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How to Choose Home Defense Ammunition

This is a guest post by Andrew Bettshome defense ammunition

If you are new to firearms or new to the defensive use of firearms, the staggering variety of home defense ammunition available to you may be overwhelming. There are boxes with eagles and bears and holograms and flags. Every one of them is imprinted with numbers and acronyms and impressive sounding brand names.

Worse, many small gun shops have a greasy overall clad gentleman welded to the end of the counter who happily shares odors and opinions. With so much information and potential misinformation out there, how does one go about choosing ammunition for defense?

Let us begin by clearing up some nomenclature. Handgun and rifle ammunition are typicallhome defense ammunitiony classified by the diameter of the projectile or bullet, as measured in decimals of an inch or in millimeters. For example .308 Winchester is a cartridge that fires a bullet that measures approximately 0.308” in diameter. The bullet is the part that actually travels down range and when it is assembled with the primer, case, and powder, a complete round is typically referred to as a cartridge.

Handgun Ammunition

Most defense oriented handgun ammunition will make use of a jacketed hollow point, or JHP, type of bullet. This is a bullet with a lead core and a copper jacket with a cavity in the front. When this type of bullet strikes tissue, it is flattened somewhat by the impact, squishing outward, and that larger  diameter bullet cuts a slightly wider channel through tissue than it would if it had remained the same size, and the increased drag slows the bullet more quickly.

A full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet, sometimes called “ball” is constructed of a lead core with a copper jacket and is rounded in the front. It does not deform in tissue. Although FMJ or other solid types of bullet can certainly be effective, they are not normally recommended for defense because they could require more shots (and more potential misses) to disable an attacker and the deeper penetration has a greater potential to endanger innocent parties.

It is important to select ammunition that will meet the minimum penetration requirement of 12” but not exceed 18”. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to choose ammunition loaded with a quality JHP of the appropriate weight. Bullet weight is measured in grains, abbreviated as “gr”. Generally speaking, heavier bullets tend to penetrate more deeply than lighter bullets in the same caliber. Unless there is a specific need, it is usually advisable to select a bullet weight that is somewhat standard for that caliber. Examples would be 124 gr for 9mm, 180 gr for .40 S&W or 230 gr for .45 ACP. The exception to these weight rules are solid copper hollow point bullets such as the Barnes TAC-XP seen in the video below.

Rifle Ammunition

As discussed in previous articles, there are valid reasons for choosing a rifle for home defense and most of the arguments to the contrary are based on erroneous assumptions and irrational emotions. Whether a rifle meets your needs is outside the scope of this article, though. Selection of rifle ammunition is within its scope, though and should follow similar guidelines to the selection of pistol ammo. We want a load that will penetrate adequately to reliably incapacitate (>12”) but not so deeply as to create an undue risk for uninvolved persons (<18”). Again, bullet weight figures prominently in determining the depth to which the bullet will penetrate.

Hollow point rifle ammunition (OTM, for “Open Tip Match”, or BTHP for “Boat Tail Hollow Point”), is not designed to expand in the way that pistol ammunition is. It might do so in some cases but the shape is simply the result of a process intended to make bullets as uniform and precise as possible. For .223 or 5.56mm, the best choices are usually heavy (68-77 gr) OTM or medium weight (55-68 gr) soft point. This is an example of a top performing .223:

Shotgun Ammunition

At the risk of sounding repetitive, the same concepts apply to shotguns, insofar as the projectiles need to reach at least 12” but penetration should not exceed 18”. That said, shotguns do have some unique considerations. First, there is this terribly insidious recommendation that has been passed around since the first Australopithecus inquired home defense ammunitionabout defensive shotgun ammo that one should use birdshot for home defense because it won’t go through a wall. This “advice” simply will not go away. Not only is it patently false, it is dangerous. Of course birdshot can go through a wall. It will not penetrate as many walls as buckshot, but it will certainly penetrate a wall and potentially injure someone.

The real problem is that birdshot cannot penetrate deeply enough to reliably incapacitate a bad guy. Not even at close range, as is often claimed. No, it does not behave like a slug at close range, despite any claims made by the smelly guy at the gun counter. Even when held together by wax and fired at extreme close range (as shown in the video below), it still does not penetrate adequately to stop a threat in any but the most ideal of circumstances and being forced to shoot at a person is anything but an ideal circumstance.

As you can see, it does not matter if shot arrives at the target in one clump. Impact separates the shot and each pellet penetrates independently. Birdshot is for little birds. The minimum shot size that can consistently penetrate deeply enough to be used for defense is #4 buckshot.

#4 buckshot has some substantial disadvantages, though. It is adequate only at close range and for unobstructed shots. It loses velocity quickly and is less effective than larger buckshot when fired through intermediate barriers like the island in your kitchen. It is also important to differentiate between #4 birdshot, which is much smaller and #4 buckshot. Moreover, #4 buck may be the minimum shot size that meets standards but it is not necessarily ideal. Federal Low Recoil 00 Buck is strongly favored by law enforcement agencies for its balance of recoil, patterning, and terminal effect. This article is not intended to tell you what to choose though, but rather to help you understand how to choose ammunition.

Gimmick Ammo

It may be difficult for the new shooter to distinguish the snake oil from quality defense ammunition. There certainly is a lot of gimmick ammunition available on the market and many of them make fantastic claims like “The last round you’ll ever need.” Most of these sensationalist claims are false, of course and the gimmick ammunition usually involves some degree of fragmentation.

Fragmentation is desirable in a rifle bullet, if minimum penetration standards can still be met but it is not desirable in a pistol bullet. Fragmentation typically results in poor penetration for handgun bullets, but even if they did reach the 12” mark, tiny separate wound tracks do not contribute substantively to the ability of the projectile to incapacitate at handgun velocities.

Fragmentation is useful at rifle velocities because the tissue is stretched so far that those tiny fragments can cause the stretched tissue to tear. The cavity produced by a handgun bullet is much smaller and no significant tearing can be achieved. The short of it is that extraordinary claims should be taken with a grain of salt and you would be well advised to stay away from gimmick ammunition.


Let us be very clear. When you employ a firearm to defend yourself or others, you intend to cause grievous bodily harm to another human being and potentially kill them. While that is not something that should be taken lightly, if you are not prepared to kill a person, you should reconsider your decision to use a firearm for defense.

Of course, the intent is not to kill. You are not a sociopath and you do not want to harm a person if you can avoid it. The objective is to stop the threat, but when you damage a person’s body to the extent that they are physically incapable of violence, there is also a strong possibility that they will not survive. This is an unpleasant thought, but one that you must be comfortable with if you intend to use a firearm for defense.

The mechanisms of injury and incapacitation are beyond the scope of this article but for an understanding of how bullets interact with tissue and the rationale for the recommendations put forth in this article, we strongly recommend you read the reference materials at the end of this article.

The Bottom Line

The biggest takeaway that you should get from this article is that, after shot placement, penetration is the most important factor determining a projectile’s ability to incapacitate. Shot placement first, then penetration, then expansion and/or fragmentation. We often focus on that last aspect and in all honesty, this article focused largely on it as well, but it is important to maintain perspective. It is also important to remember that any ammunition can be used to great effect.

While the focus of this article is to discuss the best ammunition, the margins are small and the difference in your chances of success with a 9mm 124 gr +P Gold Dot versus cheap 124 gr FMJ are small. There actually is an incredible difference in effect when comparing rifle or shotgun ammunition to handgun ammunition, though. Even the cheapest plain vanilla rifle ammunition is far more effective than the very best handgun ammunition.

Ultimately, ammunition is unlikely to be the deciding factor in the fight. We do want to choose the best ammunition that we can, but there is absolutely no substitute for training. Ammunition may be the focus of this article but no matter how good your ammunition is, you must place the projectiles where they need to go to be successful and to do that, you must regularly receive professional training.


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

This FBI report is widely considered to be the definitive work in the field:

This page lists ammunition in various calibers that meets the FBI standards:

This page is hosted by ATK, the parent company of Federal and Speer and lists the performance characteristics of the entire Gold Dot and HST line:

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