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Best Subcompact Personal Defense Ammunition

Choose a load that works well in your subcompact, practice with it and get on with your life.


Right now the rage in concealable handguns is ultra-compact, semi-auto 9 mms. The citizenry is becoming more serious about personal protection and most want an easy-to-conceal, lightweight handgun. This makes sense because if your gun is a nuisance to carry, you'll leave it at home. And, when you consider you can get a handgun like the Diamondback DB9 that weighs only 11 ounces and is only 3/4s of an inch wide, why go big?

As easy as a handgun like the Diamondback DB9 might be to conceal, you need to understand that when handgun barrels get shorter, bullets come out slower. This velocity loss is not significant. On average, you can expect a velocity reduction of about 50 fps or 5 percent for every inch of barrel loss. As minimal as this difference is, it can make a big difference in the terminal performance of the bullet. In other words, a bullet fired from a short-barreled 9 mm handgun may act very different in a real-life scenario.

To understand why this happens, you need to have a basic comprehension of how bullets work. Defensive handgun bullets are, in most cases, made up of a lead or lead alloy core surrounded by a copper or gilding metal jacket. Bullet engineers design these bullets to expand upon impact. This allows the bullet to make a bigger hole. But here's the catch: If the bullet impacts at too slow a velocity, it will not fully expand or it might not expand at all.

The more a bullet expands, the less it penetrates, but it makes a larger diameter hole. The ideal penetration depth for a defensive handgun bullet is a topic few agree on, but it is somewhere between 8 and 16 inches. Hopefully this penetration will be accompanied by expansion equal to between one and a half to two times the bullet's original diameter.

To illustrate how barrel length can influence terminal bullet performance, I tested six different 9 mm Luger defensive handgun loads in a full-size 9 mm—a CZ 75 with a 4.7-inch barrel—and a compact 9 mm—a Diamondback DB9 with a 3-inch barrel. Each load was fired into 10 percent ordnance gelatin at a distance of 10 feet.

A lot of self-proclaimed experts put a lot of emphasis on recovered weight, but in reality it's not that important. It's not like the bullets are made of gold and you are for sure not going to re-use them. What matters is how deep the bullet went and how big it got.

When evaluating defensive handgun ammunition, penetration and expansion are the two things that need to be considered. With regard to the ammunition tested, these numbers were similar between the long- and short-barrel handguns with one exception—Remington's 115 grain JHP load. From the 3-inch barreled DB9, this bullet only increased its frontal diameter by 0.065 of an inch. This resulted in excessive penetration; penetration almost twice as deep as when fired from the longer-barreled handgun.

One thing many assume is that faster impact velocities result in deeper penetration. This is rarely the case with expanding handgun bullets. Why? Because the faster or harder a bullet impacts, the more it will expand, and increased expansion provides more resistance to the bullet's forward momentum. With four out of six of the loads tested, the slower-moving bullet penetrated deeper, but in each of these cases, it expanded less.

One exception was the previously mentioned Remington load where the bullet from the shorter barrel almost failed to expand at all. The other exception was the Federal 115-grain JHP load. With the Federal load, expansion was identical between the long- and short-barrel handguns. This is desirable but rare. With the frontal diameter being the same, the one with the highest velocity—the bullet fired from the longer barreled handgun—penetrated the deepest.

So how should all this information impact your selection process when it comes to defensive handgun loads for your compact 9 mm? With regard to the ammunition tested, every load met the minimum 8-inch penetration threshold. Only one—the Remington 115 JHP—exceeded the 16 inch maximum. Why is too much penetration an issue? Two reasons: You don't want to shoot through the bad guy and hit an innocent bystander, and in case you must shoot in defense of your life indoors, you don't want to shoot through one or more walls and potentially hit a good guy.

From the short-barreled handgun, the Remington 115 JHP load also failed to meet the minimum, one and a half times expansion threshold. Hornady's Critical Defense load showed good and consistent penetration but was lacking in expansion, too. In fact, four of the six loads tested from the short-barreled handgun failed to meet the expansion criteria. The 124 grain Winchester PDX1 load expanded to 1.49 inches from the short barrel so we’ll give it a pass. Who knows, my calipers or eyes could be off a hundredth of an inch.

That leaves us with three loads to choose from: Federal's 115 grain JHP and their 105 grain EFMJ loads or Winchester's 124 grain PDX1+P load. Personally, I would lean toward the load that showed the most expansion. I say this for several reasons. A bigger hole means more tissue damage and shot-to-shot velocity can vary as much as 50 fps. Deduct another 50 fps from the impact velocity and expansion will suffer even more. Also, if your target is at a longer range, impact velocity will be lower too.

Without conducting tests like these on your own, it's almost impossible to make an informed decision. Granted, 10 percent ordnance gelatin is a pain in the wallet and your backside to work with, but you can shoot into water jugs, a water tank or saturated newspaper in order to conduct expansion testing on your own. Short of that, you can opt for +P loads because they shoot faster and the added velocity can help with expansion. The problem with most +P loads is that they also increase recoil and these super compact 9 mm handguns can be a handful to shoot as is.

My suggestion is pretty simple: Just select either of the two Federal loads, practice with your handgun and get on with life. Find a chronograph and check the velocity of either of these loads through your compact 9 mm. If it is equal to or exceeds the velocity shown for these loads in the chart, terminal bullet performance will be near identical as well.

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34 Responses to Best Subcompact Personal Defense Ammunition

Seamus wrote:
January 05, 2013

I sometimes carry a 380 that I like for size and it has never ftf buy normally I carry an xd40 subcompact and use 165 grn Hornady critical defense. Between the two guns I don't notice much difference in recoil so I ordered some 155 grn speer gold dot in 40 cal for a test with 1200 fps and almost 500 flbs it should get the job done with a 3 in barrel. I will have to see about recoil but it should shoot pretty flat since that bullet will be gone before any recoil is felt.

Rev. Stan wrote:
July 19, 2012

Last I read the Diamondback website--they have a weight restriction. 124g only! Best to always check B-4 testing!

Craig wrote:
July 06, 2012

I'm not n expert, but I carry a Springfield Emp .40 with PMC Starfire AND have tried 7 different loads on cantelope....where the bullet ended up was not as important to me as how much of the cantelope I could find...shreds is what I chose!

bridger wrote:
March 29, 2012

Thanks for taking the time and money to run some tests on different top brand defensive ammo. It is always beneficial to read some stats that aren't just handed out from the manufacturer. Also i think it should be noted that you can not shoot +P rounds in some of these guns, such as the diamondback you chose. It is stated all over the paperwork on that gun that +P is not acceptable to shoot. I personally know of someone who destroyed one doing that. I think you could have been more informative about penetration to, including such aspects as bullet weight. You blew off bullet fragmentation which i see as foolish...its common knowledge a bullet that doesn't hold together will not penetrate. Remember glaser rounds? Over penetration is a moot point when picking ammo. Consider the fact that most trained professionals hit their target less than 1/4 of the time. 75% of those bullets are WAY over penetrating. I don't think I'm going to have better results than a cop under pressure, do you? Don't worry about over penetration when choosing defensive ammo.

Rob wrote:
March 24, 2012

In many scenarios, simply brandishing your weapon will send your assailant running. Not many people are going to ask for the calibar of your gun or weight of your ammunition. In a home defense situation (close range), a round or two from a 9mm will do the trick. But so will a similar number of rounds from a .380. Simply practice to be comfortable with you weapon of choice.

Tom wrote:
February 01, 2012

We like to talk about penetration and expansion. I would not like to be shot with a 380 or 45. It's gonna hurt if you hit your target even if he is wearing heavy clothing. If you are inside your home, you obviously want penetration and expansion. Just empty your gun if he is inside. You evenually will disable your target. If you are outside, you want to end the fight. Unless you are on a "hit list" a shot or presentation of your concealed carry will have the offender running. Obviosuly I want no one to be in a shoot situatation. Practice to be prepared and practice with the weapon you will carry. Any pistol is better than no pistol.

ED650 wrote:
January 13, 2012


C. Walley wrote:
November 12, 2011

Why no layers of clothing in front of the know like 4 layers of denim?

Chris wrote:
November 03, 2011

To counter Dale's argument,... 1st... it is completely untrue that the 147 grain loads have more recoil from the shorter barrels. They usually have much less recoil than the 115 and 124 grain loads (from what I, and many others have personally experienced)... 2nd... with premium modern hollowpoint ammo such as the Federal HST or Winchester PDX1, the 147 grain loads expand just as much, and sometimes even more, than the lighter loads... 3rd... the 147 grain loads lose less velocity from shorter barrels because there is less powder that needs to burn up to propel the bullet at recommended velocities...In conclusion, I've found from personal experience, that the 147 grain loads perform much better than the lighter 9mm rounds when fired through a short barrel.

Luis wrote:
October 19, 2011

I have been carrying for a while the Ruger LCP .380 because it fits in my pocket and gives me peace of mind. Reading all this talk of penetration and expansion, my only hope is if I ever had to use it is that I can hit my target. Drawing a gun and pulling the trigger under those conditions must be something unthinkable. I also wonder what would happen if the opponent has a full size gun with a bigger caliber. Also what distance is shooting some one justifiable? Practice helps but these are all questions that plague us.

Rick wrote:
September 17, 2011

Good article overall. Ammo nowadays is very good and the most important thing is to be able to shoot your gun accurately.

Karl wrote:
September 16, 2011

Just like the different comments, each gun is different so articles like this are worthless. What to know what shoots best out of your gun, buy some differnt ammo and go shooting. Then and only then will you know what shoots best.

Dale wrote:
September 15, 2011

Just to answer "Jim" most 147 gr loads to do expand properly especially from a short barrel. Also there is more recoil, due to the weight of the bullet.

James wrote:
September 15, 2011

I use a 380 bersa and use a 380 drt round. i am sure that within 50 to 60 feet that it will be dead. it a power core round. also use for hunting and neck shot on deer. one shot one kill.

David Rodgers wrote:
September 15, 2011

Extreme Shock Air Freedom rounds work well in my DB9. It is a lightweight 70gr frangible round that penetrates well and creates massive wound channeling, according to what I have studied. I am going to try it out on a 4 gallon water jug to see how the energy transfers on impact. This ammo feeds in the DB9 better than anything else I have tried.

Gary wrote:
September 14, 2011

"FBI Ballistic Test Protocol: Briefly, the performance standards are simple. A handgun bullet must consistently penetrate a minimum of 12 inches of tissue in order to reliably penetrate vital organs within the human target regardless of the angle of impact or intervening obstacles such as arms, clothing, glass, etc. Penetration of 18 inches is even better. Given minimum penetration, the only means of increasing wound effectiveness is to make the hole bigger. This increases the amount of vital tissue damaged, increases the chance of damaging vital tissue with a marginally placed shot, and increases the potential for quicker blood loss. This is important because, with the single exception of damaging the central nervous system, the only way to force incapacitation upon an unwilling adversary is to cause enough blood loss to starve the brain of its oxygen and/or drop blood pressure to zero. This takes time, and the faster hemorrhage can occur the better." From the above, you can see that the short-barreled 9s are really pushing their luck and the .380s are simply a wishful dream. The Kahr PM40 is the same height (4 inches) and just a tad shorter than the DB9; they both have 3-inch barrels. My 3.6-inch Kahr P40 delivers over 1200 fps with the 155-grain Gold Dot so you can knock off 25 fps for the shorter PM barrel. The .40 gives you more bullet weight, more velocity, and a bigger hole. The only advantage of the DB9 is that it weighs about 6.7 ounces less. If you can't carry a few more ounces, you should be home in bed.

Jim wrote:
September 14, 2011

So why not just use the Winchester SXT 147 grain JHP?

Mike wrote:
September 14, 2011

The season of the year makes a big difference. In winter, penetration is more important. Expansion might mean never getting through heavy clothing with a 9mm or .380.

Deputy Dawg wrote:
September 14, 2011

Mr. Rasmussen has a good point the Speer Short Barrel ammo with Gold Dot bullets is tough to beat and tops in my book.

Bill wrote:
September 14, 2011

Hydra-Shock and Gold Dot were not mentioned becasue they don't work in the DB9.

vafish wrote:
September 14, 2011

Why were no 147 gr bullets tested????

Ron wrote:
September 13, 2011

Are there any similar studies regarding Diamondbacks DB380 Auto?

Tom Bedsole wrote:
September 13, 2011

"The 124 grain Winchester PDX1 load expanded to 1.49 inches from the short barrel so we’ll give it a pass. Who knows, my calipers or eyes could be off a hundredth of an inch." Wow......Gotta get this to be a typo.........Tom

Snubbie wrote:
September 13, 2011

Finally, some common sense about recovered weight!

Kevin Rasmussen wrote:
September 13, 2011

Gold Dot is the standard to compare to in the opinion of most but not even mentioned here? Speer has a short barrel line of GD's just for subcompacts.

David wrote:
September 13, 2011

My advice to my gun shop customers, for the last 30+ years: 1. Get samples of whatever is available. 2. Shoot it for reliability and grouping. 3. From those loads giving 100% reliability pick the most precise and accurate when shot by you with your gun. 4. Buy as much as you can of the same lot. 5. Find a practice load that shoots to the same point of aim. 6. When you run out of that lot of defensive ammunition, from practice and standard roll-over, repeat the process.

seabiscuit wrote:
September 12, 2011

"Why go big?" Because bigger means easier to shoot, more rounds, and faster bullets.

Jarom wrote:
September 11, 2011

Hornady Critical defense rounds were tested. Those are the polymer tipped rounds you were referring to Brian.

Gary wrote:
September 11, 2011

In my post below this one, I should have added another link in case you didn't catch it in the article: Looks like lots of M9 and M11 pistols could be headed to The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP)for us to buy. What caliber should our new pistol be, .40 or .45?

Gary wrote:
September 10, 2011

So how important is expansion? The military is getting ready to replace the M9 and the 9mm cartridge, based on lack of stopping power of the FMJ in combat. Interesting article in the Army Times:

Darren wrote:
September 09, 2011

I think placement and penetration are first and foremost in importance the problem I have with ordnance jell is that it doesn't take into account the ribcage and that is why i tend to favor better penetration. How much energy will the bullet lose on the ribcage. What do hunters use for best results? Heavy deep penetrating bullets that have some expansion.

The Freeholder wrote:
September 09, 2011

Would you care to speculate how the Federal Hydra-Shok would perform?

Brian wrote:
September 09, 2011

Why weren't the new Hornady polymer-tipped self-defense rounds tested?

Hector Aballi wrote:
September 09, 2011

Tis is the return of the old 22 ACE 1911, welcome back, hope that the excellent lines of revolver, also come back, waisting that market to foreign revolvers.