When choosing a load for self defense, there are several things that are more important than the actual load in the gun that should be addressed. Reliability is the most important factor in deciding on what load to put in your gun. A gun that will not reliably feed your chosen defensive round is useless as a defensive tool. Choose a round that feeds reliably in your gun and test it out extensively. Shot placement is still far more important than the load you choose. A hit in the vitals will do far more damage than a miss with the latest and greatest bullet design. The third tier of choosing what to put in your gun is actually wading through the choices out there to find an acceptable defensive load for your specific application. An acceptable defensive load is one where the bullet penetrates far enough to do damage when it comes in contact with tissue, but not so far as to over-penetrate without transferring its energy to the tissue. An acceptable defensive load will also ideally feature the greatest achievable spreading out (mushrooming) of the bullet for that specific caliber. For the sake of this article, we will be using the FBI standards of 12 inches of penetration of ballistic gelatin and expansion to the largest diameter possible in order to cause the largest possible wound channel. A standard which most experts support wholeheartedly.
The .22 Long Rifle is one of the most popular cartridge in the world and one of the most popular chamberings for a pocket pistol or revolver. The most important consideration in picking which .22LR load is the reliability of this notoriously finicky round in your gun. Some semi-automatic handguns do not work well with standard velocity ammo and some do not like the high-velocity loads. Luckily, the low cost of this round will allow you to practice enough to ensure you have chosen a compatible load, and perhaps as important, allow you (the shooter) to hone your skills with your handgun, ensuring adequate shot placement when the need arises. Barrel length also may play a role in ammunition selection. The popular CCI Stinger high-velocity 32-grain copper-plated hollow point round (64515) is a good choice in short (2 1/2 inches) barreled guns, but may expand and fail to penetrate when fired from a longer barrel. Conversely, the Remington Viper (41059) with its non-expanding 36-grain truncated cone bullet is probably a good choice for those with longer barrels as it creates a larger diameter permanent cavity than a lead round nose bullet design. So the picking of a defensive .22LR round is fairly simple: 1. Find a load that you and your gun like. 2. Practice, practice, practice, practice!
The popular .380ACP round brings a bit more firepower to the table, but the drawbacks to most defensive bullet designs in this chambering are the lack of expansion with penetration. Most experts will advise sticking with a quality FMJ loading such as Remington's Express 95-grain (66254), Speer’s Lawman 95-grain (AMM-3201) or Federal's American Eagle 95-grain (65979). However, some still will recommend JHP ammo, such as Hornady's 90-grain XTP bullet loading (87503) as a quality, expanding .380 ACP defensive round. The offerings from Buffalo Bore are very popular with .380 Auto owners that are looking for the ultimate in velocity. The Buffalo Bore 100 grain Hard Cast (80749) is a good standard pressure load the +P Hard Cast load (80745)is rated at 1160 fps!
The .38 Special has an interesting problem of being offered in revolvers of many different barrel lengths, making the choice of loadings more difficult. A solid, acceptable choice that meets our standards for any revolver from snub-nosed to target length, is Speer's 135-grain +P Gold Dot load (13649). This load is specifically designed with snub-nosed revolvers in mind, but be careful to ensure that your gun is rated by the manufacturer for the higher pressure +P cartridge. Cor-Bon's DPX 110-grain +P offering (15503) and Buffalo Bore's TAC-XP ( 82108), both with a solid copper, lead-free bullet are good performers out of snub-nosed small-frame .38 specials. As is the Winchester PDX1 130 Grain +P ( 3-0310545). In revolvers with barrels over four inches pick Remington's Classic Express (66333) +P with 158-grain lead hollow point bullet. This "FBI load" is a tried and true choice. The traditional full wadcutter is also an extremely effective bullet design, as seen in Federal ( 2-FEGM38A) and Winchester ( 6-0300742) 148 grain ammo. Either of these would be a good option in any sized revolver.
Stepping up to the 9mm brings true defensive stopping power into the picture, with many acceptable defensive designs and loadings. Once again, we can turn to Speer for their Gold Dot ammo, both in a +P 124-grain weight (15827) and a standard pressure load ( 7-A23618). The Cor-Bon DPX 115-grain +P (15500) and the Remington Golden Saber Bonded 124 grain +P ( AMM-456) are both excellent loads with proven records, as is the heavier 147-grain Remington Golden Saber (AMM-415) and the 147-grain Gold Dot (63228) in a standard-pressure offering. If you have a short-barrel, consider the 124-grain Speer Gold Dot (15826) for your compact 9mm.
The .40S&W is currently the most popular police duty round, which means there are plenty of excellent defensive loads to pick from that meet the standards we are using. Cor-Bon's 140-grain (15504) utilizes the Barnes all-copper DPX bullet, as does the Buffalo Bore TAC-XP (82112). The 155-grain (63232) and the 180 grain (AMM-5354) are both great designs from Speer's Gold Dot line. Remington's Golden Saber in the 180-grain load is another solid choice (AMM-542) in carry ammo, as is the Winchester PDX1 ( 57961). If you have a compact .40 S&W pistol with a shorter barrel, you might pick up a box or two of Speer's 180-grain ( 2-CCI23974) Gold Dot Short Barrel ammunition as it was designed with shorter barrels in mind.
As for .45ACP, good defensive loads that meet the previously mentioned FBI standard are, once again, Cor-Bon's 185-grain DPX (15506), Buffalo Bore TAC-XP (82230), Speer's 230-grain Gold Dot in standard pressure (63236) and the 200 Grain Gold Dot in +P 7-A23969). These loads are ideal for your 5-inch barrel or longer .45 Auto. For a four-inch or shorter barrel pistol, the 230-grain Gold Dot Short Barrel (15833) is the prefered load.
Whichever round you choose, remember to test it out in your gun to ensure reliability and maintain your proficiency level to ensure proper shot placement, should the need arise.