Handguns are ideal self-defense weapons, but they're only as good as their ammunition. Just as some handguns are perfect for stopping attackers, some ammo types are also better or worse for this taking someone down compared to backyard plinking or hunting.
What Makes a Good Self-Defense Round?
When you think about a round designed for self-defense, you have to consider what that round actually does when it hits the target. Every bullet does two main things:
it penetrates the target
it spreads impact energy through the target’s surface area
Naturally, different bullets are made with different materials or different design philosophies. This means that some bullets are better at the first objective while others are better at the second.
For example, basic lead bullets expand quite rapidly because lead is relatively soft compared to other metal types. Lead bullets don’t have very good penetrative capabilities, meaning they may not even hit a target from a certain distance away.
Most modern bullets are jacketed with copper cartridges and shaped in such a way that they penetrate more easily. The first type of these bullets is full metal jacket or FMJ bullets. They still feature a lead core, but a copper jacket fully surrounds the bullet. Thus, they can penetrate a target quite well and are often used for self-defense.
But they still aren’t the best self-defense bullet since they don’t create a lot of energy or do tons of damage. In addition, you don’t necessarily want a high penetrating bullet for self-defense since this increases the likelihood that you’ll accidentally shoot through your target and hit a bystander.
Jacketed hollow point or JHP bullets offer a middle ground between both of the above two bullet types. They still feature a lead core that expands relatively easily to transfer damaging energy. They also have a partial copper jacket that can help the bullet penetrate into your target. As the name suggests, these bullets also feature hollow tips that expand upon impact.
In our eyes, JHP bullets are the best type for self-defense since they can hit and enter someone attacking you, but also do enough damage that you can incapacitate an attacker after one or two rounds in most cases.
Does Caliber Matter?
Of course! For bullets, the caliber essentially translates to bullet size. Higher caliber bullets are larger and produce more stopping power.
This is somewhat important for self-defense situations, but it's not the end-all-be-all. Furthermore, most self-defense weapons are handguns, which limit the size of cartridges because of their smaller magazine sizes.
Because of this, handgun ammunition for self-defense shouldn't be overly concerned with the caliber. Furthermore, larger caliber bullets produce more recoil and make their weapons harder to handle. This is especially true in a high adrenaline situation, like if you're defending yourself against an attacker.
All in all, caliber does matter, but it’s less important than many of the other factors described here.
Size and Capacity
One last thing to think about when considering handgun ammunition for self-defense is cartridge size, which is related to the capacity for a given handgun. Obviously, handguns and their magazines can fit more small cartridges into a single magazine that they can larger cartridges. This makes firing follow-up shots a little easier and means you won’t have to reload at all during a self-defense shootout.
On the other hand, larger bullets do hit a little harder and can take down an opponent with fewer shots. But because you have fewer bullets per magazine, you have to be more accurate to make the most of those shots so you don’t miss a single round.
Which is better? It depends, and there’s plenty of debate on both sides of the aisle on this point.
Take the classic debate about whether 9 mm or .40 S&W rounds are better for self-defense. .40 rounds are a little larger and produce more stopping power. In fact, these bullets were widely used by the FBI for around 30 years before they switched to 9 mm bullets.
Why the change? 9 mm rounds are more affordable and you can fit more of them into a standard handgun’s magazine. Thus, they’re more cost-effective without having as much stopping power compared to .40 cartridges.
Both are solid choices, and there’s an element of truth in thinking that the best ammunition is the one you are most practiced with. We think this is true for most folks. In other words, if you already have hundreds of hours practicing with a .40 caliber pistol, stick with .40 ammunition since you’ll perform better under duress without ammo than you would with a bullet type you are inexperienced with.
So, What Are Good Handgun Ammunition Types for Self-Defense?
With all this out of the way, let’s break down the best hand ammunition types for self-defense situations.
9 mm bullets are a favorite, of course. They offer good penetrative power and many handguns can fit up to 13 rounds in a magazine. You can also find 9 mm pistols in common, popular models like Glocks.
.40 rounds are a solid second choice for many, as are .45 ACP rounds. .45 ACP rounds are fairly large, however, so they’re good to take down larger targets in fewer shots. But their large size means that they’re only suitable for larger and heavier guns. Be sure you can handle a weapon like this and its recoil before splurging a bunch of .45 ACP ammunition.
.357 Mag cartridges are also great for self-defense. They’re common revolver bullets, so we’d recommend looking into them if you rely on a revolver for your self-defense needs.
You can also go for something even smaller and lighter like 380 ammunition. These are perfect for smaller, conceal carried pistols that can sometimes fit into your pocket.
Ultimately, there are many cartridge types that are perfect for self-defense. Check out all of the above ammo types, be sure to prioritize HPJ if you can, and remember: the best ammunition for self-defense is the type you’re most used to at the end of the day.