Possibly one of the most debated topics involving firearms is what kind of ammunition you should be carrying for self-defense. Like a lot of firearm topics, nearly everyone you ask will give you a different opinion, and if two do agree on a particular brand or type of ammo, then they will most likely have different reasons why.
But why is this?
It comes down to the question “What makes a good self-defense round.”
When we look at personal defense ammunition, we need it to wear multiple hats. We need it to penetrate, but not too far. We need it to expand but stay together. We need it to retain its weight but create a wide wound channel that can stop an attacker.
Personal defense ammo has a tough job to do, and not all marketed hollow points are good. In fact, some of them downright suck.
For example, one of the biggest failures for self-defense ammunition is that they don’t expand properly. If the bullet does NOT expand, it runs two risks. First, if it doesn’t expand it cannot transfer enough energy via a wide wound channel to stop a threat.
Second, if the bullet does NOT expand it runs the risk of not stopping in the intended target and coming out the other side. While many people assume that two holes are better than one, imagine that your child was in the next room over and you didn’t know it.
If the round passes through your attacker, you put your child’s life in danger. In a world filled with unknowns, stacking as many things on your own side, like using a good hollow point for self defense, is the only option.
Now that we know that many of the self-defense ammo options out there aren’t all that great, let’s look at 5 that stand out from the rest after much testing.
These are rounds that I personally have staked my own life on and trust, more than others.
Top 5 Best Self-Defense Ammo
- Federal Premium HST
- Hornady Critical Defense
- Speer Gold Dot
- Remington Golden Saber
- Winchester PDX Defender
Mechanical and Ballistic Component
Before we dig into each of the best self defense ammo mentioned above, we need to discuss some of the variables that makes choosing personal defense ammo a problematic and personal choice. The first of these is what I call the mechanical component.
First and foremost we need the round to fire. It doesn’t matter how well it performs downrange if we can’t get it out of the barrel. One of the most popular designs in personal defense ammo uses hollow point bullets. Hollow points are designed to expand when they hit tissue, causing more damage to the aggressor.
Due to the bullet design, some guns have difficulty feeding these bullets. The weight is distributed differently, and the hollow point can catch on various parts of the action. Some weapons will run anything you feed them, while others can be very selective about the type of bullet they handle well.
It comes down to the individual characteristics of the gun. This is why it is recommended that you run at least a couple of magazines of any ammo before you carry it for personal defense.
The second component is handgun ballistics. Most concealed carry guns are small and lightweight. This means that most will have a shorter barrel than standard. The length of the barrel directly affects your bullets.
A longer barrel usually allows for the bullet to continue accelerating for longer before it leaves the gun. The reason being, that a longer barrel continues to burn powder.
However once the bullet leaves the barrel the only thing keeping it in motion is its momentum.
This is because a longer barrel gives the burning powder longer to act on the bullet, thereby increasing its velocity. Velocity is one of the things measured on ballistic tables, because usually, the faster the bullet the more energy it transfers to the target. (not always, which is seen when comparing 9mm to 45 ACP)
You can see this when you shoot the same ammunition out of two different guns with different barrel lengths.
If you shoot a particular type of ammo out of a full sized gun and then switch to the compact version of the same gun with a shorter barrel, you will see changes in the ballistics. This is because, in short barreled handguns, the powder charge does not have enough time to accelerate the bullet to the same velocity the longer barreled full-size guns can.
Let’s now look at each of the best ammunition for concealed carry in turn.
Federal Premium HST
Federal has been making some of the best and most trusted ammunition for many years, and they have learned a thing or two along the way. When they were approached about designing a new round specifically for law enforcement and federal agents, they went to work combining years of lessons learned from multiple successful personal defense rounds they already had on the market.
The result was the HST. The HST line is not to be confused with their “Hydra-Shok” line of ammo. A lot of people tend to think the HST bullet line is part of the Hydra-Shok line, but this is not true. The HST is a different design, and Federal hasn’t publicly stated what the HST stands for, though many guesses have been made.
In fact, whenever I can find HST in 9mm for my Sig Sauer P365XL, this is what I buy and carry myself. The HST shows the most consistent performance of any concealed carry ammunition out there, which is why I put this at the top of my list.
I don’t want to discount Hydra Shok, because if I need ammo and the store doesn’t have any of my other go-to self-defense rounds in stock, I will buy them.
However, like most things, there was room for improvement over Hydra Shok, and as data was collected, lessons were learned. The foremost issue observed through testing and the study of real-life use was that in certain instances, the hollow point would clog with plugs of clothing or other barriers, which would prevent expansion.
As discussed above, expansion is needed for a few different reasons.
The new HST bullet was designed to avoid this from happening and uses a cannelure to prevent the jacket from separating from the core.
HST was initially designed for and only available to law enforcement personnel. It was primarily issued as a replacement to the original Hydra-Shok ammo and is currently in use with police departments all over the world.
However, several years ago Federal decided to make HST available to the public, and it has since become one of the most popular personal defense rounds on the market.
It earns the highest marks due to its consistent performance in a multitude of testing and real-world use. It expands reliably and shows terrific weight retention, generally between 95-100%. It feeds reliably with most weapons, and penetrates well, with most tests showing it between 14 and 16 inches.
If you are looking for personal defense ammo, there really is not a better choice than HST.
Hornady Critical Duty
Hornady is another company that has been in business for a long time, and they make some of the best ammunition available on the market today.
Critical Duty is designed using a polymer filler inside of the hollow point. This polymer acts as a hydraulic medium, much like human tissue would, to promote expansion on impact. The polymer also prevents material from clogging the hollow point as it passes through barriers.
This means Critical Duty is virtually unaffected by barriers. Hornady reports successful testing against “urban barriers” such as plywood, drywall, thick clothing, and glass.
Critical Duty has been proven itself to be a highly reliable round with good penetration and great weight retention due to bullet design. This has been done through testing performed by Hornady and 3rd parties as well.
While not as popular as the Speer’s Gold Dot line (below) or Federal’s HST line (above), Critical Duty is used by many law enforcement agencies across the nation.
Speer Gold Dot
The Gold Dot line from Speer is another ammunition that has been carried by law enforcement all over the world for many years. Loved by many and respected by all, Gold Dot has earned its place on the list for being reliable, high-quality personal defense ammo.
Gold Dot uses bonded core bullets to prevent jacket separation. The core is a lead alloy designed to expand evenly and consistently. The shape and depth of the hollow point are customized for each caliber and weight.
Speer has done intensive testing, including third party testing, to be sure all Gold Dot ammunition performs very well on the FBI’s tests with both bare gelatin and covered gelatin. Gold Dot scores well with consistent expansion, weight retention, and penetration with all common barriers.
Speer is owned by the same folks who own Federal, CCI/Blazer, and now Remington ammunition companies so they’ve perfected their craft well.
Check out this video we recorded at the Speer booth while at SHOT Show 2020:
Remington Golden Saber
Remington Golden Saber is one of those rounds that used to only be available to law enforcement agencies, but is also now (and has been for a while) available to the general public.
The thing I like about the Golden Saber self-defense rounds is that the shape of the bullet is designed in a way to feed in many different brands and types of concealed carry pistol, and they work very well on target.
The Remington Golden Saber is different than the others on this list of the best ammunition for self-defense in that they are brass jacketed with a lead core and bonded to help them hold their weight.
They offer consistent performance and expansion to target, and are available in the main calibers. I used them personally in an old 45 ACP XDMOD.2 I used to carry and they fed and performed great.
Now that Remington is back to making ammunition full time, this one should hopefully be easier to find in the stores and online.
Winchester PDX Defender
The PDX Defender ammo from Winchester is part of their Elite line and was explicitly manufactured to surpass the requirements of the new FBI protocols for personal defense ammo.
Using a bonded, jacketed hollow point, the PDX Defender has been shown to have excellent expansion, 100% weight retention, and consistent penetration, even when facing multiple barriers.
The PDX Defender ammo is currently being used by many law enforcement agencies with good results.
While this ammo appears to be very promising, it is relatively new on the market. This means there is not a lot of real-world usage, or as much 3rd party testing as the other ammo on the market, which is one of the main reasons for it appearing lower on our list.
Did your favorite brand make our top 5 best self defense ammo list? Let us know in the comments below.
Much of the original article was written by Steve Hensley in 2019, but the update has been largely re-written by the editor/owner who is listed as the author.