9mm guns are pretty much the go-to option when it comes to self-defense. Of course, owning a good gun and knowing how to use it effectively is only half of the puzzle. The other half comes down to the bullets themselves.

Without good ammo, your gun turns into a club, and not a good one at that. If I were given the option to pick between a gun without ammo and a brick, I would choose the brick. Unless, of course, the gun is a rifle with a bayonet.

A 9 mm pistol with bullets in it is often enough to deter an attacker. No one wants to have lead for dinner, after all. However, if they really are determined, you need to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know how an attacker would react when they are shot, but we do know what kind of loads can stop them.

And that is what we will look at today. Of course, the ammo boxes do say what velocity and energy you should expect from the load, but these say very little about how a bullet will behave on impact and how deep it will penetrate. The only way to know is by shooting them. Luckily, many gun enthusiasts already did extensive testing on various factory loads on the market.

The standard test would be to shoot into a block of gel. You can see how deep the bullet penetrates and what kind of injury it does along the way. Many people believe that kinetic energy, bullet weight, and velocity are important when you think of terminal performance. They are important, but only in how they contribute to the depth of penetration and the size of the bullet hole.

Here, we look at the FBI. They did plenty of testing themselves and they believe that penetration is everything. Here, they say that anywhere between 12 to 18 inches are optimal because that is around the depth when the bullet could start doing damage to vital organs. Too little penetration and the bullet would do very little damage. Too much penetration and you risk tearing a hole through your target and three other people standing behind.

Another factor the FBI believes that is important is deformation, or bullet upset. Bullets usually deform upon impact. However, how they deform is important. They usually bloom into a mushroom-like shape and the larger the diameter, the more damage the bullet does to the tissue. But deformation and penetration are exclusive – too much expansion leads to poor penetration, and not enough expansion leads to over-penetration.

Therefore, ideal bullets should strike that perfect balance between penetration and deformation. Bullets in defensive handguns do not have enough velocity to do more tissue damage outside the immediate hole they make, so their stopping power is determined by the depth and the diameter of the deformed bullet. The cylinder of damage is called the crush cavity and that is our best way to determine the effectiveness of different ammo.

But that is enough theory-crafting. You are here to know which factory loads are best for your 9 mm self-defense pistols, and I am here to deliver. I have here a list of 6 loads that you should consider checking out.

1. The Hornady Critical Defense 115-Grain

The Critical Defense also earned its place as an amazing self-defense round. Although it is a hollow-point bullet, that does not mean its performance is inconsistent. Hornady overcame this little hiccup by using the tip material found on the LEVERevolution ammo. The ammo comes in nickel-plated cases for improved visibility in low-light environments and the low flash propellants offer a solid performance even when fired from short-barreled handguns. Its reliable terminal performance is one major reason why it is adopted by various law enforcement agencies.

Hornady Critical Defense 115-Grain

2. The Winchester 124-grain PDX-1

The PDX-1 brings about the best penetration and crush cavity combination on the list at 16 inches and 4.23 cubic inches respectively. This bullet follows after the discontinuation of the Winchester Black Talon. The main difference between the PDX-1 and the Black Talon is that the PDX-1 bullet’s core is bonded to the bullet’s jacket. It is marketed as Winchester Defender for the 9 mm and is available in 124-grain +P as well as a 147-grain with standard velocity.

Winchester 124-grain PDX-1

3. The Federal 124-grain HST

This load offers an above average in every test category, which puts it on the list here. The idea of the HST bullet came after solicitations from various law enforcement agencies asking for better duty rounds. The design behind this bullet follows FBI protocol testing results. They found that bullets that deform with a bigger frontal diameter without throwing away penetration generally perform better. So, Federal went ahead and created a bullet that can open up with peaks and valleys once it starts to deform. That way, the surface area can increase without actually increasing the cross-sectional area.

Federal 124-grain HST

Simply put, the Federal 124-grain HST deforms better without sacrificing its penetration capabilities, which makes it one of the best 9 mm ammo. Federal offers it in +P 124-grain, and 147- and 124-grain for standard velocity.

4. The Speer 124-grain Gold Dot

In terms of crush cavity, the Gold Dot scored highest at 5.52 cubic inches. Needless to say, if your target does not like getting shot, they certainly are not going to appreciate getting shot by this. The Gold Dot is also used widely by law enforcement because the bullet on this thing does not shed its jacket. Doing so allows the bullet to retain its shape and weight, which improves penetration. Because of the alloy core and jacket integrity, the Gold Dot bullet can handle intermediate barriers as well.

The jacket is not your conventional bullet jacket. It is copper plated with a Uni-Core electrochemical process. What Speer got is a bullet that sacrifices a bit of penetration but offers a wide and massive crush cavity. Speer offers their 9 mm loads in 115-, 124-, 135-, and 147-grain for standard velocity, and +P 124-grain for standard and short barrel loads.


5. The Buffalo Bore 115-grain TAC-XP

The 115-grain TAC-XP brings about some of the best combinations of crush cavity and penetration depth I have ever seen, at 4.35 cubic inches and 15.75 inches respectively. Out of all the other 115-grain 9 mm loads on the market, this one surpasses the average in terms of both crush cavity and penetration. It also performs better than the overall average other than bullet weight.

That might not sound impressive, but remember that striking that balance between crush cavity and penetration depth is a lot harder than it might sound since you need to sacrifice a bit of one to improve the other. Therefore, seeing Buffalo Bore coming forward with this load is quite impressive.

Moreover, I should point out that this is a +P+ load, meaning that it is loaded to a pressure above 38,500 psi. The bullet used in this load is the 115-grain Barnes TAC-XP bullet. It is an all-copper bullet with a deep hollow-point cavity.

Buffalo Bore 115-grain TAC-XP

The bullet is designed so that it does not have a core that could separate, meaning that the bullet retains all its weight. It holds up very well even against intermediate barriers. However, given its load pressure, you should only use it for handguns that are rated for +P or +P+ ammo.

6. The Remington 124-grain Golden Saber

The Remington 124-grain Golden Saber scored second highest in our list in terms of crush cavity. At a staggering 4.82 cubic inches, this load does a lot of tissue damage. It is sort of inspired by the discontinued Winchester Black Talon. The Golden Saber uses a jacket that is designed to do more than just control the bullet deformity. It is made from cartridge brass instead of gilding metal or copper. One benefit of this is that the jacket is much stiffer and has a better yield and tensile strength.

The bullet also features a petal design, meaning that it could achieve a larger frontal diameter without much sacrifice to penetration. Both the standard ammo and the later bonded design are incredibly popular with law enforcement.

Remington 124-grain Golden Saber

And there you have it, folks. These are my top 6 picks for 9 mm loads. Of course, I should point out that no two bullets are the same. Terminal performance can vary slightly between shots and the guns you use to shoot these bullets also play a role in their performance. Ideally, I recommend trying out all of them and seeing which one works best for you.

At the end of the day, shot placement is everything. You can have the most powerful 9 mm round on the planet and fail to drop your attacker if you whiff your shot and the weakest 9 mm can drop a determined attacker if you can put one between the eyes. What matters most is practice. Knowing how to shoot accurately is more important than the guns and the bullets that you use. What matters most is what you are comfortable with, so do not let others tell you otherwise. If it works for you, then that is a good enough reason.

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