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A Critical Choice

A Critical Choice

Hornady's newest has the right mix of power and penetration.

In bare gelatin, the Hornady Critical Defense .380 load showed excellent penetration for its power level and perfect expansion.

We don't all carry big guns. If you spend any time at all packing after getting your carry permit, you quickly learn that packing a big gun can be a literal pain in the back.

If you've followed the progress of bullet design to any extent, you'll have some recollection of the FBI tests. Beginning in the mid-late 1980s, the FBI turned itself into the bullet-testing arm of law enforcement. Basically, the FBI added barrier penetration-- light and heavy clothing, sheet metal, auto glass and marine plywood--to the International Wound Ballistics Association bullet-testing ballistic gelatin protocol.

The FBI also insisted on deep penetration; anything less than a foot was deemed insufficient--for law enforcement needs, that is. For the rest of us, the need to shoot through auto glass, sheet metal and plywood are probably not as great. However, there is one aspect of the FBI test that is of importance: performance through clothing. An attacker in the winter might well be wearing multiple layers of clothing, layers that can clog a hollowpoint and decrease or prevent its expansion.

The design aspects of hollowpoint construction that aid bullet performance through metal, glass and wood often work against performance in heavy clothing. A bullet that holds together after passing through auto glass may well fail to expand after passing through a down vest and multiple layers of denim. Also, to generate the performance the FBI requires, ammunition manufacturers have to load their ammunition to the top of its performance specs.

That can be tough to deal with in lightweight carry guns that are comfortable to have around all day. In some calibers, it can't be done at all. The .38 Special is a "threshold" caliber, where you may or may not be able to generate the performance the FBI needs. The .380? Forget about it--at least in any conventional load.

Hornady considered what most of us really carry and designed a line of ammunition for those guns often on our belts and the performance we'll most likely need: reliability, accuracy, relatively low recoil and full expansion in gelatin after clothing.


Hornady specifically designed the Critical Defense line for .380, 9mm, .38 Special and .357 Magnum, the calibers we're more likely to be carrying. The bullet is intended to perform well in gelatin--clothing or no--but auto glass, metal and plywood performance are not as good. That's the price you pay for an easy-to-shoot load that works well in the non-law enforcement world.

I had a chance to shoot with the Hornady ballisticians and later test some gelatin for myself. The cases are nickel-plated for reliable feeding, and the bullet shape--a flat-pointed cone--also aids in feeding. The hollowpoint is plugged with a small blob of polymer.

Critical Defense exhibited excellent 25-yard accuracy out of a Kel-Tec P3-AT. The box will probably look much different by the time the ammo hits dealer shelves.

I fired .380 and 9mm Critical Defense through combined heavy clothing and down vest material, into gelatin and found that it performed pretty well.

The .380 load fell short of the FBI minimum, which is 12 inches of gelatin with full expansion. The Critical Defense out of a Ruger LCP managed "only" nine to 10 inches of penetration. But again, this is designed for civilian needs, not law enforcement, and compared to other .380 loads, this is darned good.

Other current hollowpoints out of .380s often fail to reliably expand, or the hollowpoints clog with cloth and act as full-metal-jacket bullets. And it's only recently that the idea of a .380 bullet expanding reliably would even be considered as hollowpoint .380 ammo from even a decade ago won't expand at all in bare gelatin, let alone in the heavy clothing test. Short barrels make expansion even less likely, and you really have to work hard to find something more compact and easier-to-carry than a Ruger LCP or, say, a Kel-Tec P3-AT.

I happen to have just such a Kel-Tec, and that's what I used for chronograph and accuracy testing. I was able to shoot groups just over four inches in size at 25 yards. That won't excite you Bullseye shooters out there, but for a double-action-only compact .380 with dinky sights, it is very accurate indeed.

As for velocity, the 90-grain bullets averaged a very consistent 860 fps. No, that isn't a blazing speed, but who wants to shoot a compact pistol with a .380 load that does all it can to approach 1,000 fps? No, 860 fps is a good velocity when you consider that you get nine to 10 inches of gelatin penetration, Hornady accuracy and reliability, and consistent expansion.

If you're certain you'll be shooting miscreants through barriers such as glass, metal and wood, or if you simply have to show off to your buddies that you carry the absolute fastest ammo, Critical Defense is not for you. For the rest of us, who balance all the factors that go into load selection, Hornady has another winner.

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