November 24, 2021
By Brad Fitzpatrick
Gun enthusiasts are a loyal group. Speak ill of their favorite firearms brand, favorite caliber, even their favorite holster and you’re likely to hear about it. Oftentimes these arguments spill over onto social media. How many times have you seen arguments about the 9mm vs the .45 ACP? Tempers flare when shooters feel their chosen gun is being digitally disrespected.
Oddly, defensive bullets don’t receive that same level of loyalty and respect. Tell someone online that his Glock isn’t as good as your 1911 and a tantrum with cursing and name-calling is certain to follow. Argue the merits of Critical Defense ammo versus Gold Dot and you’ll get more of a to-each-his-own response. In truth, either the Glock or the 1911 will work to stop an attacker if you hit them in the right place with the right defensive bullet. Choose the wrong bullet, though, and either of these guns could fail to neutralize a threat.
Defensive bullets have gone through a seismic shift in design and quality over the years. FBI protocol is the primary reason for this. Following poor bullet performance, the FBI developed a standard testing protocol to evaluate how well bullets performed. Ammo companies wanted FBI contracts and could no longer hide poor-performing “defense” bullets when the FBI test results emerged. This prompted a revolution in defensive bullet design.
As a result, today’s defensive bullets are far better than the stuff from just a few years ago. America’s most popular self-defense caliber—the 9mm—has benefited greatly from this new technology, and modern personal protection allows the 9mm to perform just as well as the larger .40 S&W. With the right bullet, a 9mm will do just about anything that can be asked of a sidearm, and that includes stopping a dangerous attacker quickly and efficiently. But it won’t do that consistently unless you load the right ammunition into the magazine.
There's a lot of great 9mm ammo out there, but we’ve chosen seven of the very best loads for when the stakes are highest. They’re presented in no particular order.
In 2018, Winchester’s Defender won an FBI contract because it performed extremely well in a variety of bare gel and barrier tests. The Defender is the epitome of modern defense bullet design, a hollow point with a bonded copper jacket, led core, and skiving in the copper jacket to initiate expansion. Winchester’s proprietary bonding process ensures that the jacket and core stay together, and that guarantees that the bullet will continue to expand and penetrate even through heavy clothing.
The bullets are loaded into a nickel-plated cases and premium primers and propellants ensure that Defender ammo will function under the worst conditions. I’ve found that this ammunition is not only smooth-cycling and reliable but also quite accurate, producing tight groups in a number of pistol tests over the years. There are two available 9mm options available: a 147-grain load with a muzzle velocity of 1,000 fps and a 124-grain +P load with a velocity of 1,200 fps. Both of these loads generate between 300 and 400 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle.
Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty
Critical Duty and Critical Defense are separate defensive rounds designed by Hornady for different defense purposes. Critical Duty, as the name implies, was designed with duty guns in mind. The 135-grain 9mm bullet features a Flex Tip design that helps pass through heavy clothing and other items without clogging the bullet cavity, and the FlexLock bullet with mechanical jacket to core Interlock band allows for excellent barrier penetration and superb performance on FBI protocol tests. In fact, the Critical Duty won an FBI contract based on its high level of performance.
Critical Defense ammo is similar in that it has the same red Flex Tip design that has become a hallmark of Hornady ammo, but it lacks the band that makes Critical Duty “barrier blind.” Critical Defense is optimized to work out of four-inch barrels, which makes it perfect for concealed-carry pistols, whereas Critical Duty is optimized to work in five-inch barrels.
For most self-defense applications Critical Defense ammo will work fine, and with a muzzle velocity of 1,135 fps out of a four-inch barrel this 115-grain 9mm bullet generates 332 ft.-lbs. of energy. The 135-grain Critical Duty load, by contrast, travels at 1,100 fps from a five-inch pistol and generates 369 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle. Match these loads to guns with appropriate-length barrels and either of these Hornady rounds will effectively and efficiently stop an attacker.
Federal’s new Punch ammo is designed to be an affordable and effective self-defense round for concealed-carry applications. Unlike other Federal Premium 9mm loads, Punch was not designed to perform well in the barrier portions of the FBI protocol test or as a duty round. Instead, it was optimized for concealed carry, so rather than being evaluated on its barrier performance it was designed to perform in bare gel and through clothing.
Each Punch round has a jacket with a profile and jacket thickness engineered specifically for that particular cartridge. To put it another way, the cross section of a Punch 9mm bullet may look very different from a Punch .380 ACP or Punch .40 S&W bullet cross section. Federal engineers tested various 9mm bullets with varying jacket profiles and thicknesses in guns with carry-length barrels, and the final product is a bullet that perfectly suits the needs of the customer.
Is Punch barrier blind? No, but that doesn’t matter in most self-defense shootings. Despite its affordable price tag, Punch ammo offers high-end features like nickel cases with sealed primers. The 9mm load fires a 124-grain bullet at 1,150 fps, which translates to 364 ft.-lbs. of energy. True to its name, Punch ammo packs a lot of energy.
Black Hills HoneyBadger
To this point the 9mm bullets discussed shared a similar design with a copper jacket, lead core and hollowpoint profile. But HoneyBadger, designed by Lehigh Defense, defies convention and instead utilizes a full-metal-jacket bullet instead. But, you say, my CCW instructor told me that FMJs were a poor choice for defensive work because they don’t expand, over-penetrate and don’t effectively shed energy.
Your CCW instructor wasn’t wrong, but the HoneyBadger isn’t your conventional FMJ bullet. The nose portion has been carved away to leave behind three or four scallops that, when impacting ballistic gel, create the same wake effect you see when a boat propeller is turning in the water. Just as the water in a lake is forced to move by a propeller so is the water in gel—or an attacker’s body.
That wave creates hydrostatic damage that stops an attacker, which is, of course, the goal of defensive bullets, but it also eliminates the need for a hollow point. The nose cavity of some hollowpoint bullets can get clogged when fired into heavy clothing, and that can actually prevent the bullet from performing properly. That’s not an issue with the HoneyBadger bullet. It penetrates deeply and consistently.
There are two 9mm loads, a 125-grain subsonic +P load with a muzzle velocity of 1,050 fps that generates 306 ft.-lbs. of energy and a 100-grain load making 1,250 fps at the muzzle and churning out 347 ft.-lbs. of energy. HoneyBadger ammo isn’t the cheapest load listed here, but it’s certainly one of the best 9mm self-defense loads available today.
Speer Gold Dot G2 Carry Gun
Speer Gold Dot has been a leading round for law enforcement and self-defense applications for almost 30 years, but a few years ago Speer set out to improve the performance of the Gold Dot bullet by adding a polymer core. Known as Unicor, this polymer insert prevents items like heavy clothing from clogging the nose cavity of the bullet and reducing penetration.
Gold Dot G2 was an immediate success, but Speer wanted to improve the performance of the Gold Dot G2 from short-barreled concealed-carry pistols. This led to the recent release of Speer Gold Dot G2 Carry Gun, a load that offers all the benefits of standard G2 bullets but has been optimized to perform at lower velocities from shorter barrels.
The engineers at Speer redesigned the bullet to be lighter (135 grains compared to 147grains for standard 9mm Gold Dot G2 carry ammo) and customized the propellant charge to offer peak performance in carry guns. The result? You’re getting a bullet that has undergone three decades of development and evaluation that is customized to perform in your self-defense pistol.
Remington Ultimate Defense
Remington’s Golden Saber bullet has been popular with law enforcement and other handgunners as a self-defense bullet for years, and that’s due in large part to this bullet’s consistent performance and reliable expansion through a variety of barriers. The Golden Saber bullet is a jacketed hollowpoint with a lead core and skiving that initiates expansion. Unlike other defense bullets, though, Golden Saber features a brass jacket rather than copper, and this allows for a very consistent penetration—because brass is stiffer than copper—while still maintaining reliable expansion.
Ultimate Defense bullets are available in either 124 or 147 grains, and there are loads optimized for both compact and full-sized 9mm pistols. At the muzzle, these bullets generate between 320 and 389 ft.-lbs. of threat-stopping energy, and with that kind of punch and a durable, time-tested bullet you can rest assured that Ultimate Defense ammunition will perform when you need it.
SIG Elite V-Crown
SIG may be newer to the ammo game than the other brands listed here, but that hasn’t prevented the company from developing defense loads that are on par with older, more expensive loads. The V-Crown bullet is so named because it features V-shaped skives in the jacket and scores in the lead to provide stable and steady expansion. There’s also an additional hollow cavity in the lead that helps ensure proper expansion even through barriers like heavy clothing. A cannelure on the bullet’s shank prevents overexpansion, so you can be certain that this bullet will consistently deliver the type of hydrostatic shock that can immobilize attackers.
Despite its clever engineering and extremely good performance on gel tests, V-Crown ammunition remains one of the most affordable premium self-defense ammunition options, and it’s an even better value when you consider that SIG uses nickel plated cases and quality flow-flash propellants. 9mm V-Crown ammo is available in three different grain weights—115, 124 and 147—all of which generate between 300 and 400 ft.-lbs. of threat-neutralizing energy at the muzzle.