Four Versatile Handgun Loads To Have

by Tommy Grant

When it comes to ammunition for defensive handguns, self-defense ammo is the most talked about. While the primary purpose of self-defense handguns is for protection against humans doing bad things, it’s not their only viable use.

There are actually four types of ammunition you should consider for a defensive handgun, and while all four might not be practical for you—today, based on your lifestyle and geographic location—at some point they might be. I’m a practical/general-purpose kind of guy, and I’m not interested in any handgun unless all four of these loads are available for it across the counter … or can at least be loaded by hand.

Practice/Training Ammunition

If you’re serious about your defensive handgun, you’ll shoot more practice/training ammunition than any other type. The good news is that there’s a lot of good training ammunition to choose from. The mistake some folks make is trying to save too much money.

When I became the firearms instructor at my department, we were using re-manufactured ammunition for training. We saved some money, but we also blew up two pistols in the process. If you handload your own ammo, that’s great—as long as you do a good job. If you don’t handload, do yourself a favor and spend a few dollars extra for quality, factory-loaded ammunition.

The round-nose or truncated cone FMJ bullet is the standard for training and practice, but a relatively new offering from Federal, where the lead bullet is coated with a synthetic jacket, is a better option. Federal’s Syntech ammunition eliminates copper and lead fouling, increases barrel life and drastically reduces splash-back when shooting steel targets. I use a lot—and I mean a lot—of this stuff.

Self-Defense Ammunition

There’s a litany of self-defense loads for every suitable self-defense handgun cartridge. Picking the right one might seem harder than finding a life partner, but the truth is that there are more good self-defense loads out there than there are bad. Also, many of these loads perform very similarly because most ammunition manufacturers are building their self-defense ammunition to conform to the FBI’s 12 to 18 inches of penetration requirements, with bullet upset of about 1.5 times the original bullet diameter.

Most Speer’s Gold Dot loads, Hornady Critical Duty loads, Remington’ Golden Saber loads, Winchester’s USA Defense loads, as well as a wide variety of ammunition loaded with Barnes XPB bullets, generally deliver FBI-level performance. I’d not feel under-gunned with any of these, but I am partial to Federal’s Personal Defense or Tactical HST loads. Regardless of the cartridge, these loads penetrate to between 12 and 16 inches, and the bullets will generally upset between 1.5 and 1.8 times the original diameter. This ammunition is also extremely reliable, and reliability is a primary concern with self-defense ammunition.

Predator Defense Ammunition

Some of us live or frequent locations where predatory animals can be found. I’m not talking about coyotes or badgers; I’m talking about larger critters that can present a serious threat to humans … like mountain lions and bears. You could potentially kill either with a good self-defense load, but your goal is not to kill but to stop them as fast as possible. This calls for a bullet that’ll penetrate very deep, no matter if big or heavy bone is encountered. You might have to shoot a bad bear in the head, and you want the bullet to penetrate the skull and keep going.

This calls for a heavy-for-caliber bullet driven hard and fast, and one that’ll hold together and bust through anything encountered. The best bullet for this job is a hardcast bullet. Though they look like lead bullets, they’re only partially lead. They’ve been substantially strengthened with antimony and/or tin and can be seven times as hard has pure lead. A good hardcast bullet from most self-defense capable cartridges will penetrate as deep as 3 feet in 10 percent ordnance gelatin.

There are four good sources for hardcast handgun ammunition: Buffalo Bore’s Outdoorsman loads, DoubleTap’s Hardcast loads, Federal’s Solid Core loads and Underwood Ammunition’s Black Cherry Coated Hardcast. Pick the one that shoots the best and that’s the most reliable in your handgun.

Snake Defense Ammunition

I don’t go hunting snakes, nor do I have a desire to rid the world of them. But, if I find one near my home or writhing the curtilage of my house, garage, barn or outbuildings, I kill it. Not because I hate them, but because they’re dangerous to my family and our dogs. There’s definitely a place in this world for venomous snakes—that place is just not close to me. I have no interest in a centerfire handgun if I cannot load it with shotshells. They’re not commercially available for the .327 Federal Magnum, which is one of my favorite handgun cartridges, so I make my own.

Earlier this year I was hunting at a farm right along the Limpopo River in Africa. The farmer had a wife and two young boys, and just as we were heading out for the evening hunt, his wife alerted him that there was a snake in the tree beside the house. We discovered it was a boomslang, and the tree was in the yard right where his boys played. The farmer grabbed his 9mm pistol, shoved in a magazine loaded with CCI shotshells in it and handed it to me. One bang later and the incredibly deadly snake was dead.

CCI offers shotshells for most popular self-defense handgun cartridges. They actually offer two varieties. One is loaded with No. 4 shot and is called “Big 4.” It’ll work on snakes but it isn’t ideal. The other is loaded with smaller shot—a lot of it—and is simply listed as “SHOTSHELL.” If you have or expect to have snake issues, get a box and keep a magazine loaded with them handy. Best results are at between 4 and 10 yards, and this ammunition will not reliably cycle some pistols—you may have to manually rack the slide after each shot.

Four Loads

Regardless of the quantities you might need, any serious defensive handgunner will have these four loads at their disposal. You’re going to need a lot of practice/training ammunition; buy it by the case to save money. Unless you live in Tijuana or Chicago, for true self-defense ammunition you’ll probably only need about one box per year. A box of good hardcast ammo might last you a lifetime, but like with self-defense ammunition, I’d suggest routinely rotating it out; this gives you a chance to practice with it.

Remember, both of these loads are what you’ll be trusting to save your life. Unless you live along the Limpopo River in Africa, one box of shotshells should last a long time too, but at close range they also work well on rats and other vermin, so you might as well pick up a box or two each year as well.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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