In search of the perfect bullet by Roy Freeman

Why the .40 Smith & Wesson is still an excellent choice for personal protection or “in search of the perfect bullet”.

I saw a question in a well-travelled Facebook page asking “Why carry a .40 over a 9mm”.  My quick go-to answer is usually Energy!

Why is bullet energy important?  Simply put, the more energy, the more damage.  In order to neutralize an attacker, the bullet must either do damage to the brain or brain stem; or it must cause organs to shut down or at least not work correctly.  This is done by the damage to tissue through direct impact and by expending its energy into the body.  As a bullet passes through tissue, the energy from the bullet is transferred into the body causing a “temporary wound cavity” in which the shockwave from that expended energy causes damage to nearby organs.  This doesn’t mean that accuracy is not important.  That temporary or stretch cavity is usually only an inch or two wide, so bullets must at least pass very close to (or preferrably through) the vital organs such as the heart or liver.  The individual in defense of his or a loved one’s life must still do their part, so practice, practice, practice!

My thinking is that the right combination of bullet weight, velocity, and terminal performance (bullet expansion and the resulting wound cavity) would greatly figure in to the answer to the age old question “Which caliber and bullet has the best stopping power”? But I figured I should do at least a little research to see if my choice of caliber and thus my answer had any validity.  It would indeed be a daunting task to test all available factory ammunition in even the 3 most common pistol calibers.  So using the following websites, I put together this little investigative essay. I highly recommend checking out the Lucky Gunner website to view other information regarding the ammunition available and other aspects of the test results such as bullet expansion.  See how your defensive ammo stands up…You may be very surprised!

Ballistic Energy (at the muzzle) as calculated via

and using ballistic test results from

Starting with common “light for caliber”, non+P factory cartridges:

Example #1:  9mm Luger Corbon 115gr DPX with a muzzle velocity of 1123 fps (the fastest Non +P I found at yields a Muzzle Energy of 322 foot lbs. and penetrated to an average 13.9 inches in ballistec gelatin after passing through 4 layers of various types of cloth. (Not exactly per IWBA protocol, but it’s close and since all tests were done the same way, this still provides a relevant comparison).

Example #2:  .40 S&W Remington 165gr Golden Saber leaving the muzzle at 1113 fps (fastest 165 gr.) yields a muzzle energy of a whopping 454 foot lbs. Average 5 shot penetration through 4 layers of cloth into the ballistic gel was 19.6″ and average bullet expansion comes to .66″.  Good performance, but perhaps a little too much penetration.

Example #3:  .45 ACP Speer 185 gr Gold Dot gave the highest Non+P muzzle velocity clocking in at 954 feet per second, resulting in an average muzzle energy of only 374 ft-lbs.  The 5 shot average for penetration was an acceptable 14.1 inches and Average expanded diameter was .72 inches.

So the previous examples made me think I should be comparing the 230 grain bullet in .45 ACP since it is not only heavier and should theoretically show better perfomance, but also because 230 grain ammo is the most commonly available (especially in practice ammunition) and we should all be practicing with the same weight bullet as our defensive ammo, right?

Thus I give you Example #4: .45 ACP Winchester 230gr PDX-1 (Non +P) at 863 fps yields a muzzle energy of only 380 foot lbs.  (definitely NOT the performance numbers I was expecting)!!!  Not only that, but bullet terminal performance didn’t look good either 21.6″ average penetration and .61″ average expansion, with some failing to expand properly (although a couple of bullets appear to have followed the track of other projectiles, giving little resistance to open up the bullet and bring it to a stop).

So how dissappointing is that?!!!  We can do better, right?  Let’s look at some .45+P results for comparison.

Example #5:  .45 ACP Magtech 185gr Guardian Gold +P at 1057 fps yields a muzzle energy of 459 foot lbs. (Pretty good, but not significantly greater than the .40 due to it being slower and not much heavier).  This is another fast, heavy .45 that over-penetrates in ballistic gelatin with an average of 29.4 inches and all 5 failed to expand, measuring .45″. May as well use hardball!

Example #6:  .45 ACP Hornady 230 gr XTP +P with muzzle velocity of 908 fps gives us a Muzzle Energy of 421 ft-lbs.

Man oh man, the .45 is supposed to be king of the hill!  What the bleep is going on here?!!!

After playing around a bit, I did find a .45 load that absolutely smokes!

Example #7: .45 ACP Liberty 78 gr Civil Defense +P which comes charging out of the muzzle of their test gun at an amazing 1844 feet per second yielding an astounding 589 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle!  That’s gonna leave a mark!

Wow, that must be too good to be true! Sadly it is indeed disappointing in that such a light weight bullet sheds its energy so quickly that it doesn’t penetrate in ballistic gel very far. (A 5 shot average of 10.9 inches. Where the FBI standard is 12-18 inches and likewise, the expansion was very poor at .47 inches average diameter, ending up looking like a smaller than dime sized disk.  I doubt it would get much further past the rib cage of an attacker, though that massive energy dump is going to hurt like a mother…..!!!  The Magtech 185 gr in example 3 was the opposite in the worst way.  Suffice it to say, neither of these would be my go-to defensive cartridge.

OK, since I’m playing around trying to amuse myself, let’s see what some of the other oddball loadings in 9mm Luger and .40 S&W have to offer.

Example #8:  9mm Luger 50 gr Liberty Civil Defense at 2034 fps yields muzzle energy of 459 ft-lbs and average penetration of only 9.6 inches.  Expansion was also dismal and came in at .37 inches.

Example #9:  9mm Luger 92.6 gr Magtech SCHP First Defense at 1330 fps giving 364 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle and penetrating an average of 12.9 inches. Average expansion was at least decent at .54″.  This one might be a contender if there were not better options available, at least in my humble opinion.  Such as…

Example #10:  9mm 115 gr Corbon JHP +P at 1221 fps yields 381 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle and penetrated an average of 13.6 inches into the ballistic gelatin.  The bullet expansion was also decent at .56″

Example #11 and #12:  124 gr Remington Golden Saber +P clocks in at 1170 fps with a calculated muzzle energy of 377 foot-pounds.  Average penetration was a tad high at 18.2″ and expansion came in at .66 inches, getting close to doubling the original bullet diameter (.356″).  This one may be one the best of the 9mm bunch.  Incidentally, the Federal 124 gr HST +P was almost an identical performer in every aspect.  I would not have any issue with carrying either of these in my defensive weapon.

Example #13:  9mm Luger 135 gr Hornady Critical Duty +P running at 1118 fps and giving a muzzle energy of 375 ft-lbs and penetrating fairly deep at 18.1 inches and expanded to an average .47″.  Curiously the non +P loading of the same 135 gr FTX bullet had a deeper average penetration of 19.0 inches and only expanded to .43 inches.  It is probably worthy to note that these particular cartridges were designed to give “Barrier Blind” performance, being able to penetrate materials like glass windshields and sheet metal or fiberglass car doors without deforming significantly, so they are likely a bit more resistant to expanding.

How about a heavier 9mm load:

Example #14:  9mm Luger 147 gr Federal HST +P at 1008 fps gives us 332 foot-pounds muzzle energy and penetrates to an average 19.2 in in ballistic gelatin. Average penetration into ballistic gel stops at 19.2″ and expansion is good at an even .60 inches.

If bullet expansion is your thing, check out these new-ish 9mm Luger offerings:

Example #15:  9mm Winchester 147 gr Ranger T-Series.  This one may seem rather weak with a MV of 941 fps and calculated muzzle energy of only 289 ft-lbs, but its expansion is impressive at .74″ on average more than doubling its original diameter and still penetrating the ballistic gelatin to an average of 16.5 inches.

Example #16:  9mm Federal 150 gr Micro HST.  Another relatively low velocity cartridge putting out a muzzle velocity of 888 feet per second, translating into a mere 263 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.  Still, penetration into ballistic gel is more than adequate at 17.3″ and expansion is also very good at .71″.

OK, now for some more .40 cal loads:

Example #17:  .40 Cal. S&W 60 gr Liberty Civil Defense is once again the fastest at 1846 feet per second yielding a muzzle energy of ….454 foot pounds, the same as the fastest 165 gr bullet!  Have we reached critical mass?  Is there no greater return on our investment of giving up bullet weight for greater velocity to produce tremendous energy?  Let’s get heavy and try another:

Example #18:  .40 Cal. 180 gr Winchester Defender coming out at a 5 shot average velocity of 995 fps and has 396 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle.

I mentioned in the forum that I carry a Glock 23 daily which is of course a .40 S&W.  Are you wondering how my carry ammo stacks up?  Here it is:

Example #19: .40 Cal. 180 gr Remington Ultimate Defense BJHP runs 977 feet per second and yields a muzzle energy of 381 ft-lbs. and penetrated an average of 15.5 inches into the ballistic gel after passing through 4 layers of fabric… with all 5 test bullets stopping right smack in the middle of the FBI’s standard of 12-18 inches.

Not too shabby!  Except that my muzzle energy is now exactly the same as that Corbon 115 gr +P 9mm round… Uh oh!  So do I need to give up my Glock 23 and buy a Glock 19?  Not so fast, there are other things to consider.  Remember me mentioning bullet performance earlier?  That Corbon 9mm penetrated 13.6 inches whereas my Ultimate Defense came in at 15.5 inches on average.  Additionally and perhaps more importantly, the 9mm Corbon JHP +P expanded to .56 inches but the .40 Cal Remington Ultimate Defense expanded to .79 inches… nearly twice its original diameter!

So I suppose I do need to stop spouting off my pat answer about the .40 having more energy than the 9mm as there are some 9mm+P cartridges that deliver similar energy results to the .40 caliber.  But this is only in some instances and then not by a considerable amount.  But I do have a new answer to the original question:  Size Matters!!!  When comparing the .40 to the 9mm+P, I have about the same energy, but get better bullet expansion in my preferred load. Also, when comparing my beloved .40 S&W to the .45 ACP, those .45’s start out big and most have tremendous expansion, but the .45 moves along very slow and actually imparts less energy to its target.

Would I change anything about my current setup?  Probably not my EDC, since Smith and Wesson doesn’t make a true G19/G23-sized pistol that I can get all my fingers on the actual grip frame without having my finger on a magazine extension.  But when they do, I’m all in!  As for bullet choice, I’m going to stick with the .40 for now.  However, since looking at some of the newer tested factory offerings, I am going to take a closer look at at least a couple more:

Example #20:  The .40 S&W 165 gr JHP Winchester Ranger Bonded.  Muzzle velocity=1098 fps resulting in 442 ft-lbs of energy at the muzzle.  Penetration is right where it should be (according to the FBI) with all 5 test rounds stopping right in the meat of that magical 12-18 inches and averaging 14.7 inches.  Couple that with an average bullet expansion to .77″ and this sounds like a potential all-time winner.  Also of note is another new offering in Federals HST line of ammunition:

Example #21:  .40 cal 155 gr Federal HST.  Muzzle velocity is 1084 fps yielding 404 ft-lbs of muzzle energy.  5 shot average penetration is 17.2″ and average expansion is at .67″, so it looks like there was a little trade off giving up some expansion for greater penetration.

I’ve heard it said going around in several gun shops that the .40 S&W is dead.  Don’t you believe it!  True, several agencies are transitioning away from .40 and are either going to 9mm Luger or .45 ACP.  I’m not sure which “expert of the month” they are taking advice from or if their motive is cost-based.  But in my personal opinion, I think they should take another look at the .40 S&W.  In most duty pistols, it has nearly the same magazine capacity.  For instance, 15+1 in the Glock 22 vs. 17+1 in the Glock 17 while offering substantially more terminal effectiveness.  Whereas there seems to be little to no effective gain in a move to .45 ACP.  (Are you listening NCPD)?

It has been said that in compromise, neither party gets what it wants.  Funny, I think that with the .40 Smith & Wesson, I get exactly what I want!

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