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Size Doesn’t Matter: Using 9mm for Personal Defense

by James Tarr   |  October 23rd, 2012 148

9mm_gelatinI remember the first bullets I’d ever seen pulled out of a human body, back in 1990. They were 147-grain 9mm Federal Hydra-Shoks, and of the seven rounds the deputy put into the gunman with his SIG P226, only one of them actually expanded the way it was supposed to. This was because that bullet was just not traveling fast enough to expand reliably; the balance of cavity wall thickness/velocity/bullet weight was off. The first generation Winchester Silvertip JHP design was infamous for not expanding properly, if at all.

Last month, I was at a new product seminar where I attended a ballistic demonstration of new handgun ammunition.  Counting in my head, I realized that it was the seventh such demonstration—bullets fired into ballistic gelatin under controlled conditions and/or performing the FBI protocol tests—I’d attended in the previous 15 months. The companies demonstrating ammo ran the gamut—Winchester, Hornady, Barnes, Black Hills and Federal/CCI/Speer. And I realized, I was bored.

Why? Because without exception, all the ammo I saw tested performed exactly as advertised and expected.

I am not insinuating the tests were rigged, oh no—exactly the opposite. Modern ammunition manufacturing and design has advanced so much that bullet makers are now able to virtually guarantee their hollow points will expand as advertised. Now, while admittedly ballistic gelatin isn’t human flesh, it is a tissue simulator, and bullet results in gel tests can be compared to other results. My point is that technology everywhere—even in bullet design—has improved so much that one of the main arguments for large-caliber handguns (“Even if it doesn’t expand, it started out so big it doesn’t matter.”) has pretty much been eliminated.

With that in mind, I recently sent out an email to my circle of friends, acquaintances, and coworkers, asking what their preferred handgun ammunition was for their carry guns—caliber/brand/bullet weight. For those who couldn’t/didn’t carry, what ammo did they have in the pistol in their bedside table?  Many of the respondents were fellow gun writers, and to be honest, we can get whatever we want because we do so much gun and ammo testing. Considering many of the people I emailed were also combat vets or current or former SWAT cops, I knew they’d make educated choices. My suspicion was that, among this very gun-educated and experienced crowd, I’d find a lot of people now carrying 9mms, something almost unheard of 20 years ago.

I was even more right than I thought I’d be.

The great majority of my group went with the 9mm for their carry or bedside table guns. The rest had both a 9mm as well as a larger caliber gun (.40 or .45) and switched between them. Well, I had one holdout. Guns & Ammo’s Patrick Sweeney chose the .45 ACP, but as to his choice of ammo? “Whatever modern JHP full-weight ammo I have on hand.”

Considering the disgust many “serious pistoleros” felt about the 9mm just a few decades ago, this is a huge shift.

What ammo got the nod?

Hornady’s new 135-grain +P 9mm Critical Duty ammo was the most popular. Shotgun News’ Dave Fortier chose it, as did Dave Bahde, a writer for Harris Publications and former SWAT cop. Jason Teague, who is a SWAT cop by day and gun writer by night, carries it on and off duty.

One of the ballistic tests I witnessed was the 135 +P Critical Duty ammo, and I think it has become popular among those in the know because not only does it expand, it has enough weight to it that it penetrates barriers without too much problem. The inability to reliably penetrate auto glass and sheet metal is why many police departments have moved away from light and ultra-fast 115-grain +P and +P +9mm loads.

The second most popular load in my informal survey was the Winchester Ranger 127-grain +P +9mm loading—actually what I carry every day in my Glock 34. The only thing I don’t like about it is Winchester won’t sell it commercially, only to the law enforcement market, due to the +P+ pressure rating. It has the right combination of bullet weight and velocity for me (1288 FPS out of my long-barreled Glock 34). In 9mm, generally mid-weight bullets (about 124 grains) offer the best balance of sectional density and velocity, which results in both penetration and expansion.

After those top two, I found people were using/carrying a little bit of everything in their 9mms—115-grain Hornady FTX, 124-grain Federal HST (the next-generation Hydra-Shok) and Federal 124-grain +P EFMJ, which is a LE-only load with an expanding full-meal-jacket profile.

For the larger calibers, .40 S&W 180-grain Hornady TAP and 165-grain Federal Guard Dog were noted, as was the Federal .45 200-grain +P EFMJ.

Why choose a 9mm over something larger?  Several simple reasons.

Guns hold more 9mms than they do larger calibers, and the 9mm recoils less than either the .40 or .45. So the guns hold more ammo and recoil less; if modern ammo makes it perform just as well as the larger calibers, why not carry a 9mm?

Yes, I know Elmer Keith was right when he wrote, “Big bullets let in a lot of air and let out a lot of blood.” While bullet technology hasn’t increased at the same pace as, say, cell phone technology, the bullets of today are far different from those of 20 years ago. Bore size no longer equals performance.

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