Some of you might read this and think “Well, of course, does Sweeney think I’m stupid?” No, but even smart people do not-smart things because they made assumptions. What do you need in your defensive ammunition? You need reliability, accuracy, manageability and affordability. But, you might ask, what about expansion and penetration? Don’t those numbers that the FBI spews out mean something, and how relevant are they to protecting yourself? (See my previous column about the FBI test protocols.)
Well, I’ll get to that, but let’s talk about the four necessities first.
Would you depend on a car or truck for work if it didn’t always start? Oh, we all have, but usually when we were too poor (or new to the workplace) to afford a better one. But as soon as we could, we got something that worked, right? So why are you using unreliable ammunition? Because it is used by SEALs, Green Berets or the state police? If it doesn’t work reliably in your carry gun, find something that does. This means spending money, buying enough ammunition to be sure, and shooting it. How many rounds does that take? Back in the medium-good old days, it might take close to 1,000 rounds. Today, I’d be happy with a big-name handgun that went 200 rounds without fault. Handguns and ammunition are a lot better today than they were then.
I have, from time to time, run into a situation I came to call “ammo hate.” A particular firearm, with a particular brand or type of ammunition, would shoot absolutely abysmal groups. With everything else, it shot fine, or great. With that particular load, it more like a shotgun than a handgun. That’s the old “Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this” joke. Well, don’t do that. (Just as an aside, I had the pleasure of seeing Henny Youngman in person, after his career had peaked, but before his skills started to fade. He was a scream, the whole half-hour of the act.) So, while you are testing your potential defensive load for reliability, also check it for accuracy. Hey, practice is practice, get all you can. How much is enough? Well, there is no such thing as too much, but I’d be happy if the load delivered a 3-inch spread or less at 25 yards, from a solid rest, by a good shooter. If you aren’t sure you’re a good shooter, have the best shooter in your club check for you.
What use is the perfect defensive load if you can’t stand to shot it enough to practice with it? Or an equivalent load? That was the predicament a lot of shooters found themselves in, back when Dirty Harry Callahan was the name everyone knew. Many shooters sought out (and paid extra for) an S&W M-29, only to find out that with factory .44 Mag. ammunition, they couldn’t stand to shoot it. I saw that once, at a state range. A fellow got out of his car, dressed in a three-piece suit (that tells you how long ago this was) looking for all the world like a professor of English. He puts on glasses and muffs, and proceeds to shoot a box of .44 Mag. ammunition downrange. By the time he packed up and got in his car, he was looking a little bit dazed. That was just too much gun for him, and I’m not sure that, 20 rounds into the box, he was hitting anything but the planet. That could be you, if your everyday carry (EDC), ultra-lightweight pistol is stoked with 9 mm +P ammunition, approved by the bearded operator at your local gun shop. What is too much? You’ll have to be the judge here, but if you can’t get through 100 rounds without wincing, you are either packing a handgun that is too light, or a load that is too strident.
If you can’t afford to practice with it, no ammunition will serve you as well as it could. Or perhaps at all. Here, the Train & Defend lines are a good thing. Yes, it is all factory ammunition, but the Train loads are less expensive than the Defend ones, and they have the same weight bullets at the same velocities. You can mix and match your own home-brew T&D loads, but you’ll have to do the work of checking velocities. This is where handloaders have it all over the rest of us. By loading ammunition to match the weight and velocity of their carry load, they can get in lots of cheap practice.
Fair warning: It takes some up-front investment to get started handloading. You get that back pretty quickly. You do have to stay sharp. But the funny thing is, you won’t save money. That last part seems counter-intuitive, but look at it this way: The reason you won’t save money is because if you enjoy shooting, you’ll still be spending all your budgeted dollars on it, but you’ll be spending less per round, which means you’ll be getting in a lot more practice.
You’ll notice that nowhere have I discussed expansion, penetration, FBI scoring metrics or adoption by any august agency of record. That’s because while expansion and penetration can make a difference (we’ll cover that in a column next month), it is of little concern for people outside of law enforcement.
Oh, you can take advantage of the fact that your ammunition is being used by some police group, if it ever comes to you taking the stand to explain why you defended yourself. “Why did you use that particular ammunition?” the lawyer will ask. “Because, counselor, it is the same ammunition used by the state police/my local police department,” you can respond, knowing then that you were abiding by best practices.
But you don’t want to start there. You choose for you, they don’t.