With a controversial topic like the best self-defense ammo out there, I have to include a couple of explanations and disclaimers.

You have to be careful about blanket statements when it comes to ammo performance. There are just too many variables. For example, you can’t necessarily say things like “Mega Blaster Yellow Tips” are the best. You might be able to say “Mega Blaster Yellow Tips 9x19mm 124-grain +P loads are the best!” It may very well be the case that the .40 Smith & Wesson loading of Mega Blaster is not so hot, but maybe the .45 ACP, 9x19mm, and .380 ACP loads are. You always have to look at the specifics like caliber, bullet weight, and gun type. In other words, you need to make sure the specific brand of self-defense ammo you choose works in your caliber and in your gun. Some offerings, like a few mentioned here, recognize caliber variables and design accordingly. For example, DoubleTap Ammunition varies projectile types to account for such factors.

Velocity is a really big deal and performance statements always have to be qualified with variables that impact velocity. While a specific .45 ACP ammo self-defense cartridge may work as expected every time from a gun with a four- or five-inch barrel, it may not work at all with that micro-compact 1911 with a one-inch barrel. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but in my testing, I’ve found that even a 50 to 100 feet per second velocity reduction from a cartridge’s use in a short barrel can make a great bullet stinky and inconsistent.

With that said, expansion (or perhaps fragmentation) performance weighed heavily in the development of this list. After all, self- and home-defense ammo is intended to stop things quickly.

I’m blending self defense (concealed carry) and home defense on this list. Just because I feel like it. With that said, let’s get busy.

DoubleTap Defense

I’ve spent a lot of time with Mike McNett, the godfather of boom, and know what he puts into ammo development and testing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Mike buys up 84 percent of the annual worldwide production of gelatin blocks.

DoubleTap makes a variety of ammo types for various purposes, but for this list, stick to the DoubleTap Defense and DoubleTap Tactical lines. These loads, available in nearly any caliber you want, use either the excellent Barnes TAC all-copper bullets or bonded projectiles, depending on the specific load requirements. Like 1911s? Check out the Mann Load. It uses a 160-grain Barnes TAC bullet moving at over 1,000 feet per second and has great expansion and penetration, but low blast and recoil. If you carry a .380 ACP, consider the 90-grain Bonded Defense offering.

They’re not cheap, but they work.

Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel is optimized to expand at lower velocities from compact guns.
Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel is optimized to expand at lower velocities from compact guns.

Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel

The plethora of compact revolvers and semiautomatics available today sent the Speer engineers back to the drawing board. Speer Gold Dot ammunition has always been one of my favorite performers in almost any caliber. But, like any ammo, it’s designed with a careful balance of expansion and penetration assuming a specific velocity range. When you fire ammo from a gun with a short barrel, say three inches or less, you’re likely to lose as much as 100 feet per second (or more) in velocity. Then that carefully-planned balance goes out the window. If you suffer from a short barrel, make sure you use ammo designed for lower velocity.

.223/5.56x45mm Practice Ammo

Well, sort of. For a home-defense scenario, standard, full metal jacket 5.56 ammo is a pretty darn good option. Here’s why. When using any ammunition “indoors,” over-penetration is a potentially serious issue. Pistol rounds, shotgun slugs, and buckshot go through walls like tax evaders through Congress. So do many hunting and tactical .223 and 5.56 projectiles—they’re designed to do that.

On the other hand, small, lightweight, standard full metal jacket 55-grain projectiles tend to fragment and start upsetting when they hit things like drywall. Counter to assumption and common sense, AR-15-type rifles may present less of an over-penetration risk than a .38 Special. It’s something to consider for home defense, especially since most guns that use this ammo have 30-round magazines.

Expansion results for Federal Guard Dog EFMJ were impressive.
Expansion results for Federal Guard Dog EFMJ were impressive.

Federal Guard Dog .45 ACP

I tested Federal Guard Dog a while back in its .45 ACP configuration and found it surprisingly functional.

It’s an expanding full metal jacket design, and yes, you heard that oxymoron correctly. It has at least three potential use-cases. Some locales prohibit standard hollow point expanding ammunition. Technically, this design is not a hollow point, so it just might defeat those silly and pointless laws. Second, it expands reliably after passing through barriers like heavy clothing as there is no hollow point to clog up. Third, the expansion also helps reduce over-penetration when it hits something like an interior wall.

For self or home defense, here’s another thing I like about it. It’s a standard-pressure round with a lighter-than-normal projectile for each caliber, so recoil and muzzle blast are very, very tame. For example, the .45 ACP offering uses a 165-grain bullet rather than the standard 185-, 200-, or 230-grain bullets. I found recoil to be shockingly mild and expansion was, well, awesome.

Hornady Critical anything

Hornady makes a number of critical things—Critical Defense and Critical Duty, for starters. The bullets share some common features like a design that expands in pretty much any situation. They are hollow point jacketed bullets, but the points are filled with a red polymer plug that aids expansion when the bullet impacts something. This mostly eliminates the problem of “clogged” hollow points acting like full metal jacket bullets and not expanding.

Hornady Critical Defense ammo even expanded after passing through rock.
Hornady Critical Defense ammo even expanded after passing through rock.

I got bored some time ago and did a whole series of testing with Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty ammo. Hornady claimed that it “always expands” so I had to put that to the test. I shot it through all sorts of realistic and ridiculous barriers to see if it would expand. things like flour, wood, leather, The New York Times, and Spam. At one point, I even shot it through rocks. Well, technically they were stone floor tiles. Nonetheless, the projectiles still expanded.

Testing nearly a dozen varieties and calibers, I found the following. Some projectile brands will expand dramatically under ideal conditions, but fail under less than ideal conditions. Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty will expand less dramatically, but very well, under nearly any condition. If you want something reliable that will work in many different scenarios, take a look at Hornady’s offerings.

.357 SIG almost anything

If you push a marshmallow fast enough, it could blow up (okay, maybe seriously damage) a tank. .357 SIG fires a 9mm bullet anywhere from 1,300 to 1,600 feet per second. Most hollow point bullets can’t help but expand when moving that fast—barriers or no barriers.

Of particular interest, check out the CorBon 125-grain DPX load. I tested this one through two layers of heavy boot leather and multiple layers of fabric and the solid copper projectiles still expanded beautifully.

One drawback is the muzzle blast and recoil. It’s snappy.

Just as a side note, if you shoot a .357 SIG hollow point at a huge glass jar of grape jelly, it will vaporize.

Got a surplus M1 Carbine? Try putting some modern self-defense ammo like this Speer Gold Dot through it.
Got a surplus M1 Carbine? Try putting some modern self-defense ammo like this Speer Gold Dot through it.

Speer Gold Dot

I mentioned the Short Barrel version separately as it’s worthy of its own look. I’ve had excellent results with a wide variety of standard Speer Gold Dot ammunition. The bonded design ensures that the bullet and its cover stay together, even through barriers. Loads that have performed exceptionally well include the 9mm Luger +P 124-grain, the .357 SIG 125-grain, .45 ACP +P 200-grain, and .40 S&W 155-grain. I’ve also had good success with the .38 Special +P 135-grain standard load, not to be confused with the Short Barrel version.

Winchester Train and Defend 9x19mm and .40 S&W

Here’s a new kid on the block that I’ve been testing. Some of the self-defense ammo types on this list are mega blasters. They sport big velocity and corresponding big performance and big noise and recoil. Winchester’s Train and Defend line goes the other way. The design parameters for the Defend line call for performance in realistic self-defense environments and provide benefits to the shooter as a result. It’s not supposed to pass through 14 car windshields and expand to 17 times its original diameter. It is supposed to offer low blast and low recoil and expand after passing through normal clothing barriers, and that it does. The best part, especially for newer shooters, is that the Train ammo for each Defend load “feels” the same to shoot, but uses cheaper full metal jack bullets. Practice with those, then load up the Defend ammo when you get home from the range. Great idea and simplicity at its best.

Winchester also makes Train and Defend in .380 ACP and .38 Special. I only don’t list those here as I’ve not had the opportunity to test them yet.

I should also mention Winchester’s PDX1 Defender line. So far, I’ve tested the 9x19mm offering and 165-grain .40 S&W with great results. PDX1 projectiles are bonded and keep all of their original weight intact.

These Remington Golden Saber .45 ACP projectiles expanded to three quarters of an inch.
These Remington Golden Saber .45 ACP projectiles expanded to three quarters of an inch.

Remington Golden Saber .45 ACP +P 185-grain

Here’s one that I currently carry in 1911s. The lighter bullet and +P boost give bring it to 1,165 feet per second out of my Springfield Armory TRP. Expansion and penetration have proven to be excellent, even after passing through tough barriers like leather and fabric.

Buffalo Bore 9mm +P+ 95-grain Barnes TAC-XP

Here’s an unusual one that turned in an impressive performance. Using a light-for-caliber 95-grain solid copper Barnes TAC-XP bullet, this cartridge delivers big-time velocity with surprisingly low recoil. From a few of my test guns, I clocked the following:

  • Beretta 92FS: 1,420 feet per second
  • Glock 17 Gen 4: 1,438 feet per second
  • Glock 26 Gen 4: 1,358 feet per second

These are a few of the ammo choices that have floated to the top of my list based on some pretty intensive, and sometimes silly, testing.

What do you keep in your carry and home-defense guns?

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.

Note added 7/9/2014: This article has been edited to correct an error regarding .357 SIG. Due to an editing mishap, the text originally stated that the cartridge uses a “9x19mm” projectile. The text has been corrected to state that the cartridge uses a 9mm bullet.

Images by Tom McHale

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32 thoughts on “Ten Top Self-defense Ammo Picks

  1. I really like the Winchester 147gr “Ranger.” My local police department has killed many thugs that needed to die with that round. Why fix something when it just works?

  2. Numbers are numbers, numbers are not real world performance. If you want to learn about which rounds best stop the bad guys in the real world, I suggest you search any of the prominent firearms and tactical web forums for the work of Dr. Gary K. Roberts. His screen name is DocGKR, and he maintains a running list of the most proven SD and duty rounds. If there’s anyone making more comprehensive information concerning bullet performance in REAL-WORLD shootings freely available to Joe Sixpack over the Internet, I’ve not found him.

  3. when you mentioned the .357SIG, you said the bullet was a “9×19”. i’m hoping that was only a typo, because it’s Wrong!
    you also don’t describe any of your test protocols.(eg- what was your expansion medium?)
    noticeably missing from your article are the pre-fragmented types, such as Mag-Safe and Glaser. Why?

    1. No, I didn’t say 9×19, I said “9mm bullet” which is correct. The .357 Sig uses a .355 inch diameter projectile in its loads, which is the same projectile diameter as 9mm. Most bullet companies make a different bullet for .357 Sig, usually in 125 grain. The .357 Sig is still a 9mm (.355″) bullet, but will be shaped differently to account for limited neck tension area with the 357 Sig bottleneck cartridge case. Expansion will also be optimized for 357 Sig velocities as some 9mm bullets would over expand at 100 – 200 fps more.

      Depending on the bullet, and when the tests were done, all were fired through two layers of leather and two layers or fabric OR 4 layers of fabric only. Expansion medium was either wet pack or Clear Ballistics gel blocks.

      I didn’t incude Mag Safe and Glaser as I’ve not seen good penetration performance. They blow up and make big messes, but I personally don’t load them in any of my guns.

      1. thanks for your reply, Tom.
        well, i was right about the “9×19” as shown by your Note on the error. i was sure it was a typo.
        just want to briefly touch on the Mag-Safe/Glaser issue. are you familiar with the Strasbourg Tests? if
        not, please review before commenting. how do you justify your comments on this ammo in light of the test results?

      2. I’m familiar with the Strasbourg tests. The problem with those is the absolute controlled conditions, i.e. exact same shot placement on stationary targets. No movement, no “odd angle” shots, no clothing or jackets, no barriers of any kind. None of the issues almost certain to be factors in the real world were part of those tests, nor were they intended to be. As I recall, they were testing for specific physiological pressure spikes related to incapacitation. When other variables are introduced, ability to penetrate becomes a really big issue, hence most professionals belief that minimum 12″ penetration capability is required to account for real world factors.

        I’ve shot those loads at various things and they make a mess, but don’t go through stuff very well, hence my opinion on limited usefulness in random conditions.

        My $.02…

      3. I don’t like Glaser either. Made a quartering shot on a feral cat that entered just forward of the rear hip and ranged towards the opposite shoulder with a 9mm. Cat was DRT but no exit. On a human I’m sure it would have made an ugly wound but wouldn’t have gone deep enough to ensure a threat neutralizing injury. Expansion is useful but not at the expense of penetration. The projectile MUST penetrate deep enough to get to vital organs.

  4. Poor article since it fails to mention the round that is the clear winner in the YouTube ShootingTheBull410 series of ammo tests that are done with short barrel 9mm. The clear leader at this point is Federal HST with maybe one other brand that gets a thumbs up. These series of tests have been going on for months and if you’re in the business of writing ammo articles and don’t know about them then you’re really out of the loop. These tests have been linked in a multitude of common online gun sites and there is no good excuse not knowing about them. Get into the game Mr. McHale.

    1. I thoroughly enjoy ShootingTheBull410’s videos. The are the new standard in YouTube ballistic greatness. I also noticed how Federal HST didn’t make this article. My opinion, you just can’t go wrong with either Speer Gold Dots or Federal HST.

    2. Federal HST is fantastic – I agree. But this is an impossible topic (I knew that from the start) as there are infinite criteria to consider, i.e. there are plenty of reasons for low recoil ammo solutions too, some of which are considered here. Just because I don’t reference a specific YouTube user doesn’t mean that these other things aren’t considered.

      1. And, of course, the topic of the article was restricted to commercially produced ammo. Some handloaders mix and match bullets and power to produce various velocities, improve accuracy, adjust recoil, change penetration parameters, and so on. I personally use handloads for practice, but carry only commercial loads for self-defense; supposedly that helps prevent lawyers from advancing the “why did you make your own SuperKillerDeathAndDestructionWartimeZombieApocalypse rounds” question. Personally, I carry Speer Gold Dot 9mm 124 grain commercial loads in my concealed Glock 19 (3rd Gen), and appropriate Gold Dots in other calibers. I agree that Federal HSTs are also a good choice.

      2. I would like to see where ANY handloads that were used in a shooting were held against the shooter. That thinking would flow over to names like Critical Duty/Defense and “so you use one shot stop ammo like the police use?” I see where your thinking is based on common sense. But I have yet to see where the ammo was used against the shooter.

      3. To me it’s a simple cost / benefit decision. What’s the benefit of using handloads for self defense? Cost? OK, so you have to buy 1 box of defense ammo per year for your gun. 20 bucks. 20 bucks for absolute peace of mind. That’s a no brainer in my book.

      4. True, but cost wasn’t the issue here. It was a legal statement that using reloads would hurt you in court.
        But what about availablity? I reload a self defense load for my friend’s M1 30 carbine. Nothing but RN FMJs in a 3 hour drive from here. 110gr JSP or JHP bullets from Midway cured that. Same with a more popular round like the 380ACP. Couldn’t find one that would feed in friend’s pistol. A quick order and some dies got her some great self defense ammo.
        Awesome article and comments from all.

      1. Not my choice if I have other options but still better than a basic FMJ or a pointy stick.

  5. MUZZLE FLASH!!?? Too bad if you can’t see to aim. 45acp Golden Saber 185 +P are bright even in daylight. What about short barrel ammo in long barrels? Rem and Win told me that their self defense loads are low flash, but not +P. How about reality flash testing? It’s simple but nobody does it.

  6. here’s a curious contrast: back in the 18th & 19th centuries, they used soft lead round balls at what we would consider today to be low velocities. yet, vast numbers were killed or delivered incapacitating wounds. according to surgeons’ accounts i’ve read, the balls would flatten-out(expand) on impact with bone or dense tissue and exhibit a tumbling effect similar to our modern military projectiles. the effect was devastating.
    years ago, a popular SD load used a .38-cal HBWC seated invertedly in the case, at a velocity of 600-700fps. it was supposedly a real man-stopper.
    all this whiz-bang high tech ammo is great, but it costs more and more. my point is, i don’t think you have to have expensive, high tech/high velocity ammo to be effective. don’t forget, the most important factor is shot placement.

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I just got a box of this for my 1911. Since it’s affordable, I think I’ll run the whole box at the range.

  7. I know that homemade SD rounds are frowned upon, (don’t care) but I worked up some nice .38’s based on the old FBI round. 150 gr. cast bullet, about an 8 Brinell hardness, over a flash suppressed powder for about 1050 fps. Shot it thru fabric, water, sand, plywood, etc. and it expanded between 80 &100%. Good enough for what I need it for…..

  8. I like the Federal 230 grain HydraShok and the Speer 200 grain GDHP +P as defensive loads for my Glock 21 and Glock 30. Works for me.

    1. That’s actually a retarded saying… The whole point of using hallow points for self defense/home defense is so you can kill the attacker and not your neighbor…

  9. I load with Guard Dog in 45 acp & it’s an awesome round , high velocity , & killer/consistent/uniform expansion &accuracy .

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