While I will focus on 9mm self defense ammo in this article, you will also find that the brands listed also include .380, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .357, and even 10mm. Choosing the best concealed carry ammo is important, so use this guide to narrow down your choices.
If you haven’t followed the news recently, concealed carry is on the rise with two states recently passing laws allowing concealed carry without a formal licensing process. Since this could lead to an influx of new concealed carriers, it is probably time to talk about proper ammo selection.
Not all ammunition is created equal. Just like with daddy’s shotgun, sometimes you want bird-shot and sometimes you want a slug. Each type of ammo is designed to do a specific job with very specific criteria.
Self Defense Ammo Criteria
You want concealed carry ammunition to stop an attacker as quickly and safely as possible. To do this, here are a few points to consider:
This is the foremost criteria that most people want out of their ammo. Everybody wants that large wound channel. This comes from FBI guidelines and should be a strong consideration. This is precisely the reason your range ammo is not appropriate for carry.
In 1986 a Miami shootout occurred between the FBI and two armed assailants. The FBI used a mix of firearms including .357, .38, and 9mm. All of their ammo was standard ball ammo and proved to be completely ineffective at stopping the assailants. One was shot 5 times before taking a lethal shot to the spine. The other was shot 12 times and survived for some time after the shootout.
This is why we carry specific ammo designed to expand on impact.
This is the double-edged sword. You want adequate penetration to stop an attacker. No matter how large a wound channel, you need at least 8 inches of penetration into flesh to effectively neutralize an attack. The FBI standard is 12 inches in soft tissue to be able to reach lethal areas no matter the angle of penetration.
Because most people don’t go around naked, you may have to get through clothing, windshields, and even large amounts of body fat to get to that lethal level. This is perfectly illustrated by Federal’s Hydra-Shock ammo. While it did penetrate and lethally expand against ballistic gelatin, it was not effective against heavy clothing. Even heavy jackets prevented proper expansion and sometimes stopped the bullet altogether.
The reverse side of penetration is over penetration. You want a bullet that meets the standards used by the FBI of 12 inches of tissue penetration. Any more than this is a liability as the bullet will retain too much energy when it exits the body and could cause injury to bystanders. Likely, your range ammo would penetrate far more than 12 inches.
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Let’s be clear on this, we are not concerned with calibers. Often, our choice of bullet weight will not be directly related to lethality. Instead, we choose bullet weight for its performance and recoil. As a standard for this article, we will use 9mm, but the ratios for other calibers should work out similarly. We are not condoning 9mm over your favorite caliber.
So with grain weight, 9mm is generally 115 grains, but concealed carry ammo can be purchased as light as 90 grains and as heavy as 165 grains. Both the lightest and heaviest are calibrated to function close to the same, but there are some clear advantages to each.
Lighter bullets will have less felt recoil as long as the powder load they are using is the same. Lighter bullets are often more affected by environmental factors and obstructions. For shooting through a hard barrier like a windshield, a lighter bullet is not the best option.
Heavier bullets have more felt recoil but pack more punch against hard barriers. When all else is equal, they often have a greater accuracy, but this is not a universal rule.
When selecting concealed carry ammo, you need to test its performance out of your carry pistol. Performing a few shots with your ammo should tell you everything you need to know. If you have trouble staying on target consistently, try changing weight.
Whatever you do, don’t just stick with ammo that performs badly. Too many people get set in their ways or fall in love with a brand with no justification. When your life is on the line, you want to know you have the best possible equipment to keep yourself safe.
Best Self Defense Ammo
- Federal HST
- Hornady Critical Defense
- Speer Gold Dot
- Winchester PDX1 Defender
- Winchester Ranger T
- Sig Sauer Elite V-Crown
With a greater number of ammunition manufacturers than we have seen since World War II, you are spoiled for choice when it comes to concealed carry ammo. This doesn’t mean that all of them are created equal, but that there are dozens of choices that will serve you well.
It would be impossible to dig up every good choice in a concise article so I will point out just a few. The rounds I am pointing out may not even be the very best. The choices below are the most trusted, most cost-effective, and most readily available choices.
Federal HST is a part of their defensive lineup designed to overcome the previous shortcomings of the Hydra-Shock developed for the FBI. It is available in a 230gr .45, 200gr 10mm, 180gr .40, and two 9mm 147gr and 124gr. For 9mm find out what your pistol likes. The 124gr is probably more popular, but the heavier round is a personal favorite and it is what I use in my carry guns.
The core principle of the older Hydra-Shock is still here. The idea is a consistent expansion, or what Federal calls Predictable Expansion. These are very trusted rounds for their tendency to always go bang when they should. Expansion and penetration both pass FBI protocol.
Tests show 13.6 inches of penetration and expansion of nearly 200% up to .63” with a 147gr 9mm.
Hornady Critical Defense
Critical Defense is easily the defensive ammunition available in the most calibers. Everything from .22 WMR up to .44mag with several rifle variants and even 410 and 12ga. If you don’t use the standard carry calibers, this may be the place to look. Generally, bullet weights are fairly close to the standard, for example 9mm is 115gr.
The core principle of Critical Defense is their Flex Tip Technology that avoids expansion in fabrics and saves the impact for denser, more fluid materials. This ammunition was not developed for police or FBI, but for personal protection. This isn’t an industry first, but it does mean they put more than just caliber considerations into their design.
This does pass FBI protocol with an average of 13.62 inches of penetration and expansion of .52” for 115gr 9mm.
Speer Gold Dot
Speer Gold Dots are one of the classic concealed carry rounds from a time when options were few. After more than 20 years of production, it still stands up to the rest and is a solid performer. It is also available in a number of handgun calibers. You can also get it in various weights and occasional specialty configurations like +P and rounds designed for shorter barrels.
Speer has been a leading choice among law enforcement for a long time. It has proven effective around the world in stopping assailants fast. One of the most novel things about the Gold Dot is that Speer makes a training counterpart to most calibers. This allows you to train with ammo very similar to what you carry.
For 147gr 9mm you get about 15.4 inches of penetration and expansion .56” passing the FBI tests.
Winchester PDX1 Defender
While the Winchester PDX-1 Defender ammo rates consistently lower among civilian shooters, it did win an FBI contract last year so you know it performs well. On a personal observation from thousands of rounds fired, Winchester has always seemed to be very reliable. The reason for the lower rating eludes me.
The Defender series is available in most commonly carried calibers, but is all over the board when it comes to weights. The 10mm is very light, the 9mm is very heavy, and there is the occasional +P thrown in. All of them feature the same welded core that prevents fragmentation for a large, consistent wound channel.
For penetration, the average is about 14.75 inches and the expansion is about .58”. Since the FBI uses this, of course it passes their test.
Winchester Ranger T-Series
The T series by Winchester is another older competitor, but one that has evolved a little more with the times. It may not be significantly more effective, but one hopes they changed something worthwhile. For calibers, this is just as all over the board as the Defender. You get a single .357 sig and .380. For .40 caliber you get a light and heavy option. The old .45 gets a heavy round and then a +P Variant. The 9mm has three options; a standard pressure 147gr, and lighter rounds in both +P and +P+.
While this amalgamation? Obviously, Winchester was gearing their ammunition for specific performance. This was a previous FBI round and one used by a number of police departments. Its method of deployment is not dissimilar to the Federal HST and it seems to be at least as effective.
Penetration runs about 15.8 inches with an expansion of .54” for the standard. The +P variant ups that 23 inches of penetration, but expansion drops to .44 inches. These are both for a 147gr 9mm.
Sig Sauer Elite V-Crown
The final brand I recommend is the Sig Sauer Elite V-Crown. Coming in with many calibers and weights, the V-Crown is not only a great round for Sig Sauer firearms, but any concealed carry gun. However, I do tend to see it being used more by my friends in their Sigs...especially the P365.
Much of the testing that I have seen has the V-Crown coming in close, or equal to many of the rounds above. A couple of tests have shown that the penetration of the 9mm round was slightly less than the Federal HST though, but overall it performed well.
Sig also makes practice ammo that mimics the V-Crown to allow you to practice with similar ammo to your carry ammo...which is a great idea that I hope catches on with other manufacturers.
I will personally be testing this from my Sig P365 in the future. If you have used this in the past, drop a comment down below and let us know how it has worked.
You have to make a choice at some point...but how? I think penetration can be set aside as long as you get between 13 and 16 inches of penetration. You will find that all of the above options and most others will meet this criteria.
What about expansion? Well the HST by Federal wins there at nearly 4 hundredths of an inch. How much of a difference does this make? Probably very little in truth.
Modern ammunition is built to meet a standard and most of your quality carry ammunition meets that standard. So, if you want to go with HST, Ranger, or Gold Dot, they will all do the job. The most important consideration is not in ballistic performance.
What matters most is the reliability of the ammunition in general and in your firearm. Some firearm models and even specific guns will have trouble feeding some ammunition. Some firearms handle some bullet weights better than others. This is something you will never know until you try.
But I get it. Carry ammo is expensive and it's hard to invest in a box and just blow it. I still firmly stand by the advice that this is exactly what you should do. Most quality carry guns will run most ammo, but you need to be sure before you bet your life on it.
Function Checking your Ammo
So, you need to test your ammo, but you can be smart about it. This is my recommendation on how best to do it and minimize the cost.
Ignore brand for now, but find what weight works best for you. For example, I find 124gr 9mm to shoot more accurately out of an S&W Shield than 115gr. This is your starting point.
I still recommend getting some FMJ practice ammo of various weights and giving them a shot. Find the differences in recoil and accuracy for your particular carry gun. This will give you a better idea of what you want. Match the weight of the carry ammo to the practice ammo.
Make sure your gun is broke in, clean, and well lubricated. If your gun is new, run a couple of hundred rounds of training ammo through it first. The purpose of this whole step is to ensure any issues you have is the fault of your ammo and not your gun.
Load 5 rounds at a time in a mag and run them. If you get two malfunctions, stop. If those are in your first mag, you just saved yourself 15 rounds of expensive ammo. Try a different weight or brand of ammo and don’t blow those extra bullets.
Those extra bullets can be tried in a different firearm, given to a friend, or sold at a discount to someone to recoup your losses. There is no sense beating a dead horse if they aren’t working for you.
Range Ammo and Practice Ammo
Type One Ammo
Get ammunition that functions well in your pistol and is a similar weight and load to your practice ammo. You won’t need a lot of this type, but it's nice to practice with a round and see the performance of what you carry. This allows you to perfect your point of aim. Mostly this is for fun, but can be educational.
Type Two Ammo
Get the cheapest quality ammo you can. I prefer Blazer Brass for its cost and reliability. This is your general practice ammo and what you should use most often. You want to use an affordable bullet that goes bang consistently.
Type Three Ammo
This is my personal, unconventional advice, but hear me out. Buy the cheapest ammo you can get. I like TulAmmo for this. The whole point of this ammo is to have it fail from time to time and I find TulAmmo fits that bill. It will run well most of the time, but every so often you will get a malfunction.
You need this practice to get used to clearing jams, and this is the best way to replicate it. You can fake all you want with your decent ammo, but nothing will give you the practice for doing it at will.
Practice ammo is not carry ammo. It penetrates too far and doesn’t expand. No matter what you see in the movies, the FMJ is not an effective round for your personal defense. Save it for the range. If you ever doubt this, look at deer hunting ammo and see how much of it is FMJ.
Don’t fall into the trap of a one-shot-stop. Your pistol isn’t a Star Trek phaser and even the most lethal rounds rarely accomplish that feat. Make sure you get quality carry ammo.
My last piece of advice is to get a bunch of training ammo and some professional training. It's fun and will do more to help you than anything else.
Don't forget to check out our Best Holsters and Best Belts articles as well!