As gun ownership and concealed carry steadily rise throughout the United States, more people are seeking information on finding the training and the tools to best prepare themselves for personal defense. While there is no shortage of literature provided by gun and ammunition manufacturers, there are too many variables to unequivocally cite a single gun and ammunition combination which is the best or most effective for all shooters in all circumstances. This article will discuss Handgun Defense Ammunition Terminal Ballistics in order to provide the information to help you determine what may be “best” for you.
As stated above, there is no shortage of ammunition advertisements making outrageous claims disguised as scientific research. This is especially true in the case of the G2 RIP (Radically Invasive Projectile). I’ve even dedicated an article titled “Personal Defense Ammunition: Hype, Hyperbole, and Common Sense” to dispel and debunk some of the more outrageous advertising claims.
So, it was refreshing to read a recent article titled “Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test” by the ammunition distributor Lucky Gunner. In their article, they conducted a series of objective tests by firing a variety of different cartridges through a selection of short-barreled handguns into clear ballistic gelatin and presented the results. What made their article so effective is that they never purported to cite “THE BEST” choice of ammunition. Instead, they addressed both the strengths and shortcomings of their ballistics test and objectively published the results to assist the reader in choosing the right ammo. More importantly, they stressed “awareness, proper mindset, marksmanship, an discernment of when to use your firearm” as far more critical than choice of gear alone.
I applaud author Chris Baker and Lucky Gunner for conducting their test, publishing the results, and stressing fundamentals over equipment. Lucky Gunner’s efforts were exceptionally informational, but not definitive. In this article, I’m going to take their test a step further by adding greater depth in certain areas and emphasizing the importance of velocity. First, however, I believe we need to review the fundamentals in order to understand the underlying goals of defensive shooting.
Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness
In 1989, the FBI Academy’s Firearms Training Unit conducted a comprehensive study on handgun wound ballistics. Focusing exclusively on the handgun as the primary weapon in law enforcement, the FBI’s goal was to analyze the most effective elements of weapons, ammunition, and calibers required for law enforcement officers to “immediately incapacitate the subject in order to stop whatever threat to life or physical safety is posed by the subject.” Since we, as law abiding citizens interested in protecting ourselves and our families, share the exact same goal, this study and its findings are equally applicable to us.
Physiological Incapacitation – When employing a handgun in self-defense, the goal is to stop the threat as quickly as possible… period. This can only be accomplished when a fired projectile either damages/destroys the attacker’s central nervous system or causes rapid lethal blood loss. Notice that the term “central nervous system” is used instead of an inaccurately oversimplified reference to the brain. There are many parts of the human brain that can be damaged or destroyed without causing rapid incapacitation. The central nervous system, on the other hand, connects the brain to the autonomic nerves which regulate the involuntary muscle function, such as the heart, as well as the voluntary muscles which translate conscious thought into action. Damaging or destroying the innermost part of the brain or the medulla oblongata which connects the brain to the spinal cord will cause instant incapacitation whereas damaging or destroying the spinal cord at any other point will simply disable movement and function at all points below the point of impact.
Regardless, in relation to the entire area of the body, the area of the central nervous system vulnerable to instant incapacitation is prohibitively small. The FBI report states, “rapid and unpredictable movement of the officer and the adversary, partial target opportunities, poor light, unforeseen obstacles, and extreme difficulty of precision shooting under duress,” one must focus on hitting center of mass.
In the absence of a shot to the central nervous system, shot placement within the torso’s vital organs will require lethal blood loss (hemorrhaging) to lower the attacker’s blood pressure to a point where conscious voluntary muscle movement is no longer possible (circulatory collapse). Under these circumstances, physiological incapacitation may be delayed for a period lasting anywhere between seconds and hours. For example, the FBI report states that “even if the heart is destroyed, there is enough oxygen to support full, voluntary action for 10-15 seconds” which can be an eternity during a violent assault.
Psychological Incapacitation – While science dictates the effects of physiological incapacitation, psycological attributes either positively or negatively contribute to incapacitation. According to the report: “Barring central nervous system hits, there is no physiological reason for an individual to be incapacitated by even a fatal wound until the blood loss is sufficient to deprive the brain of oxygen.” Through survival instinct, emotions such as rage or hate, or stimulants, an assailant can continue aggressive actions through circulatory collapse. On the other hand, awareness of an injury, fear of death, or preconceived notions of how to react to a gunshot wound can cause psychological incapacitation and thus enhance the physiological incapacitation.
Wound Mechanics – In order to either damage/destroy the central nervous system or reach vital organs to cause hemmoraging, a projectile must penetrate at least 12 inches into the human body. While over-penetration (roughly 18 inches) is not desired, under-penetration is generally considered ineffective. As the projectile penetrates, it both crushes and tears flesh, fat, muscle, bone, and connective tissue. Most tissue is exceptionally elastic and is simply “pushed out of the way” as the projectile passes, thus leaving a temporary wound cavity which DOES NOT lead to hemorrhaging. However, with sufficient bullet construction, frontal surface area, and kinetic energy, projectile penetration may crush and tear body tissue beyond the limit of its elasticity, and thus cause a permanent wound cavity which WILL cause hemmorrhaging and more directly lead to physiological incapacitation. As an ancillary function, fragmentation may contribute to blood loss, but this is not appreciable enough to be considered essential.
Report Conclusion – “The much discussed ‘shock’ of bullet impact is a fable and ‘knock down’ power is a myth. Physiologically, no caliber or bullet is certain to incapacitate any individual unless the central nervous system is hit. Psychological factors may abate or enhance incapacitation. Barring a hit to the central nervous system, the ONLY way to force incapacitation is to cause sufficient blood loss that the subject can no longer function. The critical element is penetration. The bullet must pass through the large, blood bearing organs and be of sufficient diameter to cause a permanent wound cavity promoting rapid bleeding. Penetration less than 12 inches is too little.”
The Lucky Gunner Ballistics Test
Since the FBI Wound Ballistics study results are generally accepted and 12 inches of penetration with at least 10% expansion are the benchmark for effective performance, many ammunition manufacturers advertise their products by including some photos or a video of a ballistic gel test to demonstrate how their projectile will perform. Notably absent from many of these tests are the key factors that went into the test, such as ballistic gel composition, distance from the target, barriers, and gun type. When comparing one cartridge to another, the consumer may be left comparing apples to oranges.
Lucky Gunner, on the other hand, conducted an “apples to apples” test in which they fired 117 different types of ammunition through four firearms into the same composition of ballistic gel under the same testing criteria. “We fired five rounds of each self-defense load using short-barreled pistols positioned 10 feet from a Clear Ballistics synthetic gelatin block with a four-layer heavy clothing barrier placed in front of it. Out of the 117 different cartridges, they fired the .380ACP out of a Glock 42 with a 3.25″ barrel; 9mm out of a Smith and Wesson M&P 9C with 3.5″ barrel; .40S&W out of a Glock 27 with 3.42″ barrel; and .45ACP out of a Kahr CW45 with a 3.64” barrel.
Again, I truly applaud Lucky Gunner for the rigor, consistency, and objectivity with which they conducted this test. As stated earlier, it is exceptionally informative, but not definitive.
What this test tells us:
- An objective and comparative assessment of how a few dozen of the most popular self-defense cartridges perform (velocity, penetration, expansion, and weight retention) when fired through one gun into a uniform body of synthetic ballistic gelatin.
- If you coincidentally own the same model of pistol used in the test, you have a rough approximation of how the self-defense cartridges perform in synthetic ballistic gelatin.
- Reinforced emphasis on the primacy of awareness, mindset, technique, and attitude over reliance on equipment.
What this test does not tell us:
- How these cartridges would perform (velocity, penetration, expansion) through any other firearms into a uniform body of synthetic ballistic gelatin.
- How these cartridges would perform using the test pistols or any other pistols when fired into an attacker’s body which are not uniform and consist of dissimilar tissues such as flesh, fat, muscle, tendon, and bone.
- The test did not mention the ambient temperature or the temperature of the ballistic gelatin, so we cannot use it as a baseline when testing in other temperatures. (temperature and pressure are directly related and thus affect velocity, momentum, and energy).
- The test did not produce data on other key elements related to self-defense ammunition, such as: (1) reliable feed/function; (2) muzzle flash; and (3) felt recoil.
Taking the test one-step further
The key take-away from the FBI report is that effective handgun defense ammunition terminal ballistics rely on penetration and expansion either to damage/destroy the central nervous system for instant incapacitation or to cause a sufficient permanent wound cavity for rapid lethal blood loss. According to Robert Rinker, in is magnificent book titled “Understanding Firearm Ballistics,” penetration is a matter of momentum overcoming resistance and kinetic energy is required to deform the bullet (expansion) and the object hit (permanent wound cavity). You may recall from our series of ballistics articles that velocity linearly drives momentum (Momentum = Mass*Velocity) and exponentially drives kinetic energy (KE=1/2*M*V²). So, I want to focus on velocity as a key aspect to selecting the most appropriate handgun defense ammunition.
Whereas Lucky Gunner tested different cartridges through the same handgun, I conducted a velocity test by firing the same ammunition through different handguns. In 51.1 degree Fahrenheit weather, I set-up a Chrony Beta chronometer 12 feet in front of the firing line to record 10 rounds of American Eagle 115gr 9mm Full Metal Jacket ammunition fired through six different handguns.
For this test, I used a:
- Sig P938 with 2.94″ barrel
- S&W M&P Shield with 2.97″ barrel
- Sig P320 Carry with 3.69″ barrel
- Glock 19 with 3.87″ barrel
- Sig P226X-5 with 4.84″ barrel
- Glock 34 with 5.16″ barrel.
While it is generally accepted that longer barrels will produce greater velocities, I conducted this test in order to measure the magnitude of the difference. Remember, pressure is the key to firearm function. Rapid gas expansion presses the cartridge case against the inside of the chamber to form a tight seal which forces the projectile down the path of least resistance… i.e. down the bore. Barrel length contributes two forces on the projectile. The first is a driving force allowing continual powder burn providing consistent pressure against the base of the projectile while the second force is exerted by the rifling against the bearing surface of the projectile which rotates it along its center axis. A longer barrel facilitates a longer powder burn which generates more pressure and rotational acceleration… and thus greater muzzle velocity.
With the assistance of fellow shooter, Jacob Enriquez, I was able to quickly capture the average velocities and plot them on the graph below.
- Sig P938: 1,005.0 f/s
- S&W M&P Shield: 1,010.60 f/s
- Sig P320 Carry: 1,048.70 f/s
- Glock 19: 1070.70 f/s
- Sig P226 X-5: 1,108.0 f/s
- Glock 34: 1,138.80 f/s
From this test, we can see a difference of 133.8 feet per second between the 2.941″ barrel and the 5.164″ barrel in 51.1 degree weather. Is 133.8 f/s a big deal? For comparison, it is about the speed of a major league baseball pitch. But does it matter in handgun defense ammunition terminal ballistics? Remember, momentum is the key to penetration and kinetic energy is required for expansion and permanent wound cavity. The 2.941″ barreled Sig P938 produced 257.89 foot-pounds of energy in the 115gr 9mm FMJ projectile 12 feet in front of the firing line while the 5.16″ barreled Glock 34 produced 331.13 foot-pounds of energy from the same ammunition. There are too many other factors to definitively state exactly “how” much this will change terminal ballistic performance, but a 73.24 foot-pound difference can be significant!
As a brief aside, I also tested 230gr .45ACP Lead Round Nose ammo out of a 5″ Wilson Combat CQB pistol in the 51.1 degree weather which produced an average velocity of 739.00 f/s. I compared this to the same ammo through the same gun fired back in June when the temperature was 82.2 degrees, and the average velocity was 772.00 f/s.
These results tell us that barrel length and ambient temperature definitely affect velocity which will impact both momentum and kinetic energy. However, bullet construction and target composition vary greatly and we cannot determine how the velocity differentials will affect terminal ballistic performance. The key take-away is that any published velocity and performance data will vary based on barrel length and ambient temperature. So, a personal defense cartridge that is acceptable in a 4.5″ barreled gun in hot weather may underperform in a 3″ barreled gun in cold weather.
Neither the Lucky Gunner test nor my test describe the impact of other handgun/ammunition functions such as reliable feed/function, muzzle blast, and felt recoil. Again, these will vary widely based on handgun construction, barrel length, propellant charge, environmental conditions (light/dark), and hand strength. As such, each cartridge must be tested and evaluated in different conditions.
Since testing the true terminal ballistic performance of a handgun cartridge in live tissue is highly impractical, we are left with tests that merely provide approximations. For those with the dedication and the time, ballistic gels can be either purchased or concocted in order to test a specific cartridge through a specific firearm. For example, Lucky Gunner used Clear Ballistics synthetic ballistics gels, which can be purchased for $165.98 from their web store. Otherwise, resources such as the Lucky Gunner article, this article, our Ballistics Series, and many other outlets provide a wealth of information to help you make the best decision in selecting both the handgun and ammunition that suits your individual personal defense needs.
Remember, choose and test a cartridge that feeds reliably in your personal defense firearm and produces sufficient velocity to ensure penetration and expansion but does not produce excessive muzzle flash or overwhelming recoil to negatively affect your ability to employ the firearm.
In closing, I want to reinforce a point succinctly made by Lucky Gunner: reliable function and performance are a key to confident employment of a firearm in personal defense, but they are subordinate to maintaining the proper awareness, mindset, and training to detect, avoid, and deter violent confrontations and respond appropriately as a last resort.
When it comes to handgun defense ammunition terminal ballistics, there is no perfect solution which will be equally effective in all situations. Don’t rely solely on advertised cartridge performance provided by the ammunition manufacturer. Instead, dedicate some time to research the cartridge that best suits your handgun and your needs, test the handgun/ammunition combination, and dedicate training time to heighten your awareness to avoid violent confrontations and respond appropriately if necessary.
So, which defense ammunition works best for you? Sound-off in the comments below or shoot me an email at HHall@aegisacademy.com
Stay safe and shoot straight!
- Howard Hall