(This originally ran in May, 2008. It has been slightly modified along the line.)
I’m going to kick around a couple of things here, caliber and bullet type. I started out with the premise that the .38 Special was a reasonably good choice in a self-defense round, especially for newbies. I stand by that, but it isn’t the ideal choice. Trouble is, nothing is.
Everything in the real world is a trade-off. The most effective generally available pistol round is the .357 magnum +P+ 125 grain JHP, sometimes called the Treasury Round because it was developed for the the Dept. of the Treasury. It has a one-shot stop potential in real world shootings of over 95%. It also kicks like the devil and has a very nasty muzzle blast. Back when the military was moving A-Bombs around the county in camouflage Piggly-Wiggly trucks the agents who rode protection on them were required to carry .357 Magnums.
The .41 Magnum was developed as the ultimate police round, but is only available in a large frame revolver or a very large semi-auto. The 10mm round in it’s original loading was very much like the .41 Magnum. I went through Massad Ayoob’s LFI course with a Glock 10mm Model 20. I didn’t know it until I showed up for the class but Mass said at the time that he considered that to be the ideal police uniform duty gun. It has, in it’s original loading, more power at 100 yards than .45 ACP does at the muzzle.
The .45 Automatic is no slouch with a good bullet. The military hardball load actually ins’t that great in real world shootings. Hydra-shocks have been consistent excellent performers in this caliber. The .40 auto has a lot of adherents and the new .357 Sig auto has some serious potential. The point is that while there are a lot of good rounds out there, there is no absolute best round for all situations and all shooters. You want to get something that works for you and that you have confidence in. The round and the weapon are a package deal. A round you like in a gun you can’t hide and can’t handle is no bargain.
That being said, there are bullet types to avoid. The 9 mm full metal jacket military round has the bad habit of shooting through people. When the NYPD first went to the 9mm they used military hardball against the strong advice of their own firearms people. This was political correctness in the extreme. In the first year they had several shoot-through incidents including a couple that wounded their own people. At least one of these incidents was fatal to a bystander. NYPD quickly abandoned the military round in favor of a JHP (jacketed hollow point). The old .38 Special round nose had similar problems. I took a class from the late Jim Cirillo, who was the winner of more police gunfights than any person in modern history while with the NYPD stakeout squad. In one shooting he and his partner shot a large bad guy (6-2, 300 #) eleven times in the face and neck with the old .38 RNL (round nose lead) rounds at close range. After it was over the guy walked to the ambulance, though he did have to be helped to his feet. The bullets bounced off his skull, none penetrated.
The feds have done some extensive testing of ammunition and evaluation of real world shootings. They have come to the conclusion (as have other people who have studied such things) that shot placement is the number one most important thing. A marginal hit with a great round will not produce the desired effect, at least not quickly. Adequate penetration is number two. Ideally you want about 12 inches of penetration in ballistic gelatin. While bullet expansion is a nice thing you should NOT depend on it to do the job. Bullet expansion out of handguns is not something you can count on. Everything else is so distant as to be almost academic. You can argue until the cows come home about Silver Tips vs Golden Sabre vs Black Talon vs Whatever. The fact is that any of them will do the job under most circumstances if you can hit what you are shooting at. Any of them can fail under certain circumstances. All of them will fail if you miss, or get a poor hit.
Another thing you want to make sure you do; rotate your ammunition. The rounds actually in your weapon will be the crummiest ammunition you own. Modern ammunition is very reliable. However, handling and oil exposure are bad for ammo. Shoot up the stuff you actually carry with you AT LEAST once a year. Twice a year wouldn’t be bad. Ammo isn’t cheap any more, but you do want it to go “bang” when you pull the trigger. Also, do not carry hand loads for self defense. It shouldn’t make any difference, but it can. A slick lawyer (or a DA who doesn’t like you) may try to make you out as some sort of a homicidal psychopath just itching to try out your own recipe on the bad guy, or maybe a not-so-bad guy. In addition, factory loads have a known, verifiable powder dispersal pattern. This can demonstrate in a legally provable way how close the bad guy was to you at the time of the shooting. This will not be possible with handloads. It’s just another one of those things that can back your play in court, if it comes to that. A lot of people, including many jurors, are not shooters. Most shooters are not reloaders. It’s just one less thing to throw in the mix.
Next time, breaking in a new gun.