Carry Ammo: Choose Wisely and Shoot what you choose!

By Michael Ware

Since the change from “May Issue” Iowa weapons permits back in 2010 we’ve seen a monster uptick in the number of people attaining their Permit to Carry here in Iowa. At the time the “Shall Issue” law passed Iowa hovered around 37,000 permit holders within the state. Today this fine state boasts a number much closer to 300,000. Not too shabby Iowa, not too shabby. Not only is this a local surge, but across the nation millions of red blooded Americans are out enjoying shooting sports, practicing firearms safety, competing, and carrying.

When so many people have become interested two things naturally occur. In cases of continued interest we manage to spread the word thoroughly about everything from guns, gear, training, hunting spots, range locations, and so on. That’s a good thing overall, no doubt. Unfortunately we manage to perpetuate some myths and occasionally pass around poor information when there is this much buzz for so long.

One of the things I’ve noticed too often for my comfort is the misunderstanding of what constitutes a good ammunition choice for carry. This is no small thing and we benefit from a thorough understanding of the options and the ramifications for what we choose and apply.

Let’s get something straight. If you aren’t carrying a weapon with a loaded chamber, you’re not carrying. I tend to avoid blanket statements in nearly everything I do. If you’ve been reading what I’ve written over the years in various articles, blogs, etc. you know I’m big on the fact there’s nearly always more than one way to skin a cat. However, in this case, I truly believe you’re in a really poor position to defend against anything if you don’t carry with one in the pipe.

The facts don’t lie. I’ve spent a lot of time considering and digesting force science and time isn’t on your side. There’s a lot of moving parts associated with assessing a threat, drawing, and making a decision. The amount of ground an attacker can cover is upwards of 20 feet in just a second or two. If you even remember to rack the slide under the pressure of the pinnacle of stressful situations, you’ll burn a lot of time doing it. Short version? Carry with your weapon’s chamber loaded, or practice and train until you’re comfortable to do so.

Now that I’ve mentioned how you should be carrying, we’re really at the heart of the matter. You need to consider carefully what you’ll feed your weapon.

There are several specific types and categories of ammo out there. For our purposes while solid lead, solid copper, a combination of both resulting in soft points, etc. exist they aren’t the exact focus I’m worried about. Instead, if I chose the overwhelming majority of ammo types I see people carry they are expanding or ball ammo. Expanding ammunition will typically be a hollow point (HP) configuration. The ball ammo will be referred to as FMJ, or full metal jacketed ammunition.

An FMJ projectile is used commonly in practice ammo. They are usually round nosed as the bullet ogive is curved and the lead core is completely covered by a thin layer of copper. In reality and more appropriately, after a recent visit to Hornady in Grand Island, Nebraska, I watched long coils of copper tubing being used to build these bullets. They manage to shove lead inside copper tubing and swage it down into the bullets you and I use. I highly recommend taking their tour, it was fascinating! Also bring a pair of electronic earmuffs with you. It’s loud in there and you can easily hear the guide much better while drowning out all the machine noise. Back on topic Michael…

The expanding bullet design is huge for self-defense and hunting. There’s a lot more time and effort that goes into the manufacturing of this kind of bullet, so the expense in turn rises to us all. That’s the drawback to using them all the way across the board really. For the purposes of carry though, this doesn’t hurt the wallet like you’d think. Most people practice with FMJ and carry HP. I do recommend occasionally running your HP ammo through the carry weapon in practice for two simple reasons. First, I’d like to make sure your ammo stays ‘fresh’ as it were. When we rack a round into the chamber each day before we leave the house, that bullet and case get plenty of marks, nicks, and systematic wear. It isn’t uncommon for people to take the top round in their magazine that gets all the loading and unloading wear and rotate it to the bottom of the magazine in an effort to keep a single unit from getting buggered up. This also lends itself to better reliability since we can’t risk a click instead of a bang if we need to use the weapon to save a life. Second, we need to make sure the HP ammo you’ve chosen as your carry ammunition actually works and works flawlessly in your chosen weapon.

People love FMJ ammo. It’s cheap and unless there’s another defect present with the weapon, magazine, or shooter, it feeds like clockwork. Stoppages are pretty darned rare with FMJ ammo. The rounded gentle nose of this bullet type slides right up feed ramps in semi autos and is a non-issue in revolvers. We use it routinely for testing when we’re done with a gunsmithing project and custom build. There’s always a trade off in life and even though this ammo is inexpensive and works well, it doesn’t have a repeatable and consistent ballistic advantage.

We would prefer that the bullet we choose have a devastating effect upon entering tissue. This performance is called terminal ballistics. Internal, or interior, ballistics are consistent of the behavior of a projectile while inside the barrel of a weapon. External, or exterior, ballistics begin as the bullet leaves the muzzle and end when the bullet touches the target. Essentially external ballistics is the behavior of the bullet flight. Terminal ballistics encompass how the bullet transmits its energy, kinetic, and otherwise, to the target. In order for us to maximize each expended round of ammunition, we need terminal ballistics that yield shock and damage to the target. HP bullets are formulated to this at a consistent level of performance above FMJ bullets.

A distinct advantage to HP bullets is the how they expand to a great diameter as they enter the target and also how they manage to transfer that energy into the target. By controlling the expansion and building a bullet that doesn’t break up or become frangible, the results tend to be more repeatable. While I’ve seen FMJ bullets expand to great size, they don’t do this consistently. In one test you can see FMJ bullets that were fired from a .45 ACP 1911 be recovered that expanded beautifully to a large size and retained nearly all its weight, and the next test you’ll see fragments here and there or more likely a slightly deformed bullet that looks like it could be reloaded and used again. That isn’t the performance we’re looking for when we’re trying to save a life.

I notice more and more copper solid HP bullets in the marketplace than ever before. The lead core bullets with a copper jacket in hollow point configuration are still the vast majority of the offerings available though. Some makers offer rubbery or plastic tips to help facilitate expansion. There is no shortage of individual touch each ammo maker may have, but in the end it can be hard to tell just which one is the clear winner. I’ll let you in on a little secret. There isn’t a magic bullet. I’ve listened to a lot of discussion and heard a lot of customers who were adamant that their choice of bullet or ammunition was the holy grail of performance, but in reality, that can’t be quantified. I am glad though, that they’re confident with their choice. That’s of huge importance and more so than one might think.

I see a lot of people that are willing to declare a certain ammo ‘the best’ for various reasons, but until we run it through our own handgun, we’re skipping some vital trials. I bring this up for an important reason. The 9mm HP I run in my Glock 19 or the 4” double stack 2011 I made for myself isn’t going to cut it in a single stack pocket rocket like a Diamondback DB9. I currently run Cor-bon DPX copper solid hollow points in the bigger double stack rigs. I flew out with a buddy to South Dakota on a day trip and met Pete Pi Jr. and enjoyed his factory tour. He wanted me to try some of his ammo, and I did. I love it, so I use it still. It’s no more complex than that. If I’d have flown out to a different small ammo maker, I might have a propensity to run their brand instead. Either way, the performance is present I required and I liked it. Period.

Here’s the thing though… If you’ve even looked closely at the Cor-bon DPX it appears like you’re staring at a tiny ash tray. The hollow point is really big and really aggressive. In a forgiving chambering that’s short and stubby in ration of length and diameter, like the 9mm or 45 that works fine. Now add a nice wide and gently curved ramp to the barrel that is present in most double stack pistols and that ‘ash tray’ will slide right up a ramp and you’ll achieve battery. No problem. However, put that same uber aggressive HP in long thin configuration like 10mm and things are far less forgiving. You could have a few failures to feed.

If we go back to the venerable 9mm and place the ash tray bullet in a single stack pistol and expect it to ride up a narrow tiny feed ramp, we could have a problem. Now what? Well, you could try a different HP like the Hornady Critical Defense. The Hornady FTX bullet they use in that ammo model is less aggressive, has more taper around the bullet ogive and is more narrowed towards the meplat, or tip, of the bullet. Hornady goes a step further and adds a tiny polymer tip. This keeps debris out, but is also supposed to facilitate the beginning of expansion they intend to achieve in terminal ballistics. I find they manage to zip right up the ramps of small handguns with no issue. You can obviously find a fix for whatever concern you have, but it assumes you’ve tried it at the range in order to know for sure. We tend to skip that. Too often we’ll mess around over $4 difference in a box of carry ammo that we’ll use over the course of a year. Think about that. Are we seriously going to quibble over less than $.50 a month on a box of ammo designed to save our own skins? Keep this in perspective people.

There’s the issue of mixed magazine loads too. I’ve heard some people like to load a magazine with part HP and part FMJ so they can use it for whatever purpose they think is warranted in the situation that may arise. I’ve got to tell you all, this is a really lousy idea. You’ll never have what you need in the pipe at the right time. So why bother? The other thing that is tragically left out is the reasoning on the fly we’re talking about. Seriously people. If you have to draw a weapon in self-defense you’ll have no shortage of serious concerns that will need to be addressed in split seconds. Is this my only option and do I fear for my life? Have I identified a target? Is this person the immediate threat? Do I have a clear shot and what is behind the threat? Etc., etc., etc., Queue that little voice in your head and ask yourself if we really want to add “Oh golly, I think my first round is an FMJ I had loaded because the pack of wild dogs roaming around my farm have been killing my chickens and I saved that one special for one of them. Now I need to get rid of that round and chamber my fancy smancy HP stuff Michael mentioned on his day trip to Cor-bon. By the way, who takes a day trip to South Dakota in a tiny little airplane? What is it with that guy?”

I’ve got news for you. In time it took to ramble through that little wandering notion of what to do, the bad guy already gutted you like a fish, took your gun from your lifeless fingers, and left the area in your car with the keys and wallet he took from your pockets. My point? Time isn’t on your side. You simply don’t get enough of it to add silly items of deliberation to your plight willingly. Trust me. They’ll be much to consider on the fly, so do yourself a favor and don’t add to the calamity.

Choosing a type of carry ammo, the necessity of carrying the gun loaded, considerations for each type of ammo, and a few other items have been covered here. Frankly, this is the tip of the iceberg in some regard, but you have to start somewhere right? Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” So take your first step and assess what you’re doing right today and consider what things you’ll need to alter for tomorrow. Shoot straight and shoot often friends!