For years, handgun ammunition could essentially be classified into two categories: the less expensive, full-metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition (commonly referred to as “ball” ammo) and jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammunition, which as the name implies, contains a hollow tip, enabling the bullet to expand upon impact.
While FMJs tends to load more reliably in semiautomatic pistols and are more capable of penetrating intermediate barriers such as plywood, vehicle glass, and heavy clothing en route to the target, JHPs are widely considered to be the better man stopper, which explains their prevalence in law enforcement and personal defense use.
JHP bullets are designed to mushroom upon impact. This slows the bullet down, thus maximizing the damage inflicted, whereas a FMJ round will tend to produce a less serious through-and-through wound. Interestingly, the U.S. Army is now going to allow ammunition other than ball during their upcoming solicitation for the long awaited “XM-17” handgun concept, which will replace the M-9 as the Army’s issued sidearm. But these days, many ammunition manufacturers aren’t content with traditional hollow point bullets.
Companies such as Federal, Hornady, and relative newcomer G-2 Research, are pushing the envelope to provide the ultimate personal defense round. While the “magic bullet” continues to elude, these offerings in .45 ACP ought to cause violent criminals to consider other, less dangerous forms of employment.
FBI Testing Protocol (The Gold Standard)
In 1986, on the heels of what came to be known as the “Miami FBI Shootout,” during which two agents were shot and killed, the FBI was searching to equip its personnel with more effective handgun ammunition. This led to the agency’s formalized ammunition testing protocol, which consists of firing through bare gelatin, heavy clothing, steel, wallboard, plywood and vehicle glass.
Accounting for human anatomy and the fact that an agent may fire at a suspect from a variety of angles, it was established that 12 inches was the minimum acceptable degree of penetration. The standard was required whether the rounds fired into bare gelatin or through any of the specified barriers. If a bullet penetrated more than 18 inches, it was presumed to have exited the body. Therefore, ammunition manufacturers are constantly striving to produce bullets that cleanly pass through the aforementioned barriers then penetrate the ballistic gelatin between 12 and 18 inches.
Ballistic Gelatin Test
Although educational, replicating the FBI ammunition testing protocol is both expensive and time consuming. Fortunately, data charts, photographs and in some cases video footage are available for various loads on respective manufacturers’ websites. But rather than take their word for it, I decided to conduct some informal testing of my own. Since my concern was civilian rather than law enforcement applications, I decided to skip the barrier penetration tests and stick to shooting bare gelatin.
I ordered three standard FBI ballistic gelatin blocks (6x6x16 inches) from Clear Ballistics. These 10 percent ballistic gelatin blocks are pre-calibrated to match human tissue.
Hornady Critical Duty
Sig P220 in hand, I took a knee 10 feet from the first block, loaded one round of 220-grain +P Hornady Critical Duty into the chamber, took aim and fired. Not surprisingly, the round went completely through the 16-inch gelatin block.
Big brother to Hornady’s extremely popular Critical Defense line, Critical Duty is specifically designed to be barrier blind, meaning that it will pass through any of the FBI barriers and predictably expand inside the ballistic gelatin. Distinguishable from Critical Defense by the subtle “H” on the red Flex Tip, Critical Duty’s Interlock Band prevents the bullet and core from separating in order to retain its weight for optimal penetration.
When I retrieved the bullet from the chopped rubber backstop, I noted that it had partially mushroomed. Critical Duty is designed to penetrate. I suspect it penetrates bare ballistic gelatin closer to the 18-inch maximum rather than the 12-inch minimum accepted standard. I later fired a second round into the same block from 15 feet rather than 10. Again, the bullet passed completely through the gelatin. If I had it to do over, I would’ve purchased a longer gelatin block for the Critical Duty or placed another block behind it to see just how far it penetrated.
For most armed citizens, Critical Defense is probably the ideal offering from Hornady. For on-duty police officers or citizens who could anticipate a greater need than your average Joe to shoot a bad guy through a substantial barrier, Critical Duty is the better choice. For home defense, the Critical Duty round could present over-penetration concerns.
Federal Guard Dog
I became a fan of Federal Guard Dog ammunition while shooting simulated interior residential walls for an article that appeared in the 2013 issue of Personal Defense. The focus of that article was on over-penetration hazards when shooting at a home intruder. In that test the Guard Dog round performed as advertised. It was contained in the third simulated interior residential wall, while one of the other rounds was contained in the sixth wall and the other in the seventh wall. I was curious to see how the Guard Dog would fare against the ballistic gelatin.
From 10 feet away, I fired a Guard Dog bullet into the fresh block of clear ballistic gelatin. To my surprise, the round passed completely through the gelatin. Puzzled, I backed to 15 feet and targeted a slightly different portion of the gelatin. This time, the round mushroomed nicely and lodged about 9½ inches into the block. Although this round fell 2½ inches short of meeting the FBI minimum penetration standard of 12 inches, the round is not without merit.
Guard Dog is home defense ammo. It says so right on the box. As such, it is designed to minimize over-penetration through interior walls. The uniquely designed, fully-enclosed bullet looks like an FMJ and won’t clog like traditional hollow point bullets can. Upon impact, the recognizable blue polymer insert is sandwiched between the collapsing jacket and the lead core, resulting in reliable and uniform expansion.
G2 Research’s Radically Invasive Projectile (R.I.P.)
One of the most controversial new bullet designs is the Radically Invasive Projectile (R.I.P.) from G2 Research. This round looks and functions unlike anything else on the market. The copper bullet is CNC machined for the utmost precision, which helps explain why this ammunition costs nearly twice as much as other premium defensive ammunition. But what really sets the R.I.P. apart from the competition is the eight trocars (petals) designed to separate upon impact. The main projectile continues to penetrate, resulting in nine wound channels from a single round.
From a kneeling position, 10 feet from the block of clear ballistic gelatin, I took aim and fired. Examination of the block revealed that the trocars began separating about an inch into the gelatin. Some of the trocars exited the gelatin. One was located on the ground about 5 feet downrange of the block. Another had exited the bottom of the block, struck the plastic table that held the block and then reentered the block. (The plastic table was unscathed). The main projectile penetrated a respectable 13½ inches, which is clearly good enough for government work according to the FBI’s protocol.
I could neither prove nor disprove G2 Research’s claim that the R.I.P. produced an “acoustic wave” upon impact, which creates an “ease of entry by reducing the deceleration at the point of impact, allowing potential energy to be conserved, thus transferring a devastating kinetic energy wave.” I can confirm, however, that the R.I.P. performed well on the bare gelatin test.
Let’s face it, penetration is a moot point if you can’t hit what you’re aiming at, so I decided to fire four, five-shot groups with each of the three loads tested on the ballistic gelatin. I figured the P220 was a good of launching pad so I settled down at the bench, with the target situated 25 yards down range. First up was Hornady ….
Critical Duty printed groups averaging .388 inches, with the tightest group registering 2.86 inches.
Guard Dog proved the most accurate on this day with an average group size of 3.13 inches and a best group of 2.79 inches.
R.I.P. averaged 3.28-inch groups but produced the tightest group of the day at 1.91 inches.
I was shocked at how light recoiling the R.I.P. ammo felt through my P 220. The R.I.P. round was only 3 grains lighter and about 50 feet-per-second slower than the Guard Dog round yet it was much softer shooting than both the Guard Dog and the considerably heavier but only slightly slower Critical Duty round.
I was concerned that the R.I.P., with its jagged bullet profile might not feed well. It tuned out my apprehension was unwarranted, as it and both of the other cartridges functioned with 100-percent reliability during the testing.
If you’re looking for a round to penetrate barriers and then expand reliably, Critical Duty is the clear choice. On the other hand, where over-penetration is a concern, as is the case in many home defense scenarios, Guard Dog would certainly prove to be a trustworthy companion. The big question is whether the R.I.P. lives up to its claim to be “the last round you’ll ever need.”
For me, the jury is still out. There’s no denying the R.I.P. is turning heads and raising eyebrows, but I’m not completely sold on the concept. Frankly, I’m not sure that the trocars fragmenting upon impact is beneficial. Not only does trocar separation reduce the mass of the main projectile, it could potentially send trocars in an unintended direction. For this reason, the R.I.P. is ill suited for making a hostage rescue shot, where one or more hostages are in close proximity to the hostage taker.
We are living in the golden age of handgun cartridge design. No longer are we reduced to choosing FMJ or JHP. Now, you can load your defensive handgun with a general-purpose cartridge or one designed specifically to meet a perceived need.