Skip to main content

Pass/Fail

Pass/Fail

How The FBI determines what ammo goes to the head of the class.

Glass is very hard on bullets, and it's one of the more expensive portions of the test—a protocol that costs several thousand dollars.

The question often comes up, "You talk about the FBI tests, but exactly what are they?" As I mentioned in passing in my previous column, until the mid-1980s we did not have a scientifically repeatable tissue stimulant in which to test bullet performance. Then Dr. Martin Fackler--working at the U.S. Army Wound Ballistics Research Laboratory, Presidio of San Francisco--developed ballistic gelatin, which permitted researchers to test and compare bullet performance.

After the FBI Miami shootout--in which eight agents fought with two suspects, the latter continuing the battle even after being hit more than once--the Federal Bureau of Investigation set about creating a scientific method to measure bullet performance. I don't think the bureau intended to make the test an industry-wide standard, but that's the way things have turned out.


The process starts with gelatin, specifically Kind & Knox 250, in a 10 percent solution--one part gelatin by weight to nine parts water by weight. The process is strictly defined: The temperature during mixing has to remain within a limited range. If the mixing water is too hot or cool, then the strength of the resulting gel mix changes.


Once mixed, it is poured into molds and cooled. The mold size is defined for either handgun or rifle cartridge use. Handgun tests employ blocks that are 6x6x16 inches, and the blocks are cooled to 39.2 degrees and stored until needed.

The blocks must be shot within 20 minutes of being removed from the refrigerator. The gel blocks each have a thermometer stuck in them to check their temps. If they get too cool or warm, they are either adjusted or discarded.


Once the temperature is checked, then the block is further tested for consistency by having a steel BB fired into it. The BB is chronographed as it is fired, and if it is too slow or fast, the test has to be repeated. The pellet, once fired within an accepted range, has to penetrate a certain amount, plus or minus a small margin for error. Again, if it does not pass this test, the block is pitched.


FBI Ammo Test Video


Watch a live FBI ammo test.Click Here

 

Finally, it has a bullet fired into it. One block, one bullet, 10 feet from muzzle to gel block. In some labs, the block can and will be melted, filtered, cast and re-chilled. In others, one use and it is gone.

Now we get to the interesting part: Repeat as necessary. You see, the FBI, in proper scientific fashion, shoots a number of bullets and then takes the averages of their performance: depth of penetration, expansion, retained weight, etc.

So five shots, each with its own block. Penetration is measured to the nearest quarter-inch, and expansion is measured as well. Expansion is the smallest diameter averaged with the largest diameter on each bullet.

But, wait, it gets better. The FBI recognizes that armed encounters rarely involve naked perpetrators. Bad guys do wear clothes, and they do hide behind things, so the bureau tests for those parameters, too. A full test will involve bare gelatin, as well as intermediate barriers of heavy clothing, plywood, auto glass, sheet metal and wallboard. And just to be thorough, the heavy clothing and auto glass tests are repeated at 20 yards in addition to the 10-foot distance.

The heavy clothing test uses four layers: T-shirt, dress shirt, synthetic insulation and heavy denim are laid against the face of the gel block before firing. The sheet metal test uses two six-inch square pieces of 20-gauge hot-rolled galvanized steel, set three inches apart and 18 inches from the gel block impact face. The gel also has a T-shirt layer on it.

This bullet survived the windshield test intact but did not expand. By FBI standards, it fails.

The plywood is a six-inch square piece of AA fir plywood, but just one. Again, the distance is 18 inches from plywood to gel, with a single layer of T-shirt material on the gelatin.

The wallboard is two pieces of standard half-inch gypsum, spaced 3.5 inches apart. Why 3.5 inches, you ask? The actual width of a 2x4, this simulates an interior wall. And again, there are 18 inches of air space between "wall" and gel, with a single layer of T-shirt material.

Last up is the auto glass, and here I have a minor quibble with the FBI. The glass is laminated safety glass: a 15x18-inch piece of quarter-inch windshield glass. The glass is 18 inches from the gel, and yet another long-suffering piece of T-shirt material is on the gel. The glass is tipped back at a 45-degree angle, which is good, simulating an auto windshield to someone on foot.

However, the FBI also insists that the glass be angled 15 degrees to the side, to create a "compound" angle. Guys, study your Euclidean geometry: The intersection of a line and a plane has a simple angle of incidence. No matter how much you tilt that glass, there is no compound angle. But, as I said, it's a minor quibble.

The data gathered by all this are rigorously correct and accurate. Is it, however, a realistic expectation of what bullets do to people? The jury is still out, but in that regard ballistic gelatin is a whole lot closer than earlier test media.

Just what is the desired outcome of all this? What do we learn? Well, the FBI expects a bullet fired in all these tests to

expand and not fragment. It must penetrate 12 inches of gelatin or the bureau considers it a failure.

As I've written before, if a bullet traverses a felon's sternum and then expands to the size of a manhole cover, but stops at 11 inches, the FBI considers it a failure. I would not.

The bureau wants full expansion, at least 12 inches of penetration, and up to 18 would be peachy-keen. That's a lot to ask of a handgun bullet, but the manufacturers have stepped up and provided bullets that meet the test. These cost more than bullets developed before the protocols and bullets not meant to meet the standards.

Conducting a full cartridge test is expensive, and the manufacturer has to do it before it hands ammo over to the FBI since there's no point in shipping the bureau ammo that won't pass muster. It takes no fewer than 48 gelatin blocks to do a test, and depending on how parsimonious the testers are, a single cartridge test can use up a good bit of heavy clothing, as well as a number of T-shirts.

Ten pieces of steel, 10 pieces of wallboard, five pieces of plywood and five pieces of auto glass get used up for each cartridge. At an optimistic estimate of costs, each cartridge test runs about $3,000 in test materials. Add in ammunition costs, the overhead for the range, the kitchen and coolers to chill the gel, and the salaries of the agents involved, and I can't see the cost of FBI testing being less than $10,000.

So now when next you see a list of FBI-tested calibers and bullet weights, you have an idea of the work involved as well as the cost. And you have a good idea of why ammo can be expensive.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Teaching New Shooters

Teaching New Shooters

Julie Golob of Team Smith & Wesson guest stars, joining Jim and Scott for a discussion of how best to introduce new shooters to the sport.

KelTec P17 22LR Pistol – Feature Packed, Accurate & Fun to Shoot

KelTec P17 22LR Pistol – Feature Packed, Accurate & Fun to Shoot

If you're in the market for a 17-round, compact .22LR pistol that's feature packed, then the P17 is definitely an option for you. At less than 14 ounces fully loaded, and barely longer than a dollar bill, the P17 is concealable for pretty much anyone. The threaded barrel, Picatinny-style accessory rail, ambidextrous safety, ambidextrous magazine release and three (3) 16rd magazines come standard. That's a lot of value added in such a small package.

Dan Wesson Kodiak 1911 10mm

Dan Wesson Kodiak 1911 10mm

The Kodiak is a long slide 1911-style semi-auto complete with 6-inch bull barrels and chambered in 10mm.

KelTec CMR30 22WMR Review - Compact, Versatile & Fun to Shoot

KelTec CMR30 22WMR Review - Compact, Versatile & Fun to Shoot

Designed for lightweight, low recoil accuracy, the CMR30 .22 WMR features a nice, single-action trigger, ambidextrous dual non-reciprocating operating handles, ambidextrous safety and heel catch magazine release. The KelTec CMR30 is a .22 Magnum carbine that holds 30 rounds in each of its two flush-fit magazines. That's a lot of firepower for a 3.8-pound, semi-auto, collapsible truck gun. It comes out of the box as you see it, including Magpul sights and ambidextrous, non-reciprocating dual operating handles. She's a straight blow-back tack driver that delivers a ton of fun.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Do you remember the first time you fired a gun? If you're like most, you were somewhatPro Tips For Controlling Recoil Training

Pro Tips For Controlling Recoil

Richard Nance - April 11, 2017

Do you remember the first time you fired a gun? If you're like most, you were somewhat

Kahr Arms officially broke ground on their new headquarters in Blooming Grove Township, in PikeKahr Arms Breaks Ground on New Pennsylvania HQ Industry

Kahr Arms Breaks Ground on New Pennsylvania HQ

Handguns Online Staff - June 04, 2014

Kahr Arms officially broke ground on their new headquarters in Blooming Grove Township, in Pike

The Ruger SR1911 is offered in two versions, an all-stainless in .45 ACP (model # 6762) and a two-tone aluminum-framed model in 9mm (model # 6758). This review by James Tarr will focus on the 9mm.Ruger SR1911 Officer-Style 9mm Review 1911

Ruger SR1911 Officer-Style 9mm Review

James Tarr - May 01, 2019

The Ruger SR1911 is offered in two versions, an all-stainless in .45 ACP (model # 6762) and a...

The defensive handgun market is ripe with affordable, accurate and dependable choices, but these six compact high-capacity 9mm pistols stand out from the rest of the field.6 Best Compact High-Capacity 9mm Handguns Compact

6 Best Compact High-Capacity 9mm Handguns

Jeff John - July 08, 2020

The defensive handgun market is ripe with affordable, accurate and dependable choices, but...

See More Trending Articles

More Ammo

SIG SAUER, Inc. introduced the newest addition to the SIG SAUER Elite Ammunition product line ' the high-performance M17 9mm +P ammunition.SIG SAUER Introduces M17 9mm +P Ammunition Ammo

SIG SAUER Introduces M17 9mm +P Ammunition

SIG SAUER, Inc. - December 13, 2018

SIG SAUER, Inc. introduced the newest addition to the SIG SAUER Elite Ammunition product line...

Silverback Ammo features a high-end copper bullet.Gorilla Ammunition's Silverback Line Ammo

Gorilla Ammunition's Silverback Line

Patrick Sweeney - September 19, 2017

Silverback Ammo features a high-end copper bullet.

Lights, camera, action! Action pistol, that is. Federal takes aim at the competition set.Federal Syntech Action Pistol Ammo

Federal Syntech Action Pistol

J. Scott Rupp - December 07, 2018

Lights, camera, action! Action pistol, that is. Federal takes aim at the competition set.

James Tarr and Richard Nance talk expansion and penetration when it comes to Hornady ammo.Hornady Ammo Expansion and Penetration Ammo

Hornady Ammo Expansion and Penetration

Handguns TV - May 30, 2016

James Tarr and Richard Nance talk expansion and penetration when it comes to Hornady ammo.

See More Ammo

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Handguns subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now