Thirty-five years ago, there was a handful of major ammunition companies and a few more, coming on strong. Regardless of the exact count, they dominated ammunition sales for everyone.
Remington, Winchester, Federal Cartridge, along with Speer/CCI and Hornady, were gaining momentum; Black Hills was just getting out of the gate; and CorBon was still two years away. Farther over the horizon were the specialty lines developed by these companies and others that came along.
Jump ahead to now
SIG Sauer, Browning, Armscor and a fair number of other companies have burst onto the scene over the past couple of years. Taurus tried its hand at it. There have been so many advances in bullet design and composition, as well as new propellants that get every bit of performance out of every caliber—especially the handgun realm.
But that doesn’t mean this ammunition is “hotter.” It remains within SAAMI specs, and that keeps pressures and velocities within certain parameters.
So, just what are we talking about in terms of performance? Will today’s ammunition get us out of a jam, stop a fight or produce tighter groups than the fodder we had a generation ago? Only if you do your part. A bullet that misses the target isn’t good for much, except possibly getting you into trouble because it hits something else.
Time for a reality check
Neither the hottest new gun nor the sizzling ammo-of-the-month club entry will suddenly make someone a better handgunner. That comes from within. Ammunition works only if it hits what you’re aiming at and the marksmanship is good.
On the plus side, let’s take a look at some of the newer entries.
I’ve had a fair amount of experience lately with the new SIG V-Crown Elite Performance ammunition. In 9mm, SIG’s 115-grain JHP bullet warped out of the muzzle of one pistol I was testing at an average of 1,157 fps, but I dug back into my records and found that in another 9mm pistol I tested, that round scooted out at 1,183 fps. SIG’s 124-grain JHP crossed the screens at an average of 1,096 fps. That’s going to hit hard.
Armscor 9mm ammunition averaged 1,061 fps out of an Armscor pistol. Black Hills loads averaged 1,237 fps out of that gun, and when I stoked the pistol with the CorBon 115-grainers, they warped across the screens at 1,393 fps, average.
The 9mm rounds were all fired recently from a Walther PPS semiauto pistol with a 3.18-inch barrel or an Armscor TCM Ultra with a 5-inch barrel.
.45 ACP Ammo
Now, let’s take a look at some .45 ACP ammunition. This bunch was fired over a chronograph set 20 inches ahead of the muzzle.
There’s Black Ops from HPR, which pushes a 150-grain OTF (for “open tip frangible”) bullet that moved across my chronograph screens at an average of 983.8 fps.
The Barnes TAC XPD load, with a 185-grain hollowpoint, moved out at 881.1 fps average. If that doesn’t seem like a sizzler, just stand downrange of it.
SIG Sauer Elite Performance offers a 200-grain hollowpoint that left the muzzle of my Springfield Armory Model 1911 at an average of 912.1 fps and showed the most consistent velocities that varied fewer than 20 fps among each round fired. That’s been the same when I fired this stuff before.
The 185-grain DPX hollowpoint from CorBon streaked across the screens of my chronograph at an average of 1,035 fps.
If you want something that is simply awesome in the muzzle velocity category, Glaser’s 165-grain Pow’R Ball launches a polymer-capped projectile out of the bore at an average of 1,148 fps. This ammunition actually ranges up an error message on my chronograph! It’s a snappy load—with a muzzle blast to prove it—and I’d say the recoil was a little stouter than with the other rounds. Still, there was no sign of excessive pressure on the spent cases.
Another cartridge that I believe makes a good defensive round is the .45 Colt. It’s been around for 150 years, and it has a proven track record. Today, Hornady offers a .45 Colt load with a 185-grain FTX bullet in its Critical Defense lineup. This one clocks at 920 fps.
There’s a Speer Gold Dot load pushing a 250-grain JHP that moves out at 750 to 800 fps, depending upon barrel length. I own two single-action revolvers, both from Ruger, in that caliber. One has a 4⅝-inch barrel and the other a 7½-inch tube. The longer barrel gets more out of this particular load, and I can say without fear of contradiction that a solid hit with a 250-grain bullet traveling at 800 fps is going to ruin someone’s day.
Winchester offers a .45 Colt with a 225-grain Silvertip JHP that leaves the muzzle of my longer-barreled gun at 900 fps. That is going to hurt. I have known a couple of people over the years who have stopped black bears with the .45 Colt using that weight of bullet going at about that speed. (They didn’t have chronographs at the time the animals were shot but, to my knowledge, neither of those critters got up to complain.)
A fair number of people use a .38 Special revolver because of its simplicity and the fact that it doesn’t take a lot of dexterity to work a wheelgun.
I tried two loads from SIG Sauer—one a 125-grain FMJ with an advertised muzzle velocity of 900 fps. Out of my 6-inch Model 19 S&W, these loads averaged 858.7 fps; out of a 2½-inch Model 19, they averaged 733.0 fps—confirming that barrel length does matter.
The 125-grain JHP +P round, with an advertised velocity of 965 fps, left the muzzle of my 6-incher at 945.1 fps. Out of the snubby, they clocked an average of 840.7 fps. Still, that’s enough horsepower to make an impression.
Switching to a 4-inch Colt Diamondback, I tried out a 125-grain Gold Dot that crossed the screens at 855.6 fps. Then came the Federal High Velocity 125-grain JHP, which was slightly faster at 858.3 fps. My third load was a Federal High Velocity 125-grain JSP that averaged 816.9 fps. A 125-grain Black Hills JHP clocked in at 783.8 fps.
All those rounds from the 4-inch Colt barrel are right in the ballpark for a .38 Special, and I have no concern about using any of them for self-defense.
.380 ACP Cartridge
Another cartridge that is popular with many people with varying degrees of experience and skill is the .380 ACP. Awhile back, I ran several different brands through a test gun and got some eye-opening results.
The DPX round from CorBon pushed an 80-grain bullet out of a Browning Black Label 1911-380 pistol at a sizzling 1,088 fps. I also tried the 90-grain Federal Hydra-Shoks through the same gun, and they scooted along at an average of 1,036 fps.
Coming back down to earth, the 85-grain Winchester Silvertips averaged 977.4 fps, while some 95-grain FMJs from American Eagle moved out at 967.6 fps.
I also had a chance to try out several loads in .357 Magnum, firing them from my 6-inch Model 19. This was an interesting experience.
The box that holds SIG Sauer’s sizzling, new 125-grain JHP ammunition in .357 Magnum V-Crown says that it clocks 1,356 fps. I have a news flash for SIG: Out of my 6-inch S&W, it averaged 1,471, with my chronograph set about 18 inches ahead of the muzzle. Recoil was about average for a .357 load, and I saw no signs of excess pressure—although in terms of accuracy, this stuff is dead on.
The Gold Dot 125-grain JHP rounds averaged 1,492 fps, while the Winchester 125-grain JHP rounds averaged 1,443.6 fps. Needless to say, I was favorably impressed, and if I didn’t reload my own ammunition for the trail and for carrying in the backcountry during hunting season, I’d certainly stock up on any of this factory stuff!
I had a box of Extreme Shock 85-grain AFR (“Air Freedom Round”) loads. This projectile is designed to fragment, and it left the muzzle at an awesome 1,687 fps average. However, the downside was that I had a heck of a time ejecting the empties.
I also experienced trouble ejecting spent cases after I fired the CorBon 180-grain Hunter high-velocity rounds that averaged 1,042 fps across the screens. Nevertheless, on the up side, this ammunition is accurate, as well.
Actually, the problem appeared to be with one case from each brand, and when I checked the primers for pressure signs, they were flat on one specific case. (Your “mileage” may vary.)
The 110-grain Winchester JHP roared out of the muzzle at 1,263 fps average, and when I fired the 158-grain Black Hills loads, they averaged a comfortable 1,088 fps with what I consider a rather mild recoil.
“Will today’s ammunition get us out of a jam, stop a fight or produce tighter groups than the fodder we had a generation ago?”
The Bottom Line
What does all of this really mean? In my opinion, it simply means that today’s defensive ammunition is the best it’s ever been, and there are lots of choices. We’re not talking about winning a match but winning something far more important and being around to talk about it. Your result with any of this ammunition or with something else you try might be different, depending upon the firearm you’re using.
Now, I’m about to commit blasphemy. For reasons I cannot fathom, some people put quite a bit of importance on group size with everything they shoot.
When you’re using a hunting or competition rifle, match pistol or revolver, that consideration is certainly important. However, with a fighting pistol, at gunfighting ranges, not so much, and that’s what we’re talking about here.
All these rounds, fired from a decent pistol by someone reasonably competent with a handgun, should group within 2 or 3 inches at 10 to 15 yards when fired at the bench. But gunfights don’t happen at the bench, and in an emergency, the very last thing you ought to be thinking about is producing a tight, match-size group. You are thinking about survival and protecting the lives of your family or companions. Everything else takes a distant second place.
This is not an endorsement of “spray and pray.” One should concentrate on hitting center-of-mass, of course. But keep in mind that what you’ll be shooting at in a life-threatening emergency is not going to be standing still to allow for a tiny little group.
I shot a mule deer buck once many years ago with a .41 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk, using handloads. The buck was moving slowly, and the first round struck high behind the shoulders. The second round, fired at about 35 yards, miraculously hit about 2 inches from where the first one landed. I could brag that this was due simply to my skill with a six-gun and the consistency of my loads, but there was a fair amount of luck involved in that double-tap.
Get the Job Done
When a target is moving and just might be shooting at you, you cannot depend upon each round you fire to hit the target precisely where you want. However, at defensive ranges, any of these loads in the calibers I discussed can hit what they’re supposed to.
At that point, the bullet will do its work. Now, do yours.