Understanding Hornady's Critical Defense and Critical Duty Ammo

posted on July 6, 2016

Not that long ago, ammunition capabilities were primarily measured in bullet diameter and weight. If you wanted a compact and lightweight pistol, you compromised and went with a smallish round like the .32 or .380 ACP. If you were going to carry a full-size gun and needed maximum stopping power, you selected a .45 ACP. What if you wanted more firepower and were willing to sacrifice some stopping power? Then you chose the 9 mm.

Those days are now behind us. With rapid advancements in bullet technology, ammunition makers are developing rounds that can do more with less bullet weight and size than ever before. As a result, one round can play many more roles than it did in the past.

A good example of this is Hornady's “Critical” series of self-defense ammunition. Made up of the Critical Duty and Critical Defense lines, this ammunition is almost exclusively handgun fodder (although the Critical Defense line includes a few rifle and shotgun offerings such as .30 Carbine and 12 gauge buckshot) and is designed for maximum performance.

Critical Differences
It might be best to start by defining the similarities and differences between the two series. While both are designed as defensive rounds and feature nickel-plated cases (which enhance their visibility and also help resist corrosion) as well as low-flash propellants, they have starkly different intended roles. 

Critical Duty is described as being intended for ”On-Duty/Patrol/Tactical” roles and is designed for use in full-size duty pistols. A primary goal in the ammunition’s design is that it be capable of effective barrier penetration, while still minimizing the risks of over-penetration. Sounds like a tough balancing act, does it not?

Critical Duty ammunition achieves these two seemingly contradictory goals through the use of what the company calls ”FlexLock” bullets. These bullets have a thick jacket over the lead core and incorporate two distinctive features that help them achieve their barrier-busting goals. The first of these is what Hornady calls the ”Flex Tip,” a red synthetic insert (stylishly embossed with an”H” logo) fitted down inside a cavity in the bullet. Upon impact, the tip is driven back into the projectile, helping to expand the bullet and maximize its energy transfer. The result is consistent expansion, even at the relatively low velocities of a handgun cartridge. The tip also helps the round avoid clogging on barrier material or clothing.


The second of these features is an ”InterLock” band that helps hold the heavy jacket and the high-antimony lead core together, ensuring the integrity of the projectile upon impact as well as maximum weight retention. In simple terms, these two features work together to ensure that the Critical Duty ammunition hits as hard as possible and retains and delivers as much energy into the target as possible. Also, to ensure reliability, Critical Duty ammunition is waterproofed through the use of sealed primers and case mouths. The line includes chamberings ranging from 9 mm up to .45 ACP.


While Critical Duty is designed for heavy-duty, full-size pistols, Critical Defense takes a different tack. It is intended for compact and concealable handguns and maximizes performance from shorter barrels. What is important to remember is that Critical Defense ammunition is not designed for defeating barriers like Critical Duty, but rather for maximized performance out of compact handguns.

All Critical Defense ammunition is loaded with Hornady’s FTX bullets. Rather than using a traditional hollow point that can clog or unreliably expand, the FTX features the Flex Tip synthetic insert located inside a hollow cavity that helps in feeding and well as performance on target. As with the Critical Duty ammunition, the insert helps ensure proper and consistent expansion.

Unlike Critical Duty ammunition, the Critical Defense line feature propellants custom-tailored to use in compact handguns for lower recoil and muzzle flip from a shorter barrel. The breadth of the Critical Defense line is more varied than that of the Duty line, ranging from the .22 WMR to the 410.

Hornady Gelatin Tests
I recently acquired two new defensive 9 mm handguns for CCW use. The first is a Smith & Wesson M&P9 with thumb safety and the other is a Smith & Wesson Shield without a thumb safety. I sent both to Apex Tactical for custom trigger work and had the slides and primary controls of both guns Cerakote finished in tungsten. I also equipped the Shield with a LaserMax red laser unit. The M&P9 was to be my primary carry gun, and the Shield a backup. I thought this would be a great opportunity to try out some of the Hornady ammunition for each of the guns.

Based on my research, I selected the 9 mm 135-gr. +P Critical Duty load for the M&P9 and the 9 mm 115-gr. Critical Defense load for the Shield. During a discussion with Hornady regarding the ammunition, I was informed that the company had tested the ammunition based on the FBI protocol regarding its performance through heavy clothing (and several other mediums) into gelatin. I was also informed that this information is available on the company’s website.

According to Hornady’s testing, the Critical Duty load I selected had very consistent gelatin testing results. It was fired from a 4.5” barrel during the testing. In bare gelatin, it penetrated to a 14” depth, expanded to .581” in diameter and retained 99.6 percent of its weight. Through heavy clothing, it penetrated 15”, expanded to .517” and retained 99.3 percent of its weight. When shot through sheet metal, it penetrated to a 14.5” depth, expanded to .506” and retained 98.4 percent of its weight. Through wall board, it penetrated to 13”, expanded to .592” and retained 100 percent of its weight. Through plywood, it penetrated to 14.75”, expanded to .520” and retained 99.6 percent of its weight. And finally, through glass it penetrated to 14.75”, expanded to .437“and retained 69.6 percent of its weight.

The Critical Defense load I selected was also tested, although not in the full range of mediums that the duty load was (as it is not designed to penetrate barriers). It was fired from a 3” barrel into gelatin through heavy clothing. It penetrated to a depth of 11.25”, expanded to .55” and retained 100 percent of its weight.

Hands-On Testing
Since I plan to carry this ammunition in the guns for self-defense, I obviously needed to verify its reliability in my two selected firearms. I took a sampling of both the Critical Duty and the Critical Defense 9 mm loads out to the range with both pistols and put them through their paces. Over the course of the testing, I ran about 150 rounds of each load through its respective pistol. I did not have a single malfunction during this run.


I also shot the full-size M&P9 from a sandbagged bench at 25 yards and the compact Shield at 7 yards, firing three 5-shot groups of each load through the appropriate pistol. The Critical Duty gave me a best five-shot group of a very tight 2.01” at 25 yards with the M&P9, and the Critical Defense gave me a 1.25” best group at 7 yards with the Shield. Velocity of the 135-gr. Critical Duty averaged at 1,110 feet per second 10 feet from the muzzle, while the 115-gr. Critical Defense averaged 1,060 at the same distance.

Based upon the performance I was getting from the loads in my selected carry guns and the results that Hornady was showing as part of their testing, I think that these two loads are good choices for my everyday carry set up. Do I know that they will perform exactly as advertised under every conceivable variable? Obviously, no. But, with Hornady’s reputation for reliable performance and the specs on these rounds, I feel very confident that I can count on them when I need them. For more information, visit hornady.com.



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