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.

9mm Luger
The 9mm Luger (aka 9×19, 9mm Parabellum, 9mm NATO) is one of the most popular among armed citizens, and also still widely used by the nation’s police. As a result, we have a huge amount of street experience to tap into as to what works well and what doesn’t in this caliber.

In the late 1980s through most of the 1990s, 147-grain hollow points of conventional copper jacketed construction were the trendy issue rounds. They worked spottily – sometimes they expanded, and sometimes they just punched narrow little through and through wounds like ball ammo – and as a result, most departments that used this stuff either switched to more powerful calibers, or went to 9mm ammo that was going faster, with lighter bullets.

For many years, the “Illinois State Police load” – a 115-grain standard JHP launched at some 1,300 feet per second (fps) – proved itself to be the most decisive man-stopper available. It still works great. Federal’s version of this load, the 9BPLE, is standard issue for the DeKalb County lawmen, on the tough turf that surrounds and encompasses of Atlanta, Georgia.

These guys get into so many firefights that they’ve drawn political heat for “shooting too many people.” They have proven that when they shoot people with a 115-grain JHP doing 1,300 fps out of their issue Beretta service pistols, the bad guys go down and stop trying to kill them.

Other loadings have emerged that have the same decisive stopping power in 9mm. They include Winchester’s 127-grain Ranger series +P+ at 1,250 fps, and Speer’s Gold Dot 124-grain +P at the same velocity. Chicago PD switched to the 124-grain +P after multiple dismal stopping failures with 147-grain subsonic, and NYPD has used this round with great effect for some 15 years. Both are delighted with it. Orlando cops are issued P226 SIGs and 127-grain +P+ Winchester, and after many shootings since, they’ve found it to be as effective as any handgun caliber could be.

Personally, I carry the 9BPLE in one particular Beretta that shoots it better than any other carry load, and Winchester Ranger 127-grain +P+ in virtually all my other 9mm pistols, long or short barrel.

Some folks have bought into the theory that the 147-grain subsonic has been so widely recommended by authority figures, so it must be good. The fact is, there’s a new generation of 147-grain subsonic that is pretty darn good. It utilizes new-generation high-tech expanding bullet technology expressly engineered to make the bullets open up at velocity below the speed of sound. These include the CCI Speer Gold Dot, the Federal HST, and the Winchester Ranger.

The Amarillo, Texas Police report excellent results with their issue load for those officers who choose 9mm pistols, the 147-grain Gold Dot. A major department in the Pacific Northwest is now issuing Federal HST 147-grain subsonic, and reports excellent results in numerous shootings. LAPD and LA County Sheriff’s Department find that fewer officers and deputies are opting for larger caliber guns bought out of their own pockets, because they are reassured by how well Winchester Ranger 147-grain 9mm has worked for their brothers and sisters in numerous line of duty shootings.

Still, the faster bullets seem to be the way to go. There is much more corollary tissue damage around the wound channels with the faster 9mms, with medical examiners documenting “macerated” flesh, that is, tissue chopped up like burrito filling. You don’t see that with subsonic rounds, even though a high-tech modern 147-grain may actually expand slightly more than a lighter 9mm bullet, simply because it has “more lead to spread.”
.357 Magnum

One cartridge stands above all others in this caliber in the history of American law enforcement: the 125-grain semi-jacketed hollow point loaded to a velocity in the 1,400 fps range (from a 4-inch barrel). Some experts argue whether the wide-mouthed Federal version of this load, or the scallop-jacket Remington version that originally popularized the 125-grain .357 among cops, is the single best of the breed.

It seems to be an argument akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The Winchester 125-grain Magnum load does not have either of those features, but worked every bit as well for such departments as the Maine State Police when they carried .357 revolvers.

This round tends to create a wound channel that is nine to 11 inches deep, but very wide, with tremendous damage around the radius of the wound track. It also has a nasty muzzle blast and pretty sharp recoil. The great combat shooting trainer and champion, Ray Chapman, used to say that the 125-grain Magnum load’s almost magical stopping power was the only reason to load .357 instead of .38 Special +P ammunition into a fighting revolver chambered for the Magnum round. I agree.

When departments such as City of Indianapolis Police Department, and the state troopers of Kentucky and Indiana issued that load, there were literally tons of bad guys shot with 125-grain Magnums, and they tended to go down “right now.” Texas Department of Public Safety personnel were known to refer to this round’s “lightning bolt effect,” and I knew Kentucky troopers who called it “the magic bullet.”

Even though velocity dropped considerably from the 2.5-inch barrels of Indiana State Police detectives’ Combat Magnums, or from the 3-inch Military & Police .357s of Indianapolis plainclothesmen, the bad guys seem to go down just as fast. The 125-grain .357 Magnum semi-jacketed hollow point earned its title, bestowed by expert Ed Sanow, as “King of the Street,” and this remains the Magnum load of choice today. I have no personal preference among the Federal, Remington, and Winchester brands.

.357 SIG
In the early ‘90s, spurred by Texas troopers and rangers who loved the SIG .45 pistol, but missed that “lightning bolt” stopping power effect of their old .357 Magnum revolvers, SIG worked with Federal Cartridge to create the .357 SIG round. It resembles a .40 S&W necked down to 9mm, though the actual construction is somewhat more complicated than that. Different companies load to different velocities, and depending on pistol and barrel, factory 125-grain JHPs are delivering 1,325 to over 1,400 fps.

High-tech bullets that open rapidly, but stay together seem to work best in this caliber. The most widely proven is the Gold Dot. From Texas to Virginia, it has been kicking butt with no horror stories of stopping failures. New Mexico State Troopers fell in love with the .357 SIG a few years ago, and stayed with that cartridge when they ordered their new S&W M&P auto pistols. North Carolina Highway Patrol gave up its beloved Beretta pistols after more than 20 years to adopt the SIG Sauer, because they could get it chambered for .357 SIG.

Gunfights indicate that this cartridge is particularly good for shooting through auto sheet metal and window glass, yet does not deliver on the street the dangerous over-penetration that some gelatin tests had indicated might happen. The spent, expanded bullets are normally recovered from the far side of the criminal’s body, or from his clothing, or from the ground within a few feet behind where he was located when shot.

Winchester Ranger in 125-grain .357 SIG has worked well in actual shootings. Remington Bonded Golden Saber in 125-grain .357 SIG is deliciously accurate, and performs superbly in FBI protocol gelatin testing, though I haven’t run across any actual shootings with it yet. The overwhelming majority of .357 SIG shootings by police have occurred with the 125-grain Speer Gold Dot, and it has worked so well it is unquestionably the most “street proven” load in this caliber.

.40 Smith & Wesson
Introduced in 1990 by S&W and Winchester, this 9mm Luger-length 10mm cartridge was designed to split the difference between the 9mm’s higher round count in the gun, and the .45 auto’s larger caliber. It succeeded hugely at that in police work, being chosen by more law enforcement agencies today than any other. It has become popular among armed citizens for that exact same compromise factor.

First generation ammo, a 180-grain subsonic with a conventional JHP bullet, did better than expected, but still wasn’t spectacular. It pretty much duplicates the ballistics of the old .38/40 black powder handgun load of the 19th century frontier. I’ve run across a lot of shoot-throughs with 180-grain standard JHP, more than would be desirable for home defense.

Those who like the 180-grain subsonic’s ballistics want to go with high-tech hollow points that open more aggressively, penetrate a little less, and seem to produce a more decisive stopping effect. The 180-grain Gold Dot has earned a good reputation in cities such as Boston and Milwaukee. The 180-grain Federal HST has produced some truly impressive one-shot stops in the Pacific Northwest. The 180-grain Winchester Ranger, particularly in its latest iteration, also works distinctly better than a conventional copper jacketed bullet of this weight and velocity.

It appears that the medium-weight bullets at higher velocities are providing the best combination of penetration depth, expansion, and overall decisiveness of ending encounters. Not the 165-grain subsonic .40, the so-called “minus-P,” but 165-grain JHPs traveling at 1,140 fps and 155 grainers at about 1,200 fps. The latter has worked very well for the U.S. Border Patrol, which seems to have used mostly the Remington brand. Other non-high-tech .40 caliber JHPs in this weight range that have delivered impressive performance are the Federal Classic and the Winchester Silvertip, both 155 grainers. These are also less expensive than the top-line premium lines.

High-tech bullets still do well in this weight range, though. The 165-grain Winchester Ranger and Speer Gold Dot seem to lead the pack by a narrow margin.

A standard pressure 230-grain .45ACP with conventional JHP bullet pretty much duplicates the recoil and trajectory of GI hardball in the same weight, allowing cost-effective training once the user is certain that the given pistol will feed the hollow point of choice. The .45’s big bullet and well-earned reputation for stopping power make it more forgiving of less-than-optimum ammo choices, though you still want to stay away from full metal jacket because of its tendency to grossly over-penetrate, and to ricochet.

In a low-priced round, generic Winchester 230-grain JHP “white box” and Remington 185-grain JHP in their low priced UMC line are both street-proven choices. For maximum effect, though, a premium bullet is the way to go. Federal’s Hydra-Shok is a well-proven man-stopper, long the “gold standard,” and still a good choice today, but expansion characteristics (especially through intervening substances) are enhanced in the new HST line from the same maker.

CCI Gold Dot has worked well for numerous departments in both 200- and 230-grain weights; Remington 230-grain Golden Saber has worked quite well in the hands of certain units during the War on Terror; and one state police agency I’m aware of has experienced a string of one-shot stops with the Winchester SXT/Ranger 230 grain. These are all standard pressure loads.

Short barrel .45ACPs are extremely popular among armed citizens today. CCI offers a Gold Dot Short Barrel .45 load, especially designed to open to full effect at lower velocities. I haven’t run across any actual shootings with it yet, but gel testing indicates that it has met its design parameters.

The +P .45ACP has worked well in 185-, 200-, and 230-grain loadings. The 185-grain +P has earned a good rep “stopping power” rep in its conventional JHP loading from Remington and is also available in Hydra-Shok and HST formats from Federal, and in Remington’s own high tech Golden Saber line. As a rule of thumb, the 185-grain +P round will shoot pretty much to point-of-aim/point-of-impact out to roughly 100 yards in a pistol sighted in for 230-grain standard pressure .45ACP at 25 yards. That makes it of special purpose interest to those in rural areas who can anticipate unusually long shots with their pistols.

The .45 GAP, or GLOCK Auto Pistol, is a shortened and strengthened .45 ACP round at standard pressure. GLOCK, Para USA, and Springfield Armory have produced guns for this caliber. The state troopers of Georgia, New York, and Pennsylvania have adopted the GLOCK in .45 GAP as standard, and shootings with it using 200-grain Speer Gold Dot and 230-grain Winchester Ranger have thus far proven it to be the absolute equal of the .45ACP with the same bullets. Look for this round to gain in popularity in years to come.

Final Notes
That concludes the feedback from the street, with the calibers most used by cops and, therefore, most thoroughly evaluated in the wake of intensive investigation of officer-involved shootings.

Up Next

Gun Test: Springfield Armory M25 WhiteFeather .308

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