OK, if you’ve read my most recent columns (here and here), you’re probably wondering when we’re going to get to the “good part”—you know, the part where I tell you which load in which caliber is the best possible one to use, because it has the best stopping power.
Sorry, but no. That’s not going to happen.
First, there is no such thing as “stopping power” unless you are talking about artillery-sized firearms. And every handgun cartridge is a distant second place to almost all rifle cartridges, when it comes to stopping bad guys from doing bad things.
So, what do you look for, then? I suggest considering four things: aspirational status, availability, reliability and accuracy. It would be nice if we could simply peruse the FBI scores and pick from the top. Alas, the FBI is very closed-mouth about the results, and we don’t have that choice.
Aspirational status is the manufacturers’ information on their ammunition. Read the promotional info, and pick likely candidates. Make a list and head to the store or go online.
The load has to be available to you. Not just on the shelves, but being made. Yes, there will be ammunition made for law enforcement only. This might be a contractual thing, maybe because the agency doesn’t want others benefiting from their efforts. Or, it could be willing to pay for exclusivity. Lastly, it might be “LE Only” because the agency in question has asked for chamber pressures in excess of Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers' Institute(SAAMI) specifications. Just because it is LE Only—and loaded to +P+ pressures—doesn’t mean it is better. Don’t make yourself crazy trying to acquire some, just move on to the next one on your list. If you think the .41 magnum is the perfect cartridge, get used to disappointment—not because it won’t do the job, but because there won’t be many options in bonded, modern, bullets loaded to personal-defense velocities. Pick some other caliber for your every day carry (EDC) gun.
Buy enough of each of your top two or three candidates to do the testing that follows.
We’ve covered this before, but it is still worth a repeat. You must use ammunition that will be as reliable as possible, or you are just kidding yourself. You need reliability in function and reliability in performance. Function is easy; buy the ammunition and shoot it. If it works, it works. Performance is another problem. The easiest test is to use one-gallon jugs of water. You can re-fill empty milk jugs with water, provided you have a source, or you can buy them new at the store. (This can get expensive and messy, so brace yourself.)
You are not looking to replicate the FBI tests. You just need to make sure your load actually performs. Why might it not? Simple: a lot of ammo is formally tested in full-size handguns. A bullet that will expand out of a duty gun with a 5-inch barrel might not expand when fired from an ultra-compact EDC pistol. Make sure the gun club you’re at is cool with this test. Line up half a dozen jugs on a sturdy table, one behind the other. Step back 10 or 15 feet. Shoot the line of jugs.
Any modern bullet will expand like an advertising photo in this test. And it will stop after going through three, four or five jugs (depending on the caliber). If your shot slices through all six jugs and doesn’t stop, it hasn’t expanded. If you are looking for expansion, that load, out of that handgun, is now off your list.
Remember Sweeney Rule #1; you choose for you. It doesn’t matter if that load is issued by your state police department, if it doesn’t work out of your EDC pistol, pick another.
Why water instead of ballistic gelatin? Expense. As expensive as store-bought water might be, it is dirt-cheap compared to ballistic gelatin, either traditional or modern synthetics. It also evaporates when you’re done, and the gel the FBI uses starts to stink after a few days in the summer sun. The gun club will hate you if you use that stuff.
So, what happens if your top candidate is a well-performing ammunition that is 100 percent reliable, but isn’t bullseye-accurate? No problem. A hot load is going to shoot larger groups if only because it is pushing you around more than the target ammo does. The opposite is unacceptable, though. As long as you can keep all your shots inside the “A” zone of a silhouette, out to whatever your maximum distance might be, it is accurate enough. And probably more accurate than you are.