SIGHTING IN ON: AMMUNITION ‐ Duty and Off‐Duty Handgun Ammunition

Sighting In On: Ammunition: Duty and Off-Duty Handgun Ammunition

By Martin D. Topper, Ph.D.

Selecting handgun ammunition for duty and off-duty carry was once fairly simple because there was very little difference between factory loads. Fifty years ago, the overwhelming majority of commercial cartridges were loaded with round-nosed (RN), flat-nosed (FN) and occasionally semi-wadcutter (SWC) bullets. Various forms of hollowpoint bullets had been around since the late 1800s, but there was a great deal of public resistance to expanding “Dum-Dum” bullets, which were outlawed for war by the Hague Convention of 1899. Given this lack of bullet choice, the main criteria for selecting ammo during most of the last century were accuracy, reliability and cost.

Improved Ammunition

A revolution in commercial ammunition began in the late 1960s when an expert handloader named Lee Jurras introduced Super-Vel ammunition. This “Generation 3” ammunition was loaded with light-for-caliber jacketed hollowpoints (JHPs) that were driven to significantly higher velocities than standard ammo to ensure reliable expansion.

These new lightweight JHPs had their good and bad points. On the plus side, they delivered a lot more of their kinetic energy to the target because they expanded. This improved their ability to incapacitate violent offenders. The expanded bullets were also less likely to exit the intended target, reducing the risk to innocent bystanders from shoot-throughs.

On the downside Gen. 3 hollowpoints had a tendency to plug up with clothing and not expand. Many of these bullets didn’t feed well in semi-autos, and they could over-expand and fail to penetrate deeply enough to ensure rapid incapacitation. Finally, they had a tendency to fragment on light cover like automobile doors and windows. Even with these faults, word quickly spread about the “stopping power” of these new JHPs, and their popularity for both on-duty and off-duty carry gained momentum rapidly.

A few years after Super-Vel appeared, several other ammunition manufacturers came out with improved JHPs. These advanced Gen. 3 JHPs included cartridges like Speer’s “Flying Ashtray” and Winchester’s .38 Spl. +P “FBI load” and Silvertip. These Gen. 3.2 hollowpoints expanded at lower velocities than earlier Gen. 3s and soon became standard issue for many agencies and departments.

“Generation Four”Optimized Ammo

That all changed dramatically on April 11, 1986 when FBI agents made a felony car stop in Miami. One 9mm Silvertip failed to penetrate deeply enough to quickly incapacitate robbery and murder suspect Michael Platt. After receiving an “unsurvivable wound,” he killed two FBI agents and seriously wounded several others. As a result, the FBI held two Wound Ballistics Seminars and the Bureau’s Firearms Training Unit developed an ammo testing protocol that viewed ammunition performance in light of the tactical threats that violent suspects presented to FBI Special Agents in the field.

It’s important to note that the U.S. military, the National Institute of Justice, the Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies had conducted a significant amount of ballistics research long before 1986. However, the work done by the FBI after the Miami Incident drew significant interest from the Nation’s law enforcement community for three basic reasons. First, the shootout in Miami was a dramatic public event. Second, it involved a car stop, which is a common tactical scenario in law enforcement. Lastly, the Silvertip fired by Special Agent Jerry Dove did not cause the rapid incapacitation that would have been predicted by the National Institute of Justice’s “Computer Man” theory of terminal ballistics.

Bullet and ammunition manufacturers quickly adopted the FBI ammunition performance standard, which called for a bullet to expand and penetrate at least 12 inches but no more than 18 inches in 10-percent ballistic gelatin. The test protocol involved eight tests that evaluated a bullet’s ability to expand and penetrate after it encountered light and heavy clothing and a number of common barriers such wallboard, plywood, simulated automobile door steel, and two types of automobile glass.

The result was a Fourth Generation of handgun ammunition based on bullet performance in standardized tests. Gen. 4 is still a work-in-progress as ammunition companies produce new handgun loads and modify existing ones on a regular basis. This optimization process has led to handgun ammunition that has a high probability of expanding to one and one-half times its original diameter and penetrating an average of at least 12 inches in tissue when used in the field. The standardization of performance does not mean that all cartridges perform in the same way. The results of gelatin tests clearly indicate that some handgun bullets expand more than others and some penetrate deeper in the various stages of the eight-part FBI test protocol. This affects the rate at which they transfer energy and it definitely influences the bystander risk from possible shoot-throughs. It also indicates which loads are most effective against specific barriers.

These performance differences are largely due to differences in bullet construction. In fact, one of the most interesting things about Gen. 4 bullets is the variety of bullet types that meet the minimum FBI standard. Hornady’s TAP, PMC’s Starfire and Federal’s HST, Black Hills’ XTP and Federal’s Hydra-Shok all use some form of cup and core bullet construction. Winchester’s Ranger T, Remington’s Golden Saber Bonded and Federal’s Tactical Bonded use bullets that have bonded jackets and cores. COR-BON’s DPX and Black Hills’ Tac-X use all-copper Barnes X hollowpoints. COR-BON’s Power Ball, Federal’s Tactical EFMJ and Hornady’s Critical Duty use polymer expansion initiators in the bullet’s nose. This diversity of ammunition has added a whole new dimension to ammunition selection. In addition to the traditional concerns of accuracy, reliability and cost, the person (or committee) who selects duty and off-duty ammunition also has to consider bullet expansion and the need for penetration in the common tactical scenarios faced by the organization’s officers.

Duty Ammunition

Today the selection of duty ammunition begins with developing a threat profile that is based on two considerations. The first involves the types of critical incidents the officers on duty have faced in the last five years. How many shooting incidents occurred during traffic stops? How many took place in shopping malls, in offices or other public meeting places? The second aspect of the threat profile focuses on potential new threats. Is there a trend toward drive-by shootings? How about drug store robberies, carjackings, or domestic disturbance calls?

There are several key elements to look for when reviewing the scenarios in a specific threat profile. They are the degree to which cover is available to a suspect, the possibility that the suspect will be moving or will confront the officer from an oblique angle and the possibility that overpenetration will present a significant threat to bystanders.

Ammunition selection is as much art as it is science. Consider an officer from an urban police department on routine patrol. The potential threats the officer may face in the course of a single day can vary from a traffic stop in which the suspect is protected by automobile glass and sheet steel to a hold-up in a crowded liquor store where a bullet from a duty load could overpenetrate and hit a civilian. In the end, ammunition selected for routine patrol duties will need a bullet that will penetrate at least 12 inches of 10-percent ballistic gelatin, is unlikely to fragment in the barrier tests, and will expand sufficiently to keep tissue penetration at a maximum of about 14–15 inches.

The loads that seem to do this best have advanced cup and core and bonded core bullets that are in the middle of the weight range for their caliber. For example, in 9mm Parabellum 124-grain loads like the Federal HST, Speer Gold Dot, Federal Tactical Bonded, Remington Golden Saber Bonded, Winchester Ranger T, and Black Hills with XTP will generally be the best choices. The 135-grain +P Federal Bonded Tactical load also expands well and has controlled penetration.

Specialized agencies like federal criminal investigation agencies, state highway patrol units and SWAT teams have unique performance requirements for their ammunition. For example, a highway patrol unit may need deeper penetration. They might select a load with heavy-for-caliber bonded bullet or a cartridge with an all-copper X bullet. On the other hand, Criminal investigators often carry more concealable handguns with short barrels. They are often best served by cartridges that have rapidly expanding bullets like those loaded in Speer’s Gold Dot Short Barrel ammunition.

This brings the discussion back to where it started with the basic threat profile. A review of shooting incidents in the last five years and evolving threats will clarify the needs for expansion and penetration. It will also provide information about bullet performance with the current duty load in department-issued handguns. With the profile in hand, the available data on gelatin tests can be reviewed to determine if there is another load on the market that might better meet the needs of the department, provided that particular load is as reliable and accurate as the one currently being used.

Off-Duty Ammunition

Policies on off-duty ammunition vary widely between law enforcement organizations. Some restrict choices and only allow the duty gun and ammo to be carried off-duty. Others allow off-duty officers to carry a broad variety of handguns and ammunition. Many fall somewhere in between. But even if the officer has no discretion in selecting ammunition, it’s still important to understand the threat environment.

When an officer is off-duty, the threat profile he/she faces is very much like that facing any other citizen. Therefore, it’s important to look at assaults on civilians to define the types of threats that may confront an off-duty officer in the community where the officer lives.

Tom Givens is a retired officer, full-time firearms trainer, and owner of Rangemaster, Inc. in Memphis, Tenn. Tom has gathered information on approximately 60 shooting incidents involving his students in the Memphis area. The vast majority of these incidents occurred during attempted armed robberies. As to location, Tom found that parking lots of shopping malls, restaurants and other public places where people make financial transactions like gas stations were the most common sites of a violent crime against civilians. In these areas, people carrying valuables are relatively isolated from others and may be distracted by tasks like placing packages in the trunk of a car or filling the gas tank. At such times, criminals can approach closely using vehicles or various other structures to conceal their movement. Assaults in driveways were also somewhat common, but home invasions were not as common as most people might believe.

In general, this off-duty threat profile places requirements on ammunition that are very similar to the needs of the officer patrolling an urban area. Therefore, cartridges loaded with mid-weight-for-caliber bullets that control the risk of overpenetration, but which also do not fragment on barriers can provide the best overall performance for off-duty carry.

One final note: Off-duty officers often assume that being off-duty means they can carry a sub-caliber handgun without reloads. Nothing could be further from the truth. The off-duty officer is usually without his/her patrol partner to provide immediate backup and normally does not have a police radio or a long arm available. In addition, he/she may have family members who will need protecting if a critical incident occurs. That officer will have to rely on the off-duty gun and spare magazines or speedloaders if he/she is to survive until other officers can respond to a 9-1-1 call from a cell phone.

The “Best” Choice

Law enforcement officers today have handgun ammunition available that is far superior to what was available even 25 years ago. Continuing advancements in ammunition design have increased police officers’ ability to neutralize lethal threats, minimizing the potential for injury to the officer and collateral damage during critical incidents.

The only downside to this evolution in ammunition technology is that selecting the best handgun load for a specific law enforcement organization today requires more time and effort than it did in the past. Developing and updating threat profiles and testing ammunition also requires that those who select ammunition for a law enforcement organization continually update themselves on the types of critical incidents that occur within their jurisdiction and the latest developments in ammunition. By staying on top of these issues, a department or agency can provide their officers and the general public with the best achievable defense against the risks that are created when law-breakers employ deadly force in furtherance of their criminal enterprises. PM

Martin D. Topper, Ph.D. is the owner of Martin D. Topper, Ph.D. Consulting in Daytona Beach, Fla. He is a behavioral scientist who spent 10 years as the Quality Manager with the U.S.E.P.A. Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training. Some of his duties involved firearms training, testing and the procurement of firearms, ammunition and duty gear. He may be contacted at


Tom Givens-Rangemaster, Inc., 2611 S. Mendenhall, Memphis, TN. Phone: 901-370-5600. Web:

FBI Ballistic Gelatin Protocol: FBI Ammunition Tests, FBI Academy, Quantico, VA.


1. Speer’s 135-grain .357 Magnum Short Barrel Gold Dot Hollowpoint produced an average velocity of 978 fps and delivered 287 ft. pds. of muzzle energy from the author’s much-used, Crimson Trace equipped S&W 340 PD. It would be a good off-duty load for those who prefer small revolvers.

2. Hornady’s Critical Duty Law Enforcement loads in 9mm. and .45 ACP utilize polymer inserts in the bullet’s nose to initiate expansion. Author fired these into water. Critical Duty ammunition expands well and penetrates to FBI requirements when tested in 10 percent gelatin.

3. Speer’s 124-grain Gold Dot (left) and Federal’s 124-grain HST (right) use different technologies to meet the FBI performance standards. The Gold Dot has a unique electroplated bonded jacket while the HST is an advanced cup and core design.

4. Expansion and penetration testing in 10-percent ballistic gelatin has evolved into a standardized method of evaluating the performance of ammunition. This demonstration was presented at the 2011 Blackhawk seminar in Montana.

5. Winchester’s Black Talon (left) was an early Gen. 4 load that introduced the reverse taper jacket to promote expansion. That technology has been carried forward to the design of Winchester’s latest Gen. 4 Ranger T Law Enforcement ammo, which also has an improved feed profile and a bonded jacket and core.

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