Defense Loads of Choice: The Word from the Street

Sterile lab testing in ballistic gelatin is great, but the…

Sterile lab testing in ballistic gelatin is great, but the ultimate laboratory is the street. Here are the loads that seem to be doing best there, input written in blood from gunfights police departments that have experienced with these ammunition.

Defensive ammunition choice is about picking what works best to neutralize armed and dangerous human beings before they can maim or murder. Scientific testing of ammo in ballistic gelatin can help predict bullet performance in the field, but at the end of the day, it is the performance and not the prediction that will matter.

Thirty-four years of carrying a sworn police officer’s badge, 20 years as chair of the firearms committee of the American Society of Law Enforcement trainers, and several years now on the advisory board of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association combined with several trips to major seminars of groups like the International Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association and the International Homicide Investigators Seminars gave me a solid base of cops who’ve investigated a lot of shootings for their departments.

These aren’t “war stories,” they are full investigations of shootings including evidence recovery, complete autopsy and forensic ballistic testing protocols, and intensive debriefings of the shooters and the witnesses. From that collective pool of knowledge emerges a profile of which duty cartridges perform the best.

Obviously, police issue ammunition is used in a significant majority of these shootings. That’s why police duty calibers and loads have the strongest “databases” to learn from. Fortunately for armed citizens, they and the police tend to choose the same calibers.

Picking a load that has proven itself on duty with the police gives the armed citizen added confidence in what their chosen gun/cartridge combination can deliver. Using ammunition that is widely issued to police is a strong defense against unmeritorious courtroom allegations such as, “He used evil hollow point bullets that rend and tear, and that shows he had malice in his heart!”

Let’s look at what the street feedback is indicating is working best these days.

.38 Special
Concealed carry permit instructors tell me that the .38 Special revolver, usually in compact short-barrel form, is one of the most common guns brought to their classes by students, and often the single gun that their graduates most commonly carry on the street. For most of the 20th Century, this caliber revolver was also by far the most popular in law enforcement, with plainclothes and off-duty officers generally carrying “snubbies,” and uniformed personnel generally carrying larger framed, longer barrel models.

Today, there are still thousands of senior cops carrying “grandfathered” .38 revolvers on duty in New York City and Chicago, and many more who carry them as backup or off-duty guns. In fact, the snub nose .38 seems to be the most popular police backup handgun to this day, and is still widely used for off-duty carry. Only two cartridges really stand out as head and shoulders above the large pack of available .38 Special rounds. These are the “FBI load” and the “New York load.”

The FBI load gets its sobriquet from the fact that this round was adopted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation circa 1972, right after Winchester introduced it. It was also adopted by the Chicago PD, and remains the .38 Special load of issue there to this day. Metro-Dade (now Miami-Dade) police likewise found it to perform superbly, as did cops throughout America, and it continues to be known by some locally as the “Chicago load” or “Metro load.” This cartridge comprises an all-lead, semi-wadcutter shaped hollow point bullet at +P velocity.

It works particularly well out of a 4-inch barrel, but cops quickly discovered that the projectile generally upset and expanded at least to some degree, even out of short barrels that reduced velocity. The reason was that with no tough copper jacket to peel back, the soft lead expanded more easily in flesh.

Winchester and Remington both produce this 158-grain LSWCHP +P round. The Remington seems to have the softer lead of the two, and therefore opens a bit more dramatically. This is a good thing.

A few years ago, NYPD realized it still had some 3,000 officers carrying .38 Special service revolvers as primary handguns, and that the overwhelming majority of their plus/minus 35,000 sworn personnel carried snub .38s as backup and off-duty guns. They approached Speer to create a load that would optimize .38 Special terminal ballistics when fired from a revolver with a 1.875-inch barrel.

Ernest Durham at Speer led the project, and the result has now become known colloquially as the NYPD load. It comprises a wide-mouthed 135-grain Gold Dot bonded, jacketed hollowpoint at +P velocity.

In numerous shootings with both snubs and 4-inch service revolvers, NYPD officials tell me that they are more than satisfied. Because of the lighter bullet, it kicks less than the FBI load, and because of the modern Gold Dot technology, it expands widely and reliably. They have found it to be a good man-stopper.

Either will work well. In a snubbie, I prefer the Gold Dot for two reasons. First, the lighter recoil is helpful in fast and accurate shooting. Second, the all-lead FBI load is more lightly crimped than the Gold Dot, and when fired in a super-light snubbie in the 10- or 11-ounce weight range, such as the Titanium or Scandium S&W AirLites, recoil is so severe that after a shot or two, the projectiles can start pulling loose from the case mouths.

They “prarie dog” up out of the chamber at the front of the cylinder, where they can strike the forcing cone of the barrel and lock the gun up solid. While this can happen with any make of the all-lead +P FBI load, it does not occur with the Speer NYPD load.

Load Comments
  • Federal 9BPLE is one of my favorite carry choices!


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  • Brian Elmore

    I would liked to have seen some reference to the 10mm. This particular cartridge was developed by the FBI, the requirements were 180 grain bullet at 950 fps. The 40 S&W was developed from this load as they could produce the same ballistics from a shorter cartridge. The original 10mm had excessive recoil and had to be toned down to accommodate the average shooter in other law enforcement applications even in full sized 1911 style pistols.



  • Joey

    Doesn’t Mr. Ayoob know that 9mm is a non lethal round. You cant kill people with it. I know because i have read it on tons of gun forum from couch commandoes.

  • I have personally seen the results of the Win.RA9TA (127+P+)in four cases. It works.My own testing also gives me great faith in the RA45T AND the HST2 in the full size 1911.I am also seing some 185’s,most notably the Barnes X turn in great performance in testing. The young guys have it made. They have what we only dreamed of 30-40 years ago.This advancement in projectile design has kicked aside the requirement for high velocity in modern loadings.That’s a good thing.Good report from Mas and I agree with about all of it.

  • Walt

    the information was very infomative and should help a lot of casual gun owners pick the correct load for defense.I would however like to know how the cor-bon loads in plus-p work in 9mm and 357mag(115&125 grains respectfully)in defensive shootings.

  • John WV

    The word from the street is: Accuracy with any caliber. Placement of Bullet. Hitting your opponent vital area will always be the deciding factor. Even a .22 will kill. And may be whats ordered for the job because of no or very little recoil. It breaks down to also what is comfortable and fitting for the shooter. There is no one gun or ammo in any of these situations.
    It also break down to enviroment and stress factors. The way you train will be the way you shoot. Question: If you cannot hit the X ten out of ten times in a controlled situation. What can you expect in a stressful situation.

  • Most reputable, Factory loaded defense loads will be fine for most people in non-law enforcement applications. Shot placement has more applicability today than ever before. Specially with numerous criminals using body armor now days!

  • Ernie Taylor

    This is more of a question than a comment. As Mr. Ayoob has stated here, I have heard from many sources that the .40 cal. is the most popular cartridge in American law enforcement. However, also as stated/implied by Mr. Ayoob, many knowledgeable individuals seem to criticize the .40 as not being as effective as other cartridges. I know just enough to get myself in trouble in this area so it would be great if Mr. Ayoob would provide a primer on this topic, however brief. Thanks.

  • In many ways, ammo choice is less critical now than it’s ever been. Through development of expanding bullets over the past 20 or 30 years, it’s difficult to make a bad choice if you’re using a premium bullet from one of the big manufacturers. Sure, some are better than others, but the others are better now than they were 20 years ago. There’s still a difference in some ways, but the margin that makes up the difference is narrowed.

  • roy

    Our experience in the 40 is that the 155 grn loads beat the guns up in short order.we practice monthly and have had to have several of our Glocks rebuilt due to the high pressures.As a result i am transitioning our dept to the 21 sf in 45acp.

  • Sal Matos

    We recently had an on duty shooting and the ,357sig worked as advertised.

    from 4 yards through the liver and recovered just under the skin on the back.

    He went down quickly. No second shot needed.