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Get To Know Conceal And Carry: Ammo Selection

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By David Link

In this next installment in our series about conceal and carry, we will examine self-defense ammunition selection for your conceal and carry weapon. While ammo selection isn’t quite as complicated as other aspects of conceal and carry (relatively speaking), it is still a vastly important part of carrying a concealed weapon. Loading the right self-defense ammunition into your pistol can make all the difference in the world when you’re in a dangerous situation, and you need to be absolutely sure that your chosen ammo will fire correctly and take down your target or attacker effectively. If you’ve noticed a common theme with this series, it is that there is no universal option in conceal and carry, be it pistol selection, holster style, or ammo choice.

If you take one thing away from our Get To Know Conceal And Carry series, it is that careful research and testing is paramount in the process of carrying a concealed weapon. We can’t tell you -exactly- what to do, because we don’t know your hand size, firearms experience, and other factors, and anyone who says they know exactly what options are perfect for you is actually offering an opinion of what works best for them. So when you select self-defense ammunition, head out to the range right after and make positively sure it is right for you. A good amount of continuing practice is something you should get used to when carrying a concealed weapon anyhow, and that will culminate our series next week.

What Not To Choose

Perhaps before we cover good criteria to include when searching for the right self-defense round, we should touch on what not to choose. For beginners, it is important to note right off the bat that full metal jacket ammo is not suitable for self-defense. Sure FMJ rounds have great energy and potential for penetration, which sounds great, but they fail to convey enough “knock down” energy to stop your attacker in their tracks. They also aren’t adequate when you factor in the “drywall problem” that we’ll cover shortly. FMJ rounds have their purposes in shooting, but as a rule of thumb just stay far away from them in any self-defense circumstance. Of course, there will be people who argue the contrary, but as a relative beginner to conceal and carry, just take note not to carry FMJ rounds in your gun while you’re using it for protection.

Another quick no-no to touch on is reloaded ammunition. Self-defense ammunition should always be factory manufactured and quality controlled. What if you know that guy who makes the best reloaded ammunition on the planet? Well let him carry those rounds if he so desires, but stick to factory ammunition for your purposes. Reliability is key in self-defense ammo, and sure even the best factory ammo has a failure in the batch at some point, but the chances of a reloaded shell unexpectedly failing are higher, that’s just the way it is. Don’t have any illusions, self-defense ammunition is going to cost a pretty penny, but hey, we’re not spending a day plinking at the range here. We’re talking about your life in a dire circumstance. Just shell out the extra cash and you’ll sleep better at night anyway.

Most brands that manufacture self-defense ammo make the purpose of the ammo clear on the box like these rounds from Hornady.

The “Drywall Problem”

In your search for the appropriate self-defense ammunition, you’ll hear a lot of folks talk about what we like to call the “drywall problem.” This pertains to the fact that the majority of our buildings in day to day life are enclosed with drywall which isn’t exactly the toughest substance in the world. If you live in a building with concrete walls, there might be less of a concern, but remember, you may end up using your concealed weapon in an unfamiliar place, so always think about the drywall penetration potential. To spell it out in more detail, bad things can happen if you miss your attacker and the round penetrates the adjacent drywall instead. This is another great reason not to choose FMJ rounds since a couple sheets of drywall will put up no fight at all against a surging FMJ round. Even if you hit your target with a FMJ round, the drywall problem is still a major concern. So to put that advisement to bed, just skip FMJ rounds for self-defense since they endanger others as well as not providing enough stopping power.

Drywall makes for a good home interior, but it’s not really conducive to stopping bullets.

But the bad news is that the drywall problem exists even when you choose self-defense oriented options like hollow points or safety slugs (frangible ammunition). There is certainly potential for the expanding hollow point round to travel through drywall as well, and most argue that the frangible bullet or safety slug stays in tact even as it contacts drywall. The best ammo option to counter the drywall problem is un-jacketed hollow point rounds, but those pose problems for some shooters that we’ll cover shortly. Suffice it to say that the best option for mitigating the drywall problem is to put your shot on target, and that takes practice, practice, and more practice. Since you don’t have x-ray vision, you’ll never know what’s behind that sheet of drywall unless it is your own home, so always be prepared for the drywall to put up no resistance whatsoever.

Frangible Ammunition

There is some confusion as to how frangible ammo (commonly known as safety slugs) works as a self-defense round. The short answer is that it doesn’t. Frangible ammo is packed tightly with pellets in the middle of the round, and it is manufactured with pre-made stress lines along the side of the bullet. Frangible rounds utilize the hollow point design but are tipped with a polymer casing at the top similar to plastic tip hunting rounds. They are also very light which helps minimize penetration, and frangible ammo typically creates only shallow wounds. The thing is a good self-defense round should have a good amount of penetration, and frangible ammo doesn’t provide near enough. Also remember that when it is time to shoot in a self-defense situation, there is only one way to play it out. Shoot to kill. You can’t shoot to wound and expect your attacker to stop if they are just a little injured. Frangible ammo is really only suited for air marshals who can’t afford to have a round that penetrates much while shooting on an airplane. So once again, skip the frangible ammo.

Artist’s rendering of a frangible round.

The Right Hollow Point

There is only one true answer to the question what type of ammo should I choose for self-defense? You should choose hollow point ammo, plain and simple. Hollow point rounds have hollow tips that fragment upon impact conveying a significant amount of energy on your target and catching a wide amount of tissue creating bleeding and internal damage. The real question comes in when you’re deciding upon whether or not to use jacketed hollow point ammo. The jacket around the hollow point will increase the potential penetration and therefore increase the stopping power of the round. However, jacketed hollow points aren’t exactly ideal when you factor in the drywall problem, and the jacket will pretty much ensure that the drywall doesn’t put up much of a fight against the round. Counter-actively, an un-jacketed hollow point will perform best in the face of the drywall problem, but there is another issue that comes up when you choose un-jacketed rounds: they tend to jam in a lot of semi-automatic pistols. Revolver users will have better luck firing unjacketed hollow points, but that still doesn’t mean that you should necessarily choose them if you have a revolver. As we stated, there’s just no way to completely overcome the drywall problem short of doing your best to put the round on target, at least this is the case with handguns. The jacketed hollow point represents the best choice for self-defense ammo, and you should go with it as you’re primary choice while working on better accuracy and trigger pull at the range.

A hollow point bullet both before and after impact.

Ideal Characteristics Of A Defense Round

When choosing self-defense ammunition, there are several guidelines you can use to steer you in the right direction. The first is selecting factory made ammunition with a good reputation, and jacketed hollow point rounds have the best all-around performance in self-defense situations so they should be your go-to bullet type. As for bullet weight, you don’t want the rounds to be too light like frangible ammo and not penetrate enough, but if you’re concerned about drywall penetration, the heaviest grain bullets will pose the biggest threat for bystanders behind walls. In this case, a medium-light bullet weight is typically the best middle of the road option. One other characteristic to be aware of is the muzzle flash of the round. If the self-defense ammo you choose has a high muzzle flash, this could pose a serious issue for follow up shots in dark areas. A high muzzle flash will blind you after the initial shot, and if you miss you could be in serious trouble. Finally, even if you’ve selected a round with all the above characteristics, there’s no guarantee that it will mesh with your chosen conceal and carry weapon. So buy several boxes of the brand that looks best to you and head out to the range. If you can fire 200 or so rounds without any problems arising, then you’ve finally found the right self-defense ammo for you. If the round you’ve selected doesn’t work very well with your firearm, well then it’s back to the drawing board, but hey, at least you got in some more practice with your pistol. Finding the best self-defense ammunition for the job is sure work, but the end result is well worth it.

Images two, three, four and thumb all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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