A politician is no better than his last speech; a horse, its last race; and a defensive handgun, the ammo it’s loaded with. No matter how modern or customized your defensive handgun is, if it’s not loaded with the right ammo, it could deliver less than satisfactory results. When it comes to defensive handgun ammo, there are three things that must be considered: reliability, recoil and terminal performance—the triad of defensive handgun ammunition. You must find the proper balance between these three elements if you want to maximize your handgun’s stopping potential.

Reliability Issues

There is only one level of reliability to accept, and that’s 100 percent. Anything less might leave you holding nothing but an impact weapon. When things go bad, they are generally bad all around. If you’re relying on ammunition that’s only 90-percent reliable in your handgun, expect that 10 percent to show up when you really need the ammo to work. How do you establish that a load is 100-percent reliable in your handgun? Obviously, you have to test it. The question is how many rounds must be fired.

It’s doubtful that experts will agree on this, but one thing’s for sure: Every time you fire your handgun with a certain load, you are one shot closer to it malfunctioning with that load. Shoot any gun/ammo combination enough, and you’ll experience a stoppage. It might be induced by the ammo, gun or shooter or even by a combination of all three, but it will come.

With the understanding that we all live by the dollar bill and that defensive handgun ammunition is not cheap, here is the protocol I follow and suggest when it comes to establishing reliability. I fire 50 rounds while conducting defensive-type drills. If the handgun/ammo combo delivers 100-percent reliability during those drills, I’ll trust that load until it proves otherwise. When I replace my ammo annually, I’ll fire the old ammo under the same conditions. Once I’ve fired 250 rounds without a hiccup, I quit worrying about it altogether.

Here’s another consideration. In gun magazines you’ll see references to torture tests where a handgun is subjected to hundreds of rounds without being cleaned. With regard to carry-gun reliability, this is of no value unless you plan to never clean your gun. Most folks I know generally carry a clean gun or a gun that has only had a magazine or two fired through it since cleaning. When establishing reliability, conduct the evaluation with the gun in the condition you will carry it. When speaking of reliability, there should also be some mention of accuracy because, after all, you need to rely on your ammo to hit what you are shooting at. As important as accuracy is, I can’t think of a single defensive handgun load I’ve tested in the last several years that did not deliver adequate accuracy. Besides, in reality, your handgun and your skill with it will have more bearing on accuracy than the ammunition.

Recoil Matters

Regardless of the handgun you carry, different loads will generate substantially different levels of recoil. Among the common carry calibers, I’ve seen the least variance of recoil with the .40 S&W. For the most part—at least as far as I am concerned—recoil will be very similar whether you’re using 155- or 180-grain bullets in a .40 S&W. With the .380 Auto, the 9mm and the .45 ACP, it’s a different story mostly because of the wide variety of bullet weights and the +P offerings for each cartridge.

The same is true with the .38 Special, the .38 Special +P and the .357 Magnum revolvers. A revolver capable of firing all three cartridges will show massive swings in recoil impulse. The amount of recoil impulse is important because it can adversely affect your ability to trigger a fast, well-aimed second shot. Depending on your handgun, shooting skill and strength, the amount of recoil you can control will vary. How do you determine what you can handle? You’ll have to shoot to find out.

Luckily, ammunition manufacturers offer external ballistics data on the ammo they load, which will help you determine the maximum recoil you can handle. Let’s say, for example, you find that you can comfortably shoot Buffalo Bore’s +P+ 9mm 95-grain TAC-XP load out of your Kimber Solo. According to Buffalo Bore, that load has a muzzle energy of about 413 foot-pounds. For all practical purposes, you can shoot any other 9mm load, which generates the same or less muzzle energy with equal control.

You can use those energy figures to make comparisons for other guns in other chamberings too. What you cannot do is compare a load with 400 foot-pounds from your 27-ounce Colt Commander in .45 ACP with a load that generates the same amount of foot-pounds out of your 17-ounce Kimber Solo. The comparison is only valid when looking at different loads fired from the same handgun.

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