HANDGUN AMMUNITION - SELF DEFENSE .32, .38 and .357 Mag caliber ammo
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Since 10-11-06

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Ammunition manufactured in the United States is among the finest in the world. For intended defensive uses, the gun owner will not go wrong in selecting ammunition produced by the most widely recognized manufacturers. These include CCI/Speer, Cor-Bon, Federal, Remington, and Winchester.

Allow no margin for error in protecting one's life. Avoid potentially unreliable ammunition that is hand loaded, re-loaded, or of dubious quality foreign manufacture when choosing defensive rounds.

In a self defense situation, the application of superior force on your part to dissipate a life threatening encounter with a criminal aggressor will require use of a gun ideally chambered for a round that possesses the following characteristics:

As an absolute minimum, be capable of penetrating at least six to eight inches of bodily tissue.

As a preferred minimum, be capable of penetrating at least ten to twelve inches of bodily tissue.

As an absolute maximum, be capable of penetrating no more than eighteen inches of bodily tissue.

The rationale behind these criteria is discussed in depth in the Armory munitions room marked "Ammunition: Self Defense".

Consider visiting the Armory munitions room "Handgun: Self Defense". Information found in the discussion "Selection of Caliber" is pertinent to the evaluation of "best" defensive ammunition, and will provide additional insight into the discussion at hand. To access this material, either link to the button at the top of that page or scroll down through the text.

In investigating the merits of various calibers and bullets for self defense, one will find that a considerable range of opinion and personal preference exist. This is to be expected, considering that the American gun community embraces fellow firearm enthusiasts with extremely varied backgrounds, tastes, insights and experiences.

As a generality, it appears as though two distinct schools of thought exist: cartridge performance preference based on real world shooting data ("one shot stop" statistics) and cartridge performance preference based on bullet penetration data (derived from shooting into ballistic gelatin, used to simulate human tissue). Both sources of information form the basis of the discussion which follows.

It is not the purpose of this forum to debate the merits and limitations of the various data sources. One will likely find that valuable guidance is to be obtained from each. In fact, conclusions derived from these disparate methodologies often complement one another.

Hence, it is not surprising that the "best" performers based on real world "one shot stop" shootings are also the calibers that tend to meet the preferred minimum penetration criteria established through empirical testing.

In evaluating ammunition performance information, it is suggested by the Armory that one not treat the "one shot stop" data as an absolute. Rather, it may be more productive to compare the statistics for various calibers based on their "relative" performance to one another.

From the perspective of self defense, it is helpful to mentally categorize calibers as "very poor", "poor", "fair", "good", "very good", "better" and "best".

Realize that such comparisons are both subjective as well as objective in nature, and are quite likely the subject of considerable discussion and debate among handgun aficionados.

Within a chosen caliber, seek to use ammunition that not only rates well in real world shootings, but, most importantly, functions reliably in one's handgun (specifically, autoloaders).

Remember, however, that even a poor or fair caliber could be a life saver if the threat of force or actual force itself was applied at the right place and at the right time by the intended victim to dissipate a criminal assault. Remember also the importance of proper, multiple shot placement when comparably weak calibers are used for personal protection.

Don't lose track of the "big picture". Don't miss the forest for all those trees out there. What one is attempting to assess is the suitability of various self defense rounds in the context of one's personal need, abilities and life style. This includes factors such as recoil tolerance, firearm familiarity, and gun operation, portability, accessibility and concealability.

Full Metal Jacket. The round-nosed bullet is enclosed on its top and sides in a hard metal jacket, usually consisting of an alloy of copper or occasionally mild steel. The base of the bullet is open, exposing a lead core. The bullet design is not conducive to either expansion or deformation. According to terms of the Hague Convention of 1899, and subsequently the Geneva Convention, this is the only type of bullet permitted in small arms during warfare. It is also referred to as "ball" ammunition.

Jacketed Hollow Point. The bullet is constructed of a soft lead core enclosed in a hard metal jacket. The top of the bullet has an opening in the jacket, exposing a hollow lead core. Upon impact, the bullet is forced to open up and expand. This results in less penetration, but greater tissue damage due to the larger diameter of the now expanded bullet.

Lead Hollow Point. The bullet is similar to a JHP, but is constructed completely of lead and has no jacket.

Semi-Jacketed Hollow Point. This bullet is similar to a JHP, but the jacket does not completely cover the lead core. A small section of core at the top of the bullet is left exposed. This older bullet design is still common in the .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum calibers.

Lead Round Nose

Lead Wadcutter. The bullet is flat-nosed

Recommendations regarding handgun ammunition for self defense follow:

.32 ACP Caliber:
One Shot Stopping Success: 50-63% (Actual)
Self Defense Rating: Fair
Recommended Cartridges:

Winchester "Silvertip" JHP 60 grains 63%
Winchester FMJ 71 grains 50%

The Beretta .32 ACP "Tomcat", loaded with Winchester "Silvertip", 60 grains, is certainly a viable defensive concealable handgun. It is enjoyable to shoot, a feature that encourages practice and, hence, proper shot placement during any potential encounter with a violent aggressor.

Penetration can be expected to be in the range of 6 to 8 inches.

Most of the common .32 ACP autoloaders on the market are only reliable with FMJ. These include Llama, Walther PP and PPK, Czech CZ-24 and CZ-70, Davis P-32, and Colt Pocket Model, among others.

.38 Special Caliber: 2-inch Barrel
One Shot Stopping Success: 49-67% (Actual)
Self Defense Rating: Good
Recommended Cartridges:

Winchester +P LHP 158 grains 67%
Federal +P LHP 158 grains 66%
Federal +P JHP 125 grains 65%
Remington +P LHP 158 grains 65%
CCI +P JHP 125 grains 64%

Ammunition labeled +P (for extra pressure) should be used only in steel, aluminum and aluminum/scandium alloy framed revolvers approved by the manufacturer for such use. Ultra high pressure loads, such as the Cor-Bon +P+, JHP, 115 grains, should be used only in extremely sturdy revolvers such as the Ruger SP101.

Standard pressure (non +P) rounds are suited for use in older aluminum frame snub nose revolvers such as the Smith & Wesson Model 38 Bodyguard, 642, 442, 37, or Colt Cobra. Firing a few (less than 100) rounds of +P ammunition probably won't ruin the gun, but extended use of +P cartridges will cause some damage.

Recent advances in metalurgy have allowed Smith & Wesson to introduce a new generation of snubbies that are perfectly capable of accommodating +P ammunition. These include the "Airlite" aluminum/scandium alloy framed models, which feature light weight titanium cylinders. The "Airweight" models utilize aluminum frames with steel cylinders and barrels. These also feature +P capability. Some newer model steel framed snub nose revolvers have been designed to feed the potent .357 Magnum cartridge (hence the .38 Special +P and the standard pressure .38 Special).

Accuracy with a light weight snubby is extremely susceptible to the unpleasant blast and kick produced by +P ammunition. The gun is much more controllable in rapid fire with standard pressure rounds. Acceptable ammunition includes the Federal "Nyclad", LHP, 125 grains, which was designed to expand at lower velocities, and the Winchester "Silvertip", JHP, 110 grains.

The ability to control a snub nose revolver is greatly improved by the addition of after market rubber grips to replace the wooden factory grips.

.38 Super Caliber:
One Shot Stopping Success: Data Not Available
Self Defense Rating: Very Good
Recommended Cartridges:

Cor-Bon JHP 115 or 124 grains
Winchester JHP 115 or 124 grains
Remington JHP 115 or 124 grains

The Remington JHP may be the most reliable functioning cartridge in many pistols, particularly Colts and Colt M1911A1 copies produced by Springfield Armory and Auto-Ordnance. With JHP ammunition, the Llama tends to jam. Use FMJ instead in 115 or 124 grains.

.357 Magnum Caliber:
One Shot Stopping Success: 68-96% (Actual)
Self Defense Rating: Best
Recommended Cartridges:

Remington JHP 125 grains 96%
Federal JHP 125 grains 96%
CCI JHP 125 grains 93%
Federal JHP 110 grains 90%
Remington SJHP 110 grains 89%
Winchester JHP 125 grains 87%

The .357 Magnum, in Remington or Federal JHP, 125 grains, is unquestionably the most effective handgun cartridge in existence. Its proven ability to produce one shot stops exceeds that of any other round, including more powerful cartridges such as the .41 Magnum and .44 Magnum.

Penetration is 10 to 12 inches.

If there is any downside to using the .357 Magnum for self-defense, it would relate to the blast and kick of full power loads. Controllability is extremely important in follow-up shot placement, and self-defense requires that shots be fired rapidly and accurately.

For those uncomfortable with the buck and roar of full-load .357 Magnum rounds, there exist a variety of lower recoil cartridges that are equally well suited to self defensive purposes. Because the .357 Magnum is such an incredible manstopper, little is lost by "downgrading" to more temperate ammunition.

The following cartridges are recommended for those who desire to reduce recoil of the .357 Magnum cartridge. Rounds are listed in decreasing order of recoil severity:

Winchester "Silvertip" JHP 145 grains 85%
Remington "Golden Saber" JHP 125 grains 84%
Federal JHP 110 grains 90%

Remington "Medium Velocity" JHP 125 grains 83%
Cor-Bon JHP 115 grains NA

For 2.5-inch and 3-inch short-barreled Magnum revolvers, the last two recommended cartridges represent excellent self-defense rounds. These cartridges are ideal for snub nose revolvers like the Smith & Wesson Models 66, 19, 65, and 13; the Colt King Cobra; the Ruger GP100 and especially the small frame Ruger SP101. Ammunition manufactured by Remington, Federal, CCI or Winchester in JHP, 110 grains, is also a good choice for use in snubbies or by those sensitive to recoil.

If recoil from a .357 Magnum revolver is still perceived to be excessive, considering carrying the .38 Special Cor-Bon +P+, JHP, 115 grains. This lighter round packs plenty of stopping power (83%). Its use may encourage accurate placement of multiple shots in a self defense situation due to its reduced kick when compared to the .357 Magnum.

Note that a .357 Magnum revolver can shoot both .357 and .38 Special ammunition. A .38 Special revolver can only shoot .38 Special ammunition.

For those owners of a Taurus or Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum revolver that is still equipped with factory wooden grips, consider installing recoil-absorbing, ergonomic rubber grips. The difference in control afforded by these grips is enormous, and greatly aids rapid and accurate shooting.

For self defense, never carry soft points, semi-wadcutters, or any 158 grain or 180 grain JHP ammunition. These types of .357 Magnum cartridges are better suited to target shooting and hunting. The kick of the heavier bullets is correspondingly severe, possibly inhibiting follow up shots and accuracy when used to defend against aggression.

For practice, the all lead bullets are acceptable, but there are better choices, as the shooter will quickly discover when it is time to laboriously clean the lead fouling from the gun.

When selecting .357 Magnum cartridges for self protection, an individual can't go wrong by choosing JHP, 110 to 125 grains, made by any of the top five manufacturers.