When I was young and eager to learn everything gun related, I had believed defensive pistol ammo had to be some form of hollow point to be effective. The more I learned what duty and sub pistol calibers did, the more I understood how other options fit the defensive paradigm.
Let’s first establish what we need these pistol rounds to do and what they actually do. I need these pistol rounds to be as effective as possible on target, stopping the threat in one shot, making others not want to ever sin again. The reality, duty and sub caliber pistol rounds will poke holes. That’s it. The diameter of the individual wound channels will not be any larger than the projectile that pierces the target. They can disrupt brain function if they pierce and scramble someone’s egg and they can create trauma where they strike causing bleeding. That bleeding is entirely dependent on where the target is hit.
The most important aspect of a defensive round’s performance is reliable penetration. We need projectiles to reach, pierce, and disrupt organs in the human body to affect change in the target’s behavior. The FBI has established calibrated ballistic gel testing results of 12″-18″ of penetration to be the sweet spot for effectiveness on/in humans. The gel is not a 1:1 ratio to people BTW. If a round is properly evaluated and falls within that 12″-18″ window, it will at least meet penetration needs on/in humans. Too shallow penetration may not reach vitals, too much penetration puts everything behind the target at risk. Having seen excessive penetration on a human makes me question the use of such rounds in a defensive capacity against humans. Though, needed penetration for humans is different from needed penetration for moose or bear. Use the right ammo for the task.
Calibrated ballistic gel testing is only providing two usable points of data – penetration depth and projectile end state (weight, shape, size). As a side note- part of the FBI standards for optimal duty ammunition includes expansion to approximately 1.5x bullet diameter while maintaining sufficient penetration.
All of the dramatics you see in YouTube gel test videos are just show because it does not equate to any actual measurable performance. HST and Gold Dot are two brands that are evaluated regularly but also provide reliable performance in duty caliber pistol. What has across the board failed has been the gimmick of light and fast for caliber hollow point rounds that end up consistently penetrating shallow because they have insufficient weight to retain momentum.
A hollow point when properly expanded can create a larger permanent wound channel compared to a full metal jacket (FMJ) projectile. The permanent wound channel will still be no larger than the end state of the hollow point. Consistent expansion needs a couple things to work efficiently. First, it needs effective design and construction. You cannot just take any projectile and drill into it to create an effectively expanding hollow point.
Next, it needs enough velocity to have the energy to force the hollow point to open up and expand when it strikes and penetrates the target. The velocity needs are directly related to the design and construction.
Lastly, it needs to strike and penetrate media that helps the expansion. The right combination of depth and resistance to the projectile passing through will help the expansion. Near zero resistance, overly dense, or other materials may just clog the hollow point and impede the expansion making the hollow point perform at the same level as an FMJ.
Now, what happens when you do not have enough velocity or barrel long enough to help the velocity? Normal hollow points may not reliably expand and may perform similarly to an FMJ. There also is the issue of a hollow point expanding and losing momentum prematurely which creates a shallow wound channel. After a hollow point has opened, its expanded face has more flat surface area creating resistance within the media (read: human) which can drastically affect its ability to penetrate further if it began with insufficient velocity.
The solution for a short barrel? -specially formulated hollow point ammunition that is made for short barrels and of course there also are FMJ, solids, wadcutters, semi-wadcutters, and other random options to use. Remember, needed penetration is the most important aspect of a round’s effectiveness on target – not expansion.
Most sub caliber pistols and snub-nosed revolvers suffer the same issues – short barrels which means the projectile velocities will be lacking. This is where FMJ, wadcutters, and similar come in.
Wadcutters and semi-wadcutters have been great choices for revolvers. Since the shape of the projectile will not create feeding issues and both types of projectiles in the right ammunition provide the desired controlled penetration. The non-rounded edges of the projectiles can provide some slight additional wounding characteristics because they have more cutting due to the 90-degree angles on the projectile. Think of the shapes of the holes that FMJ and wadcutters produce.
For small sub caliber semi-autos, FMJ may have sufficient desired penetration when proven boutique special blend hollow points cannot be sourced. Most people consider those small sub caliber pistols more of a last-ditch solution, easier to carry than a sharp stick, get away from me option versus a fight stopper. Results absolutely vary with sub caliber small pistols.
In closing, if you have a firearm that you can effectively shoot accurately and the combination of firearm and ammunition meet FBI performance standards, you have a potentially effective defensive weapon. Do not discount the lethality of non-hollow point duty caliber pistol rounds.