Do you want the good news or the bad news?
The good news is that there are more than five great 9x19mm defensive ammo choices. The bad news is that there are more than five great ammunition choices.
So what to choose? That depends. If you look around on YouTube, you’ll see lots of ammunition tests performed in carefully-controlled scenarios. That’s absolutely the best way to look at relative differences between different types of ammunition under, you guessed it, carefully-controlled circumstances. That’s how law enforcement organizations do it—by necessity. How else could you really compare one ammo type to another without factoring out all possible variables between every test shot?
Without going into too much detail on the process, these tests explore penetration into carefully-calibrated ballistic gelatin. They also look at expansion performance and penetration when a piece of standardized denim fabric is placed in front of the gelatin block. Law enforcement tests go further and bring things like windshield barriers into the equation, but we won’t go there since this is about personal self-defense requirements.
Back to the good news. Most of the results from these tests, when quality ammunition is used, are excellent. Most modern bullets penetrate more than 12 inches. Most expand in pure gelatin when passing through light denim barriers. Most tests end with perfectly-expanded projectiles. That’s great, and should give you confidence that it’s hard to go wrong with quality ammunition.
Here’s the problem. Real life isn’t carefully controlled. Projectiles you fire in a self-defense scenario won’t hit a gelatin target square on after passing through a (very) lightweight layer of denim fabric. They might. Or they might have to deal with things like multiple clothing layers, winter coats, leather jackets, bones, and who knows what else—and that’s where you start to see real differences in ammunition performance. You’ll start to see jacketed designs that held together so beautifully in controlled tests come apart. Many of the bullets that expand well in gel may not expand at all passing through thicker and more realistic clothing barriers. In short, things get random when exposed to real-world conditions, because, unlike a lab, the real world is messy.
This list is not a ranking of the five 9x19mm ammunition types that performed “best” under controlled scenarios. It’s a little more subjective, and based on results I observed when shooting through all sorts of tough barriers like multiple layers of clothing, leather, and heavier jacket denim.
1. Speer Gold Dot +P 124-grain
Bonded bullets tend to perform really well in random circumstances. While they can break apart, they’re far less likely to do so than jacketed designs. Bonded and jacketed alike work great in standardized gel tests, but when bullets start hitting hard things, bonded ones do a much better job of staying together, improving the odds of proper penetration.
In my own velocity testing, I’ve found the Speer 124-grain rounds to consistently surpass the 1,200 feet per second barrier. Measured speeds from a Glock 17 Gen 4, Beretta 92FS, and Sig Sauer P226 were 1,231, 1,209, and 1,223 feet per second, respectively. Tough barrier expansion performance? Absolutely. After getting bored with the performance through numerous layers of fabric, I tried all sorts of tough materials like paper, wood, multiple layers of leather, and more. This load consistently outperformed everything else tested.
I have to give Winchester an honorable mention in this section for their PDX1 +P 124-grain offering. It’s a bonded design like the Speer Gold Dot and performs nearly as well through a variety of barrier types. I’ve measured its average velocity from a number of full-size handguns in the 1,220 feet per second range.
2. Federal HST 124-grain
If you forced me to make a choice between a jacketed and bonded bullet design, I would probably have to choose bonded. However, in the jacketed bullet universe, the Federal HST is one that stays together exceptionally well, even when it encounters tough barriers.
The HST looks nifty in controlled gel tests and produces beautifully expanded star-shaped designs. It makes this list because, for a standard-pressure round traveling at about 1,150 feet per second, it does pretty darn good in less-controlled circumstances as well.
3. Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel +P 124-grain
While the +P Gold Dots make the list for medium- to large-sized handguns, the Short Barrel variant is great for compact guns.
Generally speaking, making a bullet expand more easily limits its penetration performance. If it starts to expand right away upon impacting a target, it slows down faster and may not reach the desired depth. That’s why projectiles designed to expand at over 1,000 feet per second may not expand at all at 900 feet per second. Conversely, if you design the projectile to expand at 900 feet per second, it may expand too quickly at higher velocities.
The Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel line is optimized for lower velocities associated with handguns using three-inch (or shorter) barrels. Bullets fired from compact guns may have as much as 100 feet per second velocity reduction. Fired from a three-inch-barreled 9x19mm like the Springfield Armory EMP, you can expect 1,150 feet per second and perfect expansion at that reduced velocity.
4. Barnes TAC-XP projectiles
I cheated a little on this one because I picked a specific projectile rather than a loaded cartridge. I did this because I continue to be impressed with the performance of the Barnes all-copper solid projectiles. They expand reliably, penetrate most any reasonable barrier and rarely if ever, come apart. These are loaded in different configurations from different ammunition providers. DoubleTap Ammunition uses the Barnes TAC-XP in its 80-grain, standard pressure 9x19mm offering. Low recoil and high velocity make it a great option for compact pistols. I tested a Buffalo Bore +P+ 95-grain load and shot it through leather boots into gelatin. Even after passing through thick leather, the projectiles expanded perfectly. And now, Barnes is loading their own cartridges using the TAC-XP.
5. Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain
For normal self-defense use, I’m including Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain. It’s a standard-pressure load, shooting a slightly light-for-caliber 115-grain FTX projectile.
I like it for two reasons. First, the FTX design includes a polymer tip in the 9mm hollow point ammo that actually works. I’ve shot this bullet through all sort of ridiculous barriers in front of gelatin and it almost always expands. Because of the flex tip, there’s no hollow point to clog. Expansion is not as dramatic as other bullets, but it’s consistent. You’ll almost always get some expansion, even when it hits something hard on the way in.
The second thing I like is the standard pressure loading. An 115-grain bullet moving at 1,140 feet per second is easy to control. The only shots that count are hits on target, right?
The combination of forgiving expansion performance and controllability make this a very good all-around defensive use option.
Over years of testing and observing bullet performance in all sorts of scenarios, a couple of things have become clear.
Velocity is the great equalizer. Modern hollow points require pressure to expand. Try opening one with your fingers and you’ll see what I mean. More velocity equals more energy, which equals more available pressure. I’ve tested a lot of 9mm ammo types that works beautifully when fired from a Beretta 92FS with its 4.9-inch barrel but fails when shot from a gun with a three-inch barrel. Each one-inch reduction in barrel length can cause a 30- to 50-foot per second loss in velocity, and that can be enough to prevent expansion. When out of the lab and into real-world scenarios, I prefer any extra velocity I can get without sacrificing controllability.
Jacketed is accurate, bonded sticks together. It’s very unusual for a bonded projectile to lose any significant weight, even when it strikes hard objects or tough barriers. Jacketed bullets, on the other hand, can separate under adverse conditions. On the flip side, I’ve noticed that jacketed bullets tend to shoot a little more accurately. If I had to designate a lifetime average difference in 25-yard group size, I’d venture a guess that quality jacketed bullets may group somewhere between half an inch and an inch better than quality bonded bullets. Obviously, that statement comes with a lot of disclaimers. Does that matter in self-defense usage scenarios? Not a bit. That’s better than most people can shoot under the very best of conditions.
Consider what you care about. Standardized ammunition tests are great, and the only real way to directly compare one load verse another in quantitative terms. Just be sure you know how your chosen self-defense ammo behaves from your own gun. Develop your own tests that replicate usage scenarios that you care about. If you don’t want to buy your own ballistic gel, thoroughly soak a pile of newspaper and put clothing barriers of your choice in front of it. Will that give you lab-quality data? No, but it will give you an idea of how your ammo works in less than perfect conditions.
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.
Images by Tom McHale