Ammunition selection can be one of the most intimidating challenges facing a new shooter or firearm owner. Manufacturers produce an array of different loads, with each one varying in some way from the others. Projectile weight, projectile type, velocity and other factors all differ, even among loads designed for the same firearm.
Fortunately, making sense of the diverse ammo offered by manufacturers is not as difficult as some might believe. Once you understand the various kinds of ammunition available and how they perform, you can easily select ammo to fit your intended purposes.
For new shooters trying to understand how to properly choose ammo for a specific application, below are explanations for what makes good target/training, personal defense, and hunting loads. For each category, there are also example loads given for each type of firearm: handgun, rifle and shotgun.
Whether you're a serious shooter planning to spend a lot of time on the range or a casual plinker who shoots a few times a year, you'll need ammo to fuel your chosen firearm. In most cases, this means buying a widely available and relatively inexpensive load.
For rifles and handguns, the cheapest cartridges, or complete loaded rounds of ammunition, are those featuring a full metal jacket (FMJ) projectile. An FMJ bullet incorporates a soft core (usually lead) encased in a shell of harder metal and requires less manufacturing than the bullets used in other more complex self-defense and hunting loads. This makes FMJs less expensive to produce and therefore cheaper for the customer.
With shotgun ammunition, the least expensive shells are typically lightweight target loads in No. 7 ½ shot and smaller (the higher the number, the smaller the shot). These shells are 2 ¾ inches in length and around 1 ounce in payload weight. The projectiles, called pellets, are normally lead, although some states and ranges require the use of steel shot.
In addition to cost, another important factor for target or training ammunition is how much recoil it produces. If you plan on spending any significant amount of time shooting, you'll want a light-recoiling load that won't wear down your hands or your shoulder. Small-bore rimfire cartridges are great in this regard, especially for new shooters who might be unfamiliar with or intimidated by recoil. It's best to avoid magnum loads if possible.
Overall, ammunition used for general plinking, target practice and training is reasonably accurate and doesn't break the bank, or your body.
Although cost remains a consideration for many shooters when buying personal defense ammo, of far greater concern is the ammunition's terminal performance. When your life, or the lives of your family, is threatened, you want a load that will reliably stop that threat as quickly as possible. The most effective way to do that is to use a load that impacts the target with a lot of energy and produces the greatest amount of damage.
With rifles and handguns, this means using cartridges with a hollow-point projectile. A hollow-point bullet features a cavity in its tip designed to make the projectile expand on impact.
This expansion is key for two reasons. First, it generates a larger wound channel on the target, which increases damage. Second, it controls the amount of penetration to keep the round inside the target, which reduces the chances of harming innocent bystanders and transfers all the bullet's kinetic energy into the target.
With shotguns, the best option are buckshot loads, as they use pellets large enough to cause serious damage. While other loads, including birdshot, may be used for self-defense, they are far less likely to provide an immediate end to the threat.
In any personal defense scenario, you want a reliable load that transfers as much energy and damage as possible without over-penetration. This ensures a quick end to a dangerous situation, and harms nothing but the target.
As with personal defense scenarios, the most important thing when it comes to hunting ammunition is using projectiles that quickly and humanely bring down the target. Reliable bullet expansion and retained kinetic energy remain large aspects of this, which is why rifle and handgun hunters - as well as shotgunners using slugs - similarly use expanding hollow point or soft point projectiles (FMJ projectiles should never be used in hunting as they will likely penetrate straight through the animal, without generating enough damage to humanely kill it).
A key difference is the need for additional penetration. While personal defense projectiles are designed to stop human beings, hunting bullets are engineered to penetrate the thick skin, dense muscle tissue and bones of game animals. These bullets are typically heavier than personal defense projectiles and retain more of their weight after entering the target.
Regardless of what you're pursuing, the highest priority in selecting ammo for hunting should always be ensuring the cartridge or shotgun shell you choose is powerful enough to ensure an ethical kill. Using a cartridge without sufficient power is bad for the animal if it's wounded, and, if hunting dangerous game, can put the hunter at risk, too. If you can't decide between two cartridges, it's best to err on the side of more power.
Caliber or gauge is certainly important when it comes to ammo selection, but often the biggest difference between two loads is the actual object or objects being propelled downrange. This is likely truer with rifle and handgun ammo than shotgun ammo because they use cartridges with single projectiles, whereas shotgun shells can contain anything from a single slug to hundreds of pellets.
With rifle and handgun cartridges there are basically two broad types of bullets: full metal jacket (FMJ) and hollow-point. There are other kinds of projectiles as well as variations of these two designs, but for beginners these are the easiest to understand.
FMJs, which feature a soft core (usually lead) encased in a shell of harder metal, are inexpensive and great for target practice and general plinking. Hollow-point bullets, which expand on impact, are far better for personal defense and hunting because they produce larger wound channels on the target, resulting in greater damage.
For selecting shotgun ammo, the projectile (or projectiles) remains the primary concern. Aside from slugs designed for hunting, projectiles in shotgun shells - called pellets, or shot - are categorized according to their shot size. As with measuring gauge, shot size utilizes an inverse scale; the larger the shot size number, the smaller each individual pellet will be (No. 7 shot is smaller than No. 2 shot).
In general, No. 7 and higher shot are great for target shooting or hunting some small game animals, while shot sizes No. 6 and lower cover a variety of hunting scenarios. Buckshot is excellent for self-defense purposes, as well as predator and hog hunting, and shotgun slugs are ideal for hunting deer and larger game.
Example Loads for Every Purpose
To get new shooters started on the right track, we've provided several example loads below for handguns, rifles and shotguns. For each type of firearm, there are loads for specific applications such as target practice and training; personal defense and home defense; and hunting.
Handgun Ammunition Choices
Target Practice/Training: American Eagle 9mm Luger FMJ
Because of their reduced cost, full metal jacket (FMJ) projectiles are ideal for general plinking and training, and the 115-grain American Eagle 9mm Luger is a perfect example. The 9mm Luger is likely the most popular centerfire handgun cartridge in existence, meaning it is usually inexpensive and widely available for shooters looking to hone their handgun skills. The American Eagle 9mm Luger load uses clean-burning powders, Federal primers and brass and is affordable for use during those long sessions at the range.
Personal Defense/Concealed Carry: Federal HST
Federal's HST personal defense loads are highly regarded among law enforcement officers and those who carry concealed. The HST offers reliable expansion while maintaining the ability to penetrate most barriers with nearly 100-percent weight retention. The bullet's balance between effective penetration and reliable expansion makes it the perfect tool in several personal defense applications. Federal HST is offered in a wide range of common handgun calibers to suit the plethora of personal defense handguns on the market.
Hunting: Federal Vital-Shok
Reliable expansion is a crucial factor with hunting cartridges, as you want to inflict maximum damage to kill an animal as humanely as possible. This means you need a hollow-point or other type of expanding projectile.
Federal's Vital-Shok is a very effective option for hunting medium-sized game with a handgun. Vital-Shok offers outstanding expansion and penetration, allowing for reliable game harvesting.
Offered in .357 Mag., .41 Rem. Mag., .44 Rem. Mag., .454 Casull, .460 S&W, .480 Ruger and .500 S&W, the Vital-Shok lineup spans the most popular handgun hunting calibers.
Rifle Ammunition Choices
Target Practice/Training: CCI 22 LR Standard Velocity
The 22 Long Rifle is a great cartridge for target practice and plinking, especially for novice shooters who are just learning the sport. The cartridge is usually inexpensive, and its recoil is one of the lowest among all cartridges, meaning you can shoot a lot of 22 LR before you get tired of shooting or run out of funds for ammo.
CCI's 22 LR Standard Velocity ammunition features a 40-grain lead round nose (LRN) projectile that travels at 1,070 feet per second (fps). It uses clean-burning propellants to keep firearm actions cleaner, meaning less need for maintenance, and incorporates CCI's sure-fire priming for added reliability.
Personal Defense/Home Defense: Fusion MSR
In recent years, the AR-15 has surged in popularity and has become one of the most common rifle platforms for general target shooting as well as personal defense. Fusion MSR from Federal Premium® is purposefully engineered for the AR platform and is optimized for the barrel lengths most commonly associated with that rifle. While intended for deer hunting, Fusion MSR is also great for use as a home defense cartridge because of its 62-grain soft-point bullet, which offers reliable expansion capabilities.
Hunting: Federal Premium Vital-Shok .30-06 Springfield
The .30-06 Springfield is revered across North America as one of the best hunting rounds available. It has enough power to take down a wide variety of big game animals, which makes it useful for an array of hunters pursuing diverse game.
This Federal Premium Vital-Shok load features a 150-grain Nosler® Ballistic Tip® projectile that leaves the muzzle at 2,910 feet per second (fps) and delivers around 1,756 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy at 300 yards, plenty of knockdown power for deer and many other medium-sized game like antelope and muleys. The Vital-Shok .30-06 cartridge is manufactured using world-class brass, select powders and excellent primers.
Shotgun Ammunition Choices
Target Practice/Competition: Federal Top Gun Target
For shooting clay birds or competing in 3-Gun and similar competitions where you'll be doing a lot of shooting, a light target load with minimal recoil is ideal. Federal has plenty of different target loads available, but its Top Gun Target load is one of the best in terms of price and performance.
The Top Gun Target load in No. 7½ or 8 shot size with 1 1/8-ounce payload is great for general target or competition shooting.
Personal Defense/Home Defense: Federal Personal Defense Buckshot #4
A shotgun is one of the best home defense tools available, and nothing pairs with it better in a defensive scenario than buckshot. Size 4 buckshot offers more pellets per shot than loads using 00 buckshot, which could mean a better chance of hitting the target, and it has a reduced chance of over-penetrating surrounding walls and harming others. This Premium Personal Defense load offers 34 pellets that travel at a velocity of 1,100 feet per second (fps).
Hunting: Federal Premium Vital-Shok TruBall Deep Penetrator Rifled Slug
While buckshot is great for home defense and has been used to hunt deer, most believe shotgun slugs are much more effective and ethical for big game hunting. The Federal Premium Vital-Shok Truball Deep Penetrator Rifled Slug is great for shotgunners who might not have a fully rifled shotgun barrel on hand but who want to pursue deer. The TruBall Deep Penetrator uses a simple plastic ball between the wad and rifled slug to produce extremely accurate results for a slug fired from a smoothbore barrel. The 1-ounce high-antimony lead slug travels at 1,300 feet per second (fps) and delivers 910 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of force at 75 yards.