Simply put, the best ammo for self-defense is one that stops—but not goes through (over penetrate)—a threat.
All ammo is not created equal. Range ammo and ammo for self-defense are designed differently and competition or match ammo is made even different still. When trying different types of ammo, you’ll come across some that is clean-burning and some that is stinky and smoky. You’ll come across brands that aren’t consistent in bullet seating and powder load. Some are super shiny with beautiful, even crimps and fly right every time. Some ammo is cheap, and some is expensive—neither of which is telltale of its quality. Some of the cheapest ammo—in cost—has proven to me to be the most consistent and reliable, while some of the more expensive brands have failed to impress.
Because my profession forces me to shoot a lot, I, admittedly, am a cheapass and am willing to try all the inexpensive ammo, especially when I’m not necessarily needing bullseye accuracy. Steel targets and beer cans have a wide enough area that still goes “plink” even if you aren’t the best shooter or have a few fliers out of the ammo box. I’m usually satisfied with my cheapo ammo picks.
Practice ammo should be cheap. And I mean cheap as in inexpensive, not cutting corners in manufacturing. We should be practicing regularly. Being comfortable and confident with the tool that saves your life shouldn’t be just for the rich. A few rounds that snuck through quality control is tolerable when a box of ammo doesn’t cost an arm and leg. Plus, and you’re totally allowed to argue with me here, gives good practice for clearing malfunctions. When it comes down to life and death do your ammo choices really matter.
Now, practice ammo is made to punch paper, not stop a bad guy, so bullet construction is simple and consideration for penetration, accuracy and energy transfer isn’t needed. Self-defense ammo, on the other hand, has to perform. It must have enough expansion, energy transfer and penetration to hit vital organs through thick, heavy clothing but also be constructed so that it has the least potential to over penetrate, possibly injuring innocents nearby.
The traditional self-defense ammo design, and still the best in my humble opinion, is the hollow point. The hollow point bullet incorporates a lead nose with a hollow tip and a copper jacket, preferably bonded, which means the jacket and core don’t separate when the bullet hits a soft target. This hollow point bullet design expands but is controlled and penetrates deeply. Some incorporate a polymer tip which helps the bullet fly straight and uniformly expand or fragment on impact.
I’m going to be honest, finding your gun’s favorite food ain’t frugal! Ammo made for self-defense is more expensive than practice ammo and it’s recommended to run at least 200 rounds of it through your firearm to test its reliability and accuracy. Unfortunately, just because your buddy’s GLOCK 17 loooooves Federal, doesn’t mean your SIG or even your GLOCK will looooove Federal. Also, not all your guns, even if they are the same manufacturer, will like chewing up the same brand of ammo. Same goes for two different guns in the same caliber or two of the same guns in different calibers. Even the most high-end firearm might not shoot the most high-end ammo. Nothing is certain, and you might have to shoot a lot of frogs to find the prince…
After your initial research, you hopefully won’t have to spend that much on self-defense ammo again unless you want to. Most shooters practice and train with full metal jacket or other range ammo and only shoot one box of their self-defense ammo while at the range—okay, so I don’t every single time but don’t just load your go-to with some hollow points and call it good. You do need to make sure you stay familiar with how the round feels and acts when it shoots and a reminder of that every so often will better prepare you if the time ever comes when you have to use it.
So, what’s the criteria for what is considered good or the best ammo for self-defense? To me, it’s got to be clean-burning, accurate and consistent without malfunctions, like fail to fire or feed, squib or hangfire—and yes, I’ve experienced them all. We’re gun enthusiasts at Firefield, so I asked around the office for a consensus on the best self-defense ammo. All of us have different carry/protection guns in different sizes and calibers and like all things gun-related, we all have different preferences. But we did come to an agreement with the following list of good ammo loaded for self-defense.
Note my caveat: None of us have ever had to real-life test our self-defense ammo—thank God—however, we have tested them extensively in our firearms and these rounds perform as they should. Further, I must add this disclaimer before we get started listing the “best” self-defense ammo… Nothing is promised when I list these. There are way too many factors involved in a self-defense shooting for ANYTHING to be guaranteed—bad guy’s drug use, environmental conditions, shot placement, caliber, speed, accuracy, fate, etc., are all contributing factors in what happens when you are faced with this situation.
Both writers at Firefield, myself included, have the Federal HST loaded in our .380s. Originally released in 2002 for “Law Enforcement Only,” Federal HST started selling the round to us regular folks in 2015. I have my carry gun—a sub-compact Kimber Micro .380—loaded with these. They prove to shoot reliably and accurately through the short barrel, which some ammo fails to penetrate well out of shorter barreled semiautos. Test after test using the FBI protocol has proven the HSTs expand consistently
through barriers and maintain 100% weight retention.
The primary features of the Federal HST are:
- Nickel-plated brass case
- Patented co-aligned internal and external skiving
- Deep tapered hollow point
- Cannelure locks jacket to core
- Tapered jacket profile
This load is available in .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP and .38 Special +P. Find the .380 here: https://www.federalpremium.com/products/handgun/premium-personal-defense/personal-defense-hst-micro/p380hst1s
Speer Gold Dot
Speer Gold Dot is an old-time favorite, has been one of the most popular self-defense rounds for two decades now and trusted by many police departments around the country. In fact, it was one of the first mass-produced hollow point bullets that actually worked, and Speer innovated the bonded bullet. The Speer Gold Dot passes through barriers while still expanding successfully.
The Speer Gold Dot improved features include:
- Molecular bonding
- 100% weight retention
- Uniform jacket
- Reliable penetration and expansion
The Speer bullet comes in quite the variety of calibers—.25 ACP, .32 Auto, .327 Federal Magnum, .380 ACP, 9mm, 9mm +P, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .38 Special +P, .40 S&W, 10mm, .44 Special, .45 ACP, and .22 Magnum.
SIG Elite V-Crown
The SIG Elite V-Crown is the new kid on the block but has become a favorite of shooters and writers fast. It won Shooting Illustrated’s 2016 Golden Bullseye for Ammunition Product of the Year. Our experience has found that it works reliably in many different brands of firearms from 1911 to sub-compact pocket pistols. The V-Crown Elite has consistent weight retention, great expansion and penetrates at a level acceptable to the FBI. Though none of the ammo on this list is going to disappoint, we’ve found that the expansion is better on this round than the older Hornady 9mm one of our CCWs holds.
The SIG Elite V-Crown ammo features:
- V-shaped jacket skives and scores provide controlled, uniform expansion.
- Stacked hollow point bullet design with additional hollow point cavity
- Unique toothed cannelure for maximum weight retention and terminal expansion
- Nickel cases provide enhanced lubricity, superior corrosion resistance, and reliable feeding and extraction.
- Low flash propellant
SIG’s self-defense ammo is available in these calibers—9mm, 10mm, .44 Magnum, .40 S&W, .38 Super +P, .380 ACP, .357 Magnum, .357 SIG, .38 Special +P, .44 Special, .45 Colt, and .45 ACP.
Hornady Critical Defense
The Hornady Critical Defense bullet is like all other hollow point bullets but with an added “Flex Tip” which helps the bullet expand reliably through heavy clothing. The bullet’s exclusive secant ogive (the tapered part of the bullet) profile design aids in stability, flat trajectories and accuracy. It is optimized for shorter barrels typical of concealed carry guns to maintain velocity and energy transfer. We don’t worry that the Hornady bullet is going to over penetrate and it shoots accurate groups without malfunctions.
The Hornady Critical Defense line features:
- FTX hollow point bullet
- Corrosion-resistant nickel-plated cartridge
- Low-flash propellants
- One-piece, high antimony lead core of mechanically locked to the jacket with an InterLock ring
It comes in the widest variety of calibers, including rifle—.22 WMR, .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .32 NAA, .32 H&R Magnum, .380 ACP, 9mm Luger, 9×18 Makarov, .38 Special +P, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, .44 Special, .45 Colt, .45 ACP and .410 Bore, .223 Remington, .30 Carbine and .308 Winchester.
There are, of course, plenty of other really good rounds out there for self-defense—these four are just some of our favorites and most used by us.
If you’d like to read more about the development of innovative self-defense rounds, read my article about the legend of the Black Talon here.