Monthly Archives: July 2013

Ammo Quest – the search for the best ammo for the Taurus 738 TCP

Here at Shooting The Bull, I have a bit of a predisposition towards Taurus firearms.  Not that they’re necessarily the highest quality, but — they’re extremely affordable, and in my experience they’re solid performers, and they offer a lot for the money.  Plus, hey, Taurus goes well with the site’s name: I spend a lot of time Shooting The Bull (the Taurus pistol)…

Anyway — I picked up one of the most-talked-about Tauruses, a PT738 micro-pistol (also known as the TCP).  This is a tiny pocket pistol which can easily be used for pocket carry or perhaps even ankle carry.  It’s incredibly inexpensive (at $199, it’s about half the cost of the competition, the Ruger LCP) and it shoots very accurately and with a smooth trigger pull.  I like it a lot.


But what to feed it? That’s the question, because, the bottom line is that it’s a .380 ACP pistol.  And .380 ACP is generally considered a marginal round for self-defense purposes.  Now, the TCP isn’t my primary everyday carry weapon; I carry a .45 ACP when I can, but sometimes you just need or want something lighter, smaller, easier to conceal, easier to carry, and the fact of the matter is that it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where you COULDN’T have the TCP with you.  Sometimes a full-size or even compact .45 is just too big and doesn’t fit with what you’re wearing, but the tiny TCP can be a constant companion.  And, hey, depending on how paranoid you may be feeling, you may want a backup gun, and the TCP is darn near perfect for that role.  Except for the power of its main round, the .380 ACP…

… I am not going to be too much of a downer on .380.  I think .380 is an okay choice.  It’s not a great choice for your primary or only defensive pistol, but the .380 has enough oomph in it to serve the purpose of a defensive pistol, if it’s combined with the right ammo.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be caught with anything smaller than a .380, but a .380 is right on the border of being adequate.  I believe that with some ammo, it’s inadequate, but with other ammo it crosses the line to where it’s okay.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m betting my life on a pistol’s ability to defend me, I definitely want at LEAST “okay” and I’d certainly prefer “GOOD” or “GREAT”!  Which is why, again, my daily carry is a .45, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.  What I’m looking for here is — how good can this little .380 be?  It shoots great, it’s very comfortable, it is extremely compact and portable, so if we can just find a type of ammo that delivers satisfactory results, well — how cool would that be?

I’ll tell you — it’d be pretty frickin’ fantastic.

So, I have commenced my Ammo Quest.  I’m testing out various brands and types of ammunition to see how they perform specifically from the TCP (and, I would venture to say, the results from the TCP should be directly applicable to the Ruger LCP or any other comparably-sized, comparable-barrel-length .380 pistol).  I’m conducting controlled testing using’s ballistic gel, and a ProChrono chronograph.  I’ll be testing for penetration and expansion, weighing and measuring the bullets, and coming to some conclusions about each particular ammo’s suitability for the task of personal defense.

Standards For Evaluation

The standard will I be judging against is the FBI report “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness.”  This is the 1989 study commissioned after the “Miami shootout” wherein several direct hits on some determined shooters failed to actually stop or incapacitate them.  The FBI report is the result of some exhaustive research to find out why bullets stop people, and what factors in ammunition performance are important in bringing about an effective quick stop.  I won’t go into too much of it here (because, hey, I even linked to the report, so you can read it for yourself) but I just want to point out the two main takeaways that I’m going with:

1) Minimum Penetration

In a short summary, penetration is the most important factor in bullet performance; if a bullet doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to hit the vital organs, then nothing else matters.  It doesn’t matter if you have perfect shot placement, if the bullet can’t penetrate deeply enough to affect what you were shooting at.  And, it doesn’t matter how big the bullet is, if it doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to hit something that matters.  If you are being attacked by a morbidly obese person, and you shoot a huge .45 caliber bullet with perfect placement right to the heart, but the bullet stops after penetrating just six inches of outer fat layers, well — it might hurt, and it’ll bleed, but it won’t actually physically incapacitate that attacker.  Simply put, it’s GOT to penetrate deep enough to hit a vital organ, artery, or the central nervous system in order to force immediate incapacitation.  Anything less is, well, less.  The FBI report specifies a minimum acceptable penetration depth of 12″ in ballistic gelatin.

2) Bullet Size

This one’s simple — the bigger the bullet, the more damage it will do, and the more likely it will be to hit something vital.  A little full-metal-jacket might penetrate deep enough, but it may be so small as to slip right between the heart and an artery, causing no significant damage; whereas a big expanded hollow point shot at the exact same point of aim might be so big as to hit both vitals.  When it comes to damage, bigger is better.  Once you have adequate penetration, you want the bullet to get as big as possible.

What Can The 380 Do?

The 380 starts off with its hands tied behind its back, as it’s not a very big bullet and it’s not very powerful.  It is actually the same diameter as a 9mm bullet, but 9mm has so much more room in its casing for powder, and is designed to operate at such higher pressure, that it can propel a heavier bullet at faster speeds and expand more.  380 can’t quite accomplish that.


above: 9mm (left) and .380 ACP (right)

So what CAN a 380 do? That’s what I’m trying to find out.  I know the .380 can and has been used effectively before.  But can it do so consistently?  Can it meet the FBI spec, especially when fired from a micro-sized pistol? Probably not, but let’s find out if it can, or at least, how close can it come?  I mean, if I can find an expanding hollow point that grows to the size of a .45, and also penetrates a consistent 11″, well, that might not meet the FBI specification but I think most of us would agree that that would be totally acceptable for us; we are, after all, not the FBI (er, unless you are an FBI agent, I guess); and we’re not going to likely be put in a position of multiple attackers shooting from multiple angles and having to shoot through car doors and windshields and all the other things the FBI tests for.  I’m not really interested in all that; I’m just looking for reasonable performance such that I can have reasonable confidence that the little TCP will be reasonably effective.

What about FMJ’s?

It’s true that a full-metal jacket bullet will indeed provide enough penetration, even more than enough penetration, from a .380.  So why not just use FMJ’s? Well, there’s really three drawbacks to using FMJ’s for defensive purposes:

1) They don’t expand, so they’re usually relatively/comparatively small bullets, and smaller is not better when you’re looking for damage that will incapacitate an attacker.

2) They don’t inherently do a lot of damage, as they’re comparatively “slippery.”  Soft tissue in a human body is usually quite flexible and stretchable, and an FMJ might just zing right through an attacker by pushing the tissue out of the way, without actually crushing or damaging much tissue.  A hollow point expands with sharp petals that cut and slice their way through, causing vastly more damage; an FMJ isn’t all that damaging of a round.  It’ll make a hole, yes, and if that hole were to be placed through the brain or spine that would certainly stop the attack, but — that’s a really tough shot to hit; in general, FMJ’s aren’t all that effective unless they’re bigger and heavier and they tumble.  A typical 90-grain FMJ from a .380 isn’t likely to be a potent manstopper.

3) FMJ’s penetrate very deeply, perhaps too deeply.  There’s a limit on how much penetration you want from a bullet.  Generally 14 to 15″ is ideal.  The FBI’s acceptable range is 12 to 18″.  You don’t want more than 18″, because that’s a pretty good sign that the bullet is not going to stop lodged in your attacker, instead it’s going to exit out the back and keep going — and that’s risky, because it’s going to stop SOMEWHERE.  If not in the attacker, where will it stop? A bystander? In general overpenetration is something that would ideally be avoided, and that’s one thing hollow points are great at; they normally expand to such a large size that they increase their drag so much that they come to a stop without exiting the target.  The same can’t be said for FMJ’s.

So in general, I’m not really looking forward to using FMJ’s.  If I can’t find any ammo that expands well and penetrates deeply enough, then I may have to resort to FMJ’s, but they’re certainly not my first choice.

The Quest

I know the odds are against me finding a reliable, consistent, deep 12+” performer in .380 ACP, but I’m going to give it a good thorough search.  At this moment I’ve secured some of the most well-known defensive ammo brands, including Winchester Ranger-T’s, Speer Gold Dots, Winchester PDX1, Remington Golden Saber, and even some Remington 88-grain UMC hollow-points.  There are lots more that I’d like to test, but the Great Ammo Drought of 2013 is making it hard to find .380 ammo.  If I can find it, I’ll test it, and you can see the results right here on, or on my YouTube channel.  If you have a request for a specific ammo to test, leave it in the comments and I’ll see if I can accommodate.  Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy future installments of this Ammo Quest.

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LaserLyte CK-SWAT for Taurus Judge Public Defender

PD with laser on in smoke


A laser.  On a Judge.  Really?

Okay, let me explain…

Um… yeah, I don’t really have a good explanation.  All right, here’s the deal – I do agree that a laser on a defensive weapon may not be the best idea, because you never want to depend on something that may have a dead battery when you need it most.  I understand that, and I agree with it.  But with that said, let me also add — not all of us are blessed with perfect vision, and sometimes we could use a little help.  I had Lasik eye surgery, for example, and now I can see crystal-clear to infinity, but — up close, my closest focus position is about a foot past how far I can hold my arm out.

In other words, in low light conditions, unless I’ve got reading glasses on, I can’t focus on the front sight.  And as any shooter with experience will tell you, for best results, you want to focus on the front sight.

In daylight I can see it fine.  In daylight the eye’s iris closes down and (if you know photography you’ll know this) the smaller the iris, the deeper the depth of field, meaning that you can focus closer and further than at night.  And in daylight, the Judge’s excellent fiber-optic sight glows and is in sharp focus.  But on a darker indoor shooting range, where the fiber-optic isn’t glowing, well… yeah, I struggled with seeing the front sight.

And besides, lasers are cool and I wanted one.  Okay, yeah, I said it — it’s a LASER.  That’s pretty cool.  Of course, you could tape a $10 laser pointer on top of your Public Defender and that’s also a laser, but — yeah, that’s not cool.  At all.

And finally — no, you don’t want to rely on a laser when the chips are down and the bullets start flying, but — it certainly can’t hurt to have it, right?  To be sure, you MUST train without the laser, you must be able to shoot straight and hit what you’re aiming at without the use of an additional, battery-dependent, potentially-failing electronic device.  So as long as you’ve trained that way, what would it hurt to have a laser too?  In addition?  The way I see it, more options just makes you better off.

Finally, some people might say “but a Judge is the LAST gun that needs a laser! It’s a shotgun, just point it in the general direction and pull the trigger!”  But those people would be wrong.  Shotguns need to be aimed too!  And if you’re using a good powerful defensive round in your Judge, it’s not going to spread out very far, so you want good aim.  Birdshot may spray everywhere in a big pattern, but birdshot won’t stop an attacker.  Buckshot will, and .45 Colt loads will, and buckshot doesn’t spread more than a few inches at personal-defense distances (typically 7 yards or less).  So yes, you do have to aim, just like with any other pistol (or rifle or shotgun).

So seeing as I was having difficulty seeing the sights in darker conditions, I thought — wonder if a laser would be any real help? And googling around, I found LaserLyte was basically the only manufacturer who makes a laser that will fit the Judge Public Defender.  I have the steel model, and the LaserLyte CK-SWAT fits it (and other pistols, like the Smith & Wesson J-frames and other Taurus revolvers, although it will NOT fit on the polymer Public Defender).

I found it for a decent price on Amazon, bought it, and installed it.  Installation was actually really simple.  First step, remove the grip off your Public Defender — that’s one allen screw and then it slips right off.


Unpacking the LaserLyte packaging you’ll find the laser itself mounted to a mounting plate, and a couple of additional mounting plates.  I had to remove the laser from the included S&W plate and install it on the appropriate Taurus plate, which was a matter of two little allen-head screws.  After that, remove a couple of screws from the frame, and attach the mounting plate into the screw-holes, and you’re up and running.

Here’s the laser ready to be installed:



The picture above is with the laser installed on the Public Defender.  It’s really quite tiny and totally unobtrusive.  It doesn’t interfere with the grip in any way, and you basically don’t even know it’s there unless you turn it on.

Once you have the laser installed and reattached your pistol’s grip, it’s time to aim it.  Aiming the laser is pretty straightforward, there are two included tiny allen wrenches, one for the windage (left-right) and one for elevation (up/down).  Yes, the windage and elevation screws are different sizes and require different wrenches; that’s silly, but it’s the way it is.  Anyway, secure your Judge somehow (I have a CTK Precision Ultimate Gun Vise for these types of jobs) and put up a target or crosshairs at 21 feet from the muzzle (the CK-SWAT is designed to be “zero’d” at 21 feet).  Then just adjust the allen screws to move the laser’s dot to coincide with your gun’s sights and you’re ready to go to the range and zero it in.  Just make sure that your last adjustment is clockwise, as that’s what tells the screws to lock in and hold position.

Zeroing in was quite necessary because, as I found, I’m actually a better shot with the Judge than I’d previously thought — it turns out that my front sight is just a little bit off to the right, so those missed bullseyes weren’t entirely my fault!  I’ve since had the gun’s front sight adjusted, so now with the sights or with the laser I can hit point of aim and deliver nicely tight groups at defensive distances.  I’ve put a few hundred rounds through the Judge with the laser installed and haven’t noticed it losing “zero” at all.

The laser’s great to have at night or in darker conditions, because in those scenarios it’s really very obvious what you’re aiming at.  And you don’t have to have a perfect stance with the gun drawn level to your eye; pretty much if you put the red dot on the target and pull the trigger, there’ll be a hole there.  It works well for that purpose.

In daylight, it’s nigh unto useless.  I mean, you can actually make out the dot at up to maybe 15 feet away, but it’s not easy.  You really have to be looking for it.  A green laser would be vastly preferable for daylight use; As an example, for rifles I picked up an inexpensive green laser from Primary Arms that is easily and clearly visible to 100 yards even in the daylight, but the CK-SWAT isn’t a green laser, it’s a red laser, and a red laser in daylight is only good for maybe 15 feet or so.  Which isn’t really a problem, because in daylight you can rely on the Judge’s excellent fiber-optic sight; the laser performs best in scenarios where the gun’s own sights fall short, which is convenient.

Operationally, there’s not a lot to it.  Press the button to turn it on, and it glows steady.  Hold the button in, and it’ll strobe on/off.  Press it again to turn it off — or, if you forget to turn it off, it’ll turn itself off after a few minutes.  That’s really a nice feature, because replacing the batteries is NOT very fun at all.  It takes four tiny batteries, and you need an allen wrench to open the battery cover, and then you have to pound the pistol into your hand to shake the batteries loose, and getting that fourth battery out is a bugger.  I’ve done it a couple of times since getting the laser, and each time it’s been the same: the first two will pop right out, the third one’s a fight, and getting that fourth one out is like trying to reason with a teenage daughter.  It can be done but it takes a lot of effort.

The operational drawback to the LaserLyte is that you have to manually turn the laser on.  I mean, duh, right, but stick with me for a second — Crimson Trace rules the laser roost with their instinctive grip system; I have a Crimson Trace on another pistol and the on/off switch is incorporated to the grip — it’s instinctive, and it’s brilliant.  Basically if you pick up the pistol in a shooting grip, the laser will already be on.  That’s fantastic — but that’s Crimson Trace, not LaserLyte (or anyone else).  With LaserLyte you have to manually turn the laser on.  Is that a big deal? Obviously not, if you have the time to do it (say, you hear a bump in the night so you grab your nightstand gun, and turn on the laser).  In that scenario, it’s no problem.  But if you’re out in public and a mugger pulls a gun on you and you have to react instantly, you’re not going to stop and turn on the laser!  So in that scenario, you’re not going to have the benefit of the laser.  But, to be fair again, I’ve heard it said that scenarios like that usually involve “3-3-3: they take place at 3 feet, they last for 3 seconds, and there’s usually 3 rounds fired.”  And in a scenario like that a laser wouldn’t do you any good anyway.

A word about customer service – on my first LaserLyte, I aimed it as best I could, but the point of impact was a quite a bit higher and several inches to the left of where I could get the laser to reach.  No matter how much I adjusted it, I couldn’t get it to close enough to the exact point of impact. I contacted LaserLyte, and they told me about the “reset” procedure (backing out the adjustment screws all the way and leaving it that way for a certain amount of time).  After doing that, I was able to get the windage spot-on, but I couldn’t get the elevation exactly right — it was still an inch or two lower than the actual point of impact.  To tell you the truth,  I actually didn’t care all that much, I figured a couple of inches is no big deal over the course of 21 feet, I can easily compensate for that, but LaserLyte wasn’t happy with that.  They immediately arranged not only a replacement, which they cross-shipped to me (meaning, they sent the new one and let me install it before returning the old one), but they also included a package of replacement batteries as a gift.  Now, that was some first-class service and I was very pleased by their response.  The new laser works very well, and I can say that I get some variation in the point of impact based on which particular ammo I’m using (which is to be expected, of course), but with the right stuff I can make a hole exactly where the laser is pointing, and it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

Summation: the LaserLyte CK-SWAT is a good product that does what it says it will.  Is it worth the money? Well, it’s not a lot of money, it’s about half the cost of a comparable Crimson Trace, and Crimson Trace doesn’t make one that fits the Public Defender anyway, so … it’s not that much money, and you do get a workable, usable laser.  But could that money be spent elsewhere on better upgrades? Maybe.  I’m not so sure I’d do it again if I had it all to do over again; maybe investing in some glow-in-the-dark night sights would be a better way to spend that money.  The laser’s cool and all, but having to take a separate step to turn it on does limit its immediate functionality.  However, I can guarantee you that if there was a bump in the night, I’ll be pretty happy to press that button.

Overall, I say that if you really want a laser for your Judge, the CK-SWAT does work and works well.  I have no complaints about it.  I just wish it was integrated like the Crimson Trace product line is.


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Testing the GoPro Hero 3 Black slow-moootion camera

When I first got a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition, I got it primarily because it was a low-cost camera with a high-speed frame rate, which means it could film objects in slow motion.  It’s not super-slow motion like you’d want to use to capture bullets in flight, but it’s still quite slow.  When I use the GoPro in my videos, I use the WVGA mode at 240 frames per second; when edited into a 24-frame-per-second video, that means the footage plays back at 10x slow motion.

10x slow motion isn’t extreme (you’d ideally want more like 5,000 frames per second for extreme slow motion) but it’s certainly slow enough that it warrants playing with.  And, seeing as the GoPro included a waterproof housing, well… surely that meant I had to do something with it that would get it wet, right?

Enter the water jugs.  I don’t find shooting water jugs good for much, but for slow-mo footage they certainly serve a purpose.  I poured a little food coloring in the water to get it to be more photographical.  And then I shot the bejeepers out of them.

It was mildly entertaining, but didn’t really have the wow or fun factor I was hoping for, so then I pulled out some big bottles of soda.  If you shake that stuff up vigorously and then blast it with a Taurus Judge, it explodes in a very satisfying way.


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First video launched – review of Bullistic gels

One thing I’ve noticed in using, reviewing, and reading about various rounds of ammo is — a lot of people don’t have any idea how well their bullets actually perform.  For most of us, we pretty much have to take the manufacturer’s word, or pick based on what’s new and fancy or what has a pretty package or the biggest ad in the magazine, or what the bloggers are writing about.

Is that sane? I mean, if you’re carrying a firearm or have one in your home for self defense purposes, you’re pretty much betting your life that the rounds you’ve chosen are going to get the job done, aren’t you?  And since that’s the case, it’d be nice to know how those rounds really perform, from your particular gun…

… which leads us to the whole realm of bullet testing and ballistics gelatin.  There are lots of ammo tests on YouTube, but I’ve been pretty shocked by just how unscientific and, well, let me just say it — random and unreliable many of them are.  There are a few people who seem to know what they’re doing, but for every one of them, there’s a hundred people out there shooting water jugs, or newspaper, or mixing up food-grade jello and shooting that, and they’re doing so in such an uncontrolled and unscientific way that the results they’re getting are … well, they’re maybe entertaining, but they’re far from accurate and definitive.

I plan on doing a lot of ammo testing here at Shooting The Bull, and as far as I’m concerned, if the results aren’t accurate, repeatable, and reliable, then there’s no point in publishing them.  I don’t plan on shooting a plate of jello and claiming that it’s going to be the same as ballistics gel!  When something’s as unpredictable as bullets are, nobody can ever claim that their testing results are absolutely definitive, but — I think we can do a lot better than shooting into a water jug.

Ballistic Gelatin

So how DO you test ammo to see how it performs?  The standard is genuine 10% ordnance gelatin, otherwise known as “ballistic gel”.  It’s consistent, it emulates the density of muscle tissue, and it has been correlated against actual bullet wounds in people and in animals to show that it is, indeed accurate.  Which is fine and dandy, but how does that help you? Because ordnance gelatin is not exactly something you have in your cupboard, you don’t pop down to the Wal-Mart and pick up a block of ordnance gelatin, and even if you were to buy some (from these guys) then you still have a lot of work in front of you — you have to properly prepare it, you have to properly cool it, you have to properly store it, and you have to properly shoot it.  It’s no picnic, especially because, well, I guess you could eat it at a picnic, but I wouldn’t recommend it, as it’s basically boiled up pig skin and ligaments and tendons and all that nasty stuff.  And once you’re done shooting it, you really want to get it examined and discarded as soon as possible because the longer it sits there, the nastier it gets.  It’s basically boiled up meat products, and it’ll start to rot and stink like rotting meat after a little while.

But, if you manage to buy the right stuff, and mix it properly, and refrigerate it for two or three days so it gels properly, and you can keep it at no more than 41 degrees, and you manage to shoot it within less than 20 minutes of pulling it from the refrigerator, and you manage to shoot a steel BB into it at 590 feet per second and the BB penetrates between 2.95 to 3.74″, no more, no less (these are all the steps you need to take to make sure the gel is actually usable), then you can get excellent results.  And if you mess up on any of these steps?  If you buy Knox gelatin from the grocery store, or you heat the water too hot, or you don’t dissolve the gelatin perfectly (takes about 20 minutes of constant stirring, trickling the powder into the water slowly and methodically), then your block won’t be any good and your results will be useless.  Or if you don’t store it properly, in a refrigerator set for 39 degrees, for at least 36 hours, it won’t set properly, and again won’t be useful.  And if you leave it in the sun or take too long to shoot it (so that the core temperature rises above 41 degrees in the block) then it won’t calibrate properly, again rendering your results useless.  Oh, and did I point out that these blocks cost around $42 each to make, and can only be used once?

So, yeah, real ordnance gelatin is not really for the hobbyist.  It’s too expensive to do on an ongoing basis, and it’s too much work with too many “gotchas” if you mess up any of the steps.  It’d be profoundly disheartening to spend the money, the time to make it, the time to cool it, find a way to safely and properly transport the gelatin to a shooting range, and then find out that when you shoot a BB into it you get the wrong results!  Then you have to throw the block away and start over.  (Note, there is a formula that can be used to rescue you in such a situation, in Duncan Macpherson’s book “Bullet Penetration”, but the book’s out of print, the author’s deceased, and the only way to buy it now is used, and my copy cost over $80 so … there’s no easy way out of that mess).

Common Alternatives

With so much precision necessary, is it any wonder that people have turned to alternatives? Water jugs, “wet pack” newspaper, or Knox unflavored gelatin are three of the most common, but they’re all, for various reasons, just bad ideas.  The water jugs, well, I’ll leave that for another article, I’ve got lots to say about that, but let me just say that I think water jugs are a terrible way to test ammo.   Popular, certainly, but still a lousy, inaccurate, deceptive, misleading way to do it. Wet pack newspaper is better, but it still isn’t reliable, or accurate, and doesn’t give controlled results.  And Knox gelatin… that’s just kind of silly, because while it is in the same family as ordnance gelatin, it by very definition ISN’T ordnance gelatin.  If it was, it’d have been sold to the ordnance gel industry; gelatin that fails to qualify for ordnance gel specifications gets sold to the food industry, so, by very virtue of it being sold as food, you know it isn’t real ordnance gelatin.  It doesn’t meet the standards.  That said, if you had to go with a homemade solution, you could come closer to accurate by using the Knox stuff than by using water jugs or wetpack, but … why bother?  To get the most accurate results you’ll have to go through all the same work, all the same effort, all the same storage and temperature requirements, and … here’s the kicker … if you’re buying enough Knox gelatin to make a 20-pound block (you’d need 32 ounces of gelatin powder to make one 20-lb block) then… it’ll cost you just about as much as ordnance gelatin would!  So why not buy the real stuff instead of using some homemade grocery store substitute?

Viable Ballistic Gelatin Alternatives

So what’s a person to do?  If you can’t afford, or don’t want to deal with, ordnance gelatin, what are the real and useful alternatives? There are two.  One, shooting real water (NOT water jugs!), is a true no-cost way to go, and can, when done properly, yield real world results.  I will be doing a complete article and video on how to use water for real ammunition testing; for those who don’t want to wait for the article and want to start exploring it now, you can get Duncan MacPherson’s book “Bullet Penetration” or Charles Schwartz’s book “Quantitative Ammunition Selection”.

The other option, and one that I find very appealing, is to use one of the new synthetic ballistic gel substitutes on the market, such as the clear ballistic gel from  This product has been introduced to the market within the last year, and it presents itself as a comparable substitute to genuine, organic 10% ordnance gelatin.  That’s really interesting to me, because — as a synthetic, it should be immune to most of the problems I have with using regular ballistic gel: it doesn’t need to be refrigerated, it doesn’t rot, it doesn’t require being at a specific temperature, and, perhaps most significantly to the independent ammo tester, the gel blocks can be reused!  You can re-melt and reform them multiple times, which really brings down the cost-per-block cost.  They’re initially more expensive than a block of ordnance gelatin would be (today’s pricing looks to be $129.99 for an “FBI Block”) but if you re-use it twice, you’re already money ahead.  Re-use it 10 times and it’ll be way less expensive than ordnance gelatin.  And, there’s no rush!  You can leave it stored at room temperature for a week, or a month, or a year, and it’ll still be there.  With ordnance gelatin, you have to use it within a few days or it’ll start rotting.

Testing ClearBallistics Gel

So, yes, I was very intrigued by this stuff.  I didn’t expect it to be exactly the same as ballistic gel (heck, one’s organic and one’s synthetic, after all) but — I mean, how good is it? Does it work? Can you actually use it and get usable, real-world results from it?

Let’s find out.  Head on over to the YouTube channel and watch the review.




Watch the video first before reading this section.  Or, if you don’t want to watch the entire video review, I’ll tell you right now the basic take-away: yes, it works.  No, it’s not 100% exact.  With hollowpoints, I got about 94.4% the same penetration, and 94.5% the same expansion.  With buckshot, it was basically 100% the same penetration and 98.9% the same pellet deformation.  May not be perfect, but it beats the h-e-double-hockey-sticks out of shooting a pack of wet newspaper or a jug of water!  I was really impressed with just how usable this stuff is, and how close it mimics real ordnance gelatin.  It was basically 94.4% the same penetration, plus or minus about 5%, so definitely close.  I’ll be doing more specific tests to narrow down the statistical deviations and get a specific comparison, but for now, I would say that I would definitely trust ClearBallistics gel over homemade Knox gelatin, or wet-pack, or clay or wax or estimating penetration in water by saying “well, a bullet in water will travel about 1.6 to 2.5x as far as it would in gel”.  Those results are all unscientific and ballpark, whereas the ClearBallistics gel delivers results that are quite comparable to real ballistics gel, but without any of the associated hassles or inconveniences.  It ain’t perfect, but in my opinion it’s far and away the best substitute for ordnance gelatin.  If you can’t (or don’t want to) use the organic stuff, ClearBallistics gel is a great alternative.

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