Choosing the Right Pistol Ammo for Defense

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Many shooters love to see bullet expansion like this.  The Black Talon was a big hit in
the early 90s.

What ammo are you using for defense? Is the latest and greatest hollow-point with maximum expansion and maximum energy in your semi-auto pistol? Are there +P+ loads in the snub-nose revolver you use for concealed carry? Are you paying more than $1 per round because your life and the technology are worth it? Maybe you should think again.

When it comes to guns and ammunition, some people are always willing to pay more, and some think the more you spend, the better armed you are and the safer you become. While that may be true in some cases, you can deceive yourself with that way of thinking. Here’s why.

You must test ammo extensively in your weapon before using it as a defense round. It’s a fact that some types of ammo don’t feed well in certain pistols. You will find article after article about hollow-points not feeding properly in 1911s. Despite that, 1911s are some of the most popular pistols for self-defense.  Some 1911s can feed JHP ammo all day long, but I recently tried some Hornady Critical Defense in mine, and guess what? I had a FTF with the second magazine. This ammo isn’t cheap.  What if I had stopped after one magazine, satisfied with my 7-rounds downrange of $1.25/cartridge ammo, and had that second clip in my pistol during a bad encounter?

If I could advise one thing about defense ammo, it would be this: do not use ammo in your defense pistol unless you are willing to buy and shoot 100 rounds of that particular ammo at the range to ensure function and reliability.

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Failure to feed (FTF) with a hollow-point .45ACP in a quality 1911.

I use Winchester 230 grain hard-ball exclusively in my 1911. I’ve shot hundreds upon hundreds of rounds using that ammo with no failures. To me, that’s much more important than the after-effects of a hollow-point versus FMJ.

Some of you might be thinking, “Is a full-metal-jacket round good enough for defense? Don’t I need maximum expansion from a hollow-point?” I have two responses: 1) Would you be willing to stand in front of a 115 gr. FMJ 9mm bullet or a 230 gr. FMJ .45 bullet at 7 yards? and 2) The U.S. Military uses FMJ bullets because of the Hague Convention of 1899 and doesn’t complain about the effectiveness of FMJ ammo.  Do you ever hear soldiers complaining, “That .45 FMJ ammo doesn’t work very good!”  I don’t think so. (You may hear it here and there about 9mm, though. See my post on the Army’s decision to re-evaluate the 9mm NATO round.)

I bought my wife a Glock 19, my top recommendation for personal defense, and during our first trip to the range we used 147 gr. flat-nose FMJ Winchester cartridges. I found it on sale at Walmart and thought nothing of using flat-nosed rounds versus the standard round-nose FMJ. We were shocked that the G19 had a FTF with this ammo every 3-5 rounds! This prompted my wife to say, “I must have the only Glock in the world that jams!” I felt horrible and fortunately had some 115 gr. round-nose FMJ in my range bag.  This ammo fed flawlessly, and we have never experienced a jam with that ammo. Was the problem with the Glock or the Winchester ammo? Probably neither, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t use the two in combination. I’m sure that 147 gr. flat-nose works great in other 9mm pistols, maybe even other Glock 19s, but it doesn’t feed in ours.

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Don’t assume ammo will feed in your pistol. Guarantee it will by shooting several
hundred rounds of the ammo you will use for defense. Winchester 147 grain flat-nose FMJ ammo and Glock products are manufactured to exacting standards, but they don’t work well together in my Glock 19.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of hollow-point ammunition, and that’s what I use in my personal concealed-carry weapon, a S&W M&P340 revolver. I like this pistol because it fits unobtrusively in my pocket and is very lightweight. Functionally, revolvers are hands-down more reliable than semi-auto pistols, but that’s at the expense of less fire power. My M&P340 only holds five rounds, but I’m willing to trade lower capacity for higher reliability. Additionally, revolvers don’t have feed problems, so you can use whatever ammo you like without hesitation.

My primary advice those using a revolver for defense is to not use .38 Special +P or +P+ or .357 Magnum loads in a lightweight snub-nose (barrels 2″ and less). The recoil is very difficult to control and the muzzle blast is extreme with these high pressure loads, and that adds time between shots.  Standard ammo helps you control recoil and decrease time between shots, a critical factor in a defensive situation.

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The .38 Special 110 grain hollow-point ammo I use in my carry weapon, a S&W M&P340.
I don’t recommend the +P version of this cartridge that is available for use in snub-nose
revolvers.

The other nice thing about revolvers is you don’t need to shoot hundreds of rounds to ensure reliability. Don’t sweat buying that $2/round ammo. Shoot a few cylinder’s worth to check function and you’re good to go.  You can practice with cheaper lead bullets or FMJ loads at the range and save money.

Final thought: if you use a semi-automatic pistol for defense, shoot a minimum of 100 rounds of the ammo you choose to ensure the reliability of your system.  If you can’t afford to do that, buy a revolver or use less expensive ammo.