What are your favorite loads for self-protection? First, I'm not a terminal ballistician, but I will give you what I think are good loads per caliber based on informal expansion/penetration "tests" I've run and based on what I've seen when the load is used on animals from jackrabbits to Texas whitetail deer. Where I can, I'll relate information on how these loads have worked on people based on discussions with the shooters. I'm told that such accounts are "anecdotal" and "statistically invalid" due to the low number of these events in which I actually got to visit with the shooters. You make your own decisions as to what's valid, wrong, or "anecdotal." I don't really use anything below .380 ACP for "serious" purposes and consider it the absolute least for defensive use. That said, in informal tests with both .25 ACP and .32 ACP, I've had very consistent results with Hornady's factory XTP loads in these two calibers.
This Hornady .25 ACP 35-gr XTP was fired into water from a Beretta 950 pistol. It's average velocity from that pistol was 996 ft/sec. Were I going to use a .25, I'd look at this bullet and also check penetration a bit more than I have so far. With the .25, 50-gr FMJ might be about as good as anything as extremely good placement is required; I'm not sure that expansion combined with velocities in the twenty-five's range will make much difference. Hornady XTP ammo has worked well for me from an old Walther PP in .32 ACP, and would probably be my choice in that caliber.
.380 ACP: Reliability is essential in any defensive arm and some of the small automatics don't have it 100% with other than FMJ bullets. One that has a very similar ogive is Federal Classic 90-gr JHP. For those using pistols in which the frame is an aluminum alloy and part of the feed ramp system, the rounded Federal JHP is also less likely to ding up the ramp compared to some of the more blunt JHP rounds. This round is generally found without much trouble.
This Federal 90-gr Classic JHP was fired into "scientific" mud and expansion was achieved. It's performed about the same in both water and "wet pack," bundled newsprint soaked for about a day in water. I have shot a few critters like rabbits and raccoons with it and it did expand in the few cases where bullets were recovered. Average velocity for this load is from about 960 ft/sec from 3.5" barrels to just over 1000 ft/sec from the slightly longer ones. I have no figures for the extremely short barrel .380 pistols.
These .380 rounds were fired into water. The 85-gr Magtech Guardian Gold did not expand and is shown at the bottom. Remington 102-gr Golden Saber is shown at the upper left and Hornady's 90-gr XTP at the right. These are also very viable choices for the three-eighty in my view. I've NOT shot any animals with either and have no comments from anyone using them defensively. Were I picking a protection load for a .380 pistol, it would probably come from either the Federal, Remington, or Hornady. Both the Remington and the Hornady average about 930 ft/sec from a CZ-83. I have not had particularly good reliability with Federal 90-gr Hydrashok ammunition. Assuming that it feeds in your gun(s), it might also be a candidate for a defensive round. Placement is going to be more important that bullet "performance" in this caliber.
The .380 JHP probably has enough penetration for face-to-face scenarios, but I do have some concerns with its ability to adequately penetrate a human torso if an intermediate target like an arm is encountered.
Were I using a three-eighty with a really short barrel, I'd probably try Corbon's 90-gr +P JHP. From the 3.5 to 3.8" guns I've fired it from, average velocity has always been over 1000 ft/sec and breaks 1100 ft/sec from the longer barrel. This one was recovered from water.
9x18mm Makarov: Not offered from Winchester, Remington, or Federal, this caliber is loaded from Speer in their Gold Dot Hollow Point, around I've not "tested." Hornady and Corbon used to offer it, but no longer do so. If you can find ammunition from either of those, I'd pick the one that shot the best and was reliable. (Usually, the reliability is not an issue in the Makarov pistols.)
Hornady's 95-gr XTP averages about 938 ft/sec from the Makarov and has proven very reliable. This one was fired into mud. Tests in water as well indicate that it does expand a bit more than XTP's in other calibers. Like the .380 JHP's, expanding 9mm Makarov rounds might be limited for other than head-on, unobstructed shots. It is not a +P load. Corbon's 95-gr JHP is rated +P and averages just under 1100 ft/sec from my Maks.
A 9x18mm round that can be found and inexpensively is Barnaul's 95-gr JHP. It has fed flawlessly in two Makarovs I've fired it through. It is one of the few rounds that is steel-cased I'll use. Accuracy has been surprisingly good as well, but I have not shot anything with it. From the Makarov, it averages between about 1030 and 1060 ft/sec. In my own informal "testing," it's reliably expanded as the one shown demonstrates. It was fired into water. I suspect it'll penetrate in the same general range as would the Hornady or Corbon. Some folks opine that FMJ is the way to go in the smaller calibers and I agree that there's some merit in these arguments since we cannot predetermine the angle at which an adversary might be shot.
.38 Special (snub): In the snub-nose revolvers, I still lean strongly to the plain, old lead hollow point as offered by Winchester, Remington, and Federal. All are +P loads and none are particularly pleasant to shoot, but I don't find them as "bad" as is commonly mentioned when fired from the lightweight revolvers.
These cannot be used in the super-lightweight titanium revolvers as lead bullets tend to unseat themselves and S&W specifically warns against their use. I tried this for myself and they're telling the truth. My current first choice is Remington's 158-gr LSWCHP +P. It averages right at 800 ft/sec from my S&W Model 642 and a little faster from another J-frame. It's expanded well for me when fired into water and wet pack. I have spoken with two men who used this load against felons from snubs and in both cases, the bad guys went down with one chest hit each.
This Remington lead hollow point was fired from a Model 642 and averages 800 ft/sec. It was fired into super-saturated newsprint (wet pack) and expanded to 0.58 x 0.55" and was 0.51" tall. It weighed 156.3 grains.
Some folks object to this load for protection as the bullet frequently fails to expand when fired through 4-layers of denim. They recommend the lightly loaded 148-gr target wadcutter. I disagree. My opponent might not be wrapped like a denim tamale and I cannot see going with a light load that's guaranteed not to expand under any circumstance from one that very well might expand under many.
Though recently discontinued, a standard pressure load that I have tried and recommend is Federal 125-gr Nyclad hollow point. This load has expanded nicely in all informal testing I've done and has worked very well on a couple of armadillos I shot with it. It will not penetrate as much as the previously mentioned 158-gr load, but should be a bit "better" than the .380 JHP ammo in this regard. If neither of these loads is acceptable and you want +P, I'd look at Golden Saber, Corbon, and Remington. I've not done too much "work" in this area, as I'm satisfied with the lead hollow point.
I'd probably use the lead hollow point in 4" revolvers as well. Those more involved in truly scientific testing advise that it does expand after passing through the denim into ballistic gelatin at the longer barrel revolver's increased velocity.
9 x 19mm: Probably, the best load in this caliber is Winchester's 127-gr +P+ Ranger law enforcement load. Winchester markets this only to law enforcement, but there's no federal law against its use by private citizens. As a result, it is a heavily sought after round. It works well from short barrel 9mm pistols as well as standard service size handguns.
Winchester 127-gr +P+ has proven to be a very reliable expander despite intermediate barriers. I've also found it to be very consistent shot to shot in terms of velocity in several pistols. This one was fired into water from a CZ-75 and averaged 1285 ft/sec at the muzzle. From a Browning Hi Power, I got about 1269 ft/sec and from a Glock 26, 1246 ft/sec.
If you cannot use this ammunition and prefer +P ammo, I'd look at Remington's 115-gr JHP +P. It usually averages about 1250 ft/sec from 4" guns and feeds well. The same company's 124-gr Golden Saber +P usually averages just under 1200 ft/sec and expands well in my experience. Corbon's 115-gr +P JHP uses the violently expanding Sierra Power Jacket Hollow Point bullet and averages about 10" of penetration in 10% ballistic gelatin. Some opine that this is too shallow. I spoke with one man who has used that load more than once and it worked well for him from both a Beretta 92 and a Glock 19. If you prefer heavier bullets, Remington 147-gr Golden Saber would be high on my list as would Speer's Gold Dot in the same weight. I have not tried Hornady's 147-gr XTP at 9mm velocities. Winchester also offers their Ranger law enforcement only bullet in this weight and it is not rated +P.
I have shot quite a few animals with Corbon's 115-gr JHP +P and it has proven effective. I used the handloaded near equivalent on Texas whitetail deer and it worked fine on the three that I shot. All were "stopped" with one shot each. Advertised at 1350 ft/sec by the company, it's provided at least that much velocity from my Brownings and CZ pistols.
Though this 115-gr Corbon JHP broke 1400 ft/sec, most of the time it averages about 1380 ft/sec from my Hi Powers.
A newer round that's also +P and designed to expand, penetrate to about 12," and feed reliably is Corbon 100-gr "PowRball." It resembles the Glaser Safety Slug, but is not a prefragmented round. It expands well after passing through various barriers.
These two PowRball rounds were fired from a Browning Mk III Hi Power. The round on the left was fired into water and recovered. The jacket and fragment on the right were also from a PowRball shot into water although the bullet was not found. The expanded PowRball in the middle was fired into mud. I believe that this load offers great potential as a defense load for private citizens.
If you prefer standard pressure loads for your defensive 9mm, I'd go with Federal 115-gr JHP, Remington's non-+P version of the 124-gr Golden Saber or Speer's 124-gr Gold Dot. I've used the first of these on several animals and it did the trick, but I do believe that in 9mm, +P is the better choice.
While I've not used this load on anything living nor have any information from survivors who have, I've gotten good test results with Hornady's 124-gr XTP sold under the "CQ" moniker. Hornady told me that in 9mm, there is no difference between the "CQ Tap" version and their "Custom" line of ammunition.
This Hornady124-gr XTP has worked well for me in tests of their factory ammunition, but I have not used any at the speeds offered in this standard pressure load. This one was fired into water from a CZ-75 and averaged 1153 ft/sec. Ammunition from the same box did 1100 ft/sec from a Glock 26. I've read that this load sometimes fails to expand well after passing through 4 layers of denim. I've used the same bullets at higher velocities on many animals including one deer. From rabbits to javelina to deer, it's worked very well for me and the bullet has proven capable of exceptional accuracy.
.40 S&W: Not a favorite caliber of mine, I have tried several loads through both a Browning Hi Power and a CZ-75. My picks would be Remington's 165-gr Golden Saber followed by Winchester 155-gr Silvertip. The Golden Saber averaged right at 1100 ft/sec from both guns with the Silvertip averaging 1164 ft/sec from the Hi Power and 1197 ft/sec from the CZ. I have not shot any animals with this caliber.
.44 Special: I have done no testing of ammunition from less than a 3" barrel in this caliber. While others have had good luck with Speer's Blazer 200-gr Gold Dot, results have been less than spectacular for me. I've only "tested" the load in water and expansion was minimal. Right now, my .44 Special is loaded with Corbon 180-gr +P JHP. This is older ammunition and the bullet used was the Hornady XTP.
Fired into water, this +P .44 Special 180-gr XTP expanded to about .58" and lost very little weight. These are in my revolver as this is written.
Standard pressure loads from Winchester and Federal can be had in .44 Special, but I've not tried them.
.45 ACP: I have not worked with this caliber in barrels shorter than 4.25" and prefer at least that length barrel in this caliber, usually going with a full 5" gun in a 1911. There are many capable loads available in "forty-five automatic." My personal choice as "best" is again Winchester's Ranger line. My defensive forty-fives are loaded with this is the standard pressure form.
Fired into water from a 5" 1911, these RA45T Winchester LEO loads expanded to about .80" and lost virtually no weight. In 4.25 to 5" barrels, velocities are normally in the 850-ft/sec range. This is my first choice as a defense load in this caliber and in barrels of at least 4."
I've also had good luck with Federal Classic 230-gr JHP. It's a standard pressure load that has provided reasonable expansion and has been reliable in a number of forty-five caliber handguns. The 230-gr Hydrashok has been popular for years. Even though it does not often "pass" the denim "test" so often applied these days; the round's been both accurate and reliable in the pistols I've shot it through. Its worked well on animals I've seen shot with it.
This 230-gr Hydrashok expanded well when fired from a 5" 1911 at an average velocity of about 840 ft/sec.
Corbon offers their +P 165-gr PowRball in this caliber and with its hardball-like profile; it feeds well in any pistol that will handle ball. Out of a 5" barrel, it usually does about 1220 ft/sec and just under 1200 ft/sec from the 4.25" guns. I've had zero problems with it in terms of either accuracy or reliability and its expansion has been very good in my limited testing. Current lots of PowRball have proven more consistent, shot to shot, in my testing than did early run ammo.
Fired into "scientific mud," from the left we see Winchester 230-gr RA45T. In the top center is Remington's 230-gr Golden Saber. At the right is Corbon's 165-gr PowRball. It is designed to penetrate about 12" of 10% ballistic gelatin.
This 200-gr Hornady XTP handload was fired into mud. The factory equivalent averages about 950 ft/sec from a 5" 1911 and provides similar performance. I used this load on a deer last year and it gave complete, broad side penetration. It's been my experience that the XTP bullets seem to perform pretty consistently, regardless of caliber. Hornady factory ammunition has uniformly been very accurate in the pistols I've tried it in.
Right now, these are the loads that I'd be picking from were I choosing a defensive load in any of the calibers mentioned. More important than expansion and whether or not a bullet "works" under this or that special scenario remains reliability and placement in my opinion.