5 Best 9 mm Loads for Self Defense
by Richard Mann
Designed by Georg Luger and introduced in 1902 in Germany, the 9x19 mm cartridge became known as the 9 mm Luger because of the handgun it was created for. However, it is also known as the 9 mm Parabellum, “parabellum” being derived from the Latin motto of DWM, Si vis pacem, para bellum ("If you seek peace, prepare for war"). Most often referred to as just, “9 mm,” the cartridge has become the most popular handgun cartridge in the world.
Though the .40 S&W, .45 ACP, and 10 mm cartridges hit harder, the 9 mm offers a better balance of terminal ballistics, shootability, and capacity. This balance is why it is, and will likely remain, the most popular defensive handgun cartridge for the foreseeable future. As the most popular defensive handgun cartridge, there are lots of ammunition options for it, so many that selecting the one you will trust your life to might seem daunting. Here are five of the best.
Hornady Critical Duty 135-grain Flex Lock
Some confuse Hornady’s Critical Duty Line with their Critical Defense line; they are however different animals. Critical Duty ammunition was engineered specifically for law enforcement and will out penetrate similar Critical Defense loads. The heavy 135-grain Critical Duty load for the 9 mm Luger typically penetrates 17 inches or more while expanding with a frontal diameter slightly larger than 1.4 times the original bullet diameter. Bullet weight combined with slightly retarded expansion helps achieve the deep penetration and this bullet performs well on intermediate barriers as well. Given the referenced penetration and expansion, a crush cavity of around 3.5 cubic inches can be expected.
Remington Golden Saber 124-grain +P
Though with the recent acquisition of Remington’s ammunition division by Vista Outdoors/Federal Ammunition, we do not know the fate of any of the loads once offered by Remington. That does not change the fact that the Golden Saber 124-grain +P load was one of the best non-bonded bullet options available for the cartridge. Generally, this load will penetrate as deep as 15 inches in 10-percent ordnance gelatin, while still deforming with a frontal diameter as much 1.7 times the original bullet diameter. Resulting crush cavities tend to range between 4.0 and 4.3 cubic inches.
Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P
This is one of the most popular 9 mm loads for law enforcement. It performs very well on all of the FBI barrier tests and has an excellent record on the street and for reliability in a broad range of defensive handguns. Commonly, out of duty-sized handguns this load will deliver penetration in excess of 13 inches, sometimes with almost double diameter expansion. When this happens, crush cavities can be as large as five cubic inches. Speer also offers a +P variation of this load that has been optimized to deliver excellent terminal performance when fired from compact and ultra-compact 9 mm handguns with short barrels.
Buffalo Bore Barnes TAC-XP 115-grain +P
Averaging more than 15 inches of penetration with expansion as wide as 1.6 times original bullet diameter, this all-copper Barnes 115-grain bullet load is an excellent option and may be the best 115-grain defensive load for the 9 mm. Though several ammunition manufacturers offer this same bullet—including Barnes Bullets, which is now owned by Sierra—the highest velocities will be found from Buffalo Bore, which can approach and even exceed 1,300 fps from a 4-inch barrel. Mono-metal bullets like the Barnes TAC-XP can perform very well when it comes to intermediate barriers but for the best terminal performance these all-copper bullets need velocity. That’s where Buffalo Bore delivers. Crush cavities tend to measure on either side of 4 cubic inches.
Federal HST 124-grain
In 2002, Federal introduced new ammunition intended for law enforcement agencies. This “tactical” ammunition used a new bullet designated “HST." Some hypothesized the acronym stood for “Hi-Shok Two” but in reality, it was just a name. It is however a name that during the last 10 years gained a stellar reputation on the street. This should not come as a surprise to Tom Burczynski, of Hydra-Shok and EFMJ fame, worked on the project. Now commercially available, Federal HST ammunition is considered barrier blind, meaning bullets should perform well even after passing through common barriers. This load generally penetrates to about 14 inches while expanding to 1.6 times original bullet diameter, this results in a crush cavities measuring about 3.6 to 3.8 cubic inches.