If you like to read about defensive handguns, cartridges and ballistics, you’re probably no stranger to the FBI protocol that’s often referenced by writers. This protocol and the ability of handgun ammunition/bullets to meet the standards of this protocol has become sort of a de facto way of establishing the suitability of defensive handgun ammunition.
Let’s be clear about something: The ability of a bullet to meet the standards of the FBI testing protocol doesn’t mean that bullet is magic, that it will stop an attacker on the spot, or that it’s what you should be carrying in your defensive handgun. All it means is that the bullet has demonstrated its ability to pass a series of tests that are arguably best at determining a bullet’s ability to shoot through things other than bad guys.
To understand this, you need to know what the test is all about.
Test 1: Bare gelatin at 10 feet
Test 2: Heavy clothing at 10 feet
Test 3: Two pieces 20-gauge steel at 10 feet
Test 4: Two layers 1/2-inch wallboard at 10 feet
Test 5: One piece 3/4-inch plywood at 10 feet
Test 6: Auto glass at 10 feet
Test 7: Heavy clothing at 20 yards
Test 8: Auto glass at 20 yards
Blocks of 10-percent ordnance gelatin are used for all tests, and for tests 2-8 a block of gelatin is placed behind each barrier. To pass each test, the bullet must penetrate at least 12 inches and expand. The more it expands the better, because the larger the hole the bullet makes, the more tissue it destroys.
A test protocol like this does have merit in law enforcement, where cops are routinely shooting at suspects who are hiding behind objects such as walls and car doors. However, for the armed civilian, most defensive shootings don’t involve these types of barriers. Yes, they could, but most often they don’t.
When it comes to the terminal performance of handgun ammunition, there’s a rule: The more a bullet expands—the wider its frontal diameter gets—the less it will penetrate. It’s easy for companies to make bullets that deform into wide, saucer-like projectiles, but it’s impossible to make these bullets drive deeply into a bad guy. So, ammo companies strive to find a balance.
They also know that if they can build a bullet to meet the FBI standards, it will sell well to law enforcement agencies. Likewise, if cops buy it, so will civilians. If you doubt that, look at how popular the Glock pistol has become.
The first rule in selecting a defensive handgun load for your carry gun is to choose one that’s 100-percent reliable. How do you establish that? By firing no less than 50 rounds of that ammo while conducting practical drills. If you get a single stoppage, pass on that load. Yes, ideally you would shoot 100 or even 1,000 rounds to establish reliability, but few of us can afford that.
The second rule in selecting a defensive handgun load is that there is really no rule at all. You must decide whether to hedge your bets on the side of penetration or expansion; you want some balance in between both extremes. By the way, if you’re wondering, the average penetration in bare gelatin for all defensive handgun loads in calibers from .32 to .45 is about 13 inches.
Some defensive handgun loads such as the Glaser Safety Slugs will only penetrate about 4 or 5 inches. Other loads such as the hard-cast bullet loads from Buffalo Bore will drive to an excess of 3 feet. The Glasers expand and deform magnificently, creating massive wounds and serious blood loss. The deep penetrators, such as the hard-cast Buffalo Bore bullets, will shoot through multiple bad guys but make small holes in the process. On the other hand, loads such as the Golden Saber, which meet the FBI protocol standards, will push to about 13 inches inside a bad guy and expand while doing so.
Which bullet is more likely to STOP the bad guy the FASTEST? There’s really no definitive way to predict that.