Light Loads For Personal Defense

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Handguns are the weapons of opportunity. Not as powerful as a long gun, they are portable and may be carried with us at all times. The handgun demands plenty of practice to master. The rub is that handguns kick a lot—in some calibers and in lightweight models. Until the laws of physics are changed, this is a reality. It is also a reality that the more powerful cartridges have greater wound potential and are more likely to stop a felonious assault with a minimum of well-placed shots.

Different size and weight handguns will behave differently with the same load. The aluminum frame .38, top, offers harsh recoil with many loads. The steel frame .38, center, is heavier and easier to control. The four inch barrel steel frame revolver, bottom, is the easiest of all to fire and use with the same .38 Special ammunition.

Some of the more popular defensive handguns including, the snub nose .38 and the compact 9mm, have more recoil than some are willing to master. Others, such as the .357 Magnums, are a bear to fire in lightweight handguns. Load selection is critical. A heavy-bullet load at +P pressure isn’t a good choice for a lightweight handgun. Rather, a functional load with decent ballistics is best.

The single most important component of stopping power is shot placement. The single most important cornerstone of combat ability is to be able to control the handgun. There are calibers I do not enjoy firing. I have been at this a long time and I avoid the heavy kickers, except when necessary. I make a smart choice and shoot straight.

Anatomy of a Reduced Load

The means of achieving low recoil varies. Some loads use the same projectile but a smaller powder charge. Others achieve high velocity by using a lighter bullet that generates lower felt recoil. A high velocity service load often uses a bonded-core bullet to achieve penetration. A fast expanding bullet is fine for personal defense and doesn’t have to be driven as fast.

Ballistic Gelatin showing bullet penetration

Despite the light bullet weight Hornady Lite bullets exhibit good penetration.

Hornady achieves good results with its Lite loads by reducing bullet weight but maintaining good velocity. The .38 Special and 9mm Luger Lite loads are reliable, accurate, and offer good expansion. These low recoil loads do not offer the balance of expansion and penetration of +P loads designed for service use.

Their range of penetration is adequate, but they may not be effective against vehicle glass and light cover. Against lightly clad threats, they will deliver superior wound ballistics. Be certain of your needs and consider the likely threat. These loads cover the majority of the problems civilians are likely to encounter.

9mm Luger

The Hornady Lite uses a 100-grain bullet with a pink tip. It is a Critical Defense bullet loaded to over 1,000 fps and specially designed to expand at modest velocity. I have gauged performance in my Honor Defense Honor Guard handgun, and find it good. Wound ballistics are good without going to the harder kicking +P, which may also produce more wear on the handgun. Like all Hornady products, this load is very accurate.

.357 SIG

target with bullet holes in the bulls eye

Instructor Brittany Caton shot this. Standard loads are easily controlled, accurate, and relieve stress.

The .357 SIG is a powerful cartridge. I would not consider this cartridge in a compact pistol. For a mid-size handgun such as the Springfield XD, this is an acceptable caliber. Most loads jolt a 125-grain bullet to 1,350 fps some of the 115-grain loads are at 1,500 fps. However, it is a difficult cartridge to master.

A load that offers excellent wound ballistics is the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain load. Sensibly downloaded, the Critical Defense sails over the Competition Electronics chronograph at 1,203 fps. This load offers excellent control. As an example of a full power .357 SIG, the Hornady 147-grain XTP breaks 1,200 fps—ideal for service use. For most of us, the Critical Defense load is ideal.

.38 Special

The .38 Special is a mild cartridge in a four-inch barrel revolver with steel frame. Load a .38 +P in an aluminum frame two-inch barrel handgun, and recoil is brutal. Good grips are an aid, but snub nose .38 geometry being what it is, there is a tendency of the cylinder release to put a bloody notch in the knuckle of the thumb.

Hornady offers the Hornady Lite 90-grain .38 Special low recoil low. While lightweight sometimes means under penetration, this isn’t the case with the Critical Defense bullet. It has been developed to give good penetration and expansion.

upset Hornady Critical Defense bullet

This is an expanded Hornady Critical Defense Lite bullet.

.357 Magnum

The .357 Magnum revolver has a well-earned reputation as the most effective handgun caliber ever deployed. The Magnum is a great stopper, but it also exhibits a great deal of muzzle blast and recoil. It is a daunting proposition to master the revolver without extensive training.

The rub… prolonged firing with full-power loads is also hard on the small parts to the revolver. An alternative is to deploy the most powerful .38 Special loads, which work well and function in the Magnum cylinder. The Hornady Critical Defense 110-grain load is one choice.

In the .357 Magnum, we have the Hornady Critical Defense 125-grain load at 1,380 fps from the four-inch barrel revolver. While an intensive practice program is needed to control this handgun and load combination, it isn’t as harsh as some of the loads that break 1,400 to 1,450 fps in .357 Magnum. I would avoid lightweight, aluminum frame, compact, Magnum revolvers for personal defense.

9mm Hornady lite ammuntion

The 9mm Hornady Lite is a good choice for personal defense.

.44 Special

Modest operating pressures for the .44 Special, and the popularity of the lightweight Charter Arms Bulldog, means the ammunition companies must load this cartridge light. Hornady’s 165-grain Critical Defense loading offers good expansion and lower recoil as a result of a lighter weight bullet. At over 900 fps, this load offers good expansion.

The .44 Special is a mild-shooting, big bore cartridge with good properties for personal defense.

.45 ACP

In the .45 ACP, a certain balance must be maintained to ensure the firearm functions. A self-loading handgun requires a certain amount of recoil force. +P loads are not needed in the .45 ACP. Even a lightweight hollow point may exhibit a good balance of penetration and expansion with the .45 ACP.

woman standing next to a silhouette target

Attention to detail and controlling your handgun is what matters the most.

The Hornady Critical Defense 185-grain load or the Hornady 185-grain XTP are good choices with good wound ballistics. They do not recoil as much as the 230-grain loads and are often match grade accurate.

.45 Colt

Among my favorite calibers is the .45 Colt. I prefer the .45 Colt to the .44 Special, and even the .44 Magnum revolver. Even the cowboy action loads, which are loaded light for good control and for economy, are fine for home defense. A 250-grain .45 caliber bullet at 750 fps is a huge chunk of lead for a handgun bullet. If you are familiar with the handling of your cowboy action revolver, there is no reason you cannot count on it for home defense. An expanding bullet load, that outstrips the .44 Special in wound ballistics, is available from Hornady. When I use the .45 Colt for home defense the Hornady 185-grain Critical Defense is a first choice. This load offers impressive wound ballistics and excellent accuracy.

These loads allow the use of handguns that may have seemed too painful or hard kicking to fire with good control. Yet, they offer good wound ballistics and predicted effect. Make a wise choice and concentrate on accuracy and control.

What’s your favorite light load? Share your answer in the comment section.

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The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!’s blog, “The Shooter’s Log,” is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

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