Monthly Archives: November 2013

Final Results of the .380 ACP Ammo Quest

In July of 2013, I picked up a little .380 pocket pistol (specifically a Taurus PT738 TCP), and I started researching what would be the most appropriate ammo to use with it.

Turns out that pretty much nobody knew.  Well — I mean, sure, there’s lots of opinions, but I couldn’t find any comprehensive source of professional tests that were done from this particular barrel size, in ballistic gel, with a large sample size.  I found plenty of great tests from PocketGunsAndGear that were shot with a shorter 2.5″ barrel, and some tests from tnoutdoors9 that were shot with a longer barrel, but I couldn’t find any ballistic gel tests that were shot from the 2.8″ barrel.  And I knew that barrel length could affect velocity (especially as compared to the 3.5″ barrel) and that differing velocities can and will cause significant variations in expansion and penetration, so I wasn’t entirely sure that the results these other fine testers achieved would be directly applicable to these pistols with the 2.8″ barrel.

Furthermore, while I applaud the work that other testers are doing, I simply am not satisfied with a sample size of one bullet.  In my experience, ammo performance can vary so widely from one shot to the next, that I believe a larger sample size is necessary in order to have an idea of how the average round of the ammo is actually likely to perform.

So, as announced in a prior post, I decided to conduct my own tests.

Testing Standards

I set as my standard the guidelines established by the 1987 and 1993 Wound Ballistic Conferences, where wound ballistics experts, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, police officers, trauma surgeons, combat surgeons, and others who worked with street shootings and bullets (and the wounds they cause) day in and day out.  These were the recognized experts in their fields, and they conducted conferences to determine what properties and capabilities caused a bullet to be most effective, and how they could then develop tests that would best and most accurately reflect real-world results, so that ammo designers could then design ammo that would perform most effectively.  Effectiveness was determined to be the ability to penetrate deep enough into the body to reach the vital organs (such as the heart, circulatory system, and central nervous system).  A bullet that can’t reach that far, and can’t be relied upon to disrupt the vital organs, was deemed an ineffective bullet.

When it’s all boiled down to the simplest guidelines possible, the parameters work out like this, in order of importance:

  1. A bullet needs to have enough power to penetrate AT LEAST 12″ of soft tissue.  If it can penetrate through 12″ of soft tissue, then that means it has enough power to pass through whatever combination of bone, muscle, skin, fat, and organs that it could possibly encounter, and still be able to reach the vital organs.
  2. A bullet should penetrate LESS than 18″ of soft tissue.  Bullets that penetrated more than 18″ of soft tissue would usually end up exiting the body of the attacker, regardless of how much bone or tissue it had to pass through.  That meant that the bullet posed a very real danger of overpenetration, and also that it was wasting its energy by passing completely through.
  3. The bigger the bullets, the better.  The bigger the hole the bullet makes, the more tissue it destroys, and the more likely it is to damage vital structures that a smaller bullet might miss.  In this context, expanding bullets (that penetrate deeply enough!) are much better than solid bullets, because solid bullets tend to pass right through, whereas an expanding bullet grows larger and is more likely to slow down and stop in the desired window of 12″ to 18″ of soft tissue penetration.
  4. Sharper bullets are better than round bullets.  This isn’t the most important factor, but an expanded bullet with sharp petals on it is more likely to cut an artery or other vital structure than a round-nose bullet might, especially at the limit of travel when the bullet is going more slowly.  A round-nose might just push tissue out of the way, where a sharp bullet may still be cutting and damaging tissue.  This is another reason an expanded hollowpoint is a better wounder than a round-nose FMJ (Full Metal Jacket).
  5. Of all the parameters that matter when evaluating a bullet’s terminal performance, the most important is to achieve sufficient penetration.  Overpenetration is bad, but “underpenetration will get you killed” (quote from Dr. Martin Fackler).

The FBI adopted these requirements for their duty ammo selection, which is only partially related to us in the self defense community; we’re not the FBI and we don’t need FBI duty ammo, but — ammo manufacturers love to sell ammo to the FBI, so many of the modern hollowpoint rounds on the market are designed to meet the FBI requirements.  Which is good for us, because what makes a bullet effective in stopping a criminal, are the same factors that make it effective in stopping someone who’s assaulting us.  The FBI requires their ammo to pass additional tests of barrier penetration, including auto windshield glass, plywood, drywall, and other tests.  In the self defense community, those aren’t likely realistic tests that we need our ammo to pass, so I didn’t bother with those tests, instead I focused on the two tests that are most important to self defense shooters: the bare ballistic gelatin test, and the 4-layer denim test.  The International Wound Ballistic Association standardized these two tests as a comprehensive evaluation of ammo performance in best-case and worst-case scenarios, and so that is the testing methodology I adopted.

I’ve blogged previously on the whys and wherefores of ballistic gel (for example, here, here, and here.)  In the simplest terms, it’s a soft tissue simulant that we use to evaluate a bullet’s performance through soft human tissue.  It’s not “jello”, it’s not a dessert, it’s actually powdered and reconstituted flesh.  Professional ballistic gel is made from ground-up and powdered pork skin.  It’s an effective flesh simulant because it actually is flesh.  I used genuine professional 10% ordnance gelatin from for the 4-layer denim test, and synthetic ClearBallistics gel from for the bare gel tests.  (I did a comprehensive comparison between the two gelatin products before starting this Ammo Quest, and found that the synthetic gel was suitable for handgun bullet testing.)

Testing Procedures

My testing procedure was to fire five shots into each block of gel, from 10 feet, through a chronograph.  All 10% ballistic gel was calibrated with a steel BB at ~590 fps, was prepared to FBI specifications using FBI gel preparation procedures, stored at proper temperatures, and shot at proper temperatures, for consistent reliable data.  All bullets were measured for penetration distance while they were in the block of gel, then cut out, cleaned up, measured and weighed for final details.

I tested a total of 18 types of ammunition through bare ClearBallistics gelatin.  I then repeated the test in 10% calibrated ordnance gelatin through 4 layers of IWBA-spec heavy denim, for those rounds that performed well enough through the bare gelatin (or, in some cases, just because I was curious; sometimes rounds did terribly in the bare gel but I was still curious how  or if they might change their performance through denim).  This resulted in a grand total of 27 test videos (sheesh!)


The results are correlated in the tables below.  Links are provided to the YouTube tests for each round.  Penetration data is color-coded; red is totally unacceptable (either gross under- or over-penetration); yellow is a bad sign (indicating modest under- or over-penetration), green is considered good, and blue is considered excellent penetration.  I also include the MacPherson Wound Trauma Incapacitation value (previously blogged-about here).  If you want the brief summary, bigger numbers are more effective at incapacitating an attacker (and if you want the briefest summary, just go by the color code!)

Here is a video that summarizes all my findings and makes recommendations on the various ammo that has been tested.

Below is the summary table, results, and links for the videos of all the ammo tests that were conducted.

.380 ACP Micro-Pistol With ~2.8″ Barrel

Ammunition Test Results

Buffalo Bore 90-Grain JHP Standard Pressure, Item 27G

Average Velocity in feet per second 937
Average Expanded Diameter .472” (12.0 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .505” (12.8 mm)
Average Retained Weight 90.02 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 18.58
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 10.88


Copper Only Projectiles 80-grain solid copper hollowpoint

Average Velocity in feet per second 835
Average Expanded Diameter .433” (11.0 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .500” (12.7 mm)
Average Retained Weight 79.82 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 3.96
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.25



Cor®Bon 90-Grain JHP, CorBon part # SD38090/20

Average Velocity in feet per second 932
Average Expanded Diameter .453” (11.5 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .512” (13.0 mm)
Average Retained Weight 90.06 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 26.35
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 11.25
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 16
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 22.50



DoubleTap DT Defense Lead Free(TM) 77-grain solid copper hollowpoint

Average Velocity in feet per second 895
Average Expanded Diameter .358” (9.1 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .358” (9.1 mm)
Average Retained Weight 77.02 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 18.64
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 11.25




DRT (Dynamic Research Technologies) .380 Auto 85grain HP “Penetrating Frangible”

Note: I tested this round, and it was very different, didn’t penetrate consistently, half the bullets failed entirely and just overpenetrated.  It is such a different round with such different design parameters, it doesn’t fit well with making a consolidated table like the other rounds in the test.  I recommend just going directly to the video to see how the DRT .380 ammo performed.



Federal Premium Hydra-Shok® 90-grain JHP

Average Velocity in feet per second 889
Average Expanded Diameter .426” (10.8 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .487” (12.4 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.46 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 25.68
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 12.00
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 20.85
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 13.50



Fiocchi Extrema XTP(TM) 90-grain XTP JHP, part # 380XTP25

Average Velocity in feet per second 791
Average Expanded Diameter .414” (10.5 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .455” (11.6 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.96 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 27.72
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 12.88
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 25.40
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 14.25

Note: only four bullets were used in the denim test for the Extremas.



Hornady Critical Defense(TM) 90-grain FTX® JHP with Polymer Tip

Average Velocity in feet per second 857
Average Expanded Diameter .478” (12.1 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .533” (13.5 mm)
Average Retained Weight 88.92 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 2.11
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 7.75
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 18.84
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 10.13

Note: Critical Defense severely underpenetrated in the bare gel test.  In the denim gel test we had one round travel to good penetration, but it failed to expand.



Hornady Custom .380 ACP with 90-grain XTP JHP

Average Velocity in feet per second 851
Average Expanded Diameter .438” (11.1 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .488” (12.4 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.96 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 25.81
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 12.00
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 23.80
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 10.63



HPR HyperClean XTP 90-grain JHP

Average Velocity in feet per second 789
Average Expanded Diameter .414” (10.5 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .454” (11.5 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.96 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 27.11
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 13.50
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 23.03
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 12.75


PMC Starfire(TM) 95 grain SFHP, part #380SFA

Average Velocity in feet per second 788
Average Expanded Diameter .381” (9.7 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .405” (10.3 mm)
Average Retained Weight 95.13 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 24.60
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 25.50

Note: only 4 bullets were tested and recovered.



Precision One .380 ACP 90 grain XTP

Average Velocity in feet per second 810
Average Expanded Diameter .413” (10.5 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .446” (11.3 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.78 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 28.28
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 13.75
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 25.72
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 12.75



Remington Golden Saber 102-grain BJHP

Average Velocity in feet per second 756
Average Expanded Diameter .527” (13.4 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .624” (15.8 mm)
Average Retained Weight 102.5 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 8.89
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 10.13



Remington UMC 88-grain JHP, part #L380A1B

Average Velocity in feet per second 884
Average Expanded Diameter .355” (9.0 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .355” (9.0 mm)
Average Retained Weight 90 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 16.00
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 22.75

Note: These were hollowpoints, but all failed to expand.



Speer Gold Dot .380 ACP 90-grain GDHP, part #23606

Average Velocity in feet per second 944
Average Expanded Diameter .447” (11.4 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .487” (12.4 mm)
Average Retained Weight 89.36 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 23.25
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 12.00
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 19.20
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 10.00



Underwood Ammo .380 ACP 102 grain Golden Saber JHP

standard pressure 950 fps, item #142

Average Velocity in feet per second 827
Average Expanded Diameter .503” (12.8 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .603” (15.3 mm)
Average Retained Weight 101.68 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 17.91
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 9.50
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 16.00
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 16.75


Winchester PDX1® Defender(TM) 95-grain Bonded JHP

Average Velocity in feet per second 901
Average Expanded Diameter .562” (14.3 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .655” (16.6 mm)
Average Retained Weight 95.28 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 1.80
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 8.25
MacPherson WTI in Denim Test 2.76
Penetration in Denim gel, inches: 8.38



Winchester Ranger-T

Average Velocity in feet per second 907
Average Expanded Diameter .595” (15.1 mm)
Average Maximum Diameter .793” (20.1 mm)
Average Retained Weight 93.9 grains
MacPherson Wound Trauma Indicator 12.07
Penetration in Bare Gelatin, inches: 21.25

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Best Weapon For Home Defense

Y’know, it’s a good thing I didn’t start this blog in order to make friends… as I’m sure this post won’t win me many.  But I gotta go with what I know.  Even if it’s controversial.  And this post just might be.

Note: in this article, it’s presumed that you have the legal right to defend your home with a firearm; if you live in a state or country that doesn’t provide that right, then obviously none of this can apply to you… check into whether your state provides you the Castle Doctrine or a Stand Your Ground law to find out what your legal options are.  The rest of this article presumes that the reader lives in a state where a person in their own home is entitled to defend themselves with deadly force through use of a firearm.

Okay, the topic at hand: home defense.  There’s an eternal battle that rages across gun stores, internet discussion forums, at shooting ranges, everywhere — what’s the BEST gun to have for home defense?

Answer’s obvious: a 12-gauge shotgun.  Duh.  Right?

Well, let’s think a little before we just accept the common wisdom… a 12-gauge is a profoundly powerful weapon.  It is a true fight-stopper.  People in handgun forums can argue endlessly about “stopping power”, but a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot is the ultimate in stopping power.  One blast from a 12-gauge is usually enough to stop any aggression by any particular individual.

But does that make it the BEST weapon for home defense?  There are so many variables that it’s hard to ever determine what’s “best” so let’s just start with this: who’s supposed to be firing that 12-gauge?  If you’re a 300-lb 6-foot ex-football player, then sure, a 12-gauge may be totally appropriate.  But what about for a petite 5-foot tall, 90-lb female?  Er… sorry, a 12-gauge would very likely not be the “best” weapon for her — she may get the first shot off, but may find it extremely difficult to get a second shot off, if one is necessary, and she may even have been knocked over by the recoil.  I’ve met plenty of women shooters who simply hate shotguns.  They’re big, they’re incredibly loud, and they just plain hurt to fire.  Even a “youth” model 20-gauge can be a significant handful.

Okay, If Not a 12-Gauge, Then an AR-15, Right?

It seems like there’s a huge surge in interest in using the AR-15 (or other small-caliber rifle) for home defense.  And I can well understand why — an AR-15 is much easier to handle, and definitely easier for even smaller people to get off follow-up shots, than a 12-gauge (or even 20-gauge) shotgun.  A 30-round magazine offers enough capacity to handle any conceivable threat.  A solid hit with an AR-15 (and the proper self-defense ammo) will stop an aggressor immediately.  Sure, it may overpenetrate more than the shotgun, but (as goes the argument) it’s easier to aim, so as long as you don’t miss, it’s — well, let’s borrow from Obi-Wan Kenobi — “it’s not as clumsy or random as a blaster, it’s a more elegant weapon, for a more civilized day.”

Those are the two primary candidates that I hear bandied about most frequently.  One side argues the superiority of the shotgun, the other argues that the AR15 is actually more practical.  But which side is actually right?

Neither — Of Course.

You didn’t expect me to actually declare one of the prevailing arguments the winner, did you? If so, you haven’t been reading the blog here very long…

Here’s the thing — both are superb weapons, and any properly-defended castle should probably have both.  But when determining what’s the “best” weapon, you have to first ask the question: what is the threat I’m going to face?  Only then can you answer what weapon will best meet and defeat that threat.

Today’s Threats

So what type of incidents are you likely to encounter, in today’s society?  Is it the gang of thugs rolling through a neighborhood trashing anyone and everything they encounter?  Not very likely in most neighborhoods (but if it’s likely where you live, then I have one and only one piece of advice for you: MOVE.  NOW.)

Is the threat you face a horde of pillagers (looters, which are a realistic interpretation of the “zombie apocalypse”)?  Again, not likely — that’s a TEOTWAWKI scenario, and if that happens, all bets are off (and you’d better have both the shotgun and the AR15 in that scenario anyway).  But is this a realistic threat assessment for everyday life?  Not likely.

So let’s talk about the threats that are most likely to affect people on a daily basis, in their home: burglars, and the home invasion.  These are real threats.  The FBI’s crime statistics say that over 13% of homes are burglarized each year(!)  85% of burglaries are through the front door, and 67% of all burglaries are forced entries.

In both cases (burglars and home invaders) someone enters your home with the intent to rob your home and/or harm you.  For purposes of clarity here, I’ll separate them out into two classes, “classic burglars” and home invaders, with the defining characteristic being whether they expect you to be home.

The traditional burglar, by and large, doesn’t want you to be home, and doesn’t want to be interrupted.  They prize stealth, they want to slip in quietly, grab your stuff, and get out undetected.  They may be deterred by burglar alarms, or by a barking dog.  If you are home when the burglar enters, all bets are off: the burglar may decide to avoid conflict and just flee, or they may escalate into a bigger threat — the burglar may physically assault you, they may become a rapist, a kidnapper, or even a murderer as the opportunities or threats present themselves.  But this may not necessarily be on the burglar’s initial agenda; they may just be attempting to score some loot by robbing a (presumably unoccupied) house.  Or they may be doing a quick grab of goods at night, when you’re supposed to be asleep and therefore not an interruption to them.

The home invasion is related, but it’s also a totally different beast — this is a violent criminal who doesn’t care whether you’re home or not.  If you are home, you can expect a violent assault from the home invader.  The home invader may be high on drugs, they may be drunk, they may be mentally unstable, they may primarily be interested in robbing, but they’re not concerned with the subtlety or quiet appearance and swift disappearance of the burglar; the home invader is going to kick in your door, storm in, subdue you in whatever violent manner he chooses (all in just the first few seconds), and then will go about whatever his hostile business is (which may include robbery, rape, kidnapping, murder, or whatever else his criminal mind decides to do.)  And the home invader doesn’t wait for or care about the cover of night — he will strike in broad daylight, or at night, or whenever he wants to.  There are simply NO rules for the home invader.

By and large, these are the more likely threats that the average household may face one day.  Which weapon is most appropriate for meeting these threats? A shotgun or a rifle?

How about a pocket pistol?

WHAT?!?!? Am I insane? (perhaps, but that’s an unnecessary distraction from the topic at hand…)

Seriously, let’s think about this.  You’re relaxing on the couch, watching a football game, when the door gets kicked in and two guys come bursting in the door.  Their plan of attack is to look around for any threat and neutralize it (meaning, they’re immediately going to rush you and violently attack you).  Should you go for the shotgun you have stored in your back bedroom, locked away in a biometric safe?  Good luck with that, because these thugs will be on you in about two and a half seconds.  Maybe instead you should go for the AR-15 that you have in the garage, locked up in your big 55-gun rifle safe — how are you going to get to it?  “Excuse me, guys, can I just get past you, I need to go out in the garage…”  No, I don’t think that’s gonna work.

How about you reach in your pocket, pull out your pocket-nine or micro-380, and start firing as soon as they invade your house?  They didn’t see that coming, did they?  Bursting through a door and being met with six blasts of lead might very well discourage even the nastiest of home invaders.

Now, obviously a shotgun will deliver a vastly more incapacitating blow than a pocket .380 will, but — what’s the old adage, “the .380 that you’ve got with you beats the .45 locked in the safe every time”?

Okay, let’s talk about scenario 2 — you’re a mom home alone with your toddler.  A home invader kicks in the door and grabs your kid.  What are you going to do — are you going to run to the master bedroom closet to get your trusty 20-gauge? Of course not, you’re going to immediately start screaming and pleading for him to not hurt your baby.  He’s got you completely subdued, and can then set about doing whatever it was he planned on (or whatever new plan he improvises).  And there’s not a thing you can do to stop him — or is there?  What about when he looks away, you pull out your pocket 9mm and give him a magazine full of lead?  Didn’t see that one coming, did he?

Third scenario — someone rings the doorbell.  You don’t know who they are, but you decide to answer the door anyway.  Two big guys shove past you, and now they’re in your house.  You’re thrown to the ground, and — what’s next?  Whatever they want, that’s what.  And what can you do about it?  What if you have an AR15 right in the next room? Too bad, because you’ve got a 230-lb thug blocking the path to it.  However, a quick dip in the pocket, a double-tap of some pocket-9mm Federal HST’s, and all of a sudden the dynamics of the situation change — now you’ve only got one thug to worry about, and his hands are up in the air.  Now you’ve got time to call 911 and get the authorities there to deal with the second invader.

Is the threat you face one of a personal nature — a jealous ex, a bitter divorce, an alcoholic stalker?  I’d say for most people, we don’t have dangerous individuals in our life, but for those who do, this is a very real threat.  Which home weapon should you have to protect yourself in that scenario? Obviously, the answer is the same — the pistol you have on you beats the arsenal you have locked up in a safe somewhere where you can’t get to it.  If you have a person who may attack you, whose motivation is personal and who will not be scared off by a burglar alarm or a barking dog, then you need to be able to defend yourself whenever and wherever you are.

Wait — Isn’t This Crazy?

Isn’t carrying a pistol while you’re at home a little… paranoid?  Well, again, let’s think about it — why have a shotgun or rifle at home at all?  Is that paranoid?  Some may say yes, others may vigorously argue that notion, but let’s consider this simple fact: 100% of home invasions happen at home.  So why be defenseless when you’re at home?  If you can’t get to your weapon, you’re defenseless.

If you want to have the ability to protect yourself and your loved ones from a home invasion… if you’ve already made the decision to defend your home with force… if you’ve already come to the conclusion that the potential threat is real enough to need to take action to do something about it … then … isn’t it kind of crazy to NOT pocket-carry?

Back in the days when everyone lived on farms, when you could see a neighbor (or stranger) driving up to your house, then having Pa go and grab the shotgun made sense.  Today it’s not that way — today, your door could be kicked in and invaders in your house in literally seconds, and you have no time to prepare.  At all.

If you’re concerned about home defense in a world where the threat can be on you in literally seconds, then the answer is obvious: pocket-carry a 9mm (or, if you want an even smaller, lighter option, a pocket .380).  I would argue that you’d be much better prepared to meet any threat with the pistol you have on you, than you would be with the long gun you can’t get to.  Most of us don’t really want to wear a shoulder holster and a big double-stack full-size duty pistol when we’re relaxing at home, but I think all of us could find room for an LCP or TCP or DB9 in our pocket or tucked in a Remora in the waistband.  And maybe the pocket pistol will buy you the time you need to get to your fightstopper; maybe a quick couple of rounds to the doorway buys you the time to get to your master bedroom safe where you can unleash the mighty 12-gauge behemoth you keep there.

But if you don’t have the pocket pistol with you, then there are many potential scenarios where you will just plain lose.  The pocket pistol gives you a multitude of options and an immediate ability to act.  And for those reasons, I would make a case that a pocket pistol (or other easily-carried handgun) may be the “best” weapon to have for home defense.

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More on Overpenetration – What About FMJ’s?

Since finishing and posting my article on overpenetration, and why so much of the worry about overpenetration is simply overblown, it’s brought me back to the subject of full metal jacket bullets (aka “FMJ’s”, usually used strictly as “range ammo” or “training ammo”).

FMJ’s For Self Defense?

FMJ’s are not generally recommended for self defense purposes, as they’re really rather ineffective as compared to modern hollowpoint ammo.  An FMJ is really just a hunk of lead, sheathed in copper; when it hits a target it pokes a hole in the target, and that’s really about it — there’s no expansion, no big temporary wound cavity to speak of, it’s pretty much the simplest and least effective bullet design for causing wounds.

Now, don’t get me wrong, FMJ’s can certainly kill, and they can cause critical hits if they happen to hit the central nervous system or a major artery or the heart.  It’s not like an FMJ won’t do damage, it will, it’s just that — well, just about any other kind of bullet will do more damage than an FMJ would.  The FMJ is the least damaging type of projectile in common use.  A wadcutter is a much more effective wounder than an FMJ, and a hollowpoint can be a significantly superior wounder than an FMJ (assuming, of course, that it penetrates deeply enough).

That’s where FMJ’s excel — penetration.  Because they’re basically a round-nose, slippery design, they present a very low-drag profile and they slip through tissue (or air or water or whatever) easily.  And because they slip through tissue so easily, FMJ’s present a very real prospect of overpenetrating.  Even in a relatively weak caliber like .380 ACP, an FMJ will easily be able to penetrate 22 to 25 inches of ballistic gelatin — and anything over 18″ is considered an overpenetrating bullet.  That’s another reason why, in contrast to some other terminal ballistic experts, I consider FMJ’s a poor choice for the .380 — they provide weak wounding and high overpenetration dangers.  They’re unquestionably a better choice than an underpenetrating bullet would be, but I’d much, much rather use a properly-engineered hollowpoint that penetrates deeply and avoids overpenetration and has an aggressive wounding profile, than use a slippery little FMJ that will sail right through the attacker, causing minimal damage as it goes, and still presents a potentially significant threat to anyone behind the attacker.

How much of a threat is an overpenetrating FMJ?

Let’s consult Charles Schwartz’s excellent Quantitative Ammunition Selection to find out.  In my previous article I had demonstrated that a good .380 or .45 ACP hollowpoint, after penetrating through 9″ of an attacker’s torso, wouldn’t likely have enough residual velocity to even break the skin of a person standing behind the target.  Even if the bullet overpenetrated, it would still have enough energy to cause a nasty bruise, sure, but it wasn’t likely a significant risk to still be lethal; the journey through the attacker’s body would slow the bullet down below 300 feet per second, rendering it unlikely to be able to even break skin.  Applying the same formula and calculations to an FMJ, we get very different results — frightening results.  A 90-grain .380 ACP FMJ, for example, would travel at about 900 feet per second from the muzzle.  After penetrating through 9″ of muscle tissue and exiting out the other side, it would still be traveling at 385 feet per second — and that’s enough to penetrate almost 8.75″ of ballistic gel!  And that means that while it doesn’t exceed the FBI/IWBA minimum 12″ penetration depth, it could still easily cause serious damage or even possibly a fatal hit on a bystander.

Of course, the story is much worse with the .45 ACP FMJ.  Using a 230-grain projectile at 850 feet per second from the muzzle, it’d penetrate through that 9″ torso and when it overpenetrated it’d still be going 498 feet per second.  That would give it enough energy to be able to penetrate over 16″ of ballistic gel, definitely capable of a fatal hit.  But let’s put it in perspective — let’s say that the .45 ACP FMJ penetrated through the 9″-thick attacker, and continued on to hit a bystander — at 498 feet per second, it’d have enough energy to easily pass completely through 9″ of bystander, and still be going at 252 feet per second!  After exiting the bystander, it’d still maintain enough energy to reach almost 8″ deep into ballistic gel — again, far enough to cause serious damage, and depending on where it hits, it may even cause a critical/fatal hit on a person behind the bystander behind the attacker.  Yes, one .45 ACP FMJ could pass completely through two people and lodge deeply enough in the third to cause a fatal hit.

Is overpenetration a concern?

Yes, but it’s only a significant concern if you’re foolish enough to load your defensive weapon with FMJ bullets instead of hollowpoints.  If hollowpoints are legal for self defense where you live, USE THEM.  They’re much more effective wounders, they’re much more likely to stop an attacker, and they vastly minimize any risk of overpenetration.  A hollowpoint expands so large that it slows down dramatically while it’s traveling through the attacker’s body; even if it overpenetrates it’ll be going so slowly that it won’t be nearly as dangerous as an FMJ would be.  The only time I’d recommend against hollowpoints is when you’re using a tiny caliber (specifically .22LR, .25 ACP, or .32 ACP) where there just isn’t enough energy available to push a hollowpoint deep enough to cause a critical hit — in those cases, you have to go with a non-expanding bullet; wadcutters would be preferred, but use FMJ’s if you can’t get wadcutters.  And in .380 ACP, careful ammunition selection is vital — some hollowpoints grossly under-penetrate and can leave you at risk; you have to choose a hollowpoint that penetrates deeply enough to have a chance of causing a critical hit, while minimizing the risk of overpenetration.  See my articles on the .380 Ammo Quest for test results on ammo that can achieve this goal.  And for any caliber more powerful than .380 (such as 38 Special, 9mm, 10mm, 357 Magnum, 357 Sig, 40 S&W, 45 ACP, or 45 Colt) there’s no question — for safety and effectiveness you should be using hollowpoints, and avoiding FMJ’s, for defensive purposes.

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