Monday, March 19, 2012

Gun advice for the newbe -2


There are several basic types of ammunition (ammo) for handguns. In fact, there is so many different kinds of ammo, by so many different manufactures, and each having people who swear by them, that it is a very complicated part of becoming armed. As I spent far too much time researching ammo, this article is designed to cut through all the BS and give the new shooter a basic knowledge of what he needs to feed his (or her) firearm. It should also help cut down the tendency to have a hodgepodge of ammo sitting next to the gun in the home.

For us, they can be divided into four major categories.

1. Practice ammo
2. Personal Defense ammo
3. Shot, for birds, snakes, or rats.
4. Exotic ammo

Then there are a couple categories for Rifles and Shotguns
5. Various Shotgun Shells
6. Hunting Rifle ammo
I may deal with these in a later article.

1. For practice ammo, cost is the main consideration. Generally many of us think of full metal jacket (FMJ) ammo, but I haven't found cheap FMJ ammo for the 38 or 357. There is also "Metal Case" or "Total Metal Jacket" ammo, as in the "Lawman" series of ammo. This is meant for indoor ranges, or any other range that is concerned with lead from regular ammo.

With the 38 or 357, (or pretty much any gun other than the 9mm for that matter) you will just have to make do with whatever you can find. Typically, Winchester White Box (WWB) 38+P Personal Defense ammo gives you the most for your money. I have seen this in both FMJ and JHP (personal defense), but the JHP is much more common. Generally I can find them in boxes of 50 for about $22. If you can find something in bulk from a well known manufacturer, and can pick up two or three hundred rounds, that would be better. If you decide you are really serious about learning, You could look into buying a case (a case is almost always 10 boxes) of ammo, which would save a few dollars, in the long run.

For the 9mm, it has the advantage of being the choice weapon of the US military, and many police departments. It is also the most popular caliber among all other shooters, all of which is to say a LOT of 9mm ammo is produced. Bulk packages of 100 ($24) and 250 ($59) rounds of 9mm FMJ ammo are commonly found in sporting goods stores and gun supply stores. Since most people (amateurs on a budget) shoot 60 to 100 rounds each time they go to the range, three trips to the range will require about 200 rounds.

2. Personal defense ammo.

By far, the most common form of personal defense ammo is some kind of jacketed hollow point (JHP) ammo, since the (typical or average) effectiveness of JHP ammo is about twice that of FMJ ammo. There are, however at least 20 different kinds of JHP ammo, and because of this, the bulk of my research time (way too much time) on guns and ammunition over the past two years has been investigating the various kinds of ammo, its cost and its effectiveness.

A good rule of thumb is: any good JHP ammo is good ammo, as long as it feeds and shoots reliably in your weapon. Really good ammo is marginally better (maybe 20% more effective) than middle of the road ammo, but might cost twice as much. And once you move beyond the average, there is all sorts of arguments as to what is the "best" personal defense ammo.

Now, a little about the names you will be hearing when reading here, or other places or discussing ammo with others.

For the powder charge, there are basically four levels of powder charge for a 38 or 357.
1. 38 Special - the lightest load.
2. 38 special +P or just 38+P is about 50% more powerful. This has been the most common load for 40 years.
3. 38+P+ somewhat more powerful than +P, but there is no exact standard. Usually about 20% more than +P. While this one will fit in a 38, firing it in a 38 may damage the weapon, therefore it is uncommon and you might never see it.
4. 357 Magnum is about 50% more powerful than 38+P. Since firing it from a 38 would seriously damage the weapon, it is about 1/4 inch longer than the 38 round, and therefore will not fit in the lighter weapon. (I highly recommend you read the section on training before buying 357 magnum ammo)

For the 9mm, the only two loads are standard and +P loads, +P having about 15% more power.

OK, so much for the powder charge, the other half of ammo is the bullet. As I have stated before, the JHP is the central figure here. The whole point of this is that they tend to spread out (expand) when they hit, making a 38 caliber round hit like a 45 caliber round, and tend to carry less energy when exiting out the back side of the target. Now, JHP's of 30 years ago were pretty much untested, and maybe they would expand, or maybe they wouldn't. Today's bullets expand much more reliably.

Bullet weight, measured in grains, is somewhat important, but only in that at the extremes it will reduce the effectiveness. In 38+P loads, 110 to 135 grain is common, and up to 148 grain acceptable. In 357 loads, the weight can rise to 158 grain. In 9mm (whether +P or not), 115 to 125 grain is common, with up to 147 grain acceptable. The heavier bullets perform a little better at longer ranges. Not usually an issue in home defense. Be aware they also kick a little harder.

There are a few good articles on the Web that discuss various personal defense ammo, here is one of the best. Mostly aimed at police or paramilitary, much of this article is not really of interest to the home defense crowd.

Before moving on to other types of ammo, just a few notes on types of ammo and some acronyms you might run across. Presented in somewhat of a logical order.

Historically the 38 Special Winchester USA 125gr +P Jacketed Hollow Point (aka, WWB) was, I think, one of the oldest of the "modern" ammo, some 70 years ago, designed as an upgrade to the rather anemic 38 Special with a solid lead bullet.

Guard Dog rounds are an Expanding Full Metal Jacket round, useful (only) in places where Hollow Point ammo has been declared illegal. Similar to a Jacketed Soft Point, which does basically the same thing.

Hydra-Shok was to be an improvement to standard JHP that would expand faster and further, but it didn't work as well as expected (worked well, just not as well as expected), possibly due to clothing or other barriers between the gun and the skin.

XTP and its cousin DPX are designed to penetrate deeper than standard JHP ammo.

Bonded rounds and "solid copper" rounds (which are still hollow point) removed the tendency for the brass jacket to shed as the bullet passes through a leather jacket.

Hornady Critical Defense added a soft plastic plug in the hollow point dramatically reducing the tendency clog with cloth as it passes through a jacket and then not expand. (Which doesn't happen very often with normal hollow points)

HST stands for Hydra-Shok Two or hi-shok-two and may be replacing the older Hydra-shok. HST's are the super expanding line of ammo. They usually expand to over double their original size. They are newer, and I haven't actually seen any performance tests yet.

All of these are considered top of the line right now, but it is easy to double the price of the ammo to get only marginal improvement: Remington Golden Saber, Speer Gold Dot, Federal HST, Winchester Ranger (PDX1), Hornady TAP/Critical Defense.

All of these rounds work well. Some better under certain circumstances, some better under other. I presented them in order, in which I would rate them, with some reservation, from least to best.

My advise is to find a brand and type you think will be happy with, shoot at least 100 rounds of it (or 20 rounds for a revolver) to insure it will fire reliably, and then stick with it, ignoring all those who will swear by some other ammo.

3. Shot, for birds, snakes, or rats.

Most calibers of handguns ammo can be gotten with a shot load. Whether called snakeshot, birdshot, or ratshot, it is pretty much the same thing. They use fairly small shot, and because the shot isn't very heavy, it won't penetrate more than an inch or two. That is fine for snakes, or rats, which generally have quite a bit to loose when shot with such a load. If you shoot a bad guy with ratshot, it will only make him mad.

Even when shooting snakes or rats with pistol loads, you have to be aware of its limitations. Standing a pistol shell next to a 20 gauge shotgun shell will provide an immediate contrast in size. Also, the rifling in the barrel, which makes a bullet fly straight, causes the shot load to spread out fast. About an inch or so for every foot. That limits the effective range of a 38 or 9mm shot shell to about 6 feet. Beyond that, most of the shot will miss the snake.

Also, be aware that, while an automatic might eject the shell from a shot-shell, it most certainly not feed them reliably, so don't mix shot and defense loads in any magazine. If you want to mix loads (something only for advanced shooters) that include shot shells, you need a revolver.

Most shot-shells are sold in boxes of ten. You need to shoot at least one or two, and keep the rest. You might want to find someone with the same caliber weapon and split a box.

4. Exotic ammo

There are several varieties of specialty or exotic ammo. I want to touch on a couple of the ones that might, at first, appeal to someone new to personal defense.

Limited Recoil or Controlled Recoil ammo is fairly similar to normal ammo, but with a lighter bullet than standard. In addition to not being very well suited to personal defense, it tends to not cycle an automatic hand gun reliably.

Frangible, prefragmented or safety slugs are made up of fragments basically glued together or in shot capsules that will remain intact until they strike an object, then they act like a shot-shell. Glaser is probably the most recognized name. They tend to be on the light side, 80 - 96 grains, and so may not be reliable in an automatic. In addition, they are less effective than a regular JHP round. Also, they cost $1.50 - $2 each, making it an expensive ammo that may not perform well.

Oddly, at least one manufacture of this kind of exotic ammo names and advertises its ammo in such a way as to make a beginner believe it is more effective than standard ammo. It is not. My best advice is: stay away from exotic ammo.

Something similar to ammo is the Snapcap. Snapcaps are not really ammo but are a training aid, and I'll deal with them under "training"

In Conclusion

You will generally need at least two kinds of ammo. Your practice ammo should be based almost entirely on cost per round. Buy enough for at least three trips to the range. Your primary defense ammo should be a trade off between cost and performance, but at least in the beginning, cost should be the main factor. Shoot at least a box of it through your gun to insure it works reliably in your particular gun. Then begin stocking up on it until your gut says you have enough. You may want to get some shot shells, if you live an an area where snakes or rats (and I mean the 2 pound variety, not mice) are frequent.

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