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Proven Performance: Hornady's Critical Duty

Criminal violence in society is inevitable, and Hornady’s’ Critical Duty is designed to defeat bad guys and the barriers they often hide behind.


There are few assurances or guarantees in life. When it comes to self-defense, that already-low number dwindles. Why? There are countless factors that affect where, when and with whom the life-threatening encounter will occur, and each changes the demands placed on defensive ammunition.

Take something as simple as victim-offender relationship, for example. From 1976-2005, “In 14% of all murders, the victim and offender were strangers,” explained the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Further, of the estimated 3.7-million burglaries committed per year between 2003 and 2007, “Offenders were known to their victims in 65% of violent burglaries; offenders were strangers in 28%.”

From these statistics, one can conclude that the offender will likely be a spouse or other family member, boyfriend/girlfriend or other acquaintance, and not a random stranger. The “closeness” or familiarity element undoubtedly increases the probability that the offense will occur at, or inside, a dwelling, being the result of a dispute, robbery or botched burglary. Inside a residence, engagement distances are typically short, and the primary barriers a bullet might be called upon to defeat are clothing, wallboard, plywood, two-by-four boards and glass—i.e., mostly common building materials.

With the exception of interrupted burglaries, though, criminals who select victims at random are more likely to assail outside the home during a robbery. “More than half of the robberies occur on streets and highways,” explained Curt R. Bartol in Criminal Behavior: A Psychosocial Approach, Fifth Edition. Outside the home, not only can shot distances vary greatly, but to the previous barrier list can be added auto glass and sheet metal, both of which apply to robberies and encounters “on streets and highways.”

Victim-offender relationship is but one of the myriad elements that can be used to gauge criminal trends; in fact, statistical data proves that even air pollution, noise, ambient temperature and moon phases affect the proliferation of crime and drive deviance. Simply stated, it is impossible to know the circumstances—to include location, shot distance and angle, barriers (even clothing), timing (day or night) and size, physical strength and mental condition of the aggressor—of a life-or-death encounter beforehand, so the ideal defensive load, then, would stop any criminal threat anywhere at any time.

Before Critical Duty
Until Critical Defense (Sept. 2009, p. 72) was unveiled in 2009, Hornady’s go-to defensive bullet was the eXtreme Terminal Performance (XTP), which was, and still is, loaded in the company’s Custom and TAP FPD lines. Introduced in 1989, it is used as often for hunting and competition as it is for personal protection purposes.

As non-bonded projectiles, XTP bullets achieve retained weights upward of 95 percent—for deep penetration—through the use of progressively thickening jackets that are “mechanically” locked to the swaged lead core. Though typically hollow-point in configuration, flat-point XTPs exist, too. Concerning the former, precise nose folds and oversize cavities work in unison to ensure uniform, consistent expansion at lower velocities, yet maintain integrity at high velocities.

Like many hollow-point projectiles, though, the cavities of XTPs can clog when penetrating clothing, and heavy garments in particular. The result is minimally or non-expanded bullets with reduced energy dispersion, limited organ and tissue damage/disruption and potential overpenetration. The problem is more apparent in compact, short-barreled handguns in lesser chamberings that are popular for concealed carry, where velocities are relatively low.

Hornady remedied the hollow-point dilemma with Critical Defense’s non-bonded FlexTip eXpanding (FTX) bullet. To prevent the cavity from clogging with fabric, the company’s chief ballistics scientist, Dave Emary, utilized a technology pioneered in the company’s LEVERevolution line—the proprietary red, elastomeric polymer. Not only did the material, which varied slightly in composition from that in LEVER-evolution, prevent debris from blocking the cavity, its “pseudo hydrostatic” nature, as Emary described it, contributed to uniform expansion by imparting equal pressure throughout the cavity.

Unlike the XTP, the FTX’s weight retention—upward of 99 percent (typically only the tip is absent)—is controlled solely by jacket taper, which progressively thickens toward the base. There is no mechanical “InterLock” ring to prevent jacket-core separation; at the lower velocities of Critical Defense it’s unnecessary. Emary mandated that penetration not exceed 12"; a depth sufficient to damage vital systems and structures even from side angles, and in which most of a projectile’s energy is dispersed, thereby limiting the risk of overpenetration.  At the nose, though, the jacket mimics the XTP’s in that expansion—1.7-times caliber with distinct petals—is “pre-programmed” via six precise folds.

Improving the terminal performance of low-velocity cartridges in short-barreled handguns—most noticeably .380 ACP, 9 mm Luger and .38 Spl.—was the primary design intent behind Critical Defense; however, the line has since grown to include more potent defensive chamberings, such as .357 Mag., .40 S&W, 10 mm Auto and .45 ACP, as well as unconventional ones, such as .44 Spl. and .44 Mag. Regardless of chambering, all perform similarly with regard to terminal ballistics.

With Critical Defense, Emary also addressed the issue of excessive recoil, which is especially prominent in lightweight carry handguns. Since high velocities are unnecessary to achieve the desired terminal ballistics, even through clothing, light-for-caliber FTX bullets were selected. Lightweight projectiles, combined with faster-burning propellants—necessary to achieve a more complete burn in oftentimes much abbreviated barrels—enabled Emary to reduce the recoil impulse—a welcomed attribute.

Critical Defense was optimized for close-range confrontations with clothing as the primary barrier encountered. It was not intended to fulfill all eight penetration tests for “service” ammunition, as outlined in the FBI Technical Evaluation Plan (TEP); that’s where Critical Duty comes in.

Coming of Critical Duty
“Critical Duty was developed with law enforcement officers and their tactical requirements in mind,” explained Neil Davies, marketing director for Hornady. “That being said, there are also civilians who desire rugged ammunition and bullets for personal defense.”

Developing Critical Duty proved to be an immense undertaking. “It was an evolutionary process,” said Emary. “Essentially it was the culmination of a decade-plus of experimenting. It was troublesome getting the bullet to provide overall good performance on all FBI barriers, as each interacts differently with the bullet, as well as has a different effect on the bullet. The real problem was balancing the overall design to get good performance on everything.”

The resulting bullet was named FlexLock. “Critical Duty’s FlexLock bullet has a number of apparent, and some not-so-apparent, design features that allow it to function the way it does,” said Emary. “They work in unison and, to some extent, are compromises over what they could be in order to work on each FBI barrier test consistently.”

Unlike its primary competitors’ defensive bullets, the FlexLock is not bonded. “From the outset we decided not to bond the bullets,” said Emary. “This led to a lot of experimentation with jacket designs.”

Two FBI penetration tests in particular illustrate that he’d chosen wisely. One test requires shooting through “auto glass” (A.S.1, 1/4" laminated safety glass is angled at 45 degrees to the horizontal to simulate a windshield angle, and the shot is fired with a 15-degree offset) from 10 ft.; the other mandates a repeat of the aforementioned test, except the shot is fired straight-on at 20 yds. A gelatin block that is covered with “light clothing” is placed 18" behind the barrier. 

“Glass is an extremely hard and abrasive barrier,” explained Emary. “It crushes and mangles the noses of the bullets and has a tendency to grab the jacket and allow the core to squirt out. With bonded bullets, all this crushed and mangled jacket and core material tries to hang on to what is left of the bullet and creates a large and unpredictable frontal area. The result is usually not meeting the required 12" of penetration in gelatin. The FlexLock bullet is designed to shed all this damaged material, and it looks like a wadcutter after penetrating glass and gives predictable penetration in 10-percent gelatin.”

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5 Responses to Proven Performance: Hornady's Critical Duty

Chris wrote:
June 11, 2013

I prefer the all copper Barnes bullets such as the 9mm 115 grain +P Corbon DPX. The all copper construction aides with barrier penetration.

Patrick wrote:
January 10, 2013

I recently purchased a new Glock 17 and have been trying to decide what rounds to buy. I think these will be just what I was looking for. Thanks for the article.

John Paradisi wrote:
January 02, 2013

If it passes FBI standards what more could you ask for, to protect you and your family. I carry .40 duty and .357 defense for the home.

Gary wrote:
December 23, 2012

Have the 9mm and hopefully never have a need to use it. Based on past hornady products that I have used I know it is exceptionally good. I will also obtain it for the 45acp

Gman wrote:
December 20, 2012

Have used these for several years in all my 4 different carry weapons. Especially during the cool and cold times of the year when coats, sweaters and hoodies are worn over regular clothes.