Understanding Bullets, Handguns, and the Best Choice For You
Last Updated: 3/13/2012
Understanding Bullets, Handguns, and the Best Choice For You
By Tara Dixon Engel
(Author's note: this article discusses some “indelicate” realities of handgun use; i.e. the importance of selecting a gun/caliber that will do the necessary amount of physical damage if your firearm is being used in a self-defense capacity. For those who are squeamish about such things, this is a warning that I don't sugarcoat it.)
In previous articles, we have discussed options for concealed carry guns and weighed the pros and cons of pistols versus revolvers. We thought it might be useful to detail additional considerations for selecting a handgun (or, more accurately, a handgun caliber).
Folks come into the shop every day with dozens, if not hundreds, of questions about the best gun for their needs. Experience, of course, is the best teacher: If you have a friend who owns one of the guns you are considering, ask for a demo! Unfortunately, it is rare that a gun shop can allow customers to “test drive” a firearm. Like sampling a restaurant's menu items before you order, it sounds great in theory but isn't really feasible on a regular basis. So, the next best option is to understand the rules of thumb that accompany the process of choosing a firearm.
We've assembled a few key points below, knowing full well that none of these are written in stone, and, yes, there are exceptions (or, at least, arguments to be made) to each and every point. The bottom line is that a pistol and a caliber that fits YOU – your budget, your hand, your frame and your needs – is always the best choice. Listen to the opinion of others but don't allow them to dictate your choices. Educate yourself.
Choosing Your Handgun
Larger, heavier pistols tend to be more accurate than smaller ones, due to their fit in the hand, their reduced recoil (because the weight of the gun tends to absorb more recoil and reduce muzzle flip) and stability, and their longer sight plane courtesy of the longer barrel (i.e. the longer the barrel, the more accurate the gun – hence the long barrel on most target pistols).
Smaller pistols are going to be easier to conceal and lighter to carry, but may also have a more violent recoil.
Smaller calibers (such as .22 and .380) generally mean less recoil, which, in turn, means faster and more accurate follow-up shots, but typically, less energy and force (this is one of those rules that is easily disputed, in part. Most of the small, polymer-framed .380s – such as the Ruger LCP, Taurus TCP and Kel-Tec P3AT – are infinitely concealable, but not especially pleasant to shoot with regard to recoil). Never assume that small and light means comfortable, even with the smaller calibers.
Larger calibers (.40s and .45s for example) inflict more damage per bullet. They also tend to have a greater recoil (although, again, the larger the gun, the more comfortable the shoot – to a point.)
Revolvers tend to be more reliable and simpler to use than semi-autos.
Determine basic point-shoot capabilities of the gun: With an unloaded gun, close your eyes
and point the gun in a safe direction with your finger extended along the frame beside the trigger, but not on it, at a makeshift target. Open your eyes — the sights should be lined up almost exactly where you want them to be. At five yards, it should be no more than a couple inches off center-target. If the point is too far off, you might want to consider a different handgun.
Selecting A Caliber
This is another quandary which often pits some of the best and most knowledgeable gun experts
against each other.
Remember that no bullet (and no gun) is perfect, so consider both the benefits and drawbacks. Those who study handgun bullet ballistics have concluded that, comparatively, handgun rounds are fairly weak, and that bullet placement (i.e. penetration in relation to blood-bearing organs) is a much more reliable fight-stopper than the qualities of the round itself. That's not to say there aren't some advantages to one round over another, and, when your life is at stake, the advantage should always be yours.
Here are some considerations as you select a caliber.
Penetration is extremely important. If a bullet does not penetrate deeply enough, vital organs and the nervous system are less likely to be damaged. In the late 1990s the FBI conducted extensive studies which suggest a bullet should penetrate at least 14-16 inches to be reliable (for more details on this study, see the blog article titled “Burn Notice, Bullets and Balderdash”). This allows bullets to enter a body at less than optimal angles and still have enough energy to reach vital organs.
Permanent cavity is the opening in a fleshy target where the majority of a bullet's energy was transferred and tissue was destroyed. The larger the permanent cavity, the greater the chance of vital organs or central nervous system being damaged or destroyed.
Recoil is something that is often not talked about in bullet ballistics because it is a very
weapon-specific characteristic. Low recoil allows you put place more shots quicker and more accurately, but each individual feels recoil a little differently, and each handgun will transfer the recoil in different ways.
Bullet energy is an over-emphasized element of a handgun round. Handgun bullet energy is actually quite low, and the myth of "knock down power" was created by Hollywood because it is more dramatic to show people being thrown backwards when they are shot. Indeed, shooting victims are frequently “knocked down” not by the kinetic energy of the bullet but by their own preconceived notion that they are supposed to fall down when shot. The amount of energy will contribute to the first three points positively and negatively. The first three points on the other hand are all competing against each other in the search for a perfect bullet. If a low-recoil round with deep penetration and a massive permanent cavity were available, no other handgun bullet would be needed.
A comparison of the most common semi-automatic handgun rounds:
22 LR – one of the lightest rounds found in handguns, the .22 LR (stands for Long Rifle) can certainly be lethal – the Mafia uses a .22 for its hits. The bullets tend to tumble, thus making them very destructive when delivered at point-blank range. However, since most of us (thankfully) are not budding hit men, the .22 performs far less lethally when fired at someone from a distance of 8 feet or more. As one of the Olde English gun goobers is fond of saying “a .22 can kill you...it just may take a week or two.” And thus, there are better options for self defense guns. .22s are great target guns and great guns to help beginners get used to firing a handgun. They are not recommended for personal protection, and most CCW classes will not allow students to qualify using a .22 (exceptions are sometimes made for individuals with physical conditions that limit their ability to use a more powerful round.)
.380 – .380s are popular concealed carry guns and the rounds are fairly effective for self defense purposes. A .380 is a lighter round than a 9 mm but only marginally. Sometimes called a “9 mm short” .380s are the same diameter as a 9 mm but are 17 mm versus 19 mm (so they are referred to as 9x17 versus the 9x19 rounds described below.) In larger or heavier .380 handguns – such as the Sig Sauer P238 or the Walther PK380, this round is very comfortable to shoot.
9mm parabellum AKA 9 mm NATO round or 9 mm luger or 9x19 or, simply, 9 mm – is the most common pistol caliber. Its relatively low recoil allows for quick, accurate follow-up shots. The magazine capacity is usually much greater than other larger rounds (consider the Springfield XDM which holds 19 rounds in its full-sized model). The cost of ammunition is very reasonable (50 rounds of Blazer round-nose cartridges at Olde English will run you $9.99) and the availability is excellent, making the 9mm an attractive choice for proficiency and pleasure shooting. Finally, there are excellent higher pressure (+P rated) and critical defense loads available, allowing for efficient and effective self defense shooting.
.40 S&W – is another common caliber with performance characteristics somewhere between the
9mm Para and .45 ACP. It has gained a large following in law enforcement agencies and, more recently, in the United States military. After almost 20 years using 9 mm rounds, the Armed Forces are now shifting over to .40s. Among other benefits, the flat nose of the round has shown to create larger temporary cavities and also to allow the energy to transfer at a quicker rate, thus creating a sizable permanent cavity.
.45 ACP – uses heavier, wider bullets than the 9mm at somewhat lower velocity. The caliber lends
itself to use with sound suppressors due to the fact that a standard round (230 grain) is subsonic
under almost all circumstances. The permanent cavity (on ballistics gel) of a jacketed hollow point (JHP) .45 is about 40% larger than JHP 9mm. Recoil is more severe than the 9mm, and magazine capacity tends to be much lower. Most law enforcement officers will say (referring to a point-blank gun fight), if you don't hit them in the first three bullets, you aren't going to hit them. So, large capacity
magazines mean less than you may think.
There are many other calibers which have not been mentioned here. .38 Special, .357 Magnum, and .44 Magnum are common revolver cartridges. The 357SIG (a 9mm bullet in a necked-down .40 cal casing) and 10 mm auto are also somewhat prevalent autoloader calibers.
Choosing Your Bullets
Bullet choice should be a big consideration while carrying or for home defense. As with calibers, there
is no perfect bullet type. There are some that are better than others, but everything has its trade offs.
Jacketed hollow-point (JHP) bullets are almost universally considered the best choice for
defense ammunition. Other expanding designs such as Federal EFMJ and Cor-Bon DPX are
also effective. But it has been proven that JHP and other expanding rounds at handgun
velocity are unreliable, to say the least, to the point that subsonic rounds are less than 50% likely to
expand fully. Another controversy with hollow-point rounds is that when the round expands it
creates larger permanent and temporary cavities, but because of the faster energy transfer it
reduces the penetration depth (remember that the FBI defines penetration as the most important aspect of making an effective shot.). The author was recently viewing a Hornady promotional flyer for police departments that showed with stunning clarity (via ballistic gel graphics) the difference that the right bullet can make with regard to penetration and expansion.
Solid FMJ bullets do not have the problem of losing their energy as quickly and are known
for penetrating through barriers and still piercing deep enough into flesh to arrive at vital
organs. The permanent cavity is reduced in size (compared to JHPs).
Federal Hydra-shok is a bullet which looks like a standard JHP from many angles, but inside
the front cavity there is a "spear". This allows the bullet to open up and still pierce through
some things. When it was first created this design led the industry, but most will say that
improved standard JHP designs have since caught up.
Reverse-tapered hollow point is a unique kind of bullet. The hole in the bullet increases in
diameter as it descends through the bullet. The design allows for some penetration through hard
objects without opening. When the bullet does open it folds open into separate sections which
are held together by the jacketing.
Soft-tip JHP is a very vague description for any type of JHP which has a filling in the hole (it
may be polymer or other hard material). This allows the bullet to pierce some objects or to
travel through soft things (like clothes or flesh) for a period of time before opening up, allowing
for deeper penetration. There are alternate names for such bullets, like ballistic-tip or V-Max.
This is arguably the most versatile bullet. It will easily penetrate heavy clothing while retaining
its ability to expand in a soft target. Hornady's Critical Defense rounds and Zombie loads are great examples of very effective polymer-tipped bullets.
Bullet weight is another thing to consider. For the novice, that notation on your box of ammo indicating the number of grains (for example 124 or 115 in typical 9 mm range rounds) does not have anything to do with gunpowder or propellant. It refers to the weight of the bullet (or projectile) itself.
In general, lighter bullets have higher velocities than heavier ones, so over shorter distances (less than 100 yards) lighter bullets have flatter trajectories. The problem with light bullets is that against soft targets they lose their energy with less resistance than heavier bullets. It has been proven that extremely light bullets can even be stopped by very heavy clothing. A general rule is during summer, any bullet will work, but while light is nice for ballistic reasons; during the winter, when people are wearing heavy clothes, heavy bullets are superior.
A light 9mm bullet would be 115 grains. And a heavy bullet would be 147 grains.
A light .40 would be 135 grains, and heavy .40 would be 180 grains.
A light .45 would be 165 grains. But a 230 grain would likely be better for almost any purpose
in a .45; even heavier bullets such as 250 grain are also available.
Powder loads can change a bullet's ballistics and the gun's feel. Standard loads are always recommended for most guns, but some guns like Glock and H&K specify their ability to fire “hot
loads.” Most H&K pistols come with a dual-stage recoil spring which helps with felt recoil as
well as recoil shock to internal components. This allows H&K to shoot +P (hot powder load)
and +P+ (very hot powder load) without a problem. Other guns may need a spring replacement
or other changes. The hotter loads allow for more muzzle energy and velocity as well as better
reliability since the slide will be racked harder with the extra energy (less chance of limp-wristing
Practicing with the ammunition you intend to use for self defense can get expensive. You
should fire some of your critical defense rounds in order to make sure your firearm cycles reliably with them. I've heard people recommend 200 rounds, which won't be cheap. I would lean toward 100 rounds, with some additional shooting time thrown in if you detect any problems or potential problems.
Some pistols are picky about “feeding” certain JHP bullet shapes. For general practice you can use FMJ to keep it cheap, but consider using the same weight (grains) bullets and, if possible, the same load
(Standard, +P, etc) because rapid-fire cycles can change drastically with different weight and
Pistol Accessories to Consider
Shoppers at Olde English are always inquiring about accessories. Many novices believe that a laser sight is going to provide not only more accuracy but a greater “fear factor” for any potential intruder who sees that little red (or green) dot dancing across his chest or forehead. Well, maybe...
There are two schools of thought on lasers. They are certainly helpful when you are practicing and can be useful in a personal defense situation. But do not depend on them for targeting (in a moment of high stress high adrenaline you may not even remember how to activate the laser, let alone have time to target it) or to scare someone. Let's face it, if this individual has chosen a lifestyle that involves entering other people's homes at night and stealing their stuff, they probably don't scare real easy to begin with.
My first piece of advice is to never buy a gun or any firearms accessory to scare someone. If you are not prepared to pull the trigger and potentially hurt or kill another human being, then the gun will be taken away from and used against you. Once you are comfortable with the idea of actually using your weapon, here are some of the possible accessories to consider.
1. Night sights are a welcome addition to any conceal carry or duty weapon. It allows the user
to sight targets in low- or no-light situations. The problem with any night sights used in
nearing dusk, or early morning, when there is not enough light to adequately illuminate the
white rings, and it is too bright to see the tritium, at this point the sights are very difficult to
accurately line up. But any darker (when most shootings take place) the night sights are very
visible. For aging eyes (like mine unfortunately), the night sights are more difficult to see during the day. I actually replaced them on my Sig with standard three-dot sights.
2. Tactical, attached lights are not only able to light whole rooms, but can also give bad guys
a short period of blindness. The problem is that they add weight to the gun, and can potentially throw off its balance and stability. Some argue that they also give the bad guy a nice easy target to aim at (but honestly, just try looking at the light for a few seconds — they may know in what direction to shoot, but they won't see what they are shooting at). Buying a cheaper light will almost guarantee it breaking after a while. For a duty or concealed weapon, this can be left off, but for home defense use, it may be a very good thing to always identify your target before taking action. Also, a separate hand-held light can do most of what an attached light can do, and you can extend your arm outward and away from your body when holding the light – this way, if the intruder shoots at the light bearer, he will likely avoid hitting body mass.
3. Trigger work is another tempting modification that many people do to their pistols.
Lightening the trigger pull, or shortening the length of the pull is great for target shooting
or match shooting, but a trigger pull that is less than three pounds can quickly become unsafe if
you are carrying the gun a lot. A lighter trigger can also help a lot with quick follow up shots, making them more accurate. This is a change that should only be made to the gun if the trigger pull is grossly
heavy or long.
4. Rubber slip-on grips can make your handgun more comfortable. This is often a good thing,
and for people with very large hands, it is a must to allow for a solid fit on the grip. The grips
have problems though. They can move, this can affect accuracy and require constant adjustment. Most tactical-style handguns have groves and hatches in the grip to allow a firm grip even with sweaty hands; the rubber makes the gun a bit slippery when sweaty. Additional maintenance is also required, as sweat and dirt will build up under the grip, which require the rubber to be taken off and the grip and rubber washed thoroughly. If you have large hands, or, for a gun which has a very uncomfortable grip, try rubber grips.
And, finally, when do purchase and begin using that handgun, remember to CLEAN it. This includes generous helpings of oil. Your pistol is a machine and it requires oil in order for the parts to function in tandem smoothly. We frequently hear from folks who have purchased a new gun and are happily putting the first 100 rounds through it when, suddenly, “it's broken.” “It's just not feeding or ejecting properly,” we hear. And, typically, when we take the gun into the work room and examine it, we find that it is bone dry.
You know what happens to your car without oil... Well, apply that same principle to your handgun. If you are just an occasional plinker, most of the popular gun oils will meet your needs so long as you use them regularly. If you shoot frequently, competitively, and/or for long periods of time, you will likely need something with higher viscosity that isn't going to burn off as the barrel heats up. At Olde English, we like Wilson gun oil; you may want to experiment and/or ask your friends about their favorites. But the bottom line is that you can save yourself a trip to the gunsmith and a lot of frustration by properly oiling your handgun – unless it slips out of your hand while you're firing it, it's not over-oiled.
And, as far as “the best way to clean my gun” is concerned, it is incredibly subjective. Everyone we know has a slightly different way to do it. Below are a series of steps recommended by a Master NRA instructor (one of only a handful in the country). This is a starting point not an iron clad set of rules. You may modify it depending on your preference, your firearm and whether your buddy who shoots regularly thinks it's lame. All that really matters is that you clean it!
1).Disassemble the gun.
2).Spray the slide with One Shot.
3).Dip a wire brush in Hoppes or other bore solvent and run it through the bore.
4).Run a dry patch through the bore (until it emerges free of black gunk.)
5).Use a patch to wipe down the plastic body of the gun and the interior of the slide etc.
6).Apply lubricating gun oil in the slide (on the side rails) and the front rails in the body of the gun and on the barrel.
7).Reassemble the gun.
8).Spray exterior with G-96 or One Shot and rub all over the gun.
9).Wipe down the exterior of the gun with a chamois cloth and put away.
Note: for those of you trying to be gentle to mother nature, there are a number of “green” gun cleaning formulas available. Be sure and ask your friendly Olde English salesman – or woman – about these.
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