Hypervelocity ammunition? When is enough, enough?
September 08, 2017
What seems like a lifetime ago, I was working in radio broadcasting when I first heard the unofficial motto of rock 'n' roll: "Some is good, more is better, too much is not enough." Back then, handgun bullets were simply made of lead and copper. Bullets were full weight, and they didn't move all that fast, at least by today's standards. Now we ask: When is there enough bullet velocity? When is there too much? For some, that is not a question but a challenge.
Currently, there are three high-speed factory loads that can be found in volume on store shelves that stay within SAAMI pressure specs. They are from Liberty Ammuntion, PolyCase and Super Vel. Why should we bring SAAMI into this conversation? Simple: You can do all sorts of detrimental things to yourself and your equipment by exceeding standard pressures — if you're not careful. Some of these loads are approved by SAAMI, while others are restricted but available. The first are known as +P loads, and most service pistols of quality can handle them. But then there are the +P+ loads, and those, well '¦ SAAMI provides pressure specifications so that we know our ammo is safe, and pistol manufacturers know what they have to do to deal with the increase in pressure. Ammunition that is +P rated is loaded to a higher, albeit still safe and known level. In the 9mm, the standard maximum is 35,000 pounds per square inch (psi), and +P is 38,500 psi. What is +P+ loaded to? It does not have a defined industry standard. When it comes to ammunition with this rating, a law enforcement agency typically solicits an ammo manufacturer to engineer a load that propels a selected projectile to a specific velocity range. The manufacturer then decides if they can do it and performs testing to determine what the pressure might be. Once the negotiating is over and the check clears the bank, the ammo maker ships the ammunition to the agency with one clear understanding: The agency is on its own. They asked for ammo that meets their specifications (or as close as the ammo maker could comfortably come), they got it, and any gun breakages, malfunctions or shortened life of service pistols is a problem that falls solely on the agency's shoulders. What is the pressure of +P+ ammo? Only the ammo maker knows, and they aren't talking.
How light and how fast are we talking about with more-or-less regular bullets? Liberty Ammunition's 9mm Civil Defense bullet weighs only 50 grains. The PolyCase ARX weighs 65 grains (80 grains for its Ruger-labeled ARX load), and the heavyweight of the high-speed crowd is the Super Vel, tipping the scales at 90 grains and is listed as a +P load. You can have Super Vel in a 115-grain bullet if 90 is too light for your tastes, but we're interested in the speed demons, so we'll stick with the 90-grain load.
The chronograph results for these loads are eye-opening. I mean, 1,400 to 1,500 feet per second (fps) from a 9mm pistol is really moving. And the Liberty Civil Defense load out of a full-size 9mm pistol rips along at what a small-case .22 centerfire rifle does. Well, the rifle beats the heck out of the Liberty, but only by going from 35,000 psi to the 50,000-psi region. Throttle a .221 Fireball back to 35,000 psi, and it will be neck-and-neck with the Liberty's Civil Defense 9mm.
Recoil is not as bad as you may think. The muzzle blast can be a bit much, but the recoil certainly isn't. Power Factor (PF) is a good thumbnail approach to recoil. A traditional 9mm, with a 115-grain bullet at 1,100 fps posts a PF of 126.5. The Super Vel has a PF of 135.9, the PolyCase ARX a PF of 116, while the Liberty is a mere 106. Even at 135, the Super Vel load won't be pushing you around, and the others offer a very mild recoil impulse.
"But the FBI '¦ ." Ah, yes. The FBI requires that a bullet penetrate at least 12 inches of gelatin or it is an utter, miserable failure (in their opinion). The ARX does the FBI's 12 inches in the drywall test. It does more in bare gelatin. The Super Vel load has done 10 to 11 inches in my gel testing and expands to the point that it could not expand any more without turning inside-out. Liberty Ammunition's Civil Defense load exceeds the 12-inch minimum but does not exit the back of a 16-inch block. The Civil Defense load is non-lead with a deep hollowpoint and, in testing, I found that the cup broke into two, three or sometimes four pieces while the base continued on, coming to rest a foot or more deep in 10 percent ballistic gelatin.
Here's the catch: The FBI insists on the 12-inch minimum and 18-inch maximum because they are trying to avoid a failure in the extreme conditions that they might experience. That is, they want (if we can be realistic here) to have an agent shoot a bad guy who is behind some sort of barrier and have the bullet pass not just through the barrier but also through the bad guy's arm and heavy clothing, penetrating deeply enough to reach vital organs.
Against that, consider this: The average person is maybe 8 inches thick. Yep, 8 inches from sternum to spine, with all the important stuff in-between. So, the FBI would view a bullet that penetrated 11½ inches and expanded to the size of a manhole cover as a failure. Would you?
None of these loads exhibited any lack of accuracy. The Civil Defense bullet fragments consistently, and the heaviest part, the base, penetrates well. The Super Vel bullet is the very definition of expansion. And the ARX works its magic and stops at or just past the 1-foot mark, having delivered all of its energy into the target.
The FBI would argue that they need the extra performance in their duty load and are willing to pay for it. How much are they willing to pay? A typical FBI-performer would be a 147-grain jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) at 950 fps. That has a PF of 139.6, and it laughs at barriers. That last part raises a question in my mind. In a home-defense situation, where I might have to be concerned with roommates or family members, I might not be all that keen on a barrier-blind bullet. Even if I'm working retail making the company's nightshift bank deposit, the bad guy is going to be standing there, facing me, if things go ballistic. In that case, barrier penetration will be down on my list, and mild recoil will be an asset.
There are more loads on the horizon. While talking with Jeff Hoffman, owner of Black Hills Ammunition, he said they are working on a load known as the Honey Badger. It features a solid copper bullet with flutes and an X-shaped meplat. I've tested the .45 ACP load, and it uses a 135-grain bullet. The 9mm? Hoffman is still working on it, but I'll be surprised if it weighs over 90 grains.
If you're not a 9mm fan, there are options in other calibers as well. The .38 Special and .380 ACP are also available in lightweight, supercharged loadings. For all-out speed, the .38 Super and .357 SIG are difficult to beat but bring increased recoil along with velocity. Judging by the volume of empties left on ranges, most of us shoot 9mm these days.
That brings us to that law-enforcement-only +P+ ammunition that the ammo makers produce. I have samples of various loads in my stash, and I've experimented with them from time to time. The latest was a batch of 115-grain JHPs that posted a speed of just over 1,300 fps out of one of my 5-inch 9mm pistols, producing a PF of 150. That load emanated a recoil snap like a .40 S&W.
Is it worth it? That depends. Should you consider a hypervelocity load? Again, that depends on your needs, your desires and the situation.