Is high-velocity ammunition for your handgun worth the extra cost? – John Q., Living Ready reader
High-Velocity Ammunition Answer
Good question, John. My opinion is, for the average shooter, probably not.
Handgun ammo comes in many different loadings within caliber. High-velocity ammunition varieties (often referred to as “+P”) come with higher combustion pressures and more sophisticated bullet designs.
Advanced projectiles upset more (increase their frontal area) to create a larger wound channel, and higher pressures produce more energy transfer into the human body. The desired result is faster incapacitation, and if you know you can handle it, this is a good thing. For experienced shooters the extra cost is well worth it.
What’s the Problem with High-Velocity Ammunition?
The problem is higher pressures bring more recoil and muzzle flash. In some loadings, this means a lot more recoil and flash. This is especially significant when the gun must be fired at night.
High-velocity handgun rounds can create a muzzle flash or “bloom” (especially in today’s shorty handguns) so distracting that it can take you out of the fight tactically by destroying your night vision.
With a lot of practice, you can learn to tolerate the recoil and using a tactical light properly can reduce the flash effects. In my experience, most civilians and many cops don’t practice enough to overcome either side effect of the high velocity loadings. The increase in stopping power may then be offset by poor shot placement. And if you have not fired your “duty round” in the dark, you really have no idea what you are carrying.
Standard Velocity Ammunition May Offer Better Results
I teach my rookies that the most significant factor in surviving a gunfight is the ability to put an aimed round of adequate ballistics in the center mass of the adversary before they get one into you. That doesn’t mean that you rush the shot. It means that you quickly decide you need to shoot and smoothly present the gun, acquire the front sight and press the trigger.
Plus P ammunition has no positive bearing on that dynamic, and in fact, may retard it. If you fear the recoil or flash of the weapon, you will likely not be smooth and decisive when it counts. A solid torso hit with a standard velocity hollow point is better than a miss with your super-zipper-zombie-zapper any day.
Ammo choices have also been complicated by the shortages caused by the recent panic buying situation. Most folks don’t store a lot of ammo and you may find that your usual loading has vanished from the shelves. If that happens, I recommend a lower velocity loading than a higher one as an alternative unless you can get quickly to the range and try out the new stuff.
I don’t want anybody to feel under-gunned with standard velocity loads. Shot placement trumps bullet energy, and there is no such thing as a guaranteed fight stopper pistol bullet. (Remember, a handgun is what you take if you don’t think you are going to get into a gunfight.)
So in a gun store with staff you trust, ask them to recommend a standard velocity, hollow point load and practice with it. If you practice regularly with the ammunition you use for personal defense you should be just fine. When in doubt, go with standard velocity.
(Note: If you are really interested in how bullets do their job and what actual autopsy data suggests are the best loads for your gun, get the definitive work in the field, Handgun Stopping Power, by Marshall and Sanow. It is very readable and I recommend it highly.)
And remember, please, every person has unique needs and capacities and every armed encounter is different. When developing your defensive tactics always get a second opinion.
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If standard velocity loads utilize a bullet that reliably expands then I agree. But that seems a bit of a problem these days. In .38 revolvers the Nyclad and he tsoft lead HP SWC were starting to get a good reputation but the 9mm auto craze came along and .38 loads were all but forgotten.
As a general rule there is no substitute for velocity to get expansion. Super Vel was the first successful high velocity JHP ammo for law enforcement in my career. Other ammo makers quickly got on board. LEO’s were tired of the weak junk they had to use to defend their lives and others.
Bullets and powders have come a long way from the bad old days of poor defensive ammo. But even so finding the “right” ammo for your environment that will perform in textbook fashion under all circumstances is really impossible. The best we can achieve is a compromise between under-powered and over-penetration. For the average citizen whose deadly force experience will likely be nil, I recommend going light and fast.
The current class of bonded heavy bullets is really directed at LE use where you are dealing with suspects inside autos and barricaded in buildings, two situations that citizens will not likely be involved in. The citizen self defense incident is going to be face to face, up close. A bonded bullet is not needed but if someone wants a bonded bullet, go for it.
I’m glad to see the author recommended Marshall’s books. Gel tests are interesting and I take notes from them but the street is where the rubber hits the road. Your opponent(s) will not be gel blocks and if its one thing I learned in my years as CSI, bullets do unpredictable things. Perps are even more unpredictable.
If someone is uncomfortable with recoil and muzzle blast you need to back off and practice with less intense ammo. Get comfortable and work up to better defense loads. You don’t want to be short changed when you really need the power.
My daughter is a low time beginner shooter who gets a charge out of full bore .357 Mag loads. She is not intimidated by the blast and recoil. I started her out with baby steps and worked up to .44 Mag. Proper grip is highly important to controlling any loads accurately, but even more with the intense loads.
I would have to disagree with this article on a number of points. First it is an attempt to get people to buy standard velocity ammo which even in todays scarce market is still found for sale while the high performance ammo is almost non-existent. Lower velocity means less expansion. I would also say that in a life or death gun fight you certainly are not going to notice the difference in recoil and as far as muzzle flash, yes standard velocity ammo does create less flash but still not enough not to also blind you at night and if you are firing in that amount of darkness in most cases you should not be shooting anyway because if it is that dark that means you cannot identify your target. Who are you shooting at, a relative that came home unexpectedly in the middle of the night, a police officer responding to an emergency, an innocent bystander who got in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think you get the picture. A perfect example how sometimes tritium sights can create a tragedy.
I would say the only advantage of standard velocity ammo is that it has way less wear and tear on your gun if you are going to practice with it and it costs less but lets face the truth of the matter standard velocity ammo is way less lethal as well.
The question is, is standard velocity ammo lethal enough? That depends on the brand, the bullet weight and the velocity and the angle of body entry. Few people have the time or energy to actually test their defense ammo so they will never know if it is lethal enough. Those few who do test can to it with only milk jugs filled with wet newspaper and water and then wrapped in a piece of scrap denim cloth. Usually about six jugs placed in back of each other will trap the bullet in one of them. You will be surprised at the differences in brands of ammo, styles of bullets, bonded v/s non-bonded, and plus p v/s standard velocity.
One surprising test showed that Speer Gold Dot 9mm which is not bonded expanded as well as some of the name brand bonded bullets and retain about the same amount of weight as well. Now that was a surprise but no surprise to the majority of police departments that use it and yes it is at the upper end of the velocity spectrum.
Higher velocity equals more expansion and penetration, sometime too much penetration. The 9mm 124 grain has been known to penetrate deeper than the 55 grain .223 rifle ammo, now that’s a shocker. Many people have opted to used 115 grain 9mm ammo. So problem solved, right? Wrong? In the infamous Miami FBI shootout they used plus p 115 grain 9mm and one of the felons was shot through the side of the arm which slowed the 115 grain bullet way down. It only penetrated into the body within about 1/10 of an inch of the heart but did not reach it. On the other hand if the FBI had been using the 125 grain plus p and hit the felon dead on in the chest it probably would have over penetrated and went on through the body and killed any innocent bystander’s. So you see there is no perfect weight bullet or velocity for every scenario.
In conclusion if you want maximum expansion you need plus p. If you want less penetration you need to use a lighter bullet that will expand to maximum and that usually means at the highest velocity. If you want more penetration you need a heavier bullet and the higher the velocity the more the penetration. Other ways to get more penetration is when the bullet fails to expand or only partially expands, then even the lighter weight bullets may over-penetrate and this often happens with standard velocity ammo because there is not enough velocity to expand the bullet fully or sometimes not at all.
Hollow point bullets filling up with clothing prevent some hollow point bullets from expanding resulting in over penetration. A recent test with Remington 124 grain hollow point ammo showed no expansion when fired through denim but when Speer Gold Dot was used it did expand and both Speer and Remington are non-bonded bullets and both are hollow points and both were the same weight. So testing of your ammo is worth while to actually see if it works.
Distance to the target also affects penetration as well, as when the bullet slows down over distance so does the penetration and its corresponding expansion which includes both light and heavy weight bullets. The type of material encountered also affects penetration. If you hit more muscle or hit bone you get more expansion and less penetration. If you hit only soft tissue you may get excessive penetration due to less expansion.
There is no simply solutions to any of the above problems. You pick your ammo and then test it to at least get a rough idea on how it is really going to work.
However, when it comes to the use of a .38 special for self-defense, the +P loading is preferable to a standard load. The idea behind a +P load is to deliver enough energy to reliably an expanded bullet deep enough to do it’s job. See “Defensive Revolver Fundamentals” by Grant Cunningham. Whatever you are shooting, shot place is the primary goal. The 158 gr +P load in a .38 special is a more than adequate fight stopper. The idea