Is Newer Really Better with Bullets?

This is a guest post by Andrew Bettsammunition

There have been some significant advances in bullet technology over the last three or four decades, especially in regards to handgun bullets. The research that led to these advances may have been spurred in large part by the concealed carry movement but it was also motivated by the FBI’s call for better ammunition following their investigation of the Miami shootout. Bonded jacketed hollow point and solid copper hollow point bullets have gained substantial popularity while some of the older designs have fallen out of favor. These designs do offer significant benefits over traditional cup and core designs in many situations, but is new always better?
The .38 spl is a cartridge that is right on the ragged edge of performance. It is widely considered to be just powerful enough for personal defense. This is borne out by the difficulty in finding defense ammunition that will both expand properly and still penetrate deeply enough to reliably incapacitate a bad guy.

Let us be explicitly clear that the Speer Gold Dot is some of the very best ammunition available in any caliber. It is premium ammunition with a great deal of research and development behind it. The Gold Dot is not technically a bonded bullet because the jacket material is actually electroplated to the lead core. It behaves just like a bonded bullet, though. The jacket is virtually impossible to separate from the core. That is important because jacket separation is weight loss and can lead to fragmentation of the core, resulting in even greater weight loss. Weight loss results in reduced penetration.

The Gold Dot is not an inferior bullet by any means. It is just that this problem is a difficult one to solve. .38 spl is often fired from a short barrel revolver and between the short barrel, the low pressure of the .38 spl cartridge, and the cylinder gap bleeding off even more pressure, velocities are typically quite low. It is hard to get a bullet to expand at barely over 800 fps. That might sound fast if you are unfamiliar with the technicalities of ammunition but to put it in perspective, the maximum velocity allowed on many paintball fields is 300 fps and the muzzle velocity of a 9mm 124 gr Gold Dot from a 2” barrel is about 1,075 fps. This is where modern technology can be eclipsed by the tried and true.

The Buffalo Bore 158 gr LSWCHP +P is decidedly not high tech. It is a simple lead hollow point with a gas check loaded over a stout charge of fast burning powder. Lead experiences less friction in the barrel than does copper so an all lead bullet can be pushed a little faster despite being heavier. The all lead bullet is also a little softer than the copper jacketed bullet so it can start expanding earlier and get to a wider diameter before slowing to the point that drag is no longer strong enough to deform the bullet. The Buffalo Bore load was able to expand and penetrate adequately in the same conditions which caused the Gold Dot to have difficulty expanding.
Modern bullet technology has most certainly benefitted the .40 S&W. The overwhelming acceptance in law enforcement of the cartridge means that plenty of funding is available for research and development and there are now many manufacturers that produce ammunition that performs beautifully in .40 S&W. But the bullets that perform so well when fired from a .40 S&W often over expand and/or fragment substantially when fired at the significantly higher velocities of the 10mm.

There is nothing wrong with the bullets, they were just never designed to go that fast.  If 10mm were more popular, manufacturers might invest more time and money in developing projectiles specifically for it. Jacketed hollow point bullets can certainly work well at the velocities typical of the 10mm because they work well in .357 mag and .44 mag but JHP bullets are just not designed for the 10mm. One way to do an end run around this problem is to simply skip JHP bullets entirely and use cast bullets. Cast hollow point bullets can also over expand and fragment, though.

Part of the problem has to do with the fact that tin is rarely used in bullet construction anymore. Old timers like Elmer Keith relied heavily on it. Tin can make a bullet tougher without making it too brittle. Over recent decades, the price of tin has increased and both reloaders and manufacturers now favor antimony to alloy their cast bullets. It is cheaper and can serve the same purpose to an extent. It hardens the lead, leaving less lead residue in the barrel, but it also makes the bullet more brittle. That means that it is more likely to shatter on impact, which leads to poor penetration. An old school 20:1 lead/tin bullet with a conservative dished cavity in the nose can expand aggressively, penetrate deeply, and retain 100% of its weight.

Now, please do not misunderstand. Modern technology really has made tremendous improvements in the areas that have received the attention of research and development. If you carry a 9mm, .40S&W, or .45 ACP, modern ammunition like HST or Gold Dot are hands down your best choices. If you carry a handgun chambered in a less popular cartridge, though, older technology may actually perform better than the newest, shiniest box on the shelf. It is also useful to remember that, while new technology may improve performance, old technology has never stopped doing what it has always done.


Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan. Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.

Photo credit – Andrew Betts


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