Kahr so I traded it in on something else.

John said...


My retirement EDC is a Kahr P40 bought used from a coworker. I added night sights, and my ammo choice is Guard Dog from Federal.

When in New Jersey I am carrying on my 218 card, and in theory I can carry hollow point ammo. Hmmm. Do I trust that my future life will be outside of the crossbar hotel, or do I want to run the risk of an ignorant, or over zealous prosecutor making a case because "OMG hollowpoints!"

The choice of non hollow point expanding bullets are limited, and after research I opted for the Guard Dog in .40 caliber. My wife and I shot most of a box through the Kahr to test reliability and point of aim.

Jim22, I shoot the Kahr well, but that took a lot of practice. I thought the Kahr trigger was much like my first civilian service pistol, the Beretta Brigadier 96D. A longish but smooth double action pull. And the Kahr in 40 is not a fun pistol to shoot.

John in Philly

Anonymous said...

IIRC, the laws are against hollowpoint bullets, not expanding bullets. I seem to remember a round invented a few years ago with New Jerseyites in mind; it had a scored round nose profile, and the head was filled with a soft, compressable rubber. Upon impact, the scored head expanded. It also had the benefit of feeding through otherwise finicky feed ramps.

I think the Pow rBall rounds would be allowed, too.


Anonymous said...

What's wrong with good, old jacketed soft points in .357 / 158 grain?

Russ III

JohninMd.(HELP?!??) said...

If limited to solids, a large flat meplat will be more effective than round nose slugs regardless of caliber. .22 LR is a much more effective small game getter when the round nose is clipped off in Paco Kelly's die sets. Col. Cooper was an adherent of the Hatcher scale, IIRC, which fits the general tone here.

Anonymous said...

There is also the school of thought that bullets that stop INSIDE the assailant are preferred to those whose velocity causes both entry / exit wounds. One for bullet running out of energy inside the body, the other for lack of injury to those beyond the target.

My personal preference is for 'big and slow ( (.40 + bore and < than 1000 fps). That will leave a mark and convince the attacker that the shooter should probably be left alone.

Theother Ryan said...

I habitually carry a 9mm. With modern defensive ammunition the actual difference between .38 special, 9mm, .40S&W and .45acp is negligible. Among other reasons the 9mm is cheaper to practice with and holds more bullets than alternatives.

If I was restricted on ammunition choices I would not change cartridge/ guns even though 9mm FMJ isn't exactly a noted man stopper. The reason is round count. One could argue you need more rounds of 9mmm FMJ than say .45 FMJ to stop a person so additional capacity is a wash. I disagree because additional capacity gives more opportunities to put lead into meat or the right meat.

Now if I was restricted on capacity I would choose a larger cartridge than 9mm. Would get a small .45 to carry and a Glock 21 SF or maybe M&P for a house gun.

In my youth during the 94-04 AWB I had this problem. On my budget it was ten rounds or under. I ended up with a Glock 22 in .40 S&W because the original Glock 21 was a tiny bit uncomfortable for my hands. Had they made the Glock 21 SF I would have purchased it. Later sold off the Glock 22.

Anonymous said...

I concur w/ comments above endorsing flatpoint bullets. I am convinced the flatnose profile will be more effective, causing more tissue disruption, limiting overpenetration and maximizing energy transfer.
I recently worked up a .45ACP handload using Oregon Trail 200gr LRNFP (.45 LC). This feeds in all my 1911s and an XD as well. Probably runs about 875-900 FPS, low recoil in Officer size pistols.

Speer Lawman offers a +P .45ACP cartridge with a 200gr JRNFP bullet loaded to 1000FPS. This might be a good choice for full size 1911s.

Federal Guard Dog ammo in various calibers is worth a look. This is expanding ammo without an exposed hollow point and might be just the ticket in some jurisdictions.


Reg T said...

I also agree with the "wide meplat flat-nose" bullet, at the heavy end of the scale. I had a custom bullet mold made for my 10 mm Glock 20. It weighs 220 grains when using a hard-cast alloy. The meplat is alomst as wide as the diameter of the bullet, but it functions reliably in my G20.

I load it hot (no, I won't post the grain weight nor which - hint - Accurate Arms powder I use) and carry it here in bear country. I know it is an accurate load, as I made a miraculous 83 yard shot on a magpie (about eight inches tall by four inches wide) as measured afterwards with a laser range finder. (Hate the buggers, as they not only steal food from my chickens, but they kill baby chickens and the young of other bird species.)

I have been a fan of the .45 ACP for a long time, and bought and carried a G21 when they first came out in the early '90s (carried other .45 ACP pistols before the Glock). However, a friend of mine (former Recon Marine) who also lives in bear country convinced me that 15 rounds of hot 10 mm with the wide-meplat flat-nosed bullet was a better choice than six rounds of .44 Mag (and no time to reload when getting charged). So I carry the G20 in the woods and the G21 where two-legged predators are the predominant threat.