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Project Summary

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with the rest of the Lucky Gunner team on another one of our epic experiments, which we’re proud to finally unveil: ballistics gelatin testing for over 100 self-defense handgun ammunition loads. 117 to be precise, and that’s just round one. This testing will be ongoing, and we’ll keep adding to the results as we have the chance to test more loads. Watch the video below for a brief overview of the project and an explanation of how to read the results.

If you came here just to see the data from our tests, you can use the handy menu at the top of the page to skip right to the results section. If this whole ballistics testing thing is new to you, or you want to know more about our process, then you might want to keep reading. If you’re more of a “bottom line” kind of person, you can skip over both the setup and the test results and check out the conclusions section. However you use this information, we hope you find it helpful when picking out your next self-defense load.

bullet-recovery
Recovering bullets fired into a block of ballistics gel.

Ballistics Testing in Plain English

The science of wound ballistics can be a daunting topic, especially if you’re not inclined to use your leisure time to study physics and anatomy. At the end of the day, it’s really just the study of how and why bullets inflict damage. That sounds fairly straightforward, but even experts who study this for a living can’t seem to all agree when it comes to the effectiveness of handgun ammo.

The reason for this lack of consensus is simple: handguns suck. If someone wants to kill you, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to shoot them, a handgun is far from the ideal firearm to use — they just happen to be the type of firearm we’re most likely to have immediate access to. Contrary to what Hollywood has ingrained into our consciousness, shooting bad guys with pistols doesn’t make them fly backwards through the air, crashing into a bloody, motionless heap. In reality, the effects of wounds from handguns are unpredictable and often not very dramatic. So the study of handgun wound ballistics is not always clear cut, and any speculation we can make about how a given self-defense load will perform in the real world will be, at best, an educated guess.

ammo boxes clear ballistics
Just a few of the 117 handgun loads we tested for the first round of our project.

Bullets fired from handguns do only one thing: poke little holes in stuff. If the little hole doesn’t go through something that’s important for a human being’s body to remain upright and functioning, that person can still go about their business, which may include trying to hurt other people.

Of course, sometimes violent attackers give up or flee before shots are actually fired. When the mere sight of a gun in the hands of a would-be victim doesn’t do the trick, an assailant will often give up once fired upon, even if they haven’t sustained wounds that would cause their bodies to shut down right away. But these are examples of what Bob Ross would have called “happy little accidents”. It’s great if the bad guy gives up, but we can’t count on that happening. We have a gun to prepare for the worst, and in the worst kind of violent attacks, the bad guy doesn’t give up until he is physically incapable of doing you harm.

So with that in mind, a handgun can quickly and definitively stop a determined attacker only if two conditions are met:

  1. The gun must be fired at a so-called “vital area” of the attacker. This usually means the heart or the brain/spine. Hits to the lungs and other organs can also be effective, but results may be slower.
  2. The bullet must have the ability to penetrate whatever is between the muzzle and those vital organs in order to disrupt their function — for non-uniformed civilians, this typically includes clothing, tissue, and bone.

That’s it. No matter what else may happen during the course of a lethal confrontation, if you shoot the guy in the right spot with a bullet that penetrates deep enough, the threat will go down.

The first condition depends on the person operating the gun. No amount of bullet technology can make up for a miss. But as for the second condition — how do we know if the ammo we have in our self-defense gun is up to the task?

Conventional wisdom says to use ammunition with a hollow point bullet. These bullets are designed to expand upon impact with soft tissue. The expansion deforms the bullet and increases its diameter, which increases the likelihood of the bullet hitting something vital inside the target. Commercial hollow point technology is decades old, and there are dozens of different bullet designs on the market for all of the popular handgun calibers. So aside from the marketing materials put out by the ammo manufacturers, how are we supposed to know which bullets are the most effective?

hst-bullets
Left: Jacketed hollow point bullet pulled from an unfired Federal HST 147 grain 9mm cartridge. Right: An expanded 147 grain HST recovered from a block of ballistics gelatin.

That’s where ballistic gelatin testing comes in. Back in the late 1980s, the FBI began to use blocks of gelatin made from a solution of water and a powdered form of miscellaneous animal parts — called “ordnance gelatin” or “ballistics gel” —  as a substitute for living tissue for testing the effects of duty ammunition. Firing bullets into the gelatin gave them some idea of what the bullet could do inside a person — in particular, how deep the bullet could penetrate, and the degree to which the bullet might expand or deform.

Ordnance gelatin isn’t an exact simulation of living flesh. People and animals have skin, bones, tendons, and organs that are all different in terms of hardness and density. These variables can cause bullets to deflect, fragment, or otherwise behave in unpredictable ways. Conversely, ordnance gelatin is homogeneous, and free of internal obstructions, so the way a bullet behaves in gelatin is indicative of a real life best case scenario. Bullets will not always provide the same results on living tissue that we see in gelatin, but we can expect bullets that perform poorly in gelatin to have a lower success rate on humans, and bullets that perform well in gelatin are more likely to overcome some of the unpredictable variables encountered in the real world.

The other advantage of using a consistent medium like gelatin is that it allows for an “apples to apples” comparison between ammo loads. Each block of gelatin has the same physical properties, so bullet A fired into block A can be compared to bullet B fired into block B. This provides a much more scientific and objective method for comparing ammunition loads than anecdotal reports from real life shootings where there are a plethora of unknown variables to consider.

see-through-block

Today, this type of testing is made even easier with the advent of synthetic ballistic materials. The “real” organic ballistics gelatin blocks used by the FBI today are still made from dehydrated animal tissue. They provide accurate results, but they’re time consuming to make and they have to be refrigerated until almost immediately before they are used. And after all of that, the fired bullets are difficult to see through the cloudy, mud-colored organic gelatin.

Synthetic gelatin from the company Clear Ballistics is temperature stable up to 240° F, so the blocks can be shipped directly to the end user without melting or deforming. These blocks are also completely transparent, so the test results can be observed without cutting into the block. Test results using Clear Ballistics blocks come very close to results using organic gelatin, at least for comparing the penetration and expansion properties of handgun bullets. In addition, the convenience of working with the synthetic gelatin allows testing on a scale that is not practical with a substance as delicate and labor-intensive as traditional organic ordnance gelatin.

Lucky Gunner Ballistic Testing Standards

The goal of our project is to test as many loads as possible in order to determine how they compare to the FBI standard recommended penetration depth of 12-18″. We also want to know how well the bullets expand when they encounter a barrier of heavy clothing before entering the gel. Whenever feasible, we tried to duplicate the testing protocol reportedly used by the FBI, but our first priority was to be consistent, using the same procedure and conditions for every load we tested.

ballistics gel

We fired five rounds of each self-defense load using short-barreled pistols positioned 10 feet from a Clear Ballistics synthetic gelatin block with a four-layer heavy clothing barrier placed in front of it. The first shot of every test was filmed with a high speed camera, and we took high resolution photos of the gelatin blocks after the first and fifth shots of each load. We measured penetration depth and later, we recovered the fired bullets from the gelatin blocks, measured their diameter, and took additional photos.

Here’s a little more on how and why we set up our test this way.

Distance

Each shot was fired with the muzzle approximately 10 feet from the surface of the gelatin block. The FBI used to test handgun ammo at 20 yards as well as 10 feet, but they found very little difference in the data at these two distances. The current practice of the FBI is to use the 10 foot test for handgun ammo, and that’s what we’ve followed here.

Heavy Clothing Barrier

To get an idea of how a bullet will perform under various real world conditions, the FBI tests each load with a variety of barriers placed in front of the gelatin. They start with a plain block of “bare” gelatin with no barrier, and follow up that test with a barrier of heavy clothing, and then hard barriers of steel (to simulate an auto body), plywood, wallboard, and auto glass.

heavy-clothing

Because non-law enforcement self-defense shootings are highly unlikely to involve firing through walls or cars, the bare gelatin and heavy clothing tests are most relevant for the average civilian gun owner. In order to test as many loads as possible, we opted to skip over the bare gelatin testing and conducted all of our testing only with a heavy clothing barrier. Most of us train to fire at the vital zone or “center mass” high in the chest area of the target, which is an area typically covered by clothing.

The heavy clothing test simulates a scenario in which the target is wearing four layers of clothing: two cotton shirts, fleece, and denim. The FBI uses this standard not because it’s common for people to actually wear that exact clothing, but because they are common clothing materials, and when combined they represent something close to a worst case scenario for a bullet.

Clothing can present a challenge for some hollow point loads because the opening in the bullet can become clogged with clothing material and fail to expand once it reaches living tissue. This failure to expand gives the bullet a lower probability of striking a vital area, and also leads to the potential for over-penetration. Expanding bullets lose velocity quickly and are more likely to stay inside the target, but a hollow point that fails to expand can maintain enough energy to exit the target and potentially harm bystanders.

We used the same type of fabric specified in the FBI heavy clothing test, which calls for the following:

  1. cotton t-shirt material (approximately 5.25 ounces per yard, 48 threads per inch)
  2. cotton shirt material (approximately 3.5 ounces per yard, 80 threads per inch)
  3. Malden Mills Polartec 200 fleece
  4. cotton denim (approximately 14.4 ounces per yard, 50 threads per inch)

The four layers of fabric were stacked together and placed against the front of the gelatin block, secured with clothes pins to a bar suspended above the test block.

Five-Shot Trials

five-shots

For every load tested, we fired five shots through the heavy clothing barrier into a fresh block of gelatin. This gave us multiple data points for each load, which turned out to be important since many loads did not exhibit the same performance from shot to shot. Clear Ballistics gelatin can be melted down and re-used, but we started with a factory-new block for every five-round test.

Gelatin Blocks

The Clear Ballistics blocks we used measure 6”x6”x16”. Since we knew many of the loads would penetrate deeper than 16”, we used two blocks placed end to end, giving us the ability to measure the depth of rounds that penetrated up to 32”. Any rounds that completely penetrated both blocks and continued into our backstop were simply marked as 32” in our data.

Using Clear Ballistics gel blocks allows us to observe the penetration depth and wound channel without cutting into the block.
Using Clear Ballistics gel blocks allows us to observe the penetration depth and wound channel without cutting into the block. Here, we can clearly see the jacket, blue polymer cap, and individual shot pellets from a Glaser Safety Slug. It looks impressive in photos, but does it penetrate deep enough to be effective?

Short Barreled Handguns

This is one area where we intentionally deviated from the typical FBI test. Ballistics testing is most often conducted with full size or “service size” handguns with barrel lengths of at least 4”. However, most armed citizens carry smaller guns with shorter barrels, which means the bullets they fire will fly at a lower velocity than what is advertised by the ammo manufacturer. Ballistics data gathered using full size barrels can be misleading if applied to these small concealable pistols. We ran our tests with popular concealable handguns with barrel lengths we think are more representative of what the average citizen is actually carrying. The test guns used were as follows:

  • .380 ACP: Glock 42, 3.25-inch barrel
  • 9mm: Smith & Wesson M&P9c, 3.5-inch barrel
  • .40 S&W: Glock 27, 3.42-inch barrel
  • .45 ACP: Kahr CW45, 3.64-inch barrel
test guns
Top left: Glock 42 .380 ACP. Bottom left: Smith & Wesson M&P9c 9mm. Top right: Glock 27 .40 S&W. Bottom right: Kahr CW45 .45 ACP.

Measurement Methods

Penetration depth was measured from the face of the gelatin block to the farthest point of the bullet’s resting place. In cases where the bullet fragmented into multiple pieces, the depth of the largest fragment was the measurement taken.

In the photos of the gelatin blocks, you can see lines that appear to be a continuation of the wound channel that extends beyond the resting place of the bullet anywhere from 1/8″ to over 2″. From watching our high speed video footage, it’s clear these lines are the result of bullet “bounce back”. Once the bullet travels as far as it can go, the somewhat elastic properties of the Clear Ballistcs gelatin cause the bullet to “snap” backward slightly before coming to a complete stop. This same phenomenon occurs also occurs in organic gelatin, though the result is more difficult to see. These lines are typically ignored when measuring the penetration depth, and the farthest point of the bullet itself is what most other tests use to measure from.

Extended Wound Channel
Some bullets “bounced” backward in the gelatin before coming to a complete stop, which leaves an impression of the wound channel extending beyond the bullet’s resting place.

 

After we recovered them from the gel blocks, the expanded bullets were measured with digital calipers. The deformed and expanded bullets are not perfectly round, so we measured them at their widest point. While this is the most practical way to measure bullet expansion, keep in mind that the numbers can be misleading. Bullets that deform inconsistently with a fragment of jacket protruding unevenly on one side could potentially measure the same at the widest point as a bullet that expands more uniformly, even though the latter may indicate a better potential for tissue damage. We recommend taking under consideration the measured diameter data and viewing the photos of the expanded bullets for consistency and uniformity.

High Speed Video

The first round fired for each load was recorded with a high speed camera at 10,000 frames per second. You can click on the name of the load in the chart to see this footage, as well as additional photos and more detailed data. Here’s an example from one of the 9mm Speer Gold Dot ammo tests.

How to Read the Results

So what can you do with this information? There are a lot of varying opinions on what to look for and what we can learn from ballistic gelatin testing, even among qualified experts. Our goal isn’t to tell you which loads to use or which ones are best. We have thrown in a few of our observations here and there, but we’re not out to make any definitive conclusions. Admittedly, none of us here on the Lucky Gunner team are experts in the science of wound ballistics — there is more that goes into professional ballistic gel analysis than measuring penetration and expansion.

However, this also wasn’t a haphazard back yard experiment we tackled on a bored Sunday afternoon. We went to great lengths to set up consistent testing conditions and follow the same procedure for every trial so we would achieve results that could be reliably compared to one another. We’re providing this information as a service to the shooting community because there are so few resources available to help consumers distinguish one hollow point load from the next other than the brand name and color of the shiny foil-embossed ammo box.

The data from our ballistic tests is presented below in four separate charts, divided by caliber. We’ve simplified and consolidated a lot of the data in order to highlight the most important information and to facilitate easy comparisons between loads. High speed video footage, detailed data, and additional photos can be found by clicking on the product name for each load.

Penetration Depth

The charts below show the average penetration depth of each five shot trial, and the graph displays a representation of each individual shot. Clicking on the graph (or the photo icon if you’re using a mobile screen that’s too narrow to display the graph) will display actual photographs of the gelatin block we fired.

Click on the penetration graph of each load to see photos from the gel test like the ones above. The top image shows the first shot fired and the bottom image shows all five. Green circles indicate the location of each bullet. Bullets that penetrated greater than 32" are "off camera" and indicated with a green arrow.
Click on the penetration graph of each load to see photos from the gel test like the ones above. The top image shows the first shot fired and the bottom image shows all five. Green circles indicate the location of each bullet. Bullets that penetrated greater than 32″ are “off camera” and indicated with a green arrow.

We aren’t ranking any of these test results ourselves, but if you’re looking for some standard to compare these findings to, you can start with the FBI protocol. Their standard requires duty ammo to penetrate between 12 inches and 18 inches in ballistic gelatin. We’ve highlighted this range in the penetration graph on our chart so you can easily see which loads came close to this standard, but that shouldn’t be read as a pass/fail test. We can’t assume that a load with any bullets falling outside of the 12″-18″ range should automatically be regarded as a total failure. Consider penetration, expansion, and weight retention, as well as consistency of a load from one bullet to the next. Also consider that the heavy fabric barrier we used is just one type of test, and results could vary for rounds fired into bare gelatin or hard barriers.

There may be some disagreement on the specifics of what to look for in these kind of tests, but you will find few advocates of ammo that penetrates significantly less than 12 inches, or expanding ammo that consistently fails to expand as designed. Consistent slight over-penetration (greater than 18″) is generally considered acceptable if the alternative is under-penetration, or inconsistent performance.

Why 12 inches?

The 18 inch maximum penetration depth standard makes sense to most people — too much penetration and the bullet can go clean through the target (possibly changing direction slightly before exiting) and onward to harm an unintended target. On the other hand, the 12 inch minimum penetration standard can be more confusing. If the bullet needs to reach the middle of the chest cavity where the organs are, wouldn’t we need a penetration depth less than half of that in most cases? Some of the reason for the 12 inch minimum standard is simply “playing it safe” and allowing for the possibility of attackers possessing greater than average girth. But part of the rationale is based on the simple reality of three-dimensional anatomy.

We typically imagine a potential attacker will be directly in front of us, facing our direction with squared shoulders, much like the paper and cardboard targets we usually use. But it should come as no surprise that this is not how gunfights usually go down. We have to account for a human target that may be turned slightly toward or away form us at an angle, or possibly even above or below us, or with arms partially obscuring the torso.

If you’re having a hard time picturing why this would affect the penetration depth necessary to reliably stop an attack, imagine you’ve just been ambushed by a 275 pound dude wielding a baseball bat. As he is rushing toward you, winding up the bat for a knockout blow, you manage to draw your pistol and fire a perfectly aimed shot at his upper chest. But since he’s in mid-swing, the bullet doesn’t go straight into his chest — it enters his arm just above the elbow and now has to pass through half an arm, a shoulder, a rib cage, and a lung in order to reach the heart or spine. A bullet that can penetrate only 9 inches might lodge in the guy’s rib; unpleasant for him, but not the definitive fight-stopping shot we want.

That’s a somewhat extreme example to illustrate the point, but it’s not an unrealistic scenario. These real life encounters are messy, and what constitutes “adequate” penetration in any given situation is not a universal constant. When ballistics experts have suggested changes to the 12 inch standard, it has only been in the direction of increasing that number, but for the time being, the FBI still deems the 12-18 inch penetration range to be ideal.

Expansion

For bullet expansion values, the chart shows you the average diameter of the five bullets fired and a photograph of the bullets retrieved from the gel block alongside an unfired bullet pulled from a cartridge in the same box of ammo.

Expanded Bullets
Click on the thumbnail of the expanded bullets in the chart to see an enlarged version. When the heavy clothing barrier clogged the hollow point, we left the cloth particles in place for the photos.

Unlike penetration, there is no widely accepted minimum standard for expansion. One commonly used threshold is an expanded diameter at least 1.5 times the original diameter, but that’s far from universal. Most law enforcement agencies that have a minimum standard for duty ammo tend to prioritize penetration over expansion, and consistent expansion is often considered more important than a specific target minimum diameter.

Weight Retention

One final criteria to consider with self-defense handgun ammo is weight retention. This is essentially a way to measure the bullet’s ability to stay in one piece while travelling through barriers and tissue. This is not as much an issue with modern handgun ammunition as it was with older bullet designs, but a few of our test loads did show a tendency to fall apart in the gelatin. This occurred for one of two reasons: separation of the jacket and bullet core, or a bullet that is intentionally designed to fragment on impact. Fragmenting bullet designs are common in high velocity rifle loads, but not nearly as popular in handgun ammo, though more companies have recently begun to produce them. In our tests, these loads did fragment as designed, but there is some question as to whether the principles that make fragmenting rifle bullets effective can be applied to slower-moving handgun bullets.

Some ammo is designed to fragment on impact. We measured the weight of the largest fragment to determine the percentage weight retention.
Some ammo is designed to fragment on impact. In these cases, we measured the weight of the largest fragment to determine the percentage weight retention.

Because the vast majority of the tested loads exhibited 98% or better weight retention, we haven’t shown that data in our chart (although you can find that info on the individual product pages by clicking on the name of each load in the chart). Instead, we’ve used an asterisk on the chart to indicate the few loads that retained less than 85% of their original weight on average. Looking at the accompanying photos will clearly show whether the weight retention failure was due to fragmentation or core-jacket separation. The core-jacket separation issue tends to be more common when bullets encounter hard barriers such as windshield glass or car doors, and a bullet’s weight retention in our heavy clothing tests can’t be taken as an indicator of how the bullet would perform against other barriers.

Permanent vs. Temporary Wound Cavity

One final aspect of ballistics testing we haven’t yet addressed is the wound cavity — the flesh that is disrupted by the bullet. The permanent wound cavity is the “tunnel” made by the bullet that’s visible in all of the gelatin photos. Bullets that expand or tumble will leave a bigger wound cavity than bullets that fail to expand.

The temporary wound cavity can be seen in the high speed video footage when the gel balloons and stretches as the bullet enters. As cool as that looks, it can be misleading. The Clear Ballistics synthetic gel has more elastic properties than organic gelatin, so the temporary wounding effects tend to appear more dramatic and aren’t a very good representation of the effects on living tissue. Furthermore, most ballistics researchers believe the temporary cavity created by handgun ammo does not lead to any significant wounding effects. Rifle bullets travel at a much higher velocity and can create temporary wound cavities that tear and disrupt tissue not even touched by the bullet itself (sometimes called “hydrostatic shock”). Because handgun bullets typically travel at relatively low velocity, they possess little to no capacity to induce this phenomenon.

Generally, for handgun ammunition, only the permanent wound cavity should be considered to have any reliable effect on the target.

Ballistic Test Results

.380 ACP Ballistic Gelatin Tests

As expected, .380 ACP turned in the weakest overall performance of the four calibers we tested, but a few loads fared surprisingly well. Most loads showed either good penetration but no expansion, or decent expansion with sub-par penetration. Only a couple of loads managed to show decent numbers for both. There’s a reason that .380 ACP is often considered “underpowered”, but careful ammo selection can help to mitigate its deficiencies to some degree.

.380 Auto (ACP) Ballistic Test Results

  • MEDIUM: CLEAR BALLISTICS SYNTHETIC GEL
  • BARRIER: FOUR LAYER FABRIC
  • TEST GUN: GLOCK 42
 

AMMO
 

PENETRATION DEPTH
 

 

EXPANSION
 

 

MUZZLE VELOCITY
X
5-SHOT AVERAGE DEPTH
EXPANDED BULLETS IMAGE
5-SHOT AVERAGE DIAMETER
5-SHOT AVERAGE VELOCITY
PMC 95 gr Starfire 23.1″ .35″ 882
Corbon 70 gr PowRBall 14.9″ .35″ 1087
Remington 88 gr HTP 16.8″ .35″ 840
G2 Research 62 gr RIP 10.4″ .35″ 1297
Federal 90 gr Hydra Shok 25.6″ .36″ 929
Corbon 90 gr JHP 21.9″ .37″ 983
Liberty Ammunition 50 gr Civil Defense 9.3″ .39″ 1343
Remington 102 gr Golden Saber 19.5″ .39″ 907
Hornady 90 gr XTP 14.1″ .39″ 910
Remington 102 gr Ultimate Defense 15.9″ .40″ 859
Barnes 80 gr TAC-XP 8.6″ .45″ 805
Speer 90 gr Gold Dot 11.0″ .49″ 937
Winchester 85 gr Silver Tip Super X 11.0″ .49″ 879
Sig Sauer 90 gr V-Crown 12.8″ .51″ 861
Hornady 90 gr FTX Critical Defense 13.2″ .52″ 910
Magtech 85 gr Guardian Gold 10.5″ .58″ 1019
Winchester 95 gr Train & Defend 8.7″ .63″ 895
Winchester 95 gr PDX1 9.5″ .63″ 870
Federal 99 gr HST ***NEW*** 22.5″ .35″ 893
Winchester 95 gr Ranger T-Series ***NEW*** 21.9″ .37″ 918

* – indicates bullets that failed to retain an average of at least 85% of their initial weight

9mm Ballistic Gelatin Tests

There were several 9mm loads showing adequate penetration with a decent amount of expansion as well. Some of the loads became partially clogged with the heavy fabric which prevented complete expansion and led to slight over-penetration in the 18-22 inch range. Only a few loads completely failed to expand on all five shots, and the fragmenting bullets were among the few to fall shy of the FBI’s 12-inch penetration depth minimum.

9mm Luger (9×19) Ballistic Test Results

  • MEDIUM: CLEAR BALLISTICS SYNTHETIC GEL
  • BARRIER: FOUR LAYER FABRIC
  • TEST GUN: SMITH & WESSON M&P9C
 

AMMO
 

PENETRATION DEPTH
 

 

EXPANSION
 

 

MUZZLE VELOCITY
X
5-SHOT AVERAGE DEPTH
EXPANDED BULLETS IMAGE
5-SHOT AVERAGE DIAMETER
5-SHOT AVERAGE VELOCITY
Barnes 115 gr TAC-XPD +P 13.4″ .70″ 1043
Corbon 115 gr DPX 13.9″ .69″ 1123
Corbon 115 JHP +P 13.6″ .56″ 1221
Corbon 80 gr Glaser 8.3″ .67″ 1309
Federal 147 gr Hydra Shok 17.7″ .38″ 962
Federal 147 gr HST 15.2″ .61″ 973
Federal 124 gr Hydra Shok 18.6″ .43″ 1053
Federal 135 gr Hydra Shok 18.1″ .45″ 1074
Federal 124 gr HST 18.3″ .61″ 1135
Federal 105 gr Guard Dog 12.6″ .50″ 1180
Fiocchi 124 gr XTP 17.9″ .49″ 1039
G2 Research 92 gr RIP 14.5″ .36″ 1255
Hornady 147 gr XTP Custom 19.3″ .49″ 994
Hornady 135 gr Critical Duty 19.0″ .43″ 1053
Hornady 115 gr XTP Custom 19.0″ .46″ 1079
Hornady 124 gr XTP Custom 19.7″ .45″ 1097
Hornady 135 Critical Duty +P 18.1″ .47″ 1118
Hornady 115 gr FTX Critical Defense 13.1″ .50″ 1143
Liberty Ammunition 50 gr Liberty 9.6″ .37″ 2034
Magtech 124 Guardian Gold +P 20.4″ .38″ 1051
Magtech 115 Guardian Gold +P 15.2″ .56″ 1175
PMC 124 gr Starfire 22.4″ .35″ 1016
PNW Arms 115 gr Tac Ops SCHP 13.5″ .69″ 1045
Prvi Partizan 147 gr JHP 17.7″ .35″ 836
Remington 147 gr HTP 19.0″ .35″ 920
Remington 147 gr Golden Saber 16.4″ .63″ 991
Remington 124 gr Golden Saber 17.5″ .43″ 1114
Remington 115 gr HTP 19.0″ .45″ 1141
Remington 124 gr Ultimate Defense 19.8″ .35″ 1152
Remington 124 Golden Saber +P 18.2″ .66″ 1170
Remington 115 gr HTP +P 17.7″ .53″ 1171
Magtech 92.6 gr SCHP First Defense 12.9″ .54″ 1330
Sig Sauer 124 gr V-Crown 17.3″ .52″ 1072
Speer 147 gr Gold Dot 16.1″ .42″ 953
Speer 124 Gold Dot +P 16.8″ .52″ 1141
Speer 124 Gold Dot Short Barrel +P 18.2″ .51″ 1160
Winchester 147 gr Train & Defend 18.7″ .52″ 960
Winchester 124 gr PDX1 +P 19.6″ .52″ 1142
Speer 115 gr Gold Dot 16.4″ .55″ 1143
Speer 124 gr Gold Dot ***NEW*** 18.1″ .54″ 1067
Magtech 124 gr Bonded JHP ***NEW*** 26.5″ .35″ 1135
Federal 124 gr HST +P ***NEW*** 18.3″ .66″ 1168
Winchester 124 gr Ranger T-Series +P ***NEW*** 22.2″ .41″ 1153
Remington 124 gr Golden Saber Black Belt +P ***NEW*** 18.3″ .59″ 1121
Federal 135 gr Tactical Bonded +P ***NEW*** 13.8″ .61″ 1022
Remington 147 gr Golden Saber Bonded ***NEW*** 19.8″ .52″ 960
Winchester 147 gr PDX-1 ***NEW*** 20.6″ .54″ 945
Winchester 147 gr Ranger Bonded ***NEW*** 21.5″ .51″ 966
Winchester 147 gr Ranger T-Series ***NEW*** 16.5″ .74″ 941
Winchester 127 gr Ranger T-Series +P+ ***NEW*** 21.2″ .54″ 1207
Federal 147 gr HST +P ***NEW*** 19.2″ .60″ 1008
Federal 150 gr Micro HST ***NEW*** 17.3″ .71″ 888

* – indicates bullets that failed to retain an average of at least 85% of their initial weight

.40 S&W Ballistic Gelatin Tests

Under-penetration was very uncommon for the .40 S&W loads. On the other hand, some of the bullets had trouble with the heavy clothing barrier, leading to expansion failure and penetration that exceeded the 32″ maximum depth of our dual gel-block setup. Many of the loads that did stay within the FBI 12-18″ range showed excellent expansion, sometimes nearly twice the original bullet diameter.

.40 S&W (Smith & Wesson) Ballistic Test Results

  • MEDIUM: CLEAR BALLISTICS SYNTHETIC GEL
  • BARRIER: FOUR LAYER FABRIC
  • TEST GUN: GLOCK 27
 

AMMO
 

PENETRATION DEPTH
 

 

EXPANSION
 

 

MUZZLE VELOCITY
X
5-SHOT AVERAGE DEPTH
EXPANDED BULLETS IMAGE
5-SHOT AVERAGE DIAMETER
5-SHOT AVERAGE VELOCITY
Barnes 140 gr Tac-XPD 12.4″ .76″ 1037
Federal 180 gr HST 18.5″ .72″ 964
Federal 180 gr Hydra Shok 16.4″ .60″ 932
Federal 155 gr Hydra Shok 18.4″ .63″ 1072
Federal 155 gr Tactical Bonded 11.9″ .68″ 1058
Federal 135 gr Guard Dog 10.8″ .65″ 1124
Federal 165 gr Hydra Shok 20.4″ .50″ 948
Fiocchi 180 gr XTP 27.6″ .44″ 915
Hornady 165 gr Critical Defense 16.6″ .60″ 1075
Hornady 180 gr XTP Custom 20.9″ .50″ 933
Hornady 155 gr XTP Custom 22.4″ .49″ 1101
Hornady 175 gr Critical Duty 19.4″ .42″ 970
Liberty Ammunition 60 gr Civil Defense 12.4″ .40″ 1846
Magtech 180 gr Bonded 16.3″ .65″ 925
Magtech 130 gr First Defense 17.6″ .53″ 1074
Magtech 155 gr Guardian Gold 28.8″ .43″ 1083
Magtech 180 gr Guardian Gold 28.4″ .40″ 929
PMC 180 gr Starfire 30.0″ .40″ 830
Remington 180 gr Ultimate Defense 15.5″ .79″ 977
Remington 180 gr Golden Saber 13.8″ .82″ 924
Remington 180 gr Golden Saber Bonded 13.8″ .78″ 948
Remington 165 gr Golden Saber 19.6″ .66″ 1113
Remington 165 gr Golden Saber 19.2″ .68″ 1025
Remington 155 gr HTP 32.0″ .40″ 1075
Remington 180 gr HTP 32.0″ .40″ 922
Sig Sauer 165 gr V-Crown 20.2″ .57″ 1014
Speer 180 gr Gold Dot 14.5″ .65″ 955
Speer 180 gr Gold Dot Short Barrel 12.3″ .64″ 979
Speer 165 gr Gold Dot 27.1″ .40″ 945
Winchester 180 gr Train and Defend 14.7″ .75″ 890
Winchester 165 gr PDX-1 14.6″ .74″ 1066
Winchester 180 gr Defender 16.5″ .71″ 995
Winchester 180 gr Ranger 14.7″ .70″ 920
Speer 155 gr Gold Dot ***NEW*** 16.3″ .67″ 1117
Federal 155 gr HST ***NEW*** 17.2″ .67″ 1084
Winchester 165 gr Ranger Bonded ***NEW*** 14.7″ .77″ 1098
Federal 165 gr Tactical Bonded ***NEW*** 14.0″ .73″ 978
Winchester 165 gr Ranger T-Series ***NEW*** 21.0″ .67″ 1071
Winchester 180 gr Ranger T-Series ***NEW*** 16.2″ .70″ 949
Winchester 180 gr Ranger Bonded ***NEW*** 16.9″ .72″ 930

* – indicates bullets that failed to retain an average of at least 85% of their initial weight

.45 ACP Ballistic Gelatin Tests

As with .40 S&W, some of the .45 ACP loads became clogged up in the heavy clothing and showed severe over-penetration, but the loads that expanded successfully did so with impressive results.

.45 ACP (Auto) Ballistic Test Results

  • MEDIUM: CLEAR BALLISTICS SYNTHETIC GEL
  • BARRIER: FOUR LAYER FABRIC
  • TEST GUN: KAHR CW45
 

AMMO
 

PENETRATION DEPTH
 

 

EXPANSION
 

 

MUZZLE VELOCITY
X
5-SHOT AVERAGE DEPTH
EXPANDED BULLETS IMAGE
5-SHOT AVERAGE DIAMETER
5-SHOT AVERAGE VELOCITY
Federal 230 gr HST +P 14.9″ .79″ 844
Federal 230 gr HST 14.0″ .85″ 822
Federal 165 gr Hydra Shok 13.9″ .65″ 918
Federal 165 gr Guard Dog 9.2″ .73″ 952
Federal 185 gr Hydra Shok +P 18.8″ .59″ 1002
Federal 230 gr Hydra Shok 22.2″ .45″ 794
Fiocchi 230 gr XTP 17.4″ .57″ 817
Hornady 200 gr XTP +P 18.1″ .59″ 965
Hornady 230 gr XTP +P 18.6″ .60″ 908
Hornady 200 gr XTP 18.0″ .54″ 863
Hornady 185 gr Critical Defense 17.6″ .59″ 941
Hornady 220 gr Critical Duty +P 21.3″ .58″ 934
Hornady 185 gr XTP 23.8″ .46″ 914
Magtech 185 gr Guardian Gold +P 29.4″ .45″ 1057
PMC 230 gr Starfire 29.2″ .45″ 746
Prvi Partizan 185 gr SJHP 21.8″ .45″ 819
Remington 185 gr Golden Saber +P 15.5″ .75″ 1019
Remington 230 gr Golden Saber 16.3″ .74″ 724
Remington 230 gr Golden Saber Bonded 18.2″ .59″ 814
Remington 185 gr HTP 22.6″ .46″ 934
Remington 230 gr Ultimate Defense 23.9″ .45″ 767
Remington 230 gr HTP 20.7″ .45″ 805
Sig Sauer 200 gr V-Crown 31.2″ .45″ 871
Speer 230 gr Gold Dot 12.9″ .71″ 752
Speer 200 gr Gold Dot +P 13.8″ .70″ 982
Winchester 230 gr PDX-1 21.6″ .61″ 863
Liberty 78 gr Civil Defense +P 10.9″ .47″ 1844
Barnes 185 gr TAC-XPD 13.8″ .65″ 908
Speer 185 gr Gold Dot ***NEW*** 14.1″ .72″ 954
Winchester 230 gr Ranger Bonded ***NEW*** 25.7″ .56″ 862
Federal 230 gr Tactical Bonded +P ***NEW*** 14.6″ .86″ 887
Magtech 230 gr Bonded ***NEW*** 15.3″ .73″ 815
Speer 230 gr Gold Dot Short Barrel ***NEW*** 14.4″ .70″ 806
Winchester 230 gr Ranger T-Series ***NEW*** 14.5″ 1.00″ 900
Winchester 230 gr Ranger T-Series +P ***NEW*** 14.5″ .99″ 904

* – indicates bullets that failed to retain an average of at least 85% of their initial weight

Conclusions

Looking at all of this data, it’s tempting to try to sift through the numbers and determine once and for all which load is The One Bullet To Rule Them All. If that kind of data analysis gets you excited, then go for it. If, on the other hand, you just want to find a decent load for your carry gun, you probably don’t need to go through all of that trouble. To the contrary, we did all of this work on these tests so you don’t have to obsess over the ballistic performance aspect of your carry ammo.

If the self-defense load you use is listed here, and you’re not confident in the results you’re seeing, just pick another one that performed at a level you’re more comfortable with. But keep in mind, even though the gelatin tests can tell us a lot, there’s plenty of things they don’t tell us. Ballistics testing doesn’t tell us anything about the felt recoil of a load. We also haven’t addressed accuracy or muzzle flash (which can be an issue in low light). And maybe most important of all, no gelatin test can tell you if a given load will run reliably in your own self-defense pistol. This is all stuff you’ll have to test on your own at the range with your gun.

Once you find a load that works, whatever you decide, try to keep all of this in perspective. Choice of caliber and bullet are not the most important aspects of successful self-defense. Awareness, proper mindset, marksmanship, and discernment of when to use your firearm are generally far more critical to your survival than choice of gear. Having said that, knowing your carry ammo works not only provides peace of mind, there’s a chance that choosing a solid defensive load could be the one factor that tips the scales in your favor in a fight for your life.

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