“Best” is an adjective that starts fights faster than quick. No sooner than you declare something the best you have a dozen folks ready to refute you with master-crafted rebuttals, Powerpoint presentations or name calling. This is true of the gun world as with any other.
You might even make a reasonable argument that even dabbing that most irritating of descriptors onto any professed information is simply a recipe for disaster.
Can you really declare anything as best? Gun, ammo or otherwise, considering how many variables there are to consider? How different people are? Is there any point?
Yes. Yes, there is. When it comes to self-defense, the terrible arithmetic and attendant chaos of a gunfight demands that you seek every possible advantage beforehand.
Choosing the right ammunition is essential in order for your shots to have maximum effect on your adversary. Over time and through our mutual history of shooting one another, humans have learned some basic rules, some fundamentals, as to what the best way to shoot someone is, and with what.
The somewhat grisly science of wound ballistics has yielded actionable data, and shaped modern ammunition design accordingly.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at what makes for good self-defense ammunition, and I’ll be offering my top three recommendations for defensive loads in the ubiquitous 9mm Luger.
Before we begin, let’s put to bed permanently a few egregious but persistent myths surrounding the wounding mechanisms of bullets, specifically handgun bullets. I have no doubt that most all of you reading have heard of such terms as “stopping power,” knockdown power,” “hydrostatic shock” and other pseudosciencey vernacular.
“.45 is the best cause it has the most stoppin’ powah than the 9mm!” “I use a big .44 Magnum cause it causes more hydrostatic shock effect,” and so on and so forth.
These terms are nearly totally meaningless. Hydrostatic shock is often an erroneous misnomer for an occurrence known as temporary cavitation (more on that in a moment), but in the general lexicon is often used to describe some mysterious effect where the impact of a bullet causes such disruption of the tissue in the body it causes a sort of system-wide shutdown.
This is bunk, at least, bunk in as much as what happens when a person “shuts down” after being shot may result from one of several causes, causes like a central nervous system hit, or a psychological stop resulting from the person simply falling down and giving up.
Either may occur, or may not, but the former is caused by physical destruction of critical organ structures in the body and the latter for reasons beyond our control as they are dictated and calculated in the shootee’s mind.
“Stopping Power” is a long runner piece of treasured shooter lingo that simply does not mean anything in a quantifiable sense. But words must mean something, so in most cases the person using it is making a proclamation that Cartridge A is better than Cartridge B because it is bigger or faster or something.
How do you calculate such a thing, and why once calculated to we see multiple, repeated failures of bullets to have effect on a target, even bullets with commonly accepted “high” stopping power?
Knockdown power is an utterly meaningless term; no bullet from a shoulder fired gun or a handgun can knock someone down. It’s simple physics, and not in any way, shape, form or fashion open for debate. If a fired projectile could blow the target off their feet, the shooter would likewise be bowled over.
What either above term may be referring to is a colloquial ranking of “effectiveness.” This is a little more forgivable, as bullets and cartridges are not created equal, and some are decisively more effective against humans than others. Even with this explanation, what makes Cartridge A more effective than Cartridge B?
There is the question. But to answer it, it is illuminating to answer another question first: just how do we damage and incapacitate, or stop, an attacker as quickly as possible?
Very briefly, there are only two ways by which we can stop an attacker with gunfire, and of those two only one is reliable or predictable in any real sense.
Those ways are physiological in nature and psychological in nature. As you have no doubt intuited, one has to do with physical bodily processes and the other has to do with mental and emotional processes.
A physiological stop results when the person can no longer physically continue their action against you. This result itself could be one of several outcomes: a loss of blood pressure or volume severe enough that physical movement is impossible, or destruction of central nervous system targets responsible for the voluntary or involuntary control of the body and its many processes.
In essence, if we shoot an attacker, we punch a hole in them in addition to damaging or destroying any tissues in the bullets immediate path. Any bullet wound will result in a certain amount of blood loss. Once blood volume and pressure in the body is insufficient to sustain movement, the body collapses.
If the brain is not supplied with enough oxygen, consciousness is lost. If we strike more “valuable” targets in the body, e.g. major cardiovascular tissues and organs, heart, aorta, major arteries, etc., and strike them multiple times, then we can generally depend on a correspondingly faster loss of blood volume and pressure, and less oxygenated blood staying in the system, thereby resulting in faster incapacitation.
A solid hit to the central nervous system, specifically the brain or upper spine, is the most typical cause of true instant incapacitation, but even that is no guarantee.
A person struck in the spine may lose partial or near total body control, but may have enough control left to pull a trigger or swing a knife. Often referred to as “off switches” in LE and military vernacular, they are still not 100% infallible.
But on the other hand we must consider psychological incapacitation. These factors we have little control over, as they solely between the ears of the person being shot. Psychological factors essentially boil down to the person being shot giving up, either from mental or emotional distress.
These are the reasons why some people, when shot, fall down and are done for as far as the fighting is concerned. These are the reasons why some people will actually die from minor, non-life threatening hits; they always believed that people, when shot, die. And so they do.
Psychological factors are also the reason why some people can fight on, fiercely, after sustaining severe, even mortal, wounds. They may or may not be in agonizing, excruciating pain.
But remember what we just learned: if sufficient blood volume and pressure exists, movement is possible. If enough oxygen is supplying the brain, consciousness is possible.
If highly motivated, enraged, trained or otherwise sheer force of will may keep them in the fight until their body is either mechanically disabled or they succumb to their injuries.
If our attacker is shot and gives up, or quits, that is great. But we cannot count on it. We can count on, eventually, enough blood loss occurring or enough damage to the CNS occurring to result in dependable incapacitation.
So, in summary, to stop an attacker reliably we must:
- Let blood out of the attacker, enough that he cannot sustain movement or consciousness. -or-
- Damage or destroy the brain or upper spine.
To do this, we need bullets that will reach the targets we need to strike in the attacker’s body, and do so reliably. Reliably meaning it can penetrate deeply enough through both flesh and any reasonable intervening barrier, and that the bullet is of sufficient diameter to actually cause adequate destruction on its passage through the target.
Bullet Wounding Mechanisms
To be considered a good bullet for self-defense, we are looking for a couple of specific characteristics. We need a bullet that will penetrate at least 10 to 12 inches into a human body, and do this after defeating intermediate barriers it may encounter on the way, barriers like clothing, a limb, glass, and so on.
This is why FBI testing standards mandate a bullet penetrate at least 18” into calibrated ordinance gelatin to be acceptable for duty use; you don’t always get to shoot someone broadside when they have a t-shirt on.
A bigger hole is better than a smaller hole, but over a certain size, about .36 caliber, handgun rounds all perform about the same with modern ammo.
Additionally, a bullet that retains its weight inside the target, that is, a bullet that does not break up or fragment, is desirable as this ensures its momentum and overall diameter will be preserved as it passes through the target, maximizing the amount of destroyed tissue, and creating a greater wound.
Bottom line: handgun bullets do damage reliably only by piercing the body and destroying the tissue along their passage, not from shock effect or anything else.
A bullet that will expand, i.e. a hollowpoint, will create a larger path of destroyed tissue and is desirable, in addition to minimizing the chances that the bullet will exit the body. A bullet that is more likely to stay together and not break apart is more likely to perform well at the above requirements, and is desirable.
Considering all of the above attributes together, the bullet that most reliably and consistently performs accordingly is the best bullet for the task at hand.
The list of 9mm loads below is based on objective performance as tested according to FBI protocols, and is the most reliable laboratory-based testing measures for handgun bullet performance to date.
Please note, all of these loads are excellent, and any will serve you well as a primary self-defense round.
- Federal – Tactical or HST lines
- Winchester – Ranger-T
- Speer – Gold Dot or Gold Dot 2
Not all ammo is created equal. If you have the funds and opportunity, you should not be shooting FMJ or lead ball for defense of life. Take the time to get educated on handgun bullet performance, and choose a round that will do the most work when the stakes are high.