Defense Ammo: The Right Bullets For The Situation

Self defense bullets from Hornady

Deciding which ammunition you should choose for personal-defense situations should be carefully considered, after all, your life may truly depend upon the choices you make. But, before you start evaluating your ammunition choices, you need to take an in-depth look at your handgun in order to make an educated decision.

Handgun platforms have evolved dramatically during the last decade to become more "concealable" and "ergonomically friendly"; however one size still does not fit all. Your handgun should fit comfortably in your hand and it should feel like an extension of your arm. All of the controls (magazine release, slide release and safety), should all be able to be manipulated by your strong hand without having to change the grip on the gun. If you have to change your grip on the gun, or utilize your weak hand to operate these controls, the handgun is too large or too small to be considered for use as a defensive handgun.

Once you have determined which handgun best fits your hand, you need to look at its barrel length. A full-sized handgun has an average barrel length of 4-1/2". If you are using a concealed- carry-sized handgun, you need to deduct approximately 60-100 fps of velocity for every inch in length your barrel is shorter than 4-1/2". If you combine a short barrel with a long rate of twist, you could be limiting the performance of your handgun ammunition. I know – right now some of you are saying "rate of twist in a handgun?" I'm not shooting long distance, what difference does the rate of twist make? The rate of twist in a handgun stabilizes the bullet and ensures that the bullet strikes "head on," which will maximize the effectiveness of the round. If the handgun has a long rate of twist, such as 1:16", your bullet may destabilize upon contact with a medium (clothing, drywall, plywood, glass) and not strike "head on," limiting the amount of damage to be caused only from the "yaw effect." The "yaw effect" is when a bullet tumbles, rather than expands, leading to a wound channel which is usually less dramatic than you would receive from an expanded bullet. This could severely limit your ability to stop a deadly force threat when you need it the most. Now that we have started to have some insight into handgun and ammunition performance, let’s look at your ammunition choices.

Most range ammunition is just that, ammunition designed for use practicing on a range and not for personal defense. This category includes bullet designs such as wad cutters, encapsulated, full metal jackets, as well as frangible bullets. All of these work very well on steel and paper targets, but they perform poorly compared to the wide variety of defensive ammunition offered today. Full metal jackets and other range ammunition primarily cause damage via the "yaw effect", which, as discussed, may not stop the threat. Since this ammunition design does not possess the ability to expand, it has a strong probability of over penetrating the intended target, leading to the possibility of a lawsuit for the end user.

Jacketed hollow point bullets really started to evolve in the 1980's and 1990's. This was the next logical step in "cup and core" ammunition design and production. Hollow-point bullets were created by placing a jacket around a lead core, which had a recessed cavity in the center. This led to greater expansion and less penetration, but it still had its drawbacks. Due to the fact the jacket was only mechanically attached to the core, the jacket would often separate from the core (dependent on the medium). This separation could affect penetration depth and, once again, not stop the threat in a life or death situation.

Bonded hollow-point ammunition was a solution developed in the 1990's to prevent the jacket and core from separating upon impact. The jacket is attached to the core through a process of electro or electro-chemical bonding. This reduced the ability of the jacket to separate from the core. However, in order for this process to work, the core must be made of pure lead. The problem with pure lead of course is it is extremely soft, which can lead to very rapid expansion without the desired penetration depth needed to stop a threat. Bonding hollow-point ammunition managed to fix one of the problems that plagued its design, thus reducing jacket and core separation. However, it failed to address the primary problem all HP bullets face: possible plugging when shooting walls or other soft materials. It was this problem, which led to the next evolution in ammunition.

Hornady took personal defense ammunition to the next level by creating Critical Defense. Critical Defense ammunition is built with FTX® (Flex Tip eXpanding) technology, using an elastomer insert to stop the bullet from plugging. This design leads to consistent expansion, while minimizing the possibility of over-penetration. Furthermore, Critical Defense was designed specifically for handguns with short barrels and performs regardless of the rate of twist. On multiple occasions, I have witnessed .380 and 9mm hollow-point ammunition (both bonded and non-bonded) fail to expand through heavy clothing and pass completely through a 10% ordnance gelatin block when fired from a short-barreled handgun. On those same occasions, I have been able to shoot 3 shot groups of Critical Defense into that same block of gelatin, resulting in the same penetration and expansion from every round. If at some point you find yourself in a defensive situation, you must realize that your choice in ammunition may be brought to light. I believe it would be easier to explain why I am using "Critical Defense" ammunition compared to some of the ammunition on the market with a diabolical or menacing name.

Since their inception, conventional hollow-point pistol bullets have performed well, but have never delivered 100% reliability, especially in self-defense situations. The patented Flex Tip technology used in Critical Defense ammunition eliminates the clogging and inconsistency that often plagues hollow-point bullets. Hornady® achieved this by using the same tip material as used in LEVERevolution® ammunition.

All Critical Defense ammunition is loaded in nickel cases for increased visibility in low-light situations.
• Purpose-built for concealed carry guns
• Unaffected by thick, heavy clothing, including denim and leather.
• Clean-burning and efficient propellants reduce recoil in lightweight handguns and perform consistently at all temperatures
• Minimal muzzle flash protects night vision
• Bullets are custom designed for individual loads
• The most effective, consistent, and reliable concealed carry ammunition available today!

The patented FTX® bullet delivers consistent expansion you can count on.

Since ballistic gelatin mimics the properties of muscle tissue, it is the preferred medium for comparing the terminal performance of different expanding ammunition.

Looking to expand on the capabilities of Critical Defense, Hornady designed the FlexLock® bullet to excel at the FBI protocol time after time. The FBI protocol was established to test Law Enforcement duty ammunition following the Miami Dade shooting, which occurred in 1986. This protocol was established in 1988 and utilizes 6 different mediums – bare gelatin, heavy clothing, drywall, plywood, sheet metal and automotive glass. To score well, the ammunition should expand to 1-1/2 times its diameter and travel a minimum of 12" in ballistic gelatin and a maximum of 18". It doesn't sound that difficult, however when you look at the possibility of hollow point ammunition to plug through the variety of barriers, it truly is a test of ammunition design and consistency. In order to meet this demanding protocol, Critical Duty uses the FlexLock designed bullet with a cannelure and a large jacket to core InterLock® band. This design allows Critical Duty to perform with controlled expansion and penetration regardless of the barrier. In order to ensure its performance, Hornady uses a high-antimony lead core, rather than one made of pure lead. When comparing the performance of bonded ammunition to Critical Duty through the protocol, the difference is sometimes night and day. The inconsistency of having a bonded hollow-point bullet causes it to expand quickly in some instances and fall short of the 12" minimum, or plug on a barrier and pass completely through the gelatin block. Pure lead once again works against the bonded hollow-point bullet design during the automotive glass test, causing it to deform while passing through the glass and falling short of the minimum 12". At this time, there is not another bullet available that performs to the level of Critical Duty in full-size handguns.

1. FLEXLOCK® BULLET incorporates two revolutionary Hornady features: the patented Flex Tip® that initiates consistent expansion every single time while preventing any clogging, and the heavy duty InterLock® band that locks the jacket and core together.
2. CANNELURED BULLET WITH CRIMPED CASE ensures no bullet setback during feeding.
3. INTERLOCK® BAND works to keep the bullet and core from separating for maximum weight retention and proven terminal performance through all FBI test barriers.
4. CORE is made of high-antimony lead, making it extremely tough and delivering controlled expansion for unparalleled terminal performance consistency through all FBI test barriers. It's also more economical than similar bonded bullets.
5. NICKEL-PLATED CASES resist corrosion and greatly enhance low-light chamber checks.


Critical DEFENSE® handgun ammunition was developed to provide the best performance for DEFENSIVE or PERSONAL PROTECTION SITUATIONS and is the ultimate choice for any short-barreled, concealed-carry-style firearm. Critical DEFENSE® ammunition IS optimized for short-barreled, concealed-carry-style handguns and will not deliver excessive recoil and associated "muzzle flip."

Critical DUTY® handgun ammunition is built to meet the needs and requirements of LAW ENFORCEMENT and TACTICAL PROFESSIONALS, as well as those law abiding citizens who prefer a full-size handgun for their personal protection and demand superior barrier penetration and subsequent terminal performance. In addition, Critical DUTY® loads are "full-power loads" designed to function with full-size handgun slides. Although designed to work flawlessly in ALL handguns, these loads are NOT optimized for short-barreled, concealed-carry-style handguns.

As we discussed, the ammunition you choose may very well save your life. Please take the time to understand that not all ammunition is created equal and that performance can vary from handgun to handgun. There is no "perfect bullet"; however Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty are designed to provide you the safety and security you may need to survive a deadly-force encounter.