Most of us want to know if the ammo we’ve chosen for self-defense will perform like we want it to out of our chosen handgun. While ammo makers use expensive, high-grade ballistic gelatin in which to test their bullets, what is the average Joe to do?
Fortunately, it’s easy to do your own testing with a bucket and some wet newsprint. Typically, the results I get when using newsprint understate penetration by about an inch and overstate expansion by an insignificant margin.
Note that the following setup is for expanding ammo only and not for full metal jacket “hardball” rounds, which may not be stopped with this method. But even with expanding bullets you must conduct this testing only with a safe backstop.
I use a five-gallon or similar bucket with a handle, and I mark depth measurements on the inside and outside of the bucket, which will later help me gauge penetration. You can collect your own newsprint at home, get it from your workplace’s recycling efforts or check with your local newspaper. I carefully fold the sections of the paper into squares large enough that, when wet, they will stay in place when the bucket is tilted.
Occasionally a bullet that fails to expand will overpenetrate. To account for this (or for missing the center of the wet newsprint), I often place a telephone book or hardcover book at the bottom of the bucket underneath the newsprint. The increased resistance will stop most expanding bullets even if they fail (but again, this is no substitute for a safe backstop).
Once the paper–and, if used, the telephone or other book–is in place I fill the bucket to the brim with water and let the paper soak for a week. Check the bucket occasionally and refill with water as necessary.
Newsprint should be shot when sopping wet, soon after the water is poured from the bucket, which helps it simulate actual tissue. Therefore I normally leave the water in the bucket when I travel to the range and pour it out just before I shoot.
I brace the bucket with a frame to keep it from rolling. You can use a table and shoot with the bucket on its side, or you can brace the bucket so it’s tilted while you fire at it on the ground from a downward angle. The important thing is to have the bullet or bullets enter the paper as perpendicular as possible.
Keep the bucket 10 to 15 feet from the muzzle. Any closer and you are risking blowback from the paper. Use a notebook at the firing line to mark what bullets were fired into which spots on the bucket.
I measure penetration initially by using a coat hanger or similar object. I carefully move the unwrapped hangar into the bullet hole. When the wire hits the base of the bullet, you have your penetration.
I also reconfirm this measurement when recovering the bullets, which I do by removing squares of newsprint one at a time. As soon as I recover a bullet, I write down the penetration–as indicated on the side of the bucket–and place the bullet in an envelope or resealable plastic bag and mark that with the type of bullet and the penetration depth. Then, when I’m all finished, I properly dispose of the newsprint and bucket or buckets.
There are alternatives, such as water-filled plastic milk jugs, but it takes a lot of jugs to conduct a meaningful test. I believe that my wet newsprint method works as well as any. It isn’t rocket science, but the results are repeatable and verifiable.