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Ammunition Selection – A Few Thoughts

Ammunition selection is important. Ammunition may be called the fuel for the handgun. Without quality ammunition the handgun will sputter and stop running. After spending most of the past forty some years experimenting with handguns I know a little about the subject. I know what a handgun that has fired 10,000 rounds looks like. I know the toll on the wrists and hands and trigger finger if such a test is undertaken over a period of a few weeks. For this reason I take some of the reports published in the popular press with a grain of salt. 10,000 rounds or even a 1,000 round test is a rarity in the real world. Without opening the book and actually counting, I am pretty certain I fired well over 10,000 rounds in work actually related to my book THE 1911 AUTOMATIC. But then it took some seven years to get the book together. Reliability as defined by the propensity of a handgun to fire with every press of the trigger seems easier to define than longevity. Some handguns are longer lived than others.

            The handguns I trust the most include the 1911, CZ 75 and High Power, about in that order. As for caliber the choice is obvious. The bigger bullets let out more blood and let more air in. We may pick and choose over any number of loads for the individual caliber and spend sleepless nights agonizing over the choice. Those who use a small bore handgun must take more time in load selection. No matter the caliber the shooter must be able to control his handgun. Retention is not necessarily being able to control the handgun on the range but in a wide range of shooting scenarios. You must be able to control the handgun with the load of choice. As an example, among the most accurate Glock models I have ever fired is the Glock Model 20 in 10mm. With the Cor Bon 180 gr. hunting load, I managed a 1.25 inch five shot group off the bench. This is much better than anything I have done with the Glock M 21 .45 and particularly better than the .40 caliber Glock. But the handgun is too large for my hands in a control situation.  My short fingers just won’t stretch.

            The handgun must have good handfit and we must be able to control with piece with our load of choice. Reliability is perhaps 1,000,000 times more important than anything else. Ammunition selection must center upon reliability first. My criteria for a combat load is different than most. But I hope you will consider my words and at least give it a try. The National Institute of Justice stresses that reliability is defined as the propensity of a firearm to fire with each press of the trigger and continue firing with each trigger press. Makes sense to me. The standard is 300 rounds between cleaning, not a very stringent test. To my mind, this is simply a good beginning. With reliability established first then we will look at other factors. Feed and cycle reliability are the first consideration. The handgun must be proofed. If new, it should have fired a few hundred rounds of ball ammunition without any problem. It is increasingly less common for modern handguns to require a break in period. As an example, I recently obtained a new High Standard 1911. This is a Philippine produced GI type. My experience with 1911s dating back to the 1970s indicates that a hundred rounds of hardball is needed to in order to break in a too long link, rough spots or burrs. One hundred rounds of Winchester USA ball were fired. I enjoyed firing the pistol and found the sights were well regulated. There were no malfunctions of any type.

            With modern handguns it seems that with a modest 50-60 rounds of test ammunition you are in like Flint. Should we consider ballistic properties next? Well, lets not hurry. There is something called cartridge integrity. I place a respective sample of the chosen load in water, oil, and solvent, respectively. I let them soak overnight. If the cartridge does not have sufficient primer or case mouth seal there will be a failure to fire. Interestingly it is powder failure more often than primer failure and occasionally the powder partially ignites. I don’t use primer seal in most of my handloads and that’s fine if the factory doesn’t for practice ammunition. Defense ammunition is another matter. No matter how ‘devastating’ the ad guys tell us a cartridge is, if it doesn’t go bang then it isn’t going to help us.  Another test I run on prospective service ammunition is to run a few rounds through the action of the pistol. This simulates loading and unloading the cartridge during the course of the month at inspections or simply during cleaning. Many shooters will unload their duty loads and practice with ball ammo, then reload the service loads. If the bullet’s case mouth seal if broken and the bullet pressed back into the case after a few chamberings, then the load is not suitable for personal defense duty. You need to get the micrometer out, some budge just a little. Others are knocked into the case on the first chambering or two. A deeply seated bullet raises chamber pressure considerably. Once the case mouth seal is broken, the chances of contamination are much greater. Such a test makes you take quality control with a jaundiced eye. Revolver loads should be tested as well.

            Many years ago I purchased one of the first Charter Arms Bulldog .44 Special revolvers. Two brands of factory ammunition tied up on the Bulldog. The culprit was heavy recoil. The soft lead 246 grain bullets were loosened in the case during recoil and moved forward, tying the cylinder gun up. I used my RCBS crimping die to heavily crimp my factory ammunition. The same situation exists today with some lead bullet loads in .38 Special. All are not suitable for use in airweight .38 snubs. Recoil will jerk the lead bullet loose. But all jacketed bullets are not created equal and may also give a problem. At present, it seems the smart money is on the Speer Gold Dot 135 grain +P, especially designed for the .38 snub. Another great load I have tested is the Buffalo Bore 125 grain JHP, using the Speer 125 grain short barrel Gold Dot. I would test my load extensively in a Scandium frame, but these two work just fine for me. 20 rounds isn’t much of a test and you should fire more if you can afford it.

            As a rule foreign produced ammunition is not as reliable as USA produced loads. An exception is Fiocchi. Fiocchi of America produces excellent ammunition in their Ozark Missouri plant but the Italian produced loadings are also very good. I have limited experience with Lapua loads, but the few boxes of 9mm CEPP I tested were reliable and accurate. Sometimes a good company produces inexpensive ammunition that is very, very good. During my time as a peace officer I saw at least 30,000 rounds of Zero remanufactured loads fired during qualifications. I cannot recall a single failure to feed, chamber fire or eject. There are folks who have the same good experience with other brands but my experience with Zero is first hand and that means something.

            Once feed and cycle reliability and cartridge integrity are established, we may move to exterior ballistics. The load should exhibit a minimum of muzzle blast. If properly concocted the load will burn the powder inside the barrel and not ignite unburned powder at the muzzle. There should be a minimum of unburned powder in the action. Next we will look to wound potential. There are rules that may be ignored at your own peril. Penetration is important. Some loads seek to limit penetration, and this is a dangerous course for the shooter. If the adversary is heavily clothed the wrong load will underpenetrate. If the adversary is firing at you with his arms outstretched your bullet may have to penetrate heavy arm bones and heavy clothing in order to take effect. I have learned that any number of felons are large, heavy men. A six foot two inch 325 pound man is not going to be impressed by a load that penetrates 5 – 6 inches and stops, fully expanded. The heavily muscled human form causes expanding bullets to open more quickly. A bullet that fragment in gelatin may underpenetrate in flesh and blood. I suffered an underpenetration during a critical incident with a 200 grain .45 that was the darling of the popular press at the time. The bullet penetrated about 4.5 inches and expanded to 1.00 –one inch- in a tough shoulder. The second bullet took effect, the first did not. I went back to .45 caliber 230 grain hardball and did not use a hollow point in the .45 for nearly a decade. I also qualified a number of incidents in which 9mm hollowpoints stopped short. In once incident two 9mms stopped in 3 centimeters of bone and gristle in a pit bull’s shoulder. The officer who fired those shots was bitten in the testicles and spent several months recovering. Obviously adequate penetration is needed. A JHP bullet needs a balance of expansion and penetration. 12-14 inches of penetration is a realistic standard. You don’t necessarily need ballistic gelatin to test these bullets. For many years I have used soaking wet newsprint. My results are usually within ten per cent of factory gelatin figures. Penetration in newsprint is a little less and expansion a little more, perhaps five per cent more. The real difference in effect between similar loads in the same caliber will be controlled by marksmanship. The difference between a hit in the arterial region of the heart and a hit in the intestines is what will count.

I have seen some pretty dumb thing in print. This means the writer had the idea and the editor seconded the thought. One writer tells us that load selection is more important as we can control load selection but not shot placement. This is flying in the face of every thought I have ever had on shot placement.  Accuracy can make up for power. The reverse is seldom true.  Choosing a personal defense load that is reliable and which exhibits a good balance of penetration and expansion is essential. Control is very important.

            As for control, quite a few handguns do not meet my standards for control.  Control matters.  Pictured on the right, this shooter finds the SIG GSR good. My baseline is the Government Model 1911 with 230 grain .45 caliber JHP loads. A bit heavier recoil is found in the aluminum frame 1911s. I carry them but work hard to master them. In the 9mm I find the Winchester 127 grain SXT +P+ among the best loads ever fielded in 9mm.  A local agency has had a run of well over a dozen one shot incidents with this load. In my personal 35 ounce Armalite AR 24 the load is controllable. In the 26 ounce Smith and Wesson Military and Police recoil is more pronounced. In the SIG P 226 or Beretta 92, this is a fine load. In lighter guns we have to carefully consider control factors. Perhaps the Speer Gold Dot +P, 124 grains at over 1200 fps, might be an alternative.

            I am moved to retching by those who claim a certain small caliber load ‘turns a 9mm into a .45.’ Until the laws of physics are changed, this isn’t possible. Big bullets do the business. When fashion, custom and convenience interfere with packing a big bore than we may adopt a smaller handgun. But we must choose loads carefully and the bottom line is reliability and marksmanship. If the adversary is heavily clothed and you have the wrong load in the gun you may find yourself enumerated among the dead. Choose well, shoot straight.

R.K. Campbell

(Carryconcealed.net would like to thank R.K for his work. If you get the chance, buy any of his books that you can get your hands on!) 

4 comments (Add your own)

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Thu, January 22, 2009 @ 3:37 AM

2. Ben wrote:
What a precise article! I appreciate this sight and your personal experience. I'll just repeat one thing that can't be said enough: all handguns are insufficient, follow up shots and shot placement are paramount.

Tue, June 9, 2009 @ 2:54 PM

3. Rick wrote:
I carried a Ruger P90 .45 for years at my first Law enforcement job and with Winchester Black talons towards the end of 50 rounds the slide would move so slow you could watch it move. It all ways functioned but when we switched to those I went to a Sig because that made me nervous. I all ways check for reliabillity between the ammo and Handgun I carry.

Sun, April 18, 2010 @ 10:00 PM

4. Calldeaii wrote:
>This law will do nothing to stop cliimnars from committing violent acts. This is nothing but a feel good law that will have no effect on non-gunowners and a MAJOR effect on law abiding citizens who want to purchase ammunition.Let's just keep trading away our liberties little by little. I'm sure once the government has them all that we will all be safe (sarcasm definitely intended).

Sun, March 11, 2012 @ 10:16 AM

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