Secrets for the Best Personal Defense Cartridge

Left to right: full metal jacket round, traditional hollow point, and more modern personal-defense round with polymer tip.

Left to right: full metal jacket round, traditional hollow point, and more modern personal-defense round with polymer tip.

Each piece of equipment we use for personal defense is a tool. And as with all tools, we have to consider the design and purpose of the tool and ensure we are putting it to the proper use to be effective. It’s possible to dig a hole with a claw hammer, but it’s not the most effective or efficient method. A shovel can put a nail in a board, but it’s not the best way to do it.

A handgun cartridge was designed to do one thing, but not what most people think. The term “knock-down” power is the most misleading term in personal defense. There is no handgun cartridge with the capability to “knock down” a man. I also submit to you that no handgun bullet in history was ever designed to knock a man down.

Throughout history, there have been two primary types of weapons: Impact weapons and cutting weapons.

Impact weapons are designed to hit the target with sufficient focused energy to destroy the target or stop the target from moving. A large-scale example is the MOAB, or Mother Of All Bombs. The MOAB uses explosive energy alone, with no shrapnel, to destroy targets.

Wadcutter round used to cut smooth round holes in paper targets during competition shooting.

Wadcutter round used to cut smooth round holes in paper targets during competition shooting.

A smaller scale is the use of bean-bag munitions by law enforcement. Bean-bag rounds are designed to impact and stun the suspect so the suspect stops aggressive action. These and other impact munitions like rubber and wood bullets are designed to impact the suspect. They are not designed to penetrate the organs and cut the person. They are specifically designed NOT to cut or penetrate the target.

Cutting weapons are designed to do just that, cut. Pointed sticks, spears and swords evolved into firearms. Bullets are designed to cut the opponent, pierce organs and disrupt the central nervous system. The invention of gunpowder gave distance and range to the spear in the form of the bullet. While the technology of the delivery system changed, the target (the human body) remained the same.

There are two primary methods to stop or kill a mammal, and men are mammals: Disrupt the central nervous system and cause massive blood loss.

The first is the most difficult. The total disruption of the central nervous system by destroying the medulla oblongata will cause complete shutdown of the target. This requires placing a shot at the base of the brain that penetrates the skull and destroys the “apricot.” This is extremely difficult to do with a handgun cartridge. The brain bucket has been designed to protect that most important organ and it does a pretty good job.

This cartridge is specifically designed for short-barreled revolvers like my Smith & Wesson 340 PD.

This cartridge is specifically designed for short-barreled revolvers like my Smith & Wesson 340 PD.

The second and most common way to kill a mammal is to cause massive blood loss. This is a slow process and the animal can still be active during it. Every deer hunter has seen or heard of a perfect shot on a deer that took out the heart and lungs, and yet the deer still ran for many yards before it collapsed. Deer are similar to men in size and organ placement.

A man who is not quickly stopped is still a danger. Many men, “good guys” and “bad guys,” have been shot but continued returning fire and attacking. The FBI Miami Shootout is an example of men, good and bad, who were shot but continued to fight.

Ultimately the bullet has to penetrate and cut the target to cause central nervous system disruption or blood loss. Penetration is something that is rarely discussed in self-defense circles, but I believe it is a key element for proper cartridge design.

Basic components of a pistol cartridge are the bullet, case, powder, and primer.

Basic components of a pistol cartridge are the bullet, case, powder, and primer.

Cartridge Design

A firearms cartridge consists of the bullet (projectile), case, powder, and primer. A good personal-defense cartridge must optimize all of these elements. Penetration is a crucial element in the cutting power of any handgun cartridge.

Bullet considerations include:

  • Caliber or diameter of the bullet
  • Bullet weight
  • Bullet design

Many discussions have been had about the best caliber for self-defense handguns. I will summarize them by saying it is a personal decision based on your needs and abilities.

.25 auto round only has a 35-grain bullet and minimal velocity. I do not recommend this cartridge for personal defense.

.25 auto round only has a 35-grain bullet and minimal velocity. I do not recommend this cartridge for personal defense.

Tom Givens, owner of RangeMaster Training, sums up the need for accuracy first. He says, “A good hit with a marginal bullet is better than a marginal hit with a good bullet.”

Tom also touches on the fact that a bullet is a cutting weapon: “Calibers smaller than .38 Special/9mm do not penetrate enough to reach truly vital structures deep within the body. Once the threshold of adequate penetration is reached, bigger caliber bullets seem to offer two advantages:

More likely to break a bone than to glance off it;

Larger diameter wound track, bleeds more profusely/quickly. Which carries more water in the same amount of time, a garden hose or a fire hose?”

Be sure what you are buying. The .38 Super cartridge is for a semi-auto handgun, not the .38 revolver many people think of when they hear “.38.”

Be sure what you are buying. The .38 Super cartridge is for a semi-auto handgun, not the .38 revolver many people think of when they hear “.38.”

Bullet weight is another issue. Many calibers have several bullet weights to choose from in standard loads. The type of weapon you carry and the cartridge load itself all affect the success of the cartridge.

Bullet design is a key element. There are many choices for modern hollow-point self-defense ammunition. Some ammunition companies are very effective at advertising. I strongly suggest investigating the manufacturer and type of ammunition carried by law enforcement. LE agencies spend a great amount of time, effort and money to determine the best carry cartridge. The work they have done may be beneficial to you and save you time and money as well.

Having said that, how do you find out what ammunition law enforcement agencies are carrying? There is no central collection point of information. The easiest way is to ask your friendly neighborhood cop. Preface the conversation by letting the officer know you are a legally armed citizen or CCW permit holder. Tell him you are looking for a good personal defense round and ask if he has any suggestions. He may suggest what the PD carries or he may have other suggestions that might be better for you. Remember what I said about some ammunition manufacturers being very good at advertising.

Calling local training academies could get you some useful information as well. Just be sure to tell them why you’re asking. LEOs face many dangers and are always on guard for bad guys trying to collect intelligence information on equipment and tactics.

Search the Internet. Unfortunately, there are many unsecured law enforcement forums. A simple Google search of “law enforcement duty ammunition” can show discussions about this topic. Just be aware that the information on these forums may not be real or accurate, just like anything else in the cyber world. I don’t mind giving that suggestion because the bad guys already know it.

As with any product you buy, perform due diligence. Is the company a reputable manufacturer that has been in business for a long time? Check online for information about the product. Is this a solid and proven design or is it a new “miracle” ammunition?

9mm full metal jacket round and new polymer tip hollow-point round also in 9mm.

9mm full metal jacket round and new polymer tip hollow-point round also in 9mm.

Whatever you carry, choose a proven design of hollow-point bullet. The hollow-point design expands and makes a larger wound channel, increasing the cutting power of the bullet. The full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet is great for practice but not appropriate for personal defense. I am also not impressed with multiple-projectile or shot-shell cartridges. I have tested them extensively and find they do not have sufficient velocity for penetration.

As shooters, we are responsible for all rounds we send downrange, and many of these multiple-projectile and shot-shell cartridges cause an unacceptable spread in the pattern. I love shotguns for personal defense, but they were not designed to be used out of pistols with rifled barrels.

This 90-grain bullet in a .380 personal defense round leaves the muzzle at 1000 feet per second. Compare that to a 9mm or other calibers.

This 90-grain bullet in a .380 personal defense round leaves the muzzle at 1000 feet per second. Compare that to a 9mm or other calibers.


The powder load directly impacts the velocity of the bullet. I believe that velocity is the key element not discussed in self-defense circles. For years we have heard that the 9mm is better than a .380, and yet the bullet is very similar in size and weight. The significant difference is the velocity of the bullet.

I strongly urge shooters to carry +P loads for any firearms that are rated for that cartridge. The +P is a cross between a standard cartridge load and a magnum load. It gives increased projectile velocity and better cutting power and penetration. Be sure to check that your firearm is rated for a +P load before you use it in that firearm.

Another manufacturer makes a .380 with a slightly lighter bullet with increased velocity.

Another manufacturer makes a .380 with a slightly lighter bullet with increased velocity.

Check the firearm itself, especially revolvers, and look for the cartridge rating. Check your owner’s manual for +P rating for other firearms. Generally speaking, older firearms are not rated for +P ammunition.

There is +P+ ammunition available. This ammunition is generally used for pistol-caliber carbines, specifically machine guns. I strongly recommend you do not use +P+ ammunition in any firearm unless you are certain that the firearm is rated specifically for +P+ ammunition. Be certain your firearm is rated for whatever ammunition you use.

Here’s the big-daddy, the flying ashtray. This .45 leaves the barrel slowly but has a big 230-grain bullet. And this is a +P!

Here’s the big-daddy, the flying ashtray. This .45 leaves the barrel slowly but has a big 230-grain bullet. And this is a +P!

Hand Loading Ammunition

I do not recommend hand loading self-defense ammunition. There are many liability concerns should you have to use the ammunition in self-defense. Modern manufacturing techniques are so good that buying ammunition from a manufacturer is a much better choice.

The case and primer need to be good quality and properly sealed. Ammunition for self-defense is carried in all sorts of weather and conditions. The modern commercial techniques are proven.

This 9mm round leaves the muzzle at 1220 feet per second and has a 124-grain bullet. The increased bullet weight and muzzle velocity make the 9mm more effective in personal defense than a .380 handgun.

This 9mm round leaves the muzzle at 1220 feet per second and has a 124-grain bullet. The increased bullet weight and muzzle velocity make the 9mm more effective in personal defense than a .380 handgun.

Ammunition Maintenance

Hopefully you are going to the range on a regular basis. Check your expensive carry ammunition as you load and unload at the range. The oils in your skin can cause corrosion over time. Look for damage to the cartridges. Check the bullet and ensure it is properly seated to the case. Watch for anything out of the ordinary and replace any damaged ammunition.

Ammunition is a perishable commodity. It will lose effectiveness over time with exposure to heat and cold, snow and rain, and human hands. Consider rotating your carry ammunition. I trade out my carry ammunition every year at my birthday. It’s an easy date to remember, and I shoot it to give myself exposure to the carry load and a little birthday present.

The firearm you spend so much money on to buy and train with is absolutely useless without effective ammunition. Spend a few dollars more and get the best ammunition to keep yourself and the people you love safe.

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  29. JEBaltes

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  30. JBJohnson

    Very good discussion concerning the practicalities of the real world with respect to a bad hit with a good billet and vice versa. Consider that many of you can probably put lots of rounds very close together time after time in the light of day on a range, but how about at night in a dark room when you’re awakened from a dead sleep with someone coming at you. I tell friends of mine who ask for advice on home defense weapons…In the awakened-from-a-dead-sleep scenario, I’m bound to hit the intruder in the shoulder or the ass, or somewhere in between….that said, I’d rather misplace the shoot in any of those locations with a 230 grain .45 JHP than a 130 grain 9MM FMJ…refer back to the previous discussions of cutting force, impact energy, expansion, and using the right tool for the job. Keep up the great discussions. Molon Labe

  31. remy

    Take a look at the 400 Corbon. Basically a .45 necked down to .40…

    I was a cop for some time before I decided I like engineering better. I carried a 9mm on duty and always felt under-gunned. I now carry a .45 and don’t worry about bullet performance if I ever had to use it. Just my 2 cents.

  32. pimaine

    Great article. Goes great with ‘Bullet of the Month Club’ also. Both are a must read and now I won’t feel bad once a year shooting my self defense ammo at over $1/round. It’ll be my Christmas present.

  33. GrayLion

    Hi There ! Just curious if there’s something I don’t know, or if its already been tried. I’ve seen bottleneck handgun cartridges before, I even own one, (.357 Herrett)but one I’ve been curious about is whether a cartridge basically made of a .45 ACP necked down for a .40 projectile has ever been tried. I know the full power 10 mm cartridge probably already owns that part of bullet weight/velocity/energy spectrum, but I I just thought it made too much sense for it not to have been tried. Thanks for any info.

  34. Dave Denney

    Good article Dave. Especially like the explanation of what a bullet is. This is good for the newby to know and it defintrly is just one tool of the toolbox of self defense. Sometimes a tactical retreat is the best move if you don’t have the gear to get the job done. Well Done. Dave Denney

  35. JPKirkpatrick

    Good article, shakes the cob-webs loose in the brain and makes you think!

    Loyde Williams – If your ammo has been in a none controlled temperature and levels of humidity, it may not be too reliable, especially for 17 years!

    Now, I have some hand loaded ammo that is 30 years old and performs just fine, but is stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. Variables like temperature and primers/bullets that are not sealed (like Military Ammo is) will become unreliable; it could be weaker or more potent, you never know! Get a bullet puller and reload them again, with fresh primers too!

  36. Clathrus

    “A good hit with a marginal bullet is better than a marginal hit with a good bullet.” This is certainly true, but a marginal hit with a good bullet is better than a marginal hit with a marginal bullet. Guess which kinds of hits most people will make? Readers of this article except of course.

  37. Jim Greene

    Rob Pincus has changed his recommendation for the best defensive caliber. Before he favored the 40 S&W in a semi auto but now believes the 9mm Luger is a better choice for most people. He sites larger magazine capacity and easier to place multiple rounds on target in a stressful defensive encounter.

  38. Lou Lavender

    Very good article. I’m prior military, and had 31 years on the job as a law enforcement officer. Now a senior citizen, I qualify every year through my former police dept. I shoot a .44mag for my revolver, and a Springfiled Arms .45 XD for my auto pistol qualification. I DO have a .380, but only carry that on an ankle holster in the summer, when light clothing must be worn.

  39. Loyde Williams

    Very helpfull info. Question: depending on normal conditions what is the shelf life for hand load ammo.? I have some as far back as 1994,stored in out doors shed,varying temps. Thanks.

  40. Ernie

    I liked what all you said plus what the comments that were made too! I have 3 carry pistols. 1 a pocket size 9mm. 2. a mid size 40 cal. & 3. A mid size 45 cal. all with JHP in them. I hope I never have to use any of them on a human life. I try to shoot at targets both still & moving when I can. I use up the old ammo to do so. In cold weather I can put my 9mm in my coat pocket & you would never know I was carrying a pistol. Being Left handed I have trouble finding a good holster to use. Thanks to PDN for all you do.

  41. RRStubbs

    When I was in combat and shot at, I always layed down a spray of bullets 1/4 of a clip for the purpose of getting the targets head down. Then I moved away from where I was last visible by the target. Then I carefully moved into a position where I could get a clear shot at where the target was going to play peek a boo. With 1 round or 2 at the most I was able to place a shot into the head at or about the eye socket. I can’t carry a M-16 around town. So I have opted for a Keltec PMR-30. Yes it is a low caliber weapon with a high speed bullet. I can squeeze of 10 rounds and have 20 rounds left over for the kill. What do you think?

  42. DavidWilliams

    @Court Bowman-You point out another good way to dscribe it. Some instructors I know use the example of cars. They refer to the “hydraulics” which is the the blood and the “electical systems” which is the brain and nervous system. All these are good examples to make the point. Thanks to all for reading and commenting. I really appreciate the input!

  43. Court Bowman

    Great and thought provoking article.

    One point I think I may take a different point of view on. You say there are two ways to kill a mammal: disrupt the central nervous system and cause massive blood loss.

    I’ve always thought of it more like a car. For an internal combustion engine to work it takes fire fuel and air. I think mammals are the same way. You can kill one by depriving it of the central nervous system, the circulatory system (blood loss or the heart which pumps), or the respiratory system. Respiratory system can be taken out through the intake (airway) or lungs.

    Maybe not a significant departure from your presentation in regards to small (or large) arms fire, but my 2c for what it’s worth.

  44. Ron Willis

    Great article. I am a retired police officer with over 30 years of service and former military and police firearms instructor. One thing to be mindful of when asking your local police officer about ammo is, not all police officers are “gun guys/gals.” Some receive their new rotation of ammo on the annual range day, load their weapon and forget about it. Many would be unable to tell you the brand name, bullet weight and configuration of what they carry.

    • Angela Kindley

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  45. Cecilio

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