Friday, August 12, 2005

Basic Ammo Questions - Part 1

NoR reader Skittlesman asked the following very important question:

How is a glaser safety slug different from a normal round? Also, how is a winchester silvertip different from a normal FMJ Round?

Good question there S-man. One of the most frequent questions we get in the NoR, is "What Ammo should I carry in my gun" followed by "What's the difference between ammo types".

Okay so first, what is FMJ?

FMJ is the common abbreviation for "Full Metal Jacket", the term for a bullet that is jacketed (covered) with a harder metal alloy than lead. Most FMJ bullets are round nosed, semi-conically nosed, or truncated cone (a conical bullet with the tip chopped off to produce a flat point).

FMJ bullets are by convention used by the military, since the 1890s; because they are not "designed to cause undue suffering". Yeah that's stupid, silly etc... but there was a time when war was thought of as little more than the recreational pursuit of gentlemen; and that there were rules of fairplay. The restriction to FMJ grew out of this philosophy, because expanding or fragmenting ammo was thought to be "unsporting" and all that.

Up until the late 70's FMJ was the most common load for just about everyone, but the development of more modern Jacketed Hollowpoint (JHP) designs (which were originally introduced in the early 20th century, but did not function well as introduced, in firearms of the time), superceded FMJ as the common carry ammo.

FMJ has two distinct disadvantages as a modern defensive loading. One, it can overpentrate in high velocity loadings; and two, FMJ will rarely expand (especially in the low velocity non-over-penetrating loadings), limiting the size of the wound channel to the caliber itself (expanding bullets can expand up to double their base diameter).

This lack of expansion is fine for larger caliber bullets (like .45, which is at least reasonably effective in FMJ as many thousands of Germans, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Viet Namese could testify to... if they were not very very dead), but for smaller bullets like 9mm, wounding capability of non expanding ammunition has generally proven to be poor.

The other major type of bullets used prior to the 1970s would be unjacketed, or partially jacketed lead. Mostly used in revolvers, because you dont have to worry about feeding issues; and by reloaders, because you can easily and cheaply make your own.

Lead bullets WILL expand, depending on the bullet shape, alloy, casting process, and the load velocity. This allows you a very fine level of control in your loadings, thus making them popular with handgun hunters. They are also often used by target shooters, because you can load special designs, weights, etc... and because you control your own tolerances etc...

The three common variations of lead bullet are soft cast/soft point, hard cast, and Jacketed Soft Point, or "partially jacketed".

Hard cast lead bullets are just that, very hard cast lead. These bullets will expand less, penetrate more, and generally leave less lead buildup (called fouling) in the barrel than soft lead.

Soft cast bullets are the bullets generally used in factory lead rounds. Soft lead bullets will expand significantly at relatively low velocities, which is a big plus; however they do not stand up well to higher velocities, and can leave a lot of fouling in the bore. Soft cast bullets are not appropriate for use in autoloaders because the bullets can be damaged while feeding.

Jacketed Soft point bullets are a compromise between the two types. They control expansion by using a very soft lead alloy, but encase it half way (or more) in a jacket (as in the FMJ).

Oh and lead bullets may not actually be cast, they may be swaged (as most FMJ bullets are), but that's more detail than is strictly necessary right now.

Okay so FMJ and lead out of the way, what are hollowpoints?

For once, the name of a firearms related item actually has a name that means just what it says: Hollowpoints are bullets that have a hole/cavity in the tip i.e. a hollow point. Yes that's a huge oversimplification, but really that is the essence of the thing.

The point of a hollowpoint (excuse the bad pun), is that it will expand more, at lower velocity than either hardcast, or FMJ ammunition.

There are three basic variants of hollowpoints, unjacketed, soft point/partially jacketed, and jacketed.

Unjacketed lead hollowpoint ammo is relatively rare, because it's difficult to control expansion, without fragmentation (through overhardening).

Partially jacketed hollowpoints are similar to softpoint as described above, but they have a cavity in the nose. This improves expansion at low velocities, while preventing fragmentation (hopefully) at medium velocities. They are still unsuitable for high velocity applications. Partially jacketed bullets are basically only used in revolvers because the soft hollowpoint nose is unsuitable for feeding through auto pistols.

Jacketed hollowpoint bullets are similar to FMJ, in that there is a metal jacket which covers the entire outer surface of the bullet (in most designs), which controls expansion and improves penetration. In a JHP however, the tip has a cavity in it which forces the softer lead to mushroom out splitting or stretching the jacket.

When hollowpoints were first introduced they were all of the soft lead, or partially jacketed variety, and the bullet making technologies at the time were unable to produce consistent, uniform, and reliably expanding designs that did not fragment.

Even with the greater distribution of fully jacketed hollowpoint designs in the 1930s, manufacturers were generally unable to produce designs that met the criteria described above. It wasn't until the mid 1950s that decent JHP bullets became commercially available, and really the 1970s before JHPs were reliable and consistent enough for carrying as defensive ammo.

That development made the 9mm a little more acceptable for American handgunners to carry for self defense, which in turn spurred a 20 year run of development in Jacketed Hollow Point designs to help the 9mm get better at killing bad guys; eventually ending up where we are now... with basically everyone carrying modern premium jacketed hollowpoints, basically all the time.

Okay so I just said "Premium Hollowpoints", what exactly do I mean by that?

A premium hollowpoint is a bullet specifically designed to expand to the maximum degree while retaining the maximum weight OR fragment into the largest possible pieces (for some designs), so as to produce the most effective possible wound. Importantly, it also means that they are EXTREMELY reliable and consistent (not always the case with the non-premium bullets).

There are many premium hollowpoint designs (at least one from every major manufacturer in fact); but the market is fairly solidly dominated by the following brands:

Speer GoldDot
Federal Hydrashok
Remington Golden Saber
Winchester Silvertip

There are a lot of strong secondary and/or specialty players in the market like Triton, Cor-Bon, and Black Hills (the last two both load other peoples premium bullets to a higher velocity and/or quality level than the general run of factory ammo) but they are really going for the niche markets.

Each of the major players has a distinctive characteristic that makes them particularly desirable (or undesirable), for a particular weapon or application.

Gold dot bullets for example have a very thick star shaped jacket, that is strongly bonded to the lead, and have a very large conical hollowpoint cavity. This allows for great expansion without much loss of mass, and almost no chance of shedding the jacket, or pealing a petal off (a common occurance with cheaper JHP designs). An expanded Gold Dot bullet looks very much like a sunflower. Gold Dots are available as reloading components. Unfortunately Gold Dots are also about the most expensive of the premium hollowpoints.

Hydrashoks have a thinner, pre scored jacket, with a medium diameter but very deep cavity, and a central post of lead. This post tends to act as a penetrator so that thick soft materials (like clothing) which frequently clog up other hollowpoint designs and prevent expansion will do so less frequently and less severely. An expanded HydraShok looks something like a flower with a wilted stamen.

Remington Golden Sabres are the last in market position behind all the other premiums, but they have a niche carved out with guns that just wont feed other hollowpoints. The golden saber uses a very hard, pre scored (spiral scored actually) jacket, with a very small diameter, deep hollowpoint cavity. This combination closely replicates round nose FMJ, and the golden saber will frequently feed in guns that choke on other JHP designs.

The one major problem generally seen with the golden saber is the deep spiral scores in the very hard jacket (see the problem? That's also the main advantage). These scores can catch on burrs or sharp edges inside the weapon. Also the hard jacket controls expansion well, but can sometimes lead to bullet fragmentation at high velocities, and at low velocities can prevent expansion, This isn't necessarily a bad thing because in both cases a more effective wound could result, but you could be caught on the edge between the two which can sometimes result in over penetration.

Basically if your gun doesn't like any other hollowpoints, try out the golden saber, and the next choice, the Winchester silvertip (which I generally prefer).

Winchester Silvertips are hollowpoint bullets with a relatively shallow and small diameter cone shaped hollow point cavity, and a relatively thick nickeled gilding metal jacket.

The shape of the silvertip is more like a FMJ round than any other premium JHP, and therefore feeds somewhat better (they have the reputation as the easiest feeding JHP in many guns).

Combined with the jacket material and construction, silvertips have a reputation for better penetration and weight retention than most hollowpoints. They also withstand extremely high velocities (like full power 10mm) without fragmentation better than most other hollowpoints. This comes at the sacrifice of maximum expansion.

This is an interesting tradeoff to make actually. For calibers that may be somewhat defficient in penetration, the silvertip is ideal. I believe all american manufacturers of .32 and .380 pistols recommend winchester silvertip, and at least two specify it exclusively for some pistols.

For calibers that have a reputation for overpentration however (like 9mm) they may NOT be an apropriate choice.

They are EXTEMELY popular among 10mm users for several reasons. First, they are the most powerful commonly available premium commercial load. Second, they are available as reloading components at reasonable (relatively) cost, Finally as mentioned above, they stand up to the full power 10mm loadings. Most other hollowpoints will overexpand and shed mass, which resduces their effectiveness. The Silvertips expand to almsot the perfect degree with full power 10mm loads, balancing penetration and expansion to produce the maximum wound effect.

There is one final major category of defensive ammunition, and thats frangibles. There are several types, but the commonality between them is that they are all designed to break apart on hard surfaces (for whatever reason).

The most common frangible type are compressed sintered metal bullets. These are basically metal powder forced into a mold at high temperature and pressure, with binding agents. They are specifically designed to burst into powder when hitting a hard surface, rather than ricochet, or break into large pieces. They are chiefly used as a training round because they present less danger on a shooting range, and may present less of an environmental hazard than lead bullets.

Glaser safety slugs, and the similar MagSafe and BeeSafe rounds are technically, prefragmented composite ammunition. The bullet itself consists of a thin metal jacket, filled with small shot suspended in resin, and sealed with plastic or soft lead.

Glasers will break apart on impact and produce many very small wound tracks in soft tissue, while presenting minimal risk of damaging ricochet or over penetration.

They are VERY effective against soft tissues, however they perform poorly against heavy leather clothing, and they have almsot no wounding potential through barriers. They may not break glass depending on the angle at which they impact.

Again, this can be a good tradeoff to make. I personally tend to load Glasers when I’m carrying in crowded environments, and inside drywalled buildings (being most buildings these days). That means I’ve got the Glasers in most of the time I’m carrying concealed.

That said however, I always keep a magazine of premium JHP’s (Gold Dot or hydrashok depending on the gun) handy in case I have to face a tactical situation in which Glasers would be ineffective (lots of soft partial cover, some hard surfaces etc...).

I do not recommend Glasers as general carry ammunition unless you are able to acquire a large quantity of them (at least 100, and preferabely 250 to 500), so you can obtain adequate practice with them in your guns. The Glaser (and mag safe etc...) shoot VERY differently than standard loads. Also, they may not be reliable in all semi-auto pistols, and you should shoot at least 100 rounds through the pistol in question before you can really count on them. This is kind of problematic because Glasers run about $3 a round.

Yes, I said $3 a round. Conventional premium hollowpoints run somewhere under $1 a round for most calibers, and FMJ practice ammo typically runs between $0.10 and $0.50 per round.

I was lucky, and was able to acquire a large quantity of Glasers, MagSafes, and BeeSafes at an auction for a steal, and thus I was able to develop the proper level of confidence in these ammo types through my carry guns.

Now, I DO recommend that all bedside revolvers default load be glasers or something similar, because they are very effective at household ranges, there is minimal risk of damaging over penetration, and you don't have to worry about feeding and function in a revolver.

So thats it for part one, handgun carry ammo. I havent decided what I'm going to do next, any suggestions?