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There Are No Magic Bullets

Manufacturers continue to update ammo design, but does it really make a difference in the field?

June 01, 2003  |  by Roy Huntington

Manufacturers continue to update ammo design, but does it really make a difference in the field?

That constant search, that timeless endeavor by rangemasters everywhere for the "perfect" bullet goes on. But a perfect bullet doesn't exist, and it probably won't, unless somebody invents a "Star Trek" phaser.

But until the technology makes that quantum leap past cops' guns throwing hunks of lead into miscreants' bodies, the hunt for perfection will continue-like a never-ending story. Or perhaps more precisely, like a continuous loop video leading us exactly back to where we were in the first place.

Which is, in actuality, a sad thing. Why continue to expend time, energy, and countless thousands of increasingly hard-to-get dollars in such a futile quest? Frankly, it's hard to come up with a good reason. The bottom line in today's ammo market is quite simple. If you purchase quality ammo from a reputable maker and let them do the testing and such, you'll do just fine. Honest.

High Anxiety

But we worry. And usually about all the wrong things.

Often a cop's worries about ammo quality and performance can be traced to a nasty thing called "the popular gun press." In the popular gun press, authors tout their often cloudy qualifications in order to convince us that if we ever get into a gunfight, we're going to die because we selected the wrong ammo for our weapons.

It seems that almost everyone who has ever read an article about bullets writes another article or even a book in an attempt to convince us that unless we use "fill in the blank here" as duty ammo, we're risking our lives. Gads.

I know a thing or two about this because I'm the editor of one of those gunzines. And I stomp my foot loudly and point fingers whenever one of my authors goes in that direction. If they have a valid point (a rarity) I listen; otherwise, into the trash it goes. And here's the reason. It causes too many people-cops included-to suddenly lose confidence in their duty ammo when, with very rare exceptions, your duty ammo is just fine.

Anything you can load and shoot from a handgun can work or fail, depending upon about a thousand variables, up to and including the weather. And while ammo performance is important, proper placement is more important (go ahead, recite the mantra: sight picture, trigger squeeze). The constant question is, if you put it where you should, will the bullet stay together well enough to do its duty?

Most of the time the answer to that question is "yes." Then again, even with the best of today's crop, sometimes the answer is "no." The problem is that we are not 10 percent gelatin and our flesh and bones and drug-induced hysteria can change the performance characteristics of bullets. As Clint Smith, director of Thunder Ranch, says, "If you shoot someone with your handgun, expect it not to work. That way you won't be surprised when it doesn't." That's sound advice.

New Technologies

Producing a Speer Gold Dot 9mm bullet involves bonding a lead core to the jacket at the molecular level. The entire process takes more than 20 hours.

So given that all ammunition can fail to achieve the desired result in a real gunfight, why should we pay any attention to new ammo technology?

Because sometimes, somebody does come up with a pretty good idea that results in better ammo. But that doesn't mean you have to go out right away and shoot up all your old stuff and invest in the new stuff. It just means that when it's time to upgrade, you may want to determine whether the new technology makes sense for your agency in terms of bucks and in terms of the pain and misery often associated with a change in issue ammo.

Arguably, 40-year-old ammo technology such as the 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter .38 Special can probably compare fairly well with many of today's "hot" ammo prospects. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't take advantage of significant new technology in that department. After all, at times, a few percentage points may mean the difference between going home that night. Or not.

But let's keep it balanced and not cry "the sky is falling." Just because someone offers your current duty load with a sexy new copper-colored bullet doesn't mean that you have to junk your stock of ammo, especially if the old silver (or gold or black or orange) one seems to be working just fine, thank you very much.

Having said all that, it behooves us to take a peek at what is new or at least worth a mention in the ammo arena.

Handgun Ammo

Winchester’s Ranger Talon is a proven performer and typical of the latest breed of duty ammo.

Reliable feeding is always an issue with auto pistols. Consequently, a couple of ammo makers have taken the problem on with some direct assaults.

Federal has come up with an interesting solution. If "hardball" ammo (full, metal jacketed) feeds best, why not design a bullet that is an FMJ, but performs like a hollow point? The result is the "Expanding Full Metal Jacket" or "Captive Soft Point" bullet.

Using some secret technology, Federal has basically made a bullet that offers all the advantages of an FMJ but expands like a hollow point. The Expanding Full Metal Jacket bullet has a thin skin and some prescored marks in it. The "hollow point" (which really isn't a hollow point) is filled with a rubbery stuff that looks like silicone sealant.

When the bullet impacts with something, it sort of "crushes" and expands, but since the FMJ holds everything together, it expands like a conventional hollow point but doesn't suffer from the "my hollow point filled up with gunk and turned into an FMJ bullet" syndrome. When a hollow point fills up, it acts like an FMJ and punches right through a bad guy without much expansion.

Federal is not the only ammo brand that focuses its research and development resources on improving the hollow point. CCI/Speer offers its "Gold Dot" ammo, which has been proven in the field for years. The main advantage to this bullet is its "bonded" construction. Basically, the lead core is bonded to the jacket at the molecular level. This is designed to prevent the lead core and the jacket from separating at impact. This is not a cheap process. According to CCI, it takes some 20-odd hours to make a Gold Dot bullet.

In addition to its premium Gold Dot line, CCI/Speer produces "Lawman" high-quality practice ammo in various calibers with FMJ bullets. "American Eagle" brand from Federal is another good practice ammo.

Winchester's "Partition Gold" is another battle-proven warrior. Once again, bullet construction is touted as the big feature. Partition Gold's 165-grain .40 S&W load advertises an expansion window that makes it suitable for a pistol or a carbine-length barrel. Often, standard pistol ammo will over-expand and break apart when fired at the higher velocities allowed by rifle barrels.

Remington's Golden Saber is another classic police bullet that offers a unique design feature. The forward portion of the bullet is exactly bore diameter while there is a slightly expanded "driving band" around the rear portion. This means as the bullet enters the barrel, the forward half is "centered" in the bore, while the rear engages the rifling. Remington advertises that this bullet retains "97 percent" of its weight after expansion due to this unusual feature and its bonded construction.

Another high-performance hollow-point ammo is PMC's Starfire. The Starfire is a nasty-looking beast with five ribs that extend into the deep HP cavity and help to promote expansion and keep the bullet from coming apart as it expands.

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