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.


What Are Hollow Point Bullets Used For?

how hollow point ammo expands

Hollow point bullets are used because they penetrate targets but also expand, which means the round stays inside soft tissues.

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.

Most bullets, you see, are made with what's called a "jacket," a hard outer shell over a soft inner shell. It's usually a copper alloy over lead. Some rounds are not, but the jacketed bullet is far more common than the un-jacketed variety.

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What Is A Full Metal Jacket?

full metal jacket rounds

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.

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.

Why Is A Hollow Point Better For Self Defense?

self defense ammunition options

The reason a hollow point is better than self-defense has to do with aspects of both penetration and expansion. A full-metal jacket round basically punches a hole through a target and little else; they create what's usually referred to as a "through-and-through." That's a wound where an object has literally passed right through something or someone.

Since soft tissues are elastic, they tend to close up around a wound. As a result, even big bullets don't leave as big a hole as you might think. Mid-bore rounds like .380, .38 Special and 9mm FMJ rounds leave holes not much bigger than a .22 LR round is in diameter, and even big bullets like .45 ACP don't leave a big hole after tissues begin to close up around it.

This also extends to the wound cavity.

Additionally, since the bullet is only poking a hole in something, the hole has to be poked in just the right spot to do incapacitating damage. The smaller the hole, the more accurate the shot has to be.

But what does this have to do with hollow points? Well, it's simple.

Since a hollow-point bullet expands when it enters soft tissue, it creates a larger wound channel inside the target, increasing the chances that incapacitating damage will be done.(Tweet this!) Additionally, since the expansion drastically slows the bullet down inside the target, there's less chance it will simply blast through the target.

secondary impact burst

Therefore, if you need to put someone or something down (such as some tasty venison) then you want a bullet that expands once it has penetrated the target. That's why hollow point rounds and other types of expanding projectiles are best-suited for self-defense and/or hunting.

This is also why ammunition selection is critical. A round that cannot be relied upon to expand cannot be relied upon to stop a threat or, in the case of hunting, the hunter's quarry.

The drawbacks of the former speak or itself, and as to the latter...you do not want to pack anything out of alder thickets if you can help it.

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.


Non Jacketed Hollow Points

There are a few hollow point designs that have eschewed jacketing, which can make them serviceable self-defense rounds.

First, of course, is the lead semi-wadcutter hollow point. As mentioned, this was THE police round for much of the 20th century. Typically, these were 158-grain loads in .38 Special and .357 Magnum, though the former was typically an overpressure loading. The 158-grain .38 Special LSWCHP +P load is sometimes called the "Metro," "FBI" or the "Chicago" load, as metro police departments (such as the Chicago PD) and the FBI issued this ammunition to uniformed officers, detectives and agents for quite some time.

In fact, this loading was common in service revolvers all the way into the 1990s, as the last of the service revolvers were phased out of police use.

In the meantime, a new breed has emerged, that of the "mono" or monolithic bullet.

Monolithics are made of a single material. In the old days, these were just lead bullets. Today's monos are either solid hard-cast lead (a popular handgun hunting bullet) or a solid copper hollow point.

Solid copper hollow points (or SCHP) are made solely of copper. Since copper is less dense than lead, that means a lighter grain weight; 9mm copper rounds, for instance, tend to top out at 115 grains such as CorBon's DPX load. They are also often loaded to +P pressure levels for extra velocity, needed to create extra hydraulic pressure and therefore induce expansion in soft tissue.

An added benefit, of course, is that SCHP is non-toxic.

Other popular brands/boxes include Barnes TacXPD, MagTech First Defense, the resurrected SuperVel SCHP and G2 Research (makers of the RIP rounds) Civic Duty SCHP rounds.

Lighter grain weight and higher pressure, as you'd expect, confers extra velocity on SCHP rounds. As with other high-velocity ammunition, performance is predicated on design rather than mere speed; a high-velocity bullet of poor design still performs poorly. However, well-designed SCHP rounds penetrate deeply and expand dramatically, just as well as JHP rounds do.

That said, selection of a quality load is critical for personal defense, so make sure you choose the right box and brand.

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.(Tweet this!) 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.

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Hollow point ammunition is one category of bullets, but here's the thing: there are a lot more categories and types in different calibers. If you want to learn more about bullets and ammunition, here's some content Bigfoot Gun Belts has published about various topics:

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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