Back to ballistics

I’m back shooting gelatin again. This time, I’m using pocket sized handguns and new ammunition products. My tests revealed a trend in the ammunition industry—manufacturers have dramatically improved performance in shorter barreled guns.

A few years ago, I attended a Glock Instructor’s course. When we got on the range, Glock’s Chris Miller made a statement that I wrote down and remembered throughout my career: “When you pull the trigger on a handgun, you have to tell yourself ‘It’s not gonna work’.”

This was not to say that one’s duty handgun won’t be reliable, nor was it an expression of doubt in the variety of factors that direct shooting in general. Miller went on to tell us that, if the fight goes to guns, there has to be a contingency plan. With backup and off-duty handguns, the likelihood of needing a backup plan is much higher.

This article is about cartridges for smaller guns. Smaller guns have shorter sight radii and abbreviated handling. Usually, shorter barrels mean reduced velocity and effectiveness, brighter muzzle flash and lower magazine capacity.

There are some things we should consider first. Foremost, the goal of being off duty is to stay off duty. Off-duty conduct should be different than on-duty conduct.

Second, when we are talking about small guns that fire small cartridges (smaller than 9mm), these options are recommended when the only other option is “no gun,” which should never be an option.

Like most other badge wearers, I’ve seen a few gunshot victims. Often I wondered how a victim kept running, fighting or driving after being seriously wounded. I have seen instances where patients didn’t know or acknowledge they were injured. If we were to extract lessons from this, it would be healthy to remember that law enforcement officers march into dangerous situations with duty handguns that have capabilities that should always be considered as marginal. The military adage is true: The purpose of a handgun is to be able to fight one’s way to one’s battle rifle. In LE terms, the law enforcement officer generally uses the handgun because Big Sky is minding the long gun.

Why are we even contemplating carrying something smaller than a .45 ACP anyway? One good reason is the fact that bathing suits and Kimbers generally don’t mix without gun packs. There are appropriate places to wear gun packs, but some situations make it harder than others. For example, like many behind the badge, I enjoy a good run to maintain my fitness level. Carrying a duty gun is great for the first couple miles, but I tend to use my NAA mini revolver for distance work. It takes practice to shoot a small gun well, but it is worth it.

If the duty handgun is marginal, how effective is the backup gun? Surprisingly, new ammunition innovations have improved the prospects for the officer. For example, .380 auto performance in these tests was often better than 9mm cartridge performance 20 years ago. I consistently got around 11.5-inches in gelatin with the Hornady 90-grain 380 auto Critical Defense and Winchester 95-grain JHP Bonded 380 auto PDX1 cartridges.

If you are reading this from an iPad, you likely have already have seen the video of the Hornady 380 auto and the Winchester 380 auto bullets puncturing an older model vehicle door. (Get the iPad edition free through the app store. Search "Law Enforcement Technology" or follow the link.) I have heard many online “experts” discuss whether certain bullets can pierce a vehicle door. I shoot things all the time and I can attest that a car door is no match for the higher velocity 380 auto cartridges, unless the target is struck at an oblique angle.

While I’m talking about cartridge effectiveness, this information should be important to the officer on patrol. On a high-risk stop where the officer stands in an open vehicle door for cover, the more he can close the door (and create a steeper angle), the more effective the cover. Don’t let this be a panacea for officer safety. I routinely shoot Winchester RA9BA rounds through car doors at angles between 120-140 degrees. As long as the bullet doesn’t hit the internal reinforcement (designed into most doors for crash resistance), +P and +P+ 9mm rounds will retain some effectiveness once through the door. If we are talking about 40 S&W or 45 auto, even two car doors should not be considered adequate cover.

I’m certain someone will ask, so let me preempt the questions: Both Winchester and Hornady 380 auto products gave the same type of performance. They both expanded to 150 percent and retained 100 percent of their weight in gelatin. They both delivered less than 3 inches at 25 yards from my North American Arms Guardian. Both gave the same amount of flash in the short barrel. It was bright, but not unexpected.

I didn’t expect to consistently get about 11.5 inches of penetration, but I did. Bear in mind, however, that short barrel velocities of the 380 auto are really what we consider borderline for a bullet of similar design to expand.

The Hornady FTX uses a tip that does not get impacted with clothing fibers, allowing it to consistently expand in media. The Winchester PDX1 bullet uses an exaggerated hollow point, which also gives amazing expansion. Winchester’s bonded jackets do rather well in intermediate barriers. I resolved my 380 auto dilemma; I carry my North American Arms Guardian with magazines filled with half Winchester, half Hornady.

I’m going to pick on the .22 LR for a minute here. As many know, the .22 LR comes in a variety of options, including a hollow and solid point version. I am picking on the .22 LR because there isn’t a reasonable way one can employ “.22 LR” and “effective” in the same sentence. I have, in fact, shot .22 LR bullets into gelatin and can testify that the tiny hollow point is a moot point in a handgun. It just doesn’t expand. However, a .22 LR fired from a rifle (and longer barrel pistols) will expand.

Through a handgun barrel, about 7 inches of bare gelatin is about the average for the highest velocity .22 LR cartridges. The velocity capable of pushing a 30-45 grain bullet through this amount of media is generally not enough to expand the bullet to any consequence. As barrel lengths increase, the effectiveness of the .22 LR increases also. In a rifle, a .22 LR is an entirely different subject. If anyone needs a recommendation here, I would pick something else. If someone fails to heed my advice, at least use CCI Stingers. Yes, I have shot these into gelatin, too.

There are officers willing to accept the risk of carrying a .22 caliber handgun. If this is the caliber of choice, make it .22 Magnum. I think that Hornady Critical Defense has made the Smith & Wesson 351C a viable choice. This is a seven-shot, 11-ounce, .22 Magnum revolver.

The Hornady 45-grain FTX Critical Defense bullet does expand in ballistic gelatin, even when fired from a 1 1/8-barrel gun. This cartridge has been optimized for short barreled guns, which means it does all of its power burning while the bullet is still in the barrel.

In fact, I recorded several passes over my Oerhler .35P chronograph that averaged 1085 fps from my North American Arms NAA-22MS. I recorded 9 inches of penetration with 100-percent retention. Two of the bullets tested penetrated 12 inches, with about 120-percent expansion through layers of denim, by the way.

I recommend an upgrade to the NAA-BWC for a tiny gun for running. This gun allows practice with the cheaper .22 LR cartridges and carry with the .22 Magnum. Mind you, the .22 Magnum cartridge is not a caliber of choice, it’s a caliber of compromise. The .22 Magnum makes an excellent third gun, and the quality of any North American Arms products is superior to most production guns. Since they have just introduced a mini revolver with a swing out cylinder, every law enforcement officer should have one.

If .38 Special is the caliber of choice, the lightweight ones require a specific strategy. Select lighter, faster cartridges to improve the speed of follow-up shots. In my tests, Cor-Bon 110-grain DPX cartridges are the ones to carry in a .38 Special.

Your .38 Special loads come in bullet weights that are generally within the 110-160 grain range. Although the heavier bullets suggest better theoretical performance, lighter ones are easier to control. The DPX bullets are solid copper, which expands consistently, ignoring windshields and clothing. I have shot Cor-Bon .38 Special bullets in 12-ounce handguns also, where the 110-grain bullet really makes a difference.

Cor-Bon lists the 110-grain DPX cartridge at 1200 fps, which is pretty fast for a .38 Special. My tests showed this specification was not the optimistic performance through a test barrel under ideal conditions. It approaches this velocity in my 2-inch barrel handgun. Whew!

Finally, 9mm cartridges have almost reached parity with their bigger brothers in the past dozen years. I used my FNP-9 to test them and confirmed my reason for carrying Winchester’s RA9BA, a 124-grain bonded cartridge. My second choice is Remington’s GSB9MMD. The company’s brass jacketed 124-grain JHP. Both of these cartridges excelled in weight retention and penetration after an intermediate barrier. They are both suitable for the tiny 9mm products that have become popular for backup pistols, like Kahr’s 14-ounce PM9.

I shot plenty of cartridges and mixed plenty of gelatin for these tests. Some of the conclusions about the dramatic improvements in cartridge design is very promising, especially the new Hornady Critical Defense .22 Magnum cartridges. I think it is safe to say that ammunition manufacturers have improved officer safety for us, but remember to always have a backup ... to your backup.