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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

Rifle Ammo

Any high-quality hunting cartridge currently made by a major company will perform in most roles for cops. From beat rifles to SWAT team precision shooters, at the distance most shots are taken, even practice quality ammo would probably work in most cases.

This is true because at rifle velocities, bullet construction is not as critical to stopping power as it is at handgun velocities. Also, at rifle velocities, things like "temporary wound cavity" become a reality. And, that same velocity also gives us penetration, which, in an urban setting, can be a good thing. Or it can be a bad thing.

Over-penetration is a very real concern for police ammo. To meet that problem, a few companies have developed a frangible cartridge for police rifles. Hornady led the way in this market with its TAP (Tactical Application Police) round. A polymer tip crowns a bullet constructed specifically to blow apart at impact, with little or no over-penetration.

The applications for such a bullet are obvious. Think SWAT precision rifleman vs. hostage taker when innocents are clustered around. Think street cop taking on a gunman on a busy city street and you'll get the idea. The TAP round offers a dramatically enhanced performance level over any duty handgun, and, despite its frangible nature, the heavier bullet weights can still penetrate glass and other barriers to reach a bad guy.

Over-penetration is also addressed by Federal's TRU (Tactical Rifle Urban) round, which offers a wide range of performance for police rifles. The TRU 40-grain frangible design for the .223 is specifically designed for shooters who need a minimum penetration round that will deliver explosive expansion. Loaded with mil-spec low flash powders to minimize the disruption of night vision during low-light incidents, TRU ammo is built with thicker cases and crimped primers for ultra-reliable performance in semiauto rifles.

For .308 cartridges, Federal's classic 168-grain Match ammo remains the benchmark. Today, however, most major makers offer similar loads, including Black Hills, Winchester, and PMC. So many manufacturers make this bullet weight and design in .308 because it's the darling of the precision rifle shooter. And with good reason. The gilt-edged, predictable accuracy possible with these loads almost staggers the imagination.

Shotgun Shells

Low recoil buckshot, like this Federal Tactical load, results in better shooting accuracy.

The shotgun remains a mainstay on the streets, and today's lineup of specialty ammo is one of the reasons why this weapon remains so vital.

Two of the most innovative reasons for the continued popularity of the shotgun are reduced recoil buck and slug loads and ultra-accurate, high-velocity saboted slug loads.

Reduced buck and slug loads, like Federal's "Tactical" line, combine lighter recoil with superior accuracy to make virtually any old, war-weary Remington 870 into a modern fighting shotgun. Most makers, including Winchester and PMC, also offer these kinds of reduced recoil loads in 12 gauge and sometimes 20 gauge.

The latest generation of solid copper slugs encased in a sabot often deliver rifle-like accuracy when fired in specially designed shotguns. Launched from bolt-action scoped guns and semiauto SWAT guns, these slugs can come close to 2,000 feet per second and can punch holes through just about anything needing a hole punched through it. Hiding behind that car? I don't think so.

Using the Internet, you can learn all about this stuff and sound very smart when tasked with the dreaded "Bring me up to date on the ammo thing" by your training lieutenant or rangemaster. We did some preliminary work for you here, but the important thing to remember is this: Before you burn the bridges and call out the guard, take a deep breath and re-evaluate your current duty ammo. There was a good reason you bought it in the first place and just maybe, that reason is still sound.

Dust to Dust

These federal handgun rounds have lead cores and silicone inserts for maximum expansion at pistol velocities.

Thanks to the EPA, indoor ranges and even decades-old outdoor police ranges are having to change the way they conduct business. Lead-based ammo is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, except for field use. Like most things in life that are fun to do, it appears shooting old-fashioned ammo is bad for you, due to the possibility of lead exposure. Consequently, rangemasters are swapping their lead practice rounds for ammo with bullets that shatter on impact, "frangible" ammo.

There are two types of frangible ammo. One is a simple lead-free design using exotic materials like zinc, powdered metals, epoxies, and other goodies that act and function like "real" bullets on the range, but don't leave any nasty materials lying about. Examples of these include Federal's BallistiClean line and Remington's Lead Free Match load in .308 (solid copper bullet and lead-free primer).

The other category is the dedicated frangible one, including PMC's Non-Toxic Frangible Ammunition, Remington's Disintegrator bullets, and Winchester's Ranger Frangible Ammunition. All offer no heavy metals and by the use of clever combinations of copper, polymers, and some other secret stuff keep it all healthy for rangemasters and the rest of us.

The frangible construction also means these rounds are much safer to shoot in close-quarters, especially when used on steel targets. They fragment instantly, and some testers have used them as close as 3 inches from the target. Don't try that at home, kids.

PMC also offers a frangible slug load that has a lead-free primer. This is different from a conventional breaching round like you'd find in a SWAT shotgun and is intended for range use.

This new generation of practice ammo delivers the same ballistics as standard ammo so your practice sessions are realistic, but the hazards of lead and ricochets are nil. Interestingly, some agencies are using these rounds in areas where over-penetration or ricochets might be a problem, like aboard a ship or in a nuclear facility.


Black Hills

Delta Frangible Ammunitions


PMC Ammunition


TSG Ammo


Wolf Performance Ammunition

Bullet School

Both Federal and Winchester offer special training programs for law enforcement officers who want to learn more about the performance of bullet designs and technologies.

At Federal's Wound Ballistic Workshop, you can see the FBI protocol tests actually shot and get some hands-on experience fussing with gelatin and other media. Call (800) 256-8685 ext. 2303 for more info.

The Winchester program is called the Winchester Law Enforcement Ballistic Workshop and features mobile lab trailers that come to your agency or a nearby agency. During the program, Winchester experts demonstrate the performance of real-world ammunition on gelatin blocks and other material, including heavy cloth, four layers of denim, 20-gauge steel, plywood, wallboard, and automobile glass. To learn more about the program, contact your Winchester law enforcement ammunition distributor.

Roy Huntington is a member of the POLICE Advisory Board and the editor of American Handgunner magazine, one of those dreaded "gunzines" he speaks of.

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