July 29, 2015
Contrary to what your grandparents might tell you, the best things are not all behind us. Modern materials and machining have made current defensive ammunition superior in every way to what was available just a few years ago, and there are a number of reasons why.
The FBI Ballistic Test Protocol
The single biggest factor that has driven improvement in modern defensive handgun ammunition is the FBI Protocol. For those of you unclear on the history of the protocol, here's a little background.
In 1986, multiple FBI agents were involved in a lengthy gun battle with two armed suspects in and around vehicles in Miami, Florida, that left two FBI agents dead and five others wounded. Although tactical errors and poor marksmanship exhibited by the agents extended the gunfight, the F.B.I. placed most of the blame on poorly performing ammunition, as both suspects were shot multiple times and kept fighting. As a result, they developed the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol for evaluating the relative performance of defensive handgun ammunition.
The protocol involves eight practical tests in which testers fire bullets into properly prepared and calibrated ballistic gelatin. Shots are fired into bare gelatin, gelatin covered with heavy clothing at two different distances, through angled auto glass, wallboard, plywood and even sheet metal. The FBI wants to see bullets penetrate a minimum of 12 inches in every test, and the more expansion, the better.
This test has become so accepted across the nation that most police departments will not issue duty ammo to its officers that hasn't scored well on the FBI Protocol. Before this test there was no standard, and now the FBI Protocol is the standard. This protocol has directly affected every company making ammo, and the resulting testing and R&D has been very beneficial to consumers.
Although bullets get most of the attention in defensive ammunition, if not for the gunpowder pushing them out of the barrel, they wouldn't have a job. The fact that modern technology has generated as many improvements in powders as it has in bullets simply isn't as obvious.
Decades ago, high velocity equaled high flash when it came to handgun ammunition. I remember testing ammunition 20-plus years ago and being as dazzled by the muzzle flash as I was by the velocities. Now, most manufacturers advertise that their defensive ammunition is assembled with low-flash powder, which only makes sense, as the majority of defensive shootings occur in low-light situations.
Modern powders don't just offer low flash but also increased velocities (without a dangerous increase in pressure) compared with what was available just a few short years ago, not to mention improved consistency, which translates to increased accuracy. While this increased velocity gets more attention on the rifle ammunition side of the aisle, the fact is that a lot of .380 ammo is now moving as fast as a 9mm used to, and some 9mm offerings post velocities only previously seen with .357 Magnum ammo.
In decades past, all a company had to do when marketing ammunition for self-defense was cut a cavity in the tip and call it good. Just because it has a hollow point, however, doesn't mean a bullet will expand.
Modern bullets incorporate so much engineering that most shooters would hardly believe it. Jacket thicknesses now vary between calibers, and even among bullet weights in the same caliber, so as to guarantee the hollowpoint will peel open upon impact. The Speer Gold Dot bullet has proven itself to be such a reliable performer, expanding under any and all conditions, that it has been the issued duty ammo of several federal law enforcement agencies for years. The Federal HST is the latest generation of "traditional" hollowpoint bullets, and while externally it honestly doesn't look much different than hollowpoints of a few decades ago, know that every dimension of the bullet, from the diameter and depth of the cavity to the thickness of the jacket at the leading edge have been specifically designed to provide the utmost in reliable performance.
Some modern bullets have so much technology in them that simply manufacturing them was beyond the capability of ammo makers just a few years ago. For example, take Federal Guard Dog ammo. First, it has the look of a FMJ bullet for the utmost in feeding reliability. FMJ ammo has a reputation for overpenetration, but Federal Guard Dog ammo has actually been designed specifically for home defense and reduced penetration. The tip of the bullet is filled with an expanding polymer. Sounds simple, right? Not really, that's why it hasn't been done before.
Better Quality Control
Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to tour several ammunition manufacturing facilities. Every visit was interesting. Most of the ammunition made in those plants is still being made on the heavy equipment built to help us win WWII, but those presses have all been equipped with modern optical scanners, laser gauges and every high-tech scanner and tool you can think of to ensure that the ammo produced is as close to perfect as possible. And the new presses being used have been CNC manufactured with enough gleaming exactitude that the Terminator thinks they're sexy.
Not only do the modern high-tech tools allow manufacturers like Federal to make better and more consistent ammunition, they result in better quality control. Heck, "outstanding quality control" is the new mantra of modern manufacturing. Making fewer errors, and spotting the ones that do happen (and anyone who's loaded ammo knows that something always goes wrong somewhere) mean less waste for the manufacturer and a better product to the consumer. While perfection isn't possible, the chances of finding a bad round in your box of ammo has never been lower, thanks to better technology and conscientious employees.
Not too many years ago, only a few brands of ammo featured nickel-plated cases. But now, almost all premium defensive ammunition features nickel-plated cases. Does it matter?
Nickel cases look prettier for sure, and that certainly affects marketing and sales. Nickel plating is functional as well.
Nickel is slicker than brass, which means it should feed and extract more smoothly from chambers (especially dirty chambers) than standard brass-cased ammunition. Will that make any difference in 99.99 percent of handgun-involved defensive use of force scenarios? Probably not, but the old phrase "Better to have it and not need it" comes to mind.
While everyone equates "+P" with "increased velocity," in fact, +P means increased pressure. For a long time, +P ammunition was the exception to the rule, as not a lot of manufacturers rated their handguns for that type of ammunition.
Not only has the steel that handguns are made of improved, so too has the quality control. As a result, these days, it is almost impossible to find a full-size handgun not rated to handle +P ammunition, and a lot of pocket guns are rated for it as well. This is a good thing because usually +P ammo does provide increased velocity. Velocity is the key ingredient when it comes to both penetration and expansion. When combined with modern expanding hollowpoints, +P ammunition provides vastly improved terminal performance.
+P ammunition is, in fact, one main reason the .40 S&W cartridge is falling out of favor with both law enforcement and the general shooting public for self defense. 9mm+P ammunition, loaded with modern, high-tech bullets that penetrate and expand consistently, even out of short-barreled pocket guns, has nearly done away with all of the .40's perceived advantages.
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