10 Great Defense Loads

Factory ammo with proven performance
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From bullet designs to materials, defensive pistol ammunition has gone through its fair share of changes over the years. Overall, the dominant trend among defensive shooters over the decades has been away from cup-and-core or ball ammo and toward a jacketed hollow-point (JHP) design, which continues to be the most prolific. This trend owes much to FBI protocol testing, which influences law enforcement departments across the country, as well as civilian handgun owners.

What’s needed to make a handgun round particularly well-suited for defensive purposes? The answer to that question varies between law enforcement and personal applications. Essentially both types of defensive shooters are looking for similar characteristics. Likewise, FBI testing protocols help shed light on what types of bullets work well for defense purposes.

Bullets have to offer adequate penetration through some level of barrier into human flesh while not over-penetrating. This means a bullet has to pass through clothing and still enter the target intact and fully functional. Generally speaking, penetration is to be between 12″-16″, no more or less. Second, the bullet must deliver rapid expansion, creating trauma, and must at the same time hold together. The beauty of the JHP design is jacket and core remain intact, delivering ideal penetration, while the hollow-point enables rapid expansion. Solid copper bullets, likewise, remain intact and retain weight. As law enforcement applications have proved for several decades, the JHP has been reliable and effective. And while the lead-core JHP dominates, it’s not the only bullet type to earn a place in the holsters of lawmen or citizens throughout the years.

What are historically the best loads for personal defense? Which ones have stood the test of time and have a proven track record? Based on actual use, as well as many years of FBI testing, here’s a look at 10 dependable defensive handgun loads.

Federal Hydra-Shok

It’s fitting Federal’s Hydra-Shok begins this list, since it was and still is one of the most trusted defensive handgun bullets of all time. Early development started in the 1970s at Federal, and since its introduction the Hydra-Shok has been widely used and loved among the law enforcement community. As a result, the load has also been popular among the rest of us. The hollow-point bullet uses a central post to help distribute pressure in the cavity, aiding in rapid expansion in tissue. At the same time, the bonded core and jacket hold together to deliver devastating penetration after passing through multiple layers of clothing. Although Federal has developed some newer technologies like the HST, agencies still swear by the legendary Hydra-Shok. In 2018, Federal launched the Hydra-Shok Deep, which was adapted for 12″-15″ of penetration to answer FBI testing requirements.

Hornady Critical Duty

Winning an FBI contract is a bit like winning your first Super Bowl as an NFL quarterback. Hornady happily achieved that summit in 2018, as its Critical Duty load was selected by the FBI. Not only did the 9mm 135-grain Critical Duty load perform well through auto glass and clothing, it was, according to the FBI, the most accurate 9mm round it had ever fired. Unlike a standard JHP, the FlexLock bullet uses a Flex Tip design, not an empty cavity, to prevent clogging in clothing and other standard barriers, allowing the bullet to expand reliably. Instead of a bonded core and jacket, the FlexLock bullet uses an InterLock band, allowing for maximum weight retention and, as a result, penetration in the 12″-16″ range. Hornady’s Critical Duty load is made to function best in duty-sized pistols like the Glock 17 and 19, whereas its Critical Defense load is geared more toward concealed carry and shooters who aren’t reliant on barrier-blind ammunition.

Barnes TAC-XPD

Fred Barnes launched his legendary bullet company in Colorado in 1932, and since then the company has continued to expand its bullet designs and, in recent years, has introduced factory-loaded offerings. In the 1970s, Randi Brooks bought Barnes and innovated the eventual X-bullet, released in 1989. Using an all-copper design, the bullet has been one of the most successful in history among hunters (TSX, LRX) and pistol shooters (TAC-XP). In 2013, Barnes introduced the TAC-XPD cartridge. The TAC-XP bullet features a hollow-point and solid copper construction, resulting in excellent performance in ballistic gel and when pitted against barriers. It’s an FBI-approved load, provides excellent accuracy and expansion, and has been a fan favorite for years.

Winchester PDX-1

Like so many of the loads on this list, Winchester’s PDX1 was engineered to conquer FBI testing protocols, which include passing through barriers such as clothing and glass, and to penetrate to the distance of vital organs. Featuring a bonded design and hollow point with open cavity, the PDX1 is available in the Defender series and offers consistent, reliable expansion. Introduced in 2009, PDX1 is capable of incredible weight retention and penetration even when fired through auto glass, sheetrock, and clothing. As a result, it has become favorably used in all the markets. Because of the bonding process, the bullet retains weight and penetrates around 12".

Remington Golden Saber

Wallboard, heavy clothing, it doesn’t matter — Remington’s Golden Saber is a truly barrier-blind load with widespread, reliable usage to its name. FBI-approved, Golden Saber uses a bonded design ensuring the brass jacket and lead core don’t separate but instead retain weight and penetrate deeply. With a reduced bullet nose diameter, the round is also incredibly accurate, one of the reasons the law enforcement agencies across the country have it in their employ. It’s been around for a long time and has seen expansion with the Black Belt variant.

Winchester Black Talon

Released in the early 1990s, Winchester’s Black Talon was revolutionary in providing devastating expansion and lethality. While the lead-core and bonded jacket design is now standard fare, it was fairly cutting edge when the Black Talon was released. Unfortunately, after two very public shootings in New York and California, the media latched on to the fact the shooters likely used Black Talon ammo. As so often happens, media outlets attributed malicious intent to the bullet itself and Winchester was forced to close the book on it. Perhaps that’s part of the mystique and legend behind the bullet today. Though the name died, the bullet and concept hardly did. Winchester would adapt its technology to the Ranger SXT series and PDX1, which live on today and are widely used, and FBI-approved.

SIG V-Crown

Several years ago, SIG Sauer started expanding its market share into electro-optics and ammunition. SIG’s standout defensive handgun load is the Elite Performance blend with V-Crown bullet, available in 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP, as well as others. As boatloads of testing has displayed, the V-Crown is incredibly accurate and offers tremendous expansion and penetration. Unique to the V-Crown design is a cannelure groove halfway up the shank, which helps the lead core stay together when passing through barriers. Next, a stacked hollow-point design allows for rapid expansion. The 124-grain V-Crown in 9mm, for example, passes through clothing and ballistic gelatin with 14″-15″ of penetration, about as ideal as you can get.

Cor-Bon DPX

Featuring solid-copper bullets that expand to nearly 200 percent and retain weight remarkably well, Cor-Bon’s DPX has been a proven winner in the defense category. The company hit a few snags when its supplier, Barnes bullets, was purchased by the Remington conglomerate, halting production and leaving many loyal fans in the lurch. Cor-Bon has since been sold, but has resumed production, and its barrier-blind loads are available again to the public. An all-copper bullet with internal serration cuts allows the bullet to expand to double its size while retain the entirety of its weight even through auto glass. The result is 12″-17″ of penetration and devastating trauma on target.

Federal HST

Released in 2002 and originally marketed to the law enforcement community, Federal’s HST caught on quickly as one of the most reliably expanding, consistently penetrating defense loads in the industry. Whether or not the “HST” moniker is any sort of tribute to the original Hydra-Shok, it is true that bullet master Tom Burczynski was a part of both projects. At the request of government agencies and police departments, Federal developed the HST to deliver even better diameter expansion without sacrificing in the penetration department. While many bullets rely on bonding to secure the jacket and core, Federal opted for a mechanical cannelure in the shank to get the job done. For those who shoot subcompacts, Federal offers the HST in the Micro variant.

Speer Gold Dot

When you ask passionate shooters what the best defensive handgun load is, Speer’s Gold Dot is atop most people’s list, and for good reason. Most notably, Gold Dot has been a staple among the law enforcement community for years and has withstood the test of time. Speer pioneered the bonded bullet design with this load, giving shooters a deep-penetrating load retaining its weight, and which didn’t separate when coming into contact with barriers. Originally, Gold Dot’s claim to fame was law enforcement use in 9mm and .38 special revolvers. Fully capable in FBI testing and still atop the agency’s list of approved loads, Gold Dot has been a gold-medal load for defensive shooters for over two decades.

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