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Loads and Logic — Big Calibers Rule!

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Article first appeared at Cheaper than Dirt.

There is a tremendous interest in research and development of defense loads for handguns. The majority of offerings use some variation on the jacketed hollowpoint bullet although a new trend is toward bullets that have a cutting mechanism. JHP bullets may have a soft lead core bonded to a jacket designed to stay together as they expand, or they may have a traditional cup and core construction that expands more quickly. Some, such as the Federal HST, are highly developed and offer impressive expansion.

The competition in designs is interesting and comparing theWinchester SXT to the Hornady XTP leaves one with the impression that a great deal of research and development went into these bullets. An interesting development is the Hornady Critical Defense. This bullet uses a polymer nose cap that is driven into the bullet as it meets resistance, instating expansion.

I see these loads offered at gun shows and gun shops by those with no knowledge of how they work to a public with little idea of the dynamics of wound ballistics. This isn’t surprising because very few writers have any idea concerning wound ballistics. Quite a few modern JHP bullets do not offer sufficient penetration for all around defense use, in my opinion, and they will expand too early. A hollow nose and lead core do not constitute a great defense load all on its own.

I have tested many loads that do not expand at all in media, others that expand well, and a very few that offer a good balance of expansion and penetration. Bargain basement loads, especially the foreign loads, offer bargain basement Testing and Evaluation. The major makers offer bonded core designs that meet FBI criteria. Among these are the Winchester SXT and the Hornady XTP. These companies also offer faster expanding bullets such as the Winchester Silvertip and the Hornady Critical Defense.

Man shooting a pistol in nid recoil

A .45 +P has more recoil than standard and can be a bear to control.

The personal defense bullet should be designed to penetrate in the worst-case scenario, not the average scenario. Some like to limit penetration in buildings, apartments and street scenarios. The real problem isn’t over penetration. Once a bullet strikes the body, unless it is a FMJ bullet, it will expand and most pistol bullets stay in the body or exit with a fraction of the force they began with.

The real problem is a bullet that misses. That isn’t an over penetration problem, it is a problem of missing. Wild shots the opposing attorney will call them. The folks at Federal Cartridgehave done a great job at designing bullets, but you have to put this bullet where it will do the most good. Now, back to the problem with recommendations on choosing bullets.

The lack of experience in interpersonal combat doesn’t stop folks from commenting on pistol bullets and effectiveness. A lack of experience doesn’t seem to be a burden in commentary. As an example, I have never shot a moose and cannot comment on moose hunting, or polar bear for that matter. I could do no more than look over ballistic tables and hope for the best. Any recommendation I would make would be limited by my experience. Consulting tables or reading articles by those with no more experience than you, and then postulating on the best choice isn’t the scholarly approach.

Micrometer of bullet

Expansion in artificial media is easily measured. Even modest expansion increases the wound channel considerably as tissue is cut rather than pushed aside.

Many editors—not my editor, a very experienced individual—allow scribes to submit monographs on subjects about which they have no experience. It is OK to compare ballistics and fire off the bench but not to comment that due to the properties of this or that bullet the .380 ACP is now an acceptable defense load. Or that the ‘9mm now equals the .45.’ This is junk science. This is a disservice to the reader and professionally bankrupt.

I think that perhaps we should examine the history of personal defense cartridges before we proceed because this is a very interesting and valid study. Unfortunately, too many do not have the time to study factual events and stack up articles in gun rags. In the time before hollow point bullets, bullet mass meant the most—and still does in the opinion of many. A horse pistol was designed to drop a horse just past saber range and both horse and men fell to such pistols. There was another component, however. The soft lead ball often expanded.

When Colt introduced his small caliber .36 revolvers, they were useful at short range because the lead ball expanded and did a lot of damage. They were similar to a good .38 Special lead hollow point. However, at longer range where the bullet did not expand effect was poor. The .44 Dragoon, and the later .44 Army, solved the problem. The soft .457-inch ball of the Colt Army at 900 fps is as effective a combination as anyone could ever field. The .45 Colt was designed to drop an Indian war pony at 100 yards if need be. In many battles, more horses than men were killed. This continued to be an important consideration well into the Mexican Revolution.

Cross section of a Hornady Critical Defense bullet

The Hornady Critical Defense bullet is a remarkable bullet.

The .45 ACP was designed to meet the same criteria as the .45 Colt. A consideration for far flung troops was that the .45 ACP be useful against mounted troops and also Jaguars in the jungle. A more modest cartridge, the .44 Special, was designed as an accurate and mild shooting big bore. This cartridge succeeded famously and perhaps those that hot-rodded the Special did it a disservice.

A point should be made concerning these revolvers. Recoil was manageable, even comfortable, in revolves such as the Smith and Wesson Triple Lock .44 Special and the Colt Peacemaker .44-40. None gave sharp recoil. The balance of weight for the caliber was respected. A .38-40 revolver with 200-grain bullets at 900 fps kicks much less than a lightweight .40 auto with the same or better ballistics.

The .44-40 will equal the 10mm auto but do so with much more comfort in the firing hand. Recoil is a push and not sharp at all. The .38 caliber double-action revolvers at 30-35 ounces were light to carry and fast handling. They proved ineffective against outlaws and most famously against Moros in the Philippines.

two revolvers with wood grips

Once heavy loads were introduced, revolver grips were painful to the shooter—the Ahrends grips (lower) on the Magnum are arguably among the best for recoil control.

Heavy loads were developed for the light .38 revolver and for the first time recoil became an uncomfortable part of the personal defense handgun. Smith and Wesson developed the Magna grips and custom makers such as Walter Roper developed excellent custom designs. Recoil became bothersome in some revolvers. The .357 Magnum was developed and then lightweight revolvers such as the Colt Trooper and the Smith and Wesson Combat Magnum were chambered for this cartridge. Wound ballistics, penetration and accuracy were excellent by any standard. Recoil was stout and weapons wear unacceptable for long term service use. The revolvers did not blow up—although some suffered cracked forcing cones—but small parts broke and the revolvers went out of time. In actuality, they were a handgun to be carried much and fired seldom.

When I was a young cop, the FBI released a study that confirmed what many of us knew—a service handgun over 36 ounces became a burden on the hip. The FBI’s service handgun had to be lighter for constant carry. This isn’t a problem in a 9mm handgun. The adoption of the 9mm in police work led to more missed shots than ever and also a severe problem with wound ballistics.

The 9mm proved less effective than the Winchester .38 Special 158-grain lead SWCHP—much less so. Hit probability was poor compared to well-trained officers with the .357 Magnum. Development in loads led to a few outstanding choices that give excellent results. As an example, the Winchester 127-grain SXT +P+ exits the Glock 19 at 1245 fps.

1911 pistol in Galco shoulder holster

Good load bearing gear is essential. It doesn’t get any better than this Galco shoulder holster. Weight is spread out over the shoulder and the holster carries both the handgun and the magazine positioned for ease of access.

I have on file a solid dozen examples in which only one shot was needed to stop a felon. I have on file five more in which a single shot was probably all that was needed but two or three were fired. No service cartridge has a better record than this specific loading, but the 9mm is all over the map otherwise. A few others such as the Federal Cartridge 115-grain JHP +P+ at 1340 fps have similar histories.

A new cartridge was introduced to solve the problems with the 9mm. It is worth noting that the 9mm +P+ loads I find historically and provably effective did not meet FBI penetration criteria. The loads in 9mm that do—the 147-grain Subsonic loads—have not proven effective in shootings across the board. So, the 180-grain JHP .40 caliber was developed to meet FBI criteria for penetration, offer superior wound ballistics, and also fit into a platform that was comfortable for all day carry.

The .45 offers superior wound ballistics but it is big and heavy, a legitimate complaint. .45 recoil isn’t a problem in a 40-ounce pistol. It becomes tiresome in lightweight handguns. After shoehorning the .40 into a 9mm pistol, recoil became a problem. The .40 generates sharper recoil than even the .45, many of us feel. The standard 180-grain JHP is the most controllable. The lighter and faster loads are a problem in the lightweight automatics. So, the various agencies have continued to run in circles, it seems, for over 100 years.

Shooter at indoor range with fiery muzzle blast

The Magnum is a great cartridge but muzzle blast and recoil may be disconcerting.

After realizing that the small bore isn’t ideal for personal defense, they develop reinstate or reinvent a big bore that will do the job. It is interesting that high velocity small bores—the .357 Magnum and 9mm +P+—may prove less than ideal due to muzzle blast, recoil, or weapons wear but solve many problems as far as size and weight go.

The reasonable alternative seems to be a 38-ounce .45 with standard pressure loads. The Hornady 185-grain XTP offers modest recoil for the caliber but excellent ballistics. This combination offers the same power factor as a 180-grain .40 at 1,000 fps but recoil in the steel frame .45 is lighter and weapons wear hardly a concern. Inexpensive practice loads are plentiful.

When certain criteria exist—such as a need for effect at longer range or greater penetration—the .357 Magnum is another choice I make. When hiking I do not feel naked with a Peacemaker .45 and feel closer to the earth and history than with a polymer frame handgun. Emotional attachment and a sense of history are important to me, perhaps not to others, but it works.

Bob Campbell shooting 1911 9mm pistol

The author finds the 9mm easy to control and a joy to fire.

As for the current trend toward the 9mm, I understand that many cannot spare the time and money for sufficient practice. That is understandable. But you have to keep a degree of practice up with any caliber or handgun combination. Practice drawing from concealed carry and hitting a man-sized target at 10 yards, on demand, in 1.5 second. Hit the target in the center. There is no excuse for miss in this drill. Set up multiple targets and address steel plates at longer ranges.

A level of proficiency may be reached with the 9mm that makes for a high level of protection. You may be able to defend yourself well but have no illusions. The laws of physics cannot be changed but suit personal whims. As the Pythagoreans stated All Things Are Numbers. For hundreds of years, people have used flawed math and logic to support one hypothesis or the other to suit their opinions and it isn’t valid. Big bullets do more damage. More tissue is displaced, bones are more likely to be broken by big bullets, and more blood is let out. Measurements are exact. This is mathematics. Physics includes a healthy dose of philosophy, but common sense must rule.

Are you a fan of larger calibers for self-defense? Did the author get it right? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comment section, and bring the evidence to back up your points where possible.


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