hollow point bullets

What You Need To Know About Hollow Point Carry Ammo

There's no doubt that the gold standard of defensive ammunition is the hollow point, as hardball and other types of bullet just don't perform as well in that role. Police have been carrying them for decades for this reason. You won't find anyone that will seriously tell you that full metal jacket rounds or any other type is good for concealed carry or home defense, either.

But why is that? Mostly expansion, as penetration is not necessarily the be-all, end-all.

Why Do Hollow Point Bullets Expand?

how hollow point ammo expands

The reason hollow point bullets expand and other types of ammunition don't has to do with the materials used and what happens to a bullet when it's shot out of a barrel into tissue. The science isn't exactly rocket-grade.

Bullets are made with or without what's called a "jacket," in essence a hard outer shell over a soft inner shell; copper alloys are typically employed as the jacket over lead. Some rounds are not, but the jacketed bullet is far more common than the un-jacketed variety.

The most common type of round is the full metal jacket, often referred to shorthand as FMJ or hardball, which fully encloses a lead core under a hard metal jacket. Hollow point bullets have a well in the meplat - the core of the bullet - exposing the soft metal in the core, as well as at the tip.

What happens when a bullet strikes tissue depends on the design of the bullet. An FMJ round usually punches straight through, especially through soft tissue. The hard jacket doesn't permit the bullet to deform too easily, unless it hits something hard enough to deform it - which isn't too much, given that it's a hard object traveling at close to 1,000 feet per second, depending on the round. Since a small wound is easier to survive than a big one, that's one of the reasons FMJ rounds aren't necessarily the best self defense ammo.

However, when a hollowpoint hits soft tissue, the pressure is more than the bullet can handle while maintaining structural integrity. This causes the soft metal to peel back and out, causing the bullet to mushroom. This also slows the round down dramatically, so it won't - ostensibly - overpenetrate or exit the target.

What Other Kinds Of Bullet Are Out There?

other kinds of bullets

While the hollow point is definitely the standard for defensive ammunition, there are a number of different bullet designs on the market besides FMJ or jacketed hollowpoints.

In fact, the advent of smokeless powder precipitated the jacketed bullet. During the black powder era - early cartridges used black powder, which is why cowboy loads are a thing for reproduction revolvers - projectiles were made of soft lead, which would mushroom upon impact. This was a byproduct of the material, not by design. Smokeless powders push bullets at higher velocities, which leads to lead fouling with soft lead. Thus, the jacketed bullet was necessitated in order for barrels to be kept in good working order.

As a result, any wholly lead bullets are very serviceable defensive rounds, but few guns are meant to shoot them (mostly repros of guns of the Old West) and fastidious care must be taken. Additionally, such guns are usually of the large revolver variety, so concealed carry is most likely out. Good excuse to wear a Western gun belt and holster though.

Outside of FMJ and JHP rounds, another common bullet design is the soft point, aka jacketed soft point or JSP. Soft-point bullets have less of a jacket, as the tip of the bullet (sometimes more than just the tip) is soft lead. This leads to expansion occurring, though less than that of hollow point rounds. These are very popular for hunting, as controlled expansion is a desired trait in hunting ammunition. Soft-point ammo is made for handguns (specifically for handgun hunting) but is much more common as rifle ammunition.

Semi-wadcutters have also been popular in previous decades as defensive rounds. The 158-grain lead semi-wadcutter hollowpoint bullet (an unjacketed SWC with a hollow point) has a long history of successful use in police service in both .38 Special and .357 Magnum. Semi-wadcutters punch a larger hole in a target than hardball, and the hollowpoint allows for decent expansion

Frangible ammunition, designed to fragment upon impact, has also come to the fore in recent years. As defensive ammunition, frangible rounds are serviceable, as the fragments penetrate the target. However, frangibles are far less common and don't have the track record that JHP rounds do as defensive ammo.

Picking A Better Hollow Point

picking the best hollow point

Not all ammunition is created equal, so not every hollow point bullet is going to work as well as another. Thus, it behooves a person to pick hollow point rounds that have a good track record of performance or - if too new to have one - have shown in multiple independent tests to do so.

For instance, some of the most popular cary ammo out there includes brands such as Speer Gold Dot, Federal Hydra-Shok, Federal HST and Hornady Critical Duty. Speer and Hydra-Shok hollowpoints have both long been employed by police departments across the country. This has made them very popular carry ammo for civilians.

When it comes to hollow points, you need bullets that penetrate deep enough to create sufficient wounds but don't exit the target. You also need those bullets to expand reliably, and by an appreciable amount. A 25 percent increase in diameter or more is good.

Not every hollowpoint load does. Lead alloys and jacket design impact expansion greatly; some will expand more easily than others.

As a result, you want to select carry ammo that doesn't overpenetrate and reliably expands. Overpenetration can lead to ricochets or even striking people behind the target, and insufficient penetration can mean insufficient wounding. Reliable expansion creates larger wound channels but also ensures the round stays in the target, which is why police departments, hunters and concealed carriers use hollowpoints as defensive rounds.

Sam Hoober 

About The Author

Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.

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