A few years ago, a friend at a facility I worked with was given the task of working up a test protocol for bulletproof vests. His combination of skills was well suited to the job. However, on a personal level, his passionate excitement, combined with painstaking scientific method, proved to be a winning combination. His assignment coincided with the failures of several vests in police service, and he was determined to produce the best ammunition possible.
It cannot be about money—a good engineer may write his own ticket anywhere. It was about saving lives. Emotion and imagination drives artists. More than a few technicians and gun designers have been driven by the same zeal. When the probing of science replaces myths with reason, we have a solid foundation to make our own choices. More effort is required with the scientific method. Unfortunately, the popular press and mass media often give us futile hope and even absurdities in reporting. If you look for an easy answer, you will find it.
For the majority of the history of handguns, the only reliable criterion was actual use. When firearms were used in warfare, the effective and the ineffective were quickly separated. The first effective repeating arms were the various Colt .44 caliber cap and ball revolvers. Smaller revolvers were over carried for personal protection, and while they gave the user some peace of mind, they might often fail if put to the task.
About 1870, the combination of scientific method and history began to come together. Historical accounts from the Civil War were taken into account by researchers. The scientific method was slow to develop but was in evidence by 1882. I read a detailed court record and autopsy from this era. The records survived partly because the notorious individual killed a young man (and was acquitted) and later his own father.
The doctor noted that the entrance wound from the pistol was less than an inch wide and the bullet penetrated five inches. It must have been a pocket-type revolver. It was disappointing that the only description of the firearm was that it was a ‘small revolver worth about twelve dollars.’ By 1940, autopsy science was highly developed. But the science was geared toward determining what killed the victim and the path of the bullet, not how the projectile performed.
After World War II, the .38 Special revolver became the standard police firearm. The Chief’s Special snub nose was considered an ideal hideout. But period literature, including the writings of Chic Gaylord and Bill Jordan, pointed out that the .38 Special round nose bullet was a poor performer.
By the 1960s, intoxicated individuals and those on drugs (grounded in pharmaceutical pain killers) began to show an alarming trend toward the ability to absorb as many as a dozen .38s and keep coming. (The 9mm FMJ was much the same.) Word of mouth and well-documented police reports, particularly after action reports of the New York City Police Department, reflected these poor results.
At the same time, the training regimen meant that the .38 and 9mm were all that could be mastered with bi-yearly qualification. There was actually no training after the academy. A number of agencies adopted the .357 Magnum revolver. Some practiced on a monthly basis. These agencies demonstrated a high hit probability and very few shots required to stop the felon.
When the 9mm was ushered in, there were many failures. By then, the .38 Special 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollow point +P had solved the problems of .38 wound potential, but the 9mm was adopted based on firepower. I corresponded with a midwestern training officer who cited a rather poor outcome with the 9mm. This was a busy agency and officers were shooting felons and stick up men eight to 10 times with the 9mm.
The community was up in arms. Why was the new chief, who changed the issued firearm to a high capacity 9mm, tolerating this type of shooting? After all, felons had never been shot more than once or twice before. The precious issue firearm was a .357 Magnum revolver loaded with hollow points. Meanwhile, other agencies adopted what I considered the best rule I have encountered for firearms issue and use. The base for all officers was a four-inch barrel .357 Magnum revolver loaded with the .38 Special LSWCHP +P.
Officers with a perfect qualification score could quality with the 125-grain .357 Magnum. They were required to qualify every three months. Other officers chose to qualify with the SIG P220 .45 ACP pistol. The requirement was to qualify with the same score as the .38, but in less time. They also had to qualify every three months on their own dime and time. This was a fine idea and allowed officers, who wished to be better-armed and willing to work at it, the opportunity.
As the scientific method of ammunition testing was being developed using ballistic gelatin, we had a better idea of the capability of new loads and ammunition. This media holds a permanent record of the bullets penetration and expansion. While not perfect, ballistic gelatin is the best means we presently have to testing ammunition performance.
About the same time, we had a group of writers (for reasons known to themselves) who began to publish unsubstantiated opinions masquerading as reports. They even resorted to publishing a ridiculous, so-called study that they claimed involved the shooting of live goats under controlled conditions. The public ate it up but not the law enforcement community—although I did have to address the issue with a number of young officers who should have known better. Secret sources and unreliable and unrepeatable testing does not meet the criteria for a small town traffic court, much less scientific testing. I am certain the FBI knows more than I concerning ammunition performance, and they have far more resources as well.
A comment I remember well was that we cannot control shot placement, but we can control the power of the load we use, so we should use the most powerful load. That isn’t very smart and flies against decades of police training. While I prefer the .45 ACP and .357 Magnum, I cannot imagine carrying a handgun I have not mastered.
The 9mm is a very shootable firearm with good accuracy potential and excellent control. Projectile development has come a long way. The first developments in what we consider modern, bonded core, service-grade projectiles came shortly after the infamous Miami Massacre in which trained FBI agents suffered in a battle with heavily armed felons. These shooters took a dozen hits each from 9mm and .38 caliber revolvers.
One took a .38 at the base of his skull, another took 9mm JHP bullets that struck a car door and did not penetrate to the heart. There were also wounds from 12 gauge buckshot. Development of improved projectiles, including the Hornady XTP and Federal Hydra-Shok (and later the Hornady Critical Duty and Federal HST), continued. The difference, when compared to the older cup-and-core type hollow point, is that the modern loads are designed so that the jacket and core do not separate. The bullets also maintain their integrity when penetrating light cover and vehicle glass.
Vehicle glass is very hard on bullets. It wasn’t unusual in the 1980s for a bullet fired into a windshield to lose its jacket in the glass and the core was found in the front seat, spent. FMJ bullets were also deflected by car glass. I have fired at a vehicle side glass and watched the .45 ACP 230-grain FMJ deflect. The XTP was developed by testing against light cover—including wallboard, sheet metal, and vehicle glass. The result was a new generation of ammunition with an excellent balance of penetration and expansion.
It isn’t well known, but the development of these projectiles led to an overall improvement in all jacketed hollowpoint ammunition. As an example, further tweaking of the Winchester Silvertip and Federal Hydra-Shok resulted in improved performance for these jacketed hollow point bullets. Modern testing methods helped companies develop some of the finest projectiles in history.
There have been many competing opinions and theories concerning what makes for a good handgun load. Anything derived from so-called street studies and flawed data isn’t worth the paper it is written on—providing the events actually occurred—but this is a basis many bet their lives on. Others feel a minimum of 400 pounds of energy is required for a projectile to be effective. While I believe actual damage is the single greatest predictor of handgun effectiveness—wound potential—I admit this artificial criteria has merit.
Others stated that 200 grains, .40 caliber, and 1,000 fps is a realistic target for a service cartridge. That is the 10mm or perhaps the .40 S&W. This is a minimum, and they certainly are not wrong. These calibers are effective. But what about the .357 Magnum? It is by some definitions a small bore, but then again, the definition of magnum is ‘more than expected for the size.’ The .357 Magnum is easily the most proven of all handgun cartridges as far as wound ballistics.
This leads us to the present with some of the most highly developed ammunition ever manufactured. As an example, I recently tested the Federal 130-grain HST, a purpose-designed, personal defense load for the .38 snub. Expansion is excellent control isn’t difficult. This isn’t a service load intended to cut through light cover, so we also have a first class, home defense load.
I recently tested the Winchester PDX 124-grain +P. This load exits the Glock 17 9mm at 1,230 fps and a solid 1,290 fps from the Glock 34 9mm. This is excellent performance in a controllable handgun that leaves nothing to be desired for reliability. Of course, modern .357 Magnum and .45 ACP loads offer even more wound potential. However, today’s personal defense loads offer more punch than ever for the caliber.
The end user must carefully consider his or her situation and the likely threat. Is the threat a burglar in the home, or a heavily clad felon that may seek cover? Are animals such as dangerous feral dogs or mistreated local dogs a danger? The research and the facts are there. Study them, and make an informed decision.
What self-defense ammunition do you carry? Have you ever performed any testing of your own? If so, how did you test it? Share your answers in the comment section.
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