April 05, 2023
For years, shooters have argued the merits of various cartridges for personal protection. Forty-five fans praise the cartridge’s heavy bullet weight and large frontal area, while others — since the introduction of the increased-capacity FN P.35 Hi Power — have proclaimed that the 9mm is a better option. What’s often lost in the argument, though, is that bullet performance is a critically important consideration for personal protection. Modern defensive handgun ammunition is superior to the full-metal-jacket (FMJ) rounds available when the argument began. Winchester’s new USA Ready Defense is an example of a modern self-defense handgun load that’s designed with real-world personal protection in mind.
“Winchester is working to provide a product that is as consistent and reliable as possible, and has great threat-stopping ability,” says Nathan Robinson, Winchester’s public relations, retail, and events marketing manager. “However, everything has trade-offs with ammunition. In order to maximize energy transfer you may be limiting penetration or ability to perform through intermediate barriers such as heavy clothing, auto-glass, drywall, etcetera. Similarly, by maximizing effectiveness you may drive up the price beyond what some consumers are willing to pay. USA Ready Defense offers a sweet spot in the middle where performance and value intersect.”
At the heart of this new defense load is Winchester’s Hex-Vent jacketed hollow point (JHP) bullet. This jacketed, nickel-plated projectile has eight skives in the nose of the bullet to initiate expansion on impact. The core is made of lead, but in the nose of the bullet you’ll find Winchester’s red Hex-Vent polymer insert. Looking rather like a six-bladed fan, the polymer is designed to prevent barriers — clothing fabrics, etc. — from plugging the nose cavity and causing erratic expansion or, in some cases, no expansion at all. I’ve tested dozens of 9mm, .45 ACP and .380 Auto self-defense rounds, and several of the test bullets I’ve collected became plugged and failed to expand properly. Should that happen in a real self-defense scenario the results could be devastating.
“By utilizing our proprietary Hex-Vent bullet design we can increase the reliability of expansion through varying conditions and barriers, while also not having to add the additional cost of bonding the projectile,” says Robinson. “The Hex-Vent rigid insert shields the hollow point from obstruction while channeling material for positive bullet expansion. When fired through common personal-defense pistols, the 9mm +P 124-grain bullet achieves 12-inch penetration with 95 percent weight retention.”
The Hex-Vent polymer insert lies within the hollow nose cavity of the bullet and, upon impact, prevents plugging at the nose while simultaneously initiating expansion inside the target. The metal jacket peels back along the skives in a controlled, consistent fashion when the bullet impacts the target, and that expansion creates a large wound channel and imparts substantial hydrostatic shock. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term “hydrostatic shock,” it is the pressure wave that results from a penetrating projectile. It is thought to have been coined by World War II trauma surgeon Col. Frank Chamberlin, and it’s an important concept for self-defense applications.
The primary objective in a violent encounter is to stop the threat. For that to happen you need as much energy available from your projectile to be transferred into the threat. FMJ rounds tend to over-penetrate in a straight line, expand little, which produces less hydrostatic shock in a short distance. Hollowpoint ammunition does a better job of expanding and transferring energy, so long as the bullet performs consistently and resists barriers. Some hollowpoint defensive ammunition work fine in bare-gel tests but fail to produce similar results when fired through mediums such as clothing, drywall and glass.
Following the infamous 1986 shootout in Miami, the FBI began protocol testing ammunition through barriers. Since, our understanding of what makes a good personal-protection bullet has evolved. In a self-defense situation, a civilian is less likely to have to shoot through drywall or glass to stop a threat, but a bullet that provides consistent penetration through clothing is still important. That’s the reason for Winchester adding the polymer Hex-Vent tip to the new USA Ready ammo.
Of course, ammunition shouldn’t overpenetrate either, and that’s what makes designing an all-purpose personal-defense bullet so challenging. USA Ready Defense ammunition expands reliably and sheds energy efficiently, so it’s less likely to penetrate through a human threat and potentially injure an innocent person in another room during a violent encounter.
The Hex-Vent bullet design is the key feature of USA Ready Defense ammunition, but it’s not the only highlight that makes this ammo a worthwhile choice for personal protection. Reliable functioning is critically important in self-defense situations. While many shooters consider reliability to be a byproduct of firearm design and function — which, to a great degree, is true — ammunition plays a substantial role in how consistently a gun performs. USA Ready Defense bullets have a rounded nose profile that promotes consistent feeding, and the cases are nickel coated. Nickel coatings have a low coefficient of friction that makes them operate smoothly. The cartridge is less likely to get stalled on a dirty or rough ramp or jam up in a fouled chamber.
Winchester uses its quality propellants that provide consistent performance. The 124-grain +P 9mm load that Guns & Ammo tested generated consistent velocities and reliable ignition. USA Ready Defense is also Lot-controlled, and you can visit winchester.com to find the individual Lot of ammunition and see how it performed during factory testing. Lot numbers are on the inside flap of the ammo box, and the Hex-Vent test ammunition produced velocities that were close to the listed velocities on the website. The 124-grain load I tested for this assignment, which came from Winchester Lot No. 7, showed an average muzzle velocity of 1,184 feet-per-second (fps) from a 4-inch barrel when measured at 15 feet from the muzzle. Test ammunition from that Lot produced an average muzzle velocity of 1,208 fps from a 41/2-inch barrel at the muzzle. The Winchester load data website also provides average chamber pressure and accuracy figures, in this case 1.53-inches at 50 yards from an accuracy test barrel.
In addition to premium propellants, Winchester loads USA Ready Defense ammunition with match-grade primers. Hard primers can be a hassle at the range because weak firing pins may not ignite them. In a self-defense situation, a hard primer might mean you lose the fight of your life. The primer is not a concern when shooting this ammunition.
Winchester currently offers USA Ready Defense Hex-Vent ammo for the 9mm (124 grain, +P, 1,200 fps); .40 Smith & Wesson (170 grain, 1,170 fps); and .45 ACP (200 grain, 1,000 fps). Winchester’s American-made ammunition is sold in 20-count boxes. Online pricing ranged from $18.34 per box to $29.99 per box at the time of this writing, which was on-par with Hornady’s Critical Defense loads, which ranged form $30.99 to $31.99 per 25 rounds, and $22.99 per 20 rounds of Federal Punch on the same retail websites.
Performance & Gel Testing
I further tested USA Ready Defense in 9mm, the 124-grain +P load. I elected to test the ammo in a Taurus G3 Tactical model. Muzzle velocity was, as mentioned, just more than 1,200 fps. The barrel measured 41/2-inches and velocity was measured with a Labradar placed adjacent to the muzzle. Velocity results were higher than Winchester’s figures with a shorter barrel measured 15 feet from the muzzle. Expect velocities in the upper 1,100 or low 1,200 fps range for most self-defense pistols. That calculates to about 400 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy. Winchester’s listed value is 396 ft.-lbs. for the 9mm load. The .45 ACP option promises muzzle energies of 444 ft.-lbs., while the .40 S&W packs the strongest punch for this line at 517 ft.-lbs.
Velocities for G&A’s 9mm test ammunition ranged from 1,184 fps to 1,246 fps for 10 test shots. The extreme spread (ES) was 62 fps and the standard deviation (SD) was 20. Accuracy was acceptable. Two five-shot groups from a Taurus G3 Tactical measured 2.8 and 2.9 inches from 25 yards. These rounds were fired from a Caldwell Pistolero rest on a bench. The ballistic results were similar and often slightly better than other factory defensive loads G&A has tested in this gun, but don’t expect this load to group like match ammo.
Winchester claims that its USA Ready Defense ammunition was designed to penetrate 12 inches. That’s almost exactly what our bullets did in bare gel when fired from a range of 7 yards. The initial shot produced a straight-line wound channel that penetrated 12.8 inches. To perform in real-world circumstances, the Winchester ammunition would have to offer similar performance when fired through clothing barriers. Following the bare-gel test, I cut up an old cotton T-shirt along the seams and tucked it in layers around the Clear Ballistics gel block to see how these bullets would perform after passing through a common barrier. (Clothing often clogs a JHP bullet nose.) The wound channel wasn’t straight and the bullet stopped at 11.9 inches.
To test against a heavy clothing barrier, I sacrificed my favorite sweatshirt. It was hard to say goodbye to that thick pullover, but using it for ballistic testing was appropriate. Winchester’s bullet wasn’t phased after puncturing the garment, and the Hex-Vent 124-grain projectile penetrated almost exactly 11.8 inches in a straight line. Again, it came to rest within an inch of my first bare gel shot.
After measuring and photographing the block, I began the tedious task of removing the bullets. When I plucked the three Winchester bullets from the gel and placed them alongside one another, there was no evidence to discern which ones had passed through the different clothing barriers. Performance was consistent throughout.
Retained weight is an important consideration when considering and evaluating recovered projectiles. Defense bullets that break apart may lead to erratic performance, but the Hex-Vent bullets looked as though they might have been pulled from an advertiser’s photoshoot. Average recovered weight was 114 grains for the 9mm 124-grainer, which equates to 92 percent weight retention.
Using a micrometer, expansion ranged from .524 to .568 inch. USA Ready Defense produced an average expansion of .543 inch in our gel tests, which equated to almost one-and-a-half times the bullet’s original diameter. Every bullet maintained the same uniform shape after removal; the heel of the bullet was intact and eight individual petals curled out and backwards providing a classic mushroom shape.
Winchester made some lofty claims during the 2022 introduction of its USA Ready Defense, but after my evaluation I will say that these bullets are worthy of your use. It’s comforting to know that a defensive bullet carried in your EDC will perform as promised.
The world we live in can be dangerous at times. If you ever needed to defend yourself or your family, you want to be sure that you’ve done everything you could to stack the odds of a positive outcome in your favor. No EDC is complete without a self-defense round that performs as well as Winchester’s new USA Ready Defense.
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