Is High-Velocity Ammunition Worth It for Handguns?

High-Velocity Ammunition Question

High Velocity AmmunitionIs high-velocity ammunition for your handgun worth the extra cost? – John Q., Living Ready reader

High-Velocity Ammunition Answer

Good question, John. My opinion is, for the average shooter, probably not.

Handgun ammo comes in many different loadings within caliber. High-velocity ammunition varieties (often referred to as “+P”) come with higher combustion pressures and more sophisticated bullet designs. Advanced projectiles upset more (increase their frontal area) to create a larger wound channel, and higher pressures produce more energy transfer into the human body. The desired result is faster incapacitation, and if you know you can handle it, this is a good thing. For experienced shooters the extra cost is well worth it.

What’s the Problem with High-Velocity Ammunition?

The problem is higher pressures bring more recoil and muzzle flash. In some loadings, this means a lot more recoil and flash. This is especially significant when the gun must be fired at night.

High-velocity handgun rounds can create a muzzle flash or “bloom” (especially in today’s shorty handguns) so distracting that it can take you out of the fight tactically by destroying your night vision.

With a lot of practice, you can learn to tolerate the recoil and using a tactical light properly can reduce the flash effects. In my experience, most civilians and many cops don’t practice enough to overcome either side effect of the high velocity loadings. The increase in stopping power may then be offset by poor shot placement. And if you have not fired your “duty round” in the dark, you really have no idea what you are carrying.

Standard Velocity Ammunition May Offer Better Results

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I teach my rookies that the most significant factor in surviving a gunfight is the ability to put an aimed round of adequate ballistics in the center mass of the adversary before they get one into you. That doesn’t mean that you rush the shot. It means that you quickly decide you need to shoot and smoothly present the gun, acquire the front sight and press the trigger.

Plus P ammunition has no positive bearing on that dynamic, and in fact, may retard it. If you fear the recoil or flash of the weapon, you will likely not be smooth and decisive when it counts. A solid torso hit with a standard velocity hollow point is better than a miss with your super-zipper-zombie-zapper any day.

Ammo choices have also been complicated by the shortages caused by the recent panic buying situation. Most folks don’t store a lot of ammo and you may find that your usual loading has vanished from the shelves. If that happens, I recommend a lower velocity loading than a higher one as an alternative unless you can get quickly to the range and try out the new stuff.

I don’t want anybody to feel under-gunned with standard velocity loads. Shot placement trumps bullet energy, and there is no such thing as a guaranteed fight stopper pistol bullet. (Remember, a handgun is what you take if you don’t think you are going to get into a gunfight.)

So in a gun store with staff you trust, ask them to recommend a standard velocity, hollow point load and practice with it. If you practice regularly with the ammunition you use for personal defense you should be just fine. When in doubt, go with standard velocity.

(Note: If you are really interested in how bullets do their job and what actual autopsy data suggests are the best loads for your gun, get the definitive work in the field, Handgun Stopping Power, by Marshall and Sanow. It is very readable and I recommend it highly.)

And remember, please, every person has unique needs and capacities and every armed encounter is different. When developing your defensive tactics always get a second opinion.

12 thoughts on “Is High-Velocity Ammunition Worth It for Handguns?

  1. WherzMeGun

    IMHO< as one of the folks that used to "vote" on "Preferred Loads", my own carry choice in .40 S&W, from a 3.5" to 4.0" is Hornady's "Critical Defense" as a civilian carrier. "Critical Duty" if on the job.

  2. DHConner

    Now that winter is here, at least in the states where it regularly snows from November to March or later, people wear more and heavier clothing. It is clear that means more mass to overcome, and perhaps slow the bullet enough to prevent it from rendering a fatal hit. Ya’ll in the South usually don’t have this problem, but here in the North, depending on wind speed and temperature and humidity, layers are the way we go out to meet Mother Nature head on. I am a confirmed believer in Keith and Cooper: use at least a caliber that begins with a “4” and is stepping out right smartly. That puts me in the .45ACP 1911A1 Model with 14 in the magazine and I in the chamber. I change from 230gr. Golden Sabre’s to a truncated cone to ensure penetration (no chance of plugging up a hollow point). Old fashioned? So be it. Better old fashioned than extinct.
    Semper Fi Semper Vigilans

  3. siggie

    Read Gunfighting in Teams, and this guy knows his stuff. JT takes another unique perspective on ammunition that I hadn’t thought of before. Thanks for the insight.

  4. Thor

    Excellent advice, Joe. Like most time tested, well engineered tools, sometimes the less you mess with them, the more effective they are at what they were designed for. Optimize your skills before modifying your tools.

  5. Wild Bill H

    On Marshall’s book, make sure you get the latest edition. The first one is getting long in the tooth. I also recommend it. It has its jealous detractors but I ignore the petty whining.
    The question presented comes up fairly regularly on the net. My response is…”it depends.” With some caliber/bullet/handgun combinations a couple hundred FPS can make a big difference. Some +P ammo can be nasty to fire in one handgun but no big deal in another. A good example is the infamous +P+ “Treasury Load” .38 Specials which are horrid to fire in a lightweight Smith snubbie but not challenging in a Smith M10 Heavy Barrel with Hogue grips.
    The vintage gold standard IHMO was the 125 JHP .357 Mag but advances in bullet design have enabled lesser cartridges to have acceptable results. Research and gel tests are interesting but actual results are more interesting.

  6. AllenS

    I fully agree with Joe. I have used +P rounds in a variety of handguns and find that the recoil almost always makes my second shot less accurate than when I am shooting standard loads. I carried a revolver for years and still practice the 3-shot formula of “shoot 3 and see” even when I am carrying a semi-auto with larger round capacity. Using +P rounds my third shot is ALWAYS worse than with standard rounds.

    If you can’t hit the center mass of your target with the first two shots you have a problem.

    I also wonder about penetration using the high velocity rounds. Is there a greater risk of a round that misses your target penetrating walls or other barriers and causing injury to an innocent bystander?

    I would appreciate your comments on penetration comparisons with both standard loads and +P loads. I am a pretty fair shot, but I miss and I worry about where that bullet might go. Not so much of a problem on the range but in a home defense or self protection scenario it is a different story.

    I bought your last book, great stuff, keep it coming!

    1. Joe Terry

      The question of “over-penetration” (projectiles going through the intended target and causing serious injury or death to innocent persons) causes lots of law enforcement anxiety. Every homeowner with a gun and friendlies a couple of walls away should also be aware of this risk. Very generally speaking, FMJ (full metal jacket) projectiles tend to have a higher over-penetration risk than projectiles designed to splay open at first obstacle such as hollow points. Pistol cartridges are always a compromise between reliable feeding and effective terminal ballistics (which is why I like revolvers so much). The new Federal “Guard Dog” round looks like a good compromise but I have no direct experience with it. For more data (you sound like an experienced gun guy) get “21st Century Stopping Power” (Matthew Campbell). Joe Terry

    1. DHConner

      If you can find a copy of “The FBI Murders” on disc, please do so. Or read Dr. Martin Fackler’s forensic analysis, which is, I think, still in print. One of the gunmen was put out of action almost immediately. The other was shot to pieces but went on to inflict horrific damage and take lives. The more deadly of the two was struck by bullet that, had it penetrated 1 –YES –ONE– more inch, it would have killed him. A few hundred feet of velocity, maybe only 100 fps, might very well ended that blood bath instantly. That is why the FBI now requires between 12″ and 18″ of penetration. The 230 grain Golden Sabre . the PDX-1 230 grain, and Hornaday’s newest .45ACP 230 grain are all authorized for FBI carry. I cannot reveal my source, but let me assure you the information is correct. And like any good federal agency, they don’t want their ass swinging in the wind if a bullet that they have publically named as a “preferred’ load should fail for some reason, and one will sooner or later-nothing made by man is forever and ever perfect. It is statistically impossible to turn out a perfect cartridge over millions of loads. Keeps them (FBI) out of the courts and some smart assed lawyer “….so you see, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my client turned to the best law enforcement agency in the nation for guidance on ammunition for self-defense, and that ammunition failed him, as you can see by his being seated in a wheelchair for the rest of his life….” Sometimes it’s best to bug out if you can. Beats hell out of paying a very high priced criminal attorney to keep you out of the joint, where most of us would not do well at all. Control, mm051473 says, is most important. He is correct on the control part – control yourself and try to defuse the situation. That handgun is for when all else fails, or you are badly outnumbered and can’t run or otherwise get away.