Sunday, December 28, 2008

Informal Tests: Hornady Critical Defense .380 & .38 Special

Hello. The arena of self-defense remains one area of concern for many handgun owners. For some, it is their only concern for their handgun(s) purpose(s) is strictly to save their hides from violent felons and to a lesser degree, dangerous animals.

In recent years we have seen much improvement in ammunition intended for such serious purposes.

But a few decades past, one couldn't expect jacketed hollow points to expand reliabily (if at all in some cases) unless driven to very high speeds for caliber or reducing bullet weight in order to achieve the higher-than-normal speeds essential for expansion.

Eventually we did get ammunition with bullets that would expanded reliably a great deal of the time, but little thought was given to penetration. Expansion was the name of the game, the "be-all-end-all" in "stopping power".

We did hear of failures to be sure but there were also successes but the truth is that results could be quite varied. Some quit worrying about expanding ammunition and went strictly with solids so that penetration, at least, could be counted upon. Others remained sure that hyper-velocity rapid-expansion or fragmenting ammo was the sure cure for those pesky, violent felons.

"Back to the drawing board" must have been a repeated clarion call for serious handgun ammunition developers these past decades. Today's shooting community has a better and probably most varied ammunition selection than ever before. (Let us hope that the current crop of freedom-hating, anti-gun politicians are not able to change that!)

Hornady has been manufacturing very fine handgun and rifle bullets for decades. Their handgun bullets for reloading were pretty traditional until the introduction of the "XTP" line after the infamous 1986 FBI "Miami Shootout" in which several FBI agents lost their lives after one miscreant had been nicely popped with a 9mm 115-gr. Winchester Silvertip Hollow Point that punched through an arm before entering the upper torso from the side. The expanded bullet stopped just short of the heart. I will not get into the (vast) number of shots fired vs. the (small) number of hits but this incident did bring both bullet expansion and penetration requirements to the forefront of "stopping power" discussions.

The "XTP" (eXtreme Terminal Performance) handgun bullets from Hornady were designed to expand to about 1.5 times the original caliber rather than the previously-desired expanded "lead pancake". They did this nicely and XTP handgun bullets have been among the most accurate I've ever shot in either factory or handloaded handgun ammunition.

Here is typical performance for the XTP bullet. This one is a factory Hornady 90-gr. in .380 ACP. Results in "wet pack" or water were consistently about 1.5 calibers and accuracy was first-rate in several .380 pistols I tried it in. It would average about 920 ft/sec from a Bersa Thunder with a 3.5" barrel. This is usually very consistent ammo from my guns and would have very small extreme spreads. This one was from a lot having an extreme spread of 16 ft/sec!

While the old claim that bullets traveling under 1000 ft/sec wouldn't expand had not been true for quite a few years, it was true that a majority of expanding bullets simply wouldn't if forced to pass through intermediate barriers before striking their intended "soft target". A bullet that might be a reliable expander in tissue would often times act like a solid if passing through leather (as in a coat), plywood, drywall, or other fabrics. Even penetration remained adequate, the wound channel was greatly reduced. This reduced the bullet's effectiveness and the fear of overpenetration reared its head again in handgun ammunition and self-protection.

Hornady was first to try and meet the FBI's 12" penetration minimum in 10% ballistic gelatin with their XTP line of bullets. They also sold these bullets in loaded ammunition as well. (It should be noted here that this 12" minimum includes such things as shooting through laminated automobile windshields, something not nearly so likely for the private citizen. The honest private citizen unlucky enough to be involved in a deadly force scenario is very likely to be face-to-face with his/her attacker and very close and we can probably get by just fine with ammunition penetrating a bit less than 12". Some ammunition that I've used on small to medium Texas game penetrates less than 12" but has repeatedly proven itself capable of human, rapid "stops". Likewise, visiting with folks who've used similar ammunition against human beings has shown that bullets penetrating less than 12" can be effective for head-on, unobstructed shots. At the same time, I cannot fault anyone who insists on ammunition doing no less than 12" in ballistic gelatin after passing through 4-layers of denim. (The denim barrier doesn't necessarily mean that one's attacker will be wrapped up like a tamale; it is described as a "worst case senario" and one that IF a bullet passes, it can be expected to almost always expand on the street.) The flagship loads from today's handgun ammunition manufacturers will usually pass this test and come with other desireable traits such as being sealed against moisture and having flash-retardant powders.

This Texas whitetail was cleanly and legally taken with a handloaded 45-caliber 200-gr. XTP. Penetration was complete and expansion evident. Overpenetration is not a worry under most hunting conditions. It is considered a serious potential problem by some concerned with having to shoot in an urban area. The XTP offered plenty of penetration but sometimes didn't expand satisfactorily if passing through intermediate barriers before striking gelatin...or tissue. Hornady's Critical Defense ammunition is reported to expand consistently, regardless of whether an intermediate target is struck or not.

Hornady's XTP appears to have been more appreciated by the handgun hunting community than those focusing on self-defense, and to that end, Hornady has come out with a new line of ammunition that reportedly passes through almost any barrier and still reliably expands. It is called "Critical Defense" and is currently (Dec. '08) available in .380 ACP and .38 Special. Hornady says up front that they didn't focus on its passing each and every FBI requirement and in at least one caliber, it doesn't make the 12" minium, but it gets darned close, as in 10 /12" or so when fired from the little Ruger .380 auto.

It utilizes a cannulured jacketed bullet and has a lead core as well as a hollow cavity at the nose. However, this cavity is filled with a red, flexible substance. Hornady calls this their FTX bullet.

Find out more about the FTX bullet here:

It seems reasonable to assume that this ammunition is Hornady's competition for Speer's Gold Dot, Remington's Golden Saber, Winchester's Ranger (LE ammo), and Federal's Personal Defense ammunition.

While not inexpensive, there are other lines of self-protection ammunition from other makers that is more costly. Each box of Hornady's .380 ACP Critical Defense line of ammo cost me $17.95 or about $0.72/shot. The 110-gr. .38 Special costs $19.95 a box or $0.80/shot. While this is certainly not too much for premium ammunition to save one's life, it is enough to make one try and be conservative in informal "tests" like this least on my retirement abilities.

I was happy to see these standard pressure loads being first available in .380 ACP and .38 Special and here's why.

The .380, be it in one of today's really compact hideout pistols or the more traditional Walther PPK, SIG-Sauer P230/232, Bersa, etc, size has had to be a "compromise" caliber. What I mean by that is that if one used expanding ammunition that actually did, penetration was frequently very lacking. These lightweight bullets and the caliber's limited case capacity combined with the shooting platform's (almost always) straight blowback design prevented ammunition powerful enough to provide adequate penetration and reliable expansion. Thus, a goodly section of the .380 ACP toters opt to use FMJ ammunition. This will penetrate but with no expansion wound channels are small. The idea is that while expansion is desireable, penetration is essential. It is also usually mentioned that FMJ round nose is more reliable than blunter ogive JHP's. (It's been my observation that some guns are extremely reliable with most JHP's while others are not. I do not believe that FMJ is necessarily more reliable than expanding ammo in all 380-caliber pistols. I do not believe it has to be an absolute.)

Shooting: The handguns used in today's informal tests were my old Bersa Thunder 380, which has a 3.5" barrel and is in stock condition. It has had several thousand rounds through it with exactly zero malfunctions. For the .38 Special, I opted for my old BUG, an S&W Model 042. It is not rated for +P ammunition and sports the old J-frame rather than the Magnum J-frame common to current S&W J-frames.
In any event, I was hopeful in finally getting to see a .380 ACP round that might offer its users both adequate penetration and reliable expansion

Likewise, I was hoping to see a .38 Special round loaded to standard pressures that could be used w/o concern in some of the lightweight revolvers not rated for +P loads. In the past, I've seen some light-for-caliber-standard-pressure rounds fired from snubs provide ballistic results similar to the .380. In other words, expansion but 6 1/2 to 7 1/2" penetration. (Speaking only for myself, this is too shallow to be trusted. I can go with 10" penetration and certainly prefer the FBI 12" minimum, but just am not confident with less than 10" penetration in 10% ballistic gelatin.)

One can certainly get adequate penetration coupled with reliable expansion from the snub .38, though it has to be "worked at" with more judicious load selection than for the longer barrel revolvers...but it has to be +P ammunition. Though I've personally experienced no problems with the occassional use of +P ammunition in quality .38 Special revolvers that are not so-rated, some folks really don't like the idea. Others cannot tolerate the increased felt recoil and some just settle on standard pressure solids, with results similar to those of the .380 ACP.

These handguns are essentially stock and both have proven reliable and accurate over the years. The snub sports Precision's black nylon "Hide Out" grips that I modified to work with an HKS speedloader.

Because of the ammunition's price coupled with wanting to focus more on expansion characteristics/potential along with velocity, I only fired 5 rounds from each gun at a bullseye target 10 yards away. Firing was unsupported and with a two-hand hold. There was no effort at speed. It is likely that the vast majority of shootings by honest private citizens will be under 10 yards and I am by no means claiming that the ammuntion is necessarily accurate beyond that distance...though I'll bet it is! (I cannot say that it is because I've never fired Hornady Critical Defense beyond 10 yards, but I suspect strongly that I will not be disappointed when I do get around to it.)

These five shots were fired standing from an unsupported position and in single-action. No effort was made at speed. My goal was to see if this load would group satisfactorily within most self-defense shooting distances for private citizens. I believe that the ammunition is capable of one-hole groups at this distance; I simply am not.

Even though I fired but 5 shots, I still loaded the magazine with a full seven-rounds and topped it off after chambering. Feeding was slick as the proverbial gut in the Bersa. Ejection was positive and consistent.

This Bersa's POA has always matched 90 to 95-gr. .380 ACP POI out to about 15 or 20 yards and I was not surprised today to find that such remains the case with this 90-gr. Critical Defense load.

I did not achieve the listed 1000 ft/sec velocity with my Bersa.

Average velocity was a respectable 911 ft/sec with an extreme velocity spread of but 11 ft/sec and a tiny extreme spread of 5 ft/sec! This is based on 10 shots fired 10 feet from the chronograph screens! In my experience, this is about as consistent of ammunition as one can ever hope to get. Does this mean that the same will be true in all .380 pistols? No, but I'll bet it groups nicely and has pretty darned consistent properties when fired out of any quality 380.

The 110-gr. standard pressure Critical Defense .38 Special loads grouped nicely as well. The shot to the far right was my fault. I knew it when I fired it. It was not due to any inconsistency with the ammunition. Being a DAO revolver, all shots were DA. Like with the Bersa, POA was the center of the bullseye. These light-for-caliber bullets hit immediately below POA. At greater distances, the divergence of POA from POI might be an issue but not at ten yards and under.

Using the same parameters as for the .380 load, the .38 Special load averaged 856 ft/sec with an extreme spread of 33 ft/sec and a standard deviation of only 13 ft/sec. This is very good and very acceptable. It would appear that Hornady's nominal listed velocity of 1175 ft/sec was not measured from firing a snub. I'll eventually get around to chronographing this load from both 4" and 6" revolvers but felt that in today's initial tests, most folks would be interested in what they might expect if using this load in their "carry gun" or snub nose.

Expansion Testing: Not having access to either caliberated 10% ballistic gelatin or a climate-controlled lab in which to achieve repeatable tests with it, I just used the old "wet pack" approach. I used plain old supersaturated news print. I soaked it for 24-hours and then drained it 30 minutes before shooting. Bullet penetration is definitely not the same as for the gelatin, but it seems roughly comparible in showing how a bullet expands. Through trial-and-error and comparing actual, repeated gelatin penetration tests with ammunition in wet pack, it seems that multiplying the penetration in wet pack by 3 and then dividing by 2 gives a pretty fair expectation of what the bullet would do in calibrated 10% gelatin.

Ten shots of each caliber was fired into wet pack from a distance of 5 feet. The depth of each "wound channel" was measured using a probe before retrieving the bullet. The measured height of each expanded bullet was added to each depth to give the true penetration distance from the wet pack surface to the front of the expanded bullet. I didn't have any denim but did fire five of each ten shots per caliber through 4 layers of the common cotton/polyester bathtowel.

Cutting to the chase, expansion was extremely consistent. I could not tell which expanded bullets had punched the towel vs. which had not by looking at the results. Penetration was extremely consistent as well. With the .380, the greatest variation in penetration depths was a surprisingly small 1/10"!

Hornady .380 ACP 90-gr. Critical Defense averaged 6.75" in wet pack. This should be about 10.12" in 10% ballistic gelatin.

The .380 Critical Defense load was amazingly consistent. Note how the two expanded bullets at the right on the box so closely match the pictured ones. Virtually no bullet weight was lost nor were their signs of bullet fragmentation. Average expanded bullet dimensions: 0.469 x 0.474 x 0.337" tall.

Fired from the S&W's 1 7/8" barrel, average penetration of the 110-gr. FTX bullet used in the Critical Defense line of ammo was 7.6". The greatest variation in penetration depths was 6/10". Based on what I saw today, I would expect this load to penetration approximately 11.4 to 12" or so in ballistic gelatin.

The .38 Special load was also very consistent and performed admirably in my opinion. In this picture, I also included the red, pliable material that fills the bullet's hollow point. Because the hollow point cannot be plugged up with debris from an intermediate target, expansion is almost certain to occur. The little red "fillers" were visible in the wet pack "wound tracks" of both the .380 ACP and .38 Special. Average expanded bullet diameter: 0.481 x 0.451 x 0.408" tall.

Conclusion: I believe that Hornady has come up with some pretty darned nice standard pressure ammunition for "serious use" in 380-caliber pistols as well as .38 revolvers. I have not seen any ammunition from any maker that is more consistent and any more likely to expand under varied conditions as this.

Even with its advanced FTX bullet and super-consistent Critical Defense ammunition, I just don't believe that we can transform the .380 or .38 snub into rhino-rolling handguns of nuclear destruction capabilities, i.e.: the FTX bullet isn't magic. That definitely does not mean that it isn't one of the best choices to maximize the ballistic potential of what a given handgun caliber has to offer.

I'll stick with the .38 snub over the .380 ACP but were I using a .380, I might very well go with this load from Hornady. In my opinion, it bests the very nice Corbon .380 DPX but only because Corbon had to use a lighter (80-gr.) bullet due to its being all copper alloy and longer than the lead core bullet used in the Critical Defense load. I am not at all convinced that this line will stand out above other premium ammunition makers' premium, best-quality defense loads.

In the .38 Special snub, for now I'll just stay with the "old technology" LHP +P from Remington. In my guns, it hits point of aim and the load has a pretty nice actual "street record" but if I were worried about the +P thing and was determined to carry an aluminum alloy slug, this would be a standard pressure load that I might very well use.

Best to all.

Monday, December 15, 2008

SIG-Sauer P232 vs. Beretta Model 85 F Cheetah...

Hello. The choice between these two quality .380 pistols will probably be decided by which one feels and looks best to the individual buyer, factors that are admittedly subjective. I am not saying that there's a thing in the world wrong with that but there are some differences that might be worthy of some consideration.

I am not going to get into the "Why-get-a-380-when-there-are-small-9mm/40-caliber-pistols-available?", or the "stopping power" issue. The reason is simple: On the forums, folks asking about specific .380 pistols sometimes put in the request not to go into the 9mm/.40 options, stating that for whatever reasons, they are going with a 380-caliber handgun...and are routinely ignored with the usual Caliber A vs. Calber B arguments which sometimes results in the threads' never getting around to answering the original questions! The thread gets "hijacked" by well-meaning posters arguing over caliber rather than answering the questions originally asked!

With that caveat, let's see what we might see...

The SIG-Sauer P232 is an easy-to-carry .380 ACP that is easy to shoot, accurate and reliable.

SIG-Sauer P232:

LOA: 6.6"
Height: 5.7"
Width: 1.3"
Bbl: 3.6" w/1:10" twist
Weight: (aluminum frame) 18.5 ounces (all stainless) 23.6 ounces. (Both of these weights do not include magazines.)
Magazine Capacity: 7
Magazine Weight (empty): 1.4-oz blued and 1.6 oz-stainless
Internal Firing Pin Safety: Yes
Magazine Disconnect: No
Sights: Fixed
Grips: Black synthetic
Trigger Pull: 10-lbs.(DA) 4.4-lbs (SA)
Decocking Lever: Yes
External Thumb Safety: No

In addition, the gun is available in blue, stainless and two-tone finishes.

The Beretta 85F has proven itself reliable as were its predecessors. The F-Series have the hooked "combat trigger guard. I prefer the more traditional rounded ones.

I much prefer the rounded, "non-combat" trigger guard on the older Beretta Model 85 BB version and the SIG-Sauer P232 to that on the Beretta Model 85 F. The reason is simple; I do not hook a finger on the trigger guard. If you do, your preferences might be just the opposite.

The Model 85F (Cheetah) is described:

LOA: 6.77"
Height: 4.8"
Width: 1.37"
Bbl: 3.81" w/1:10" twist (actually 9.84 but 10" is close enough)
Weight: 21.9-oz
Magazine Capacity: 8 shots
Sights: Fixed
Grips: Black, synthetic
Decocking Lever: Yes
External Thumb Safety: Yes, ambidextrous (Pushing these upward with the pistol cocked will safely decock the hammer and then the pistol cannot be fired until they are pushed downward (ala 1911) to disengage.

Some of the discontinued "B" and "BB" models were offered in either blue or nickle finishes. The current "F" models are available in the dark Brunitron finish which protects against corrosion.

Both the SIG-Sauer and the Beretta can be had with wooden stocks if desired. Both the front and rear grip straps on the Model 85 are serrated. These are smooth on the P232.

The SIG-Sauer P232 can be had in the lightweight aluminum frame/blue slide version or the heavier all-stainless "SL" version. The Beretta is offered only with the lighter aluminum alloy frame.

I do not have information on the DA/SA trigger pulls on the Beretta Model 85F, but to me it is similar to the SIG-Sauer. I do not find enough difference to be of any consequence. If it is of any importance, the P232's trigger face is smooth while the Beretta's is grooved and has a trigger stop. (I find neither trigger face or pull superior to the other in actual use on these pistols.)

The Beretta with its smaller serrated flats seems to generate more complaints about difficulties in racking the slide than the SIG-Sauer's if that is an issue. I find the SIG-Sauer easier to rack, but don't find either a problem. This might not be the case with some of our older folks or those with weaker hands or arms.

While both are "straight blowback" designs, the SIG-Sauer's bbl is fixed to the frame. The Beretta's is not; it is removable during the field-stripping process. That said, I have not been able to determine any accuracy degredation in the Beretta due to its "non-fixed" barrel. It is simply not an issue in my view. Neither is the slight difference in barrel length between the two. Average velocites with factory ammunition have proven very similar between these two little autos.

I've never shot a Beretta Model 84 or 85 that didn't mimick the Walther PP series in that shots hit about 1 1/2 to 2" high for me at ranges of 15 yards or more. (Most folks will not be interested in shooting these "pocket guns" at great distances and at closer ranges, the sights are "on" close enough in my experience.) Unlike shooting the Walthers, I do not suffer either slide or hammer bite with the Beretta or the SIG-Sauer.

For me, the SIG-Sauer P232's in .380 hit "dead on" for me at ranges from arm's length to about 25 yards or so. I much prefer the P232's sight picture to the Beretta's, but that might not be an issue for a pistol intended for close-in use and that was never intended as a formal match pistol.

The following is based on a relatively small number of handguns but I find either the 232 or the Cheetah to be very reliable with ball and JHP ammunition. (Most of the earlier P230's I shot were fine with ball and some were alright with JHP's but not all. I have not shot any Beretta Model 84 or 85 in any version that wasn't reliable with any and all ammunition. I think SIG-Sauer was aware of this issue because while I only own one P232, it's been 100% reliable with all FMJ and JHP ammo as have those owned by other shooters I know.)

If I shoot over about 200 rounds of standard-power .380 in a session with the P232, I do notice a couple of little "wear" areas where the edges of the tang rub my hand. None of this occurs for me with the Berettas in either the M84 or 85 versions.

Which is best? I flat do not know. Both are quality firearms. Between the two, I think I prefer the SIG-Sauer P232 but I don't intend to sell my Beretta 85F either!

I find either easy to shoot accurately in double-action mode and both are a piece-of-cake in single-action. I do not notice any difference in felt recoil between the two.

Sweeping "off" the thumb safety is easily done and comfortable for the Beretta, but it is perfectly safe to carry with the thumb safety disengaged as it has an internal firing pin safety like the P232. Some will opt for the gun having the external safety as it not only offers perhaps another level of safety but might prevent an attacker or unauthorized user from immediately grabbing and firing the pistol. If this is a major concern for you, the Beretta is the way to go as the P232 offers no such external safety; it is a "point-and-pull" design.

Both offer an external slide release.

The Beretta has the magazine release at the rear of the trigger guard like the 1911-pattern pistols, Hi Powers, etc. The SIG-Sauer's is a bottom-release design ala the Makarov and other European designs. (The Model 85F's push-button magazine release is not ambidextrous.)

While the Beretta's is probably quicker in the event of a speed magazine change, the SIG-Sauer's is considered less like to inadvertently release the magazine as might happen were the pistol sat on or carried tightly against the body. Again, what is actually "important" will be up to the individual buyer's perceptions.

I seldom carry pistols of this genre but were I depending upon a .380 for "serious purposes", I would absolutely not doubt the mechanical ability of either of these, though between the two, I would probably go with the P232, simply because I much prefer its sight picture and that POA matches POI for me better than the Beretta. (It is possible that this will not hold true for all or that it just won't be an issue for many.)

Again, speaking only for myself, I doubt that I'd pick the heavier all-stainless P232 and in my admittedly subjective observations, I don't find either the aluminum-framed P232 or Model 85 difficult to carry nor do I find one to have a "real world" advantage over the other in this regard. (Were I concerned with rust and corrosion, I'd go with the Brunitron finish on the Beretta.)

Hand-cycling ammunition through both guns seems to result in more positive ejection of the cartridges with the Beretta than the SIG-Sauer but in actual firing, both fling the fired cases well away from the shooter. Both use external, pivoting extractors and I've not noted one being better or tougher than the other.

Unlike the 1911, there is not a literal cottage industry of aftermarket parts for either of these well-made pistols, but both remain in production and OEM parts as well as aftermarket grips and recoil springs are available, as are extra single-stack magazines.

As mentioned earlier, I think that the choice between one or the other of these two pistols is not a choice between quality but between the guns' individual features as well as the buyer's subjective preferences. Either of these guns are well-made and quality firearms in my opinion.

In my opinion, a potential .380 buyer would find it difficult to pick a "loser" between these two.