Full metal jackets, semi wadcutters, hollowpoints—oh my! Taking a trip to the local gun store or range to purchase ammunition, especially the first time, is a nerve-wracking and daunting endeavor. Not only are there many types of bullet designs, but each has a different use. Which one is best for target practice, and which for personal defense? I’ll explain the differences and uses of various loads, and hopefully alleviate some of the confusion.
First off, when I refer to a bullet, I’m talking about the projectile itself that is fired out of the gun. When you look at a box of ammunition, you’ll notice that it has the word “cartridges” on it. That’s because a cartridge is made of four components: The case (usually brass or steel, it holds everything together); the primer (which creates a spark and ignites the propellant); the powder/propellant (which burns and creates pressure inside the case): and the projectile (the bullet, which comes in various sizes and designs).
The other piece of information that you’ll want to look for is the bullet caliber. Caliber does not refer to the length or power of the bullet (in most cases), but is simply a measure of its diameter. You should match the caliber of your gun to the caliber of ammunition. If you’re not sure what caliber gun you have, check your owner’s manual or look at the barrel of the gun to see if the caliber is stamped on there.
Let’s start with full metal jacket (FMJ) rounds. FMJ rounds are coated with brass that completely covers the tip and most of the inner lead core. This type of design is made to go straight through your target without fragmenting or expanding. The common consensus is that FMJ rounds are best used for target practice instead of self-defense. Full metal jackets can often over-penetrate, meaning that the round could go through the intended target and hit someone on the other side. FMJ rounds are usually cheaper to purchase than other designs, which facilitates plenty of practice time at the range.
The next design is the semi-wadcutter (SWC). The SWC has a flat nose that punches a hole in the target, similar to a hole punch, and all the holes it makes are similar in size, rather than ripping the paper target like round-nose bullets do. This makes it easier to see the point of impact. Competition shooters often use this design, because it’s easier to score the target. Due to the shape of the bullet, combined with the extreme low velocity of this round, the SWC is not very effective for self-defense purposes.
Lastly, there are a couple options that I’d recommend for personal defense. The first one is a jacketed hollowpoint (JHP). These rounds have exposed lead tips with a hollow cavity in the middle of the bullet, causing them to fragment and expand when they strike their target. These rounds are designed to stop a threat from advancing. They are also less likely to over-penetrate and continue on past the intended target, endangering someone else.
The other self-defense option is the Flex-Tip design. These help eliminate the clogging and inconsistency that can sometimes happen with hollowpoint bullets when the bullet travels through thick clothing and/or drywall. The Flex-Tip pushes in when it strikes its target, causing the bullet and jacket to expand. Just like the hollowpoint, this is important to prevent over-penetration.
Your choice of self-defense ammo is important, and you should put some thought into it. The reason is this: Bullets do not make bad guys fly backward through the air and fall dead instantly like movies portray. In order for a person to be literally “stopped” by the force of a bullet, the person firing that bullet would have to feel an equal or greater amount of recoil. As an article about “stopping power” published by the National Rifle Association notes, “The goal of an armed citizen using a defensive handgun is to stop an attacker as fast as possible.” Our purpose for carrying a defensive handgun is to stop an attack immediately, before the assailant has a chance to get to us or other innocent people. Hopefully you’ll never have to use your firearm for self-defense, but if you should, you’ll want to make sure it’s effective.
It’s not really my place to advise you on which ammunition to use for practice, competition, or self-defense. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend that you try several designs and brands of ammunition and see what works best with your particular gun and caliber. It all boils down to putting in the time to research the different options available, and finding out what makes sense for different applications.
Freelance writer Stacy Bright holds instructor certifications from the NRA in Pistol & Rifle, as well as being an Range Safety Officer and Refuse to be a Victim instructor. In addition to her NRA credentials, she also is a Missouri CCW instructor and teaches various other home and personal defense courses. “In a field dominated by men, I feel I bring a unique perspective to firearms and training, especially to women. I'm passionate about educating, empowering and developing confidence in those I train. In November of 2014, I started the Southwest Missouri chapter of The Well Armed Woman,” said Stacy. Stacy lives in southwest Missouri, and has been married for 20 years. Visit TWAW Facebook page: The Well Armed Woman-Springfield, MO Chapter. View all posts by Stacy Bright