Why Range Ammunition Is A Bad Choice For Your Self-Defense Gun

by Tommy Grant

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Don’t use range ammo as self-defense ammo. There are a number of good reasons why it’s a bad idea.

Range ammunition — meaning full metal jacket or fragmenting ammunition in center fire rifles and pistol, target or bird shot in shotguns — is a generally poor self-defense ammunition choice. Not that there aren’t good uses for it (ie the range, the dove field), but ammunition is a tool and you should use the right tool for the job.

The typical civilian uses a handgun for concealed carry and/or home defense. Perhaps that’s buttressed by a long gun for home defense and/or a trunk gun. That’s typically a shotgun or AR-platform (or maybe AK-platform) semi-automatic rifle. It has been recommended forever not to use range ammo for a practical gun and there are a number of reasons for that.

Center fire range ammunition (pistols, rifles) will dramatically over-penetrate (go through) the target, which is problematic in an urban or suburban environment. Target load shot shells may do little depending on the circumstances. In short, target ammo will either hit the bad guy and proceed to hit something (or someone) else, or won’t do enough to the bad guy to stop the threat.

Self-defense ammunition either fragments inside a fleshy target or expands, dumping its energy into an attacker and coming to a stop. That way, it tends not to go through the bad guy and then through a wall into someone else, maybe a family member.

This is why it’s recommended that you load any self-defense firearm, such as a concealed carry gun or home defense handgun or rifle, with expanding ammunition and a shotgun with either buckshot or slugs.

Police figured this out more than 70 years ago when they switched to semi-wadcutter hollow points in their .38 Special and .357 Magnum revolvers and jacketed hollow points in semi-automatic duty pistols. They’ve been using buckshot since pretty much the end of the 19th century in shotguns, for the same reason.

Okay, so why would anyone think using range ammo is a good idea?

Some might observe that the military uses FMJ rounds. For a start, much of that dates back to the Hague Convention on the use of expanding ammunition in warfare that took place in the 19th century.

Also, militaries deal in lead in volume. Hundreds of thousands of rounds are expended per enemy killed. Our armed forces also happen to be switching to Speer Gold Dot G2 hollow point 9mm ammunition (which the FBI uses) for pistols as lack of stopping power was a common complaint among personnel who had to use their M9 loaded with 124-gr +P FMJ NATO ammunition, even with the extra zing.

Civilian-involved shootings are over in seconds, with only a few shots fired in almost all instances. Thus, militaries using hardball is almost immaterial if someone wanted to bring it up.

There’s also the idea that “something is better than nothing.” While that’s prima facie true, in the real world you don’t need to shoot more than a few rounds of your self-defense ammunition here and there to check function, zero and point of impact in your carry gun.

Winchester white box hollow points and Remington UMC hollow points are pretty cheap, and will work.

My preferred carry load – Winchester PDX-1 9mm 147-gr. JHP – is $22 for a box of 20. I buy a box or two per year, and generally have a few rounds left over from the previous box at all times. Should I cycle it out more often? Probably, but the point is you don’t need to shoot carry ammunition that much.

Other brands, such as Hornady Critical Defense, Speer Gold Dot, Federal’s Hydra Shok, Hydra Shok Deep and HST brands, Remington Golden Saber and SIG SAUER’s V-Crown are all excellent, widely available and aren’t THAT expensive. You really can just buy a box a year and be fine.

Another scenario is people who carry a small-caliber pistol, such as .25 ACP, .32 ACP or .380. The idea goes something like this: the smaller bullet isn’t as powerful as a larger round, won’t over-penetrate as dramatically and hollow point ammunition doesn’t perform as well as, say, 9mm, .38 Special, .357 Magnum or .40 S&W hollow points.

First, .25 ACP, .32 ACP and .380 will still go through flesh like crap through a goose. Secondly, the market has an absolute GLUT of compact 9mm pistols if size is the issue, plenty of them are downright pleasant to shoot and you can always get reduced-recoil loads. Lastly, why would you carry a gun in a caliber known for being less effective when you can get something else?

Look, guns and bullets are tools, and you should buy tools that are known to work. I don’t think that NASCAR teams get their tools at Harbor Freight. Granted, Harbor Freight has some decent stuff and good prices, but that’s beside the point.

Then we come to the topic of .45 ACP. You don’t hear this one too much anymore as the myths about .45 ACP (and .45 Colt) are falling away in the fullness of time, but occasionally someone likes to bring up either the world wars or the Moro tribesmen.

The .45 Colt and .45 ACP rounds use a projectile that’s almost half an inch wide. (0.452 inches.) That’s a big hole. If all you can do is punch a hole in something (which is what range ammo does) then a bigger hole is better than a small one. Additionally, over penetration is the last thing a person cares about on the battlefield.

Not that over-penetration doesn’t occur with hollow point ammunition; the FBI’s Handgun Wounding And Effectiveness Report (PDF) reports about 30 percent of hollow points fail to expand in the target. However, over penetration in the home or on the street with one or two rounds is better than with every round fire.

As to shotguns, here we have the opposite problem regarding range ammo. Range ammo actually UNDER performs in a self-defense scenario.

Part of the ability of a projectile to penetrate a fleshy target and do fatal damage is down to the mass of the projectile (velocity and ballistic coefficient too) and the shot in target loads is very light. While it is propelled out of the barrel at high speed, velocity (and therefore momentum and energy) is lost rapidly as each individual pellet is too small to retain sufficient momentum on its own.

Human flesh doesn’t tear nearly as easily as brittle clay targets or thin bird flesh. A bunch of tiny pellets may arrive with hostile intentions but without the oomph to do anything about it.

In fact, TTAG wrote about shotgun penetration way back in 2010. Ballistic gel tests done by ShotgunWorld found that #8 birdshot barely penetrated five inches of ballistic gelatin overall, and only created a stretch cavity (meaning tissue crushed by the impact) in the first three inches.

Switching to a heavy #2 express load doubled the effects (length of stretch cavity and overall penetration), but sizing up to Remington Express 00 buckshot lengthened the stretch cavity to a full 14 inches and overall penetration to 21 inches.

The aforementioned FBI standard for ammunition performance is 12 to 18 inches of penetration in ballistic gel. In other words, the criteria set by experts in what ammunition needs to do in order to reliably stop a bad guy basically mandate that buckshot (#4 or larger) or a slug be used in a self-defense shotgun. If you aim correctly, spread is not really an issue; again, most self-defense shootings occur at close range and buckshot will only spread an inch or two if that.

So, to sum up…handgun or rifle range ammo will tend to go through an attacker, which is dangerous. There also aren’t really any excuses for using it for self-defense purposes. Anything short of self-defense ammunition in a shotgun risks failure to stop the threat, which is a problem if you only have three rounds.

Anything you’d like to add? Got to the end of the article and realized you just lost the game? Sound off in the comments!

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