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.