There Are No Magic Bullets

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.

Roy Huntington Headshot

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

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

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.[PAGEBREAK]

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

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

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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