Contrary to what your grandparents might tell you, the best things are not all behind us. Modern materials and machining have made current defensive ammunition superior in every way to what was available just a few years ago, and there are a number of reasons why.
1. The FBI Ballistic Test Protocol
The single biggest factor that has driven improvement in modern defensive handgun ammunition is the FBI Protocol. For those of you unclear on the history of the protocol, here's a little background.
In 1986, multiple FBI agents were involved in a lengthy gun battle with two armed suspects in and around vehicles in Miami, Florida, that left two FBI agents dead and five others wounded. Although tactical errors and poor marksmanship exhibited by the agents extended the gunfight, the F.B.I. placed most of the blame on poorly performing ammunition, as both suspects were shot multiple times and kept fighting. As a result, they developed the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol for evaluating the relative performance of defensive handgun ammunition.
The protocol involves eight practical tests in which testers fire bullets into properly prepared and calibrated ballistic gelatin. Shots are fired into bare gelatin, gelatin covered with heavy clothing at two different distances, through angled auto glass, wallboard, plywood and even sheet metal. Bullets must penetrate a minimum of 12 inches in every test, and the more expansion, the better.
This test has become so accepted across the nation that most police departments will not issue duty ammo to its officers that hasn't passed the FBI Protocol. Before this test there was no standard, and now the FBI Protocol is the standard. This protocol has directly affected every company making ammo, and the resulting testing and R&D has been very beneficial to consumers.
2. Better Powders
Although bullets get most of the attention in defensive ammunition, if not for the gunpowder pushing them out of the barrel, they wouldn't have a job. The fact that modern technology has generated as many improvements in powders as it has in bullets simply isn't as obvious.
Decades ago, high velocity equaled high flash when it came to handgun ammunition. I remember testing early CorBon ammunition 20-plus years ago and being as dazzled by the muzzle flash as I was by the velocities. Now, most manufacturers advertise that their defensive ammunition is assembled with low-flash powder, which only makes sense, as the majority of defensive shootings occur in low-light situations.
Modern powders don't just offer low flash but also increased velocities (without a dangerous increase in pressure) compared with what was available just a few short years ago, not to mention improved consistency, which translates to increased accuracy. While this increased velocity gets more attention on the rifle ammunition side of the aisle, the fact is that a lot of .380 ammo is now moving as fast as a 9mm used to, and some 9mm offerings post velocities only previously seen with .357 Magnum ammo.
3. Better Bullets
In decades past, all a company had to do when marketing ammunition for self-defense was cut a cavity in the tip and call it good. Just because it has a hollow point, however, doesn't mean a bullet will expand.
First generation Winchester Silvertips were so notorious for not expanding that author Stephen Hunter made that an important plot point in his seminal Bob Lee Swagger novel "Point of Impact" (later butchered by Hollywood into Shooter). The problem was their jackets were too thick, and Winchester wasn't the only company having this issue at the time. But those days are long behind us.
Modern bullets incorporate so much engineering that most shooters would hardly believe it. Jacket thicknesses now vary between calibers, and even among bullet weights in the same caliber, so as to guarantee the hollowpoint will peel open upon impact.
Some hollowpoints are filled with material to initiate expansion (such as the rubber Flex-Tip in Hornady FTX bullets). Feeding and reliabilty have been improved as manufacturers have discovered how to provide the expansion of a hollowpoint with the bullet profile of an FMJ (such as in Federal Guard Dog ammo).
4. Better Quality Control
Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to tour the ammunition facilities of Wilson Combat, Black Hills, Nosler and Hornady. Every visit was interesting. Most of the ammunition made in those plants is still being made on the heavy equipment built to help us win WWII, but those presses have all been equipped with modern optical scanners, laser gauges and every high-tech scanner and tool you can think of to ensure that the ammo produced is as close to perfect as possible. CNC machines are now also manufacturing the dies that ammunition companies use instead of humans, which results in closer tolerances.
But technology isn't everything, and there is no substitute for the human touch. At every one of the above facilities, a human being physically examines the ammunition by hand and eye. I was shocked to learn that at least three people hand-inspect every round that leaves Black Hills Ammunition. While perfection isn't possible, the chances of finding a bad round in your box of ammo has never been lower, thanks to better technology and conscientious employees.
5. Nickel-Plated Cases
Not too many years ago, only a few brands of ammo featured nickel-plated cases. But now, almost all premium defensive ammunition features nickel-plated cases. Does it matter?
Nickel cases look prettier for sure, and that certainly affects marketing and sales. Nickel plating is functional as well.
Nickel is slicker than brass, which means it should feed and extract more smoothly from chambers (especially dirty chambers) than standard brass-cased ammunition. Will that make any difference in 99.99 percent of handgun-involved defensive use of force scenarios? Probably not, but the old phrase "Better to have it and not need it" comes to mind.
6. +P Ammunition
While everyone equates "+P" with "increased velocity," in fact, +P means increased pressure. For a long time, +P ammunition was the exception to the rule, as not a lot of manufacturers rated their handguns for that type of ammunition.
Not only has the steel that handguns are made of improved, so too has the quality control. As a result, these days, it is almost impossible to find a full-size handgun not rated to handle +P ammunition, and a lot of pocket guns are rated for it as well. This is a good thing because usually +P ammo does provide increased velocity. Velocity is the key ingredient when it comes to both penetration and expansion. When combined with modern expanding hollowpoints, +P ammunition provides vastly improved terminal performance.
+P ammunition is, in fact, one main reason the .40 S&W cartridge is falling out of favor with both law enforcement and the general shooting public for self defense. 9mm+P ammunition, loaded with modern, high-tech bullets that penetrate and expand consistently, even out of short-barreled pocket guns, has nearly done away with all of the .40's perceived advantages.