OK, I have a confession to make: I don’t really think the FBI is scamming you. But, in the full spirit of the internet, I had to have an eye-grabbing tag line to get your attention.
The FBI isn’t scamming you, the local gun shop commandos are. Oh, wait. I have to get up to date. Sorry. Your gun shop “operators” are scamming you.
The FBI ammo test protocols were derived from tests developed by the late Dr. Martin Fackler. He worked out the testing of ammunition using a specific and detailed gelatin block arrangement. The FBI took that, added barriers, and practically slapped a trademark on it. A thumbnail sketch of the FBI requirements is: any bullet they will consider has to penetrate not less than 12 inches in ballistic gelatin, and not more than 18. It has to expand without breaking up and, the more it does, the better it scores. It has to expand even after having passed through intermediate barriers such as clothing, walls, glass and sheet metal.
For those who haven’t given it a lot of thought: this isn’t an easy task. Just getting a bullet to penetrate into a foot of ballistic gelatin takes a certain amount of horsepower. Then, to ask the same bullet to expand takes even more. Worse, the mechanical effort needed to expand the projectile, to change its shape from “bullet” to “mushroom” means you need more horsepower. The energy to perform that mechanical change has to come from some place, and that some place is you, in the velocity you start with. Wait, it gets even worse: The expansion of the projectile decreases penetration. So, add more velocity or weight, or both, to overcome the drag effect of expansion, and get penetration back up to where the FBI says it has to be.
The end result is a serious cartridge. Significantly, it takes a 9 mm cartridge operating at +P to consistently deliver the goods in the FBI test. As far as I know, there is no .38 Spl. load that passes the test. And even if you do scare up a .38 Spl. +P 125-grain Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) that does pass the test, it isn’t going to do so once you launch it out of a snubbie with a 2-inch barrel. Compactness comes at the cost of terminal performance.
And that’s where the scam comes in.
The FBI wants a cartridge that will bring its special agents home at night, despite the best efforts of bad guys to hide behind stuff. The FBI expects to be fighting around cars, in offices, and shooting through windows—at least, in as much as the FBI gets in gunfights.
Do you expect that kind of situation?
The FBI is willing to test for, and buy, the handgun equivalent of a serious, heavy-duty 4x4 truck, if we were comparing handguns to vehicles. The question you have to ask yourself is this: Do you really need a 4x4 truck to go down to the local store for bread, milk and the latest lottery ticket? I suspect not, unless you live miles and miles off of a paved road.
So, do you really need an FBI-compliant load? Before you answer, consider what you use as your everyday carry (EDC) handgun. First, if your daily carry gun is an ultra-compact that fires 9 mm Luger rounds, then that 124-grain +P load that passes the FBI tests probably isn’t going to do so, out of the 3.5” barrel of your EDC. Second, it would be obnoxious to shoot. You won’t shoot as well, and you’ll be reluctant to practice because of its recoil and blast.
And yet, the local “it is used by SEALs” expert at your gun shop will mutter derisively about your ammunition choices, if they are not the list-toppers for that caliber, as ranked by the FBI.
As I’ve said before, and will continue to say, you must choose what is right for you, not for what is best for fill-in-the-blank people, agency or military group. Will you be fighting around vehicles? No? Then why do you “need” ammunition that can pass that test? Ditto for glass, walls, etc. We’ll take as a given that bullets have to work through clothing, because “concealed carry” is an oxymoron in a nudist colony. Or at least, I hope so. If the cost of FBI performance is obnoxious muzzle blast, difficult-to-control recoil, and a reluctance to practice, what benefit have you actually gained?
The “operators” who mock “lesser” choices act as if the ammunition companies are sneaking into your house at night and stealing feet-per-second performance out of your ammunition while you sleep. What they are actually doing is in the finest American tradition: They are treating you like an informed adult, and providing choices for you to select from.
Don’t limit your choices to those on the “Approved by the FBI” list just because somebody with a beard says you should.
In Part 2, coming up later this month, we’ll cover what you do need to consider when selecting defensive ammunition.