Drop the Ball

Drop the Ball

No matter how excellent modern hollow point ammunition is, how wide the available selection of quality choices has become, how much readily available information about them is available online, or how easy it is to find them at low prices online and shipped directly to your door, I still encounter people who carry ball ammo. Carrying ball ammo is not just confined to beginners, either. I’ve seen people who should know better doing this, too. Usually, they are some kind of ball ammo apologist, claiming some niche or situational benefit for which ball ammo is appropriate. They are wrong.

Some people may just not know the difference. Many people new to guns just think ammo is ammo, and that any bullet will work. To an extent, that is true. Any bullet is better than no bullet. But quality hollow point ammunition offers so many benefits in terms of effectiveness and safety, at only a marginally higher cost, that there is no justification for carrying ball ammo. To these people that just don’t know, it is easy to convince them. Those with the wisdom of Socratic ignorance, who know what they don’t know, will happily take the advice of the better informed. The problems come up with the people who think they know better, or worse, who should know better, who perpetuate the bad ideas.

Two recent examples spring to mind – one from a relative novice and another from an active duty law enforcement officer. The novice, an acquaintance of mine, is the sort of guy who has had guns around for most of his life, but who has never done any formal training or serious research. His dad left all of his guns to him, and his “knowledge” on the subject is full of the myths and misconceptions of the various oral traditions in the firearms community. Anyone who has worked any amount of time in retail firearms sales has heard these kinds of things. As such, it is not his fault that he is misinformed, but it is the duty of those who know better to explain the somewhat obvious faults in the reasoning. The novice loaded his magazine with hollow points, but loaded a few rounds of ball at the top, so that his first few shots would be ball and the rest hollow points. His justification for this was “in case I have to shoot through a door or something.”

The second example is similar. I was out of town visiting family and went to the range with a group of people I had never shot with before. One of them was an active duty law enforcement officer. He had several different carry guns with him that he used for off-duty carry and as backup guns. He generally kept them loaded with Hornady Critical Defense. So far so good, no problems here. I watched him shoot, and he shot very well, every bit as straight as I did. I saw nothing to suggest problems with his training. That is until I saw his carry magazine for his Glock 43. He had it loaded with alternating ball and Hornady Critical Defense. He explained to me with a “knowing” look that this was intentional, “in case I have to shoot through a windshield,” he said.

What these two examples share is the common misconception that you need to use ball ammo to deal with any kind of barrier penetration. I’ve heard people go so far as to justify ball ammo for winter carry, claiming that hollow points will be less effective due to thick clothing. Like any pervasive myth, there is a seed of truth that originally causes these weeds of bad logic to sprout up.

It is true that barriers and even thick clothing can cause problems for hollow points. But the problems are that they can cause the hollow point to fail to expand, which means that they just end up acting like ball ammo. How, then, does ball ammo offer any advantage? Hollow points at their worst behave like ball ammo, failing to expand. Ball ammo at its best is still just ball ammo. The remedy for possible expansion failure is not guaranteed expansion failure.

The ammunition industry is also aware of the challenges that hollow point bullets face when penetrating barriers. Many premium hollow points these days are explicitly designed to perform well even after penetrating clothing or some kind of barrier like wallboard or auto glass. Before the introduction of Speer Gold Dot bullets in 1995 and the modern, bonded hollow point pistol bullets that have followed since, penetrating a barrier would often cause core-jacket separation in a bullet, which is definitely not desirable. However, this is a problem that has been solved for over 20 years. Quality, modern hollow point designs are specifically made to handle barriers and to expand even after being clogged with thick clothing. You can view any number of online tests and videos showing which rounds perform the best, like Speer Gold Dots, Federal HST, Hornady Critical Defense/Duty, and many others. There are still some less-effective hollow point designs on the market, but the trend toward improvement is undeniable

There are also some serious liability concerns for carrying ball ammunition, barrier or not, civilian or LEO. Ball ammo is much more likely to over-penetrate, maintaining significant energy to do collateral damage beyond the intended target. Further, any sober-minded reflection on the supposed benefits of barrier penetration will reveal that there are very few circumstances where it would even arise. Generally, shooting at someone through a barrier is going to be irresponsible or even unlawful. Consider my friends “shoot through a door” scenario – while the law in our state of Louisiana may justify this in certain circumstances that does not make it a good idea. “Always be sure of your target and what is beyond it” is a rule of gun safety for a reason. Firing through a door or a wall is not often an effective way to stop a threat, as you can’t even be sure of your target’s identity or even if you’re anywhere near hitting him. Also, you’re more likely to cause collateral damage this way. Who knows what else is beyond that door?

For the LEO in my second example, we can again see the fault in his logic. Even if we assume that the barrier penetration through auto glass is absolutely necessary, and also if we assume that there is some special benefit that ball ammo has in that situation, it is still a bad idea. He is carrying the alternating ball/hollowpoint ammo just in case of having to shoot through glass, but he is significantly more likely to have to use that gun with no such barrier present (especially considering this is his backup gun, not his duty gun). So he is trading a potential small benefit in a less likely situation for a significant detriment in all other situations. If he has to use his gun on anyone without glass (or another barrier) between them, which is by far the most probable scenario, half of his shots will be less effective and more likely to overpenetrate.

The only time ball ammo really has an advantage over a hollow point is if the hollow point fails to penetrate the minimum of 12 inches in ballistics gel that is considered necessary for effective defense. Ball ammo that penetrates over 12 inches is better than an expanding bullet that can’t penetrate enough to hit the vitals. For most guns, this can be easily solved by just getting a hollow point load better suited to your gun, one that both penetrates adequately and expands reliably. It is really only a concern for low-powered cartridges (generally anything less than the best quality .380 ACP loads). For something like a .32 ACP, an expanding bullet will almost always cause the weak cartridge to have inadequate penetration. In that situation, where no expanding bullet choice is likely to provide adequate penetration, ball ammo is probably more effective at stopping a threat. However, if your chosen cartridge requires ball ammo just to penetrate well enough, you should seriously consider carrying a more powerful gun. The inability to both penetrate 12 inches in gel while still expanding is the reason cartridges like the .380 ACP are usually considered the weakest adequate ammo for self-defense. Even with .380, you have to be very choosy about finding a load that performs well. Many lack the velocity to expand and some that do expand fail to penetrate adequately. One reason .380 has had such a surge in popularity is specifically that modern bullet technology has finally allowed adequately performing hollow point ammo.

In short, ball ammo has no place in a defensive handgun aside from target shooting at the range. You should always carry quality, proven hollow point bullets. The worst problem a quality hollow point can have is that it fails to expand, in which case it is just like having used ball ammo in the first place. Ball ammo for barrier penetration is an outdated, misunderstood myth from a bygone era. Modern hollow point designs specifically address these problems, and you are very unlikely to find yourself in a situation where you would need to shoot through a barrier anyway. Don’t put yourself at a significant disadvantage in all situations for a perceived minor benefit in a relatively rare one.

(Author’s note: this article is written only concerning defensive handguns for concealed carry against human threats. Non-expanding ammo may often be the best choice for handgun hunting or defense against animals, where maximum penetration through thick hide, muscle, and bone is required.)

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  • Iowa10

    Good article. Correct, for those who
    prefer to carry mouse guns, like the 25 or 32, ball is more effective. I think most know about the more effective higher calibers, but like the better concealability of those little critters.

    • G50AE

      I carry a .40S&W because mouse-guns just aren’t “tactical” enough for me, and yes I use jacket hollow point ammo.

  • DG

    There are many good arguments for using HP ammo; over penetration is not one of them.

    You are far more likely to miss your target and hit what is beyond it than hit and over penetrate. The four rules of gun safety don’t only apply to hunting and target shooting. “Always be sure of your target and what is beyond your target.”

    • G50AE

      But your assertion about missing your target doesn’t exactly argue against hollow point ammo either.

  • Michael Winkler

    Being a Gunsmith, I have resolved a number of issues with “self defense” rounds in semi-auto pistols……
    Not all “self defense” rounds are created equal…..
    the biggest thing is that some “self defense” rounds will jam in the magazine because of how the magazine is tapered as apposed to how the nose of the bullet is designed and will refuse to load the next shell because the cartridges are jammed up lower in the magazine…….
    another prominent issue is that certain “self defense” rounds will jam in the ramp due to how the nose of the bullet is designed.
    The main thing is to find a round that will reliably work with your gun. And use it to practice with to gain confidence .

    • Jay Hanig

      I was going to say that but you beat me to it. I carry ball ammo exclusively in my Colt 1911 in .45 ACP because it always functions. I can’t say that for hollow points, where I’ve had several failures to feed at the range. Why it fails, I can’t say as I’m just an owner; not a smith. But if I can’t rely on it at the range, I’m not going to rely on it anywhere else.

      • retfed

        I had a friend who made the same argument for carrying ball in his 1911. My answer was, “Maybe if you carried a gun that was designed after the Titanic sank, it would work with modern ammo.” Most if not all modern pistols designed for .45 ACP (Sig P220, Glock, S&W M&P, etc.) feed hollow points with no problems.
        But it’s America, and you can do what you want.

        • G50AE

          Most of the modern 1911’s will feed hollow points just fine. Gone are the days of buying a 1911 only to immediately send it to a gunsmith and pay 3x more to get all of the features you want. Some people must be shooting some really old 1911’s if they won’t feed hollow points reliably.

          • retfed

            Since I haven’t owned a 1911 since 1982, I’ll take your word for it. (I looked out the window one morning and didn’t see any Zeppelins or Maxwells, so I decided to move on from Taft-era technology.) But my friend (who is now deceased) had a fetish for the things, and owned and carried several new Colts, including a New Agent, and a few Kimbers. He told me he only trusted ball in them. (And bear in mind, my comment was a joke to a friend.)
            And, of course, an awful lot of older Series 70s and milsurps are still being carried, and they don’t do so hot with hollow points.
            Still, it’s America, and you can do what you want.
            Vaya con Dios.

      • Jim L

        Federal makes ammunition called Guard Dog that is expandable, but has a profile like hardball. It expands in the middle. This might be a better choice.

      • Big Mike V

        Check out Ruger ARX ammo — it’s a defensive round and feeds like a dream through my 1911.

    • G50AE

      Or you can go the more “tactical” route and purchase a Glock which will feed darn near anything.

      One of the reasons Glock made such a heavy appearance in the U.S. Law enforcement market was that the Glock was the only 9mm pistol that was reliable with the 147gr subsonic round. The FBI had convinced a lot of departments to switch over to that round, a mistake for several reasons, which had reliability problems in any platform other than the Glock or the H&K MP-5 integrally suppressed sub-machine gun.

  • Ed Murphy

    Good article. Important stuff. Let me add one other thought re shooting through automobile glass. This is based on some automotive glass research I did decades ago — so I will happily stand corrected if my knowledge is outdated. Windshields are made of laminated glass which is designed to shatter on impact (if struck with enough force) but to remain in the frame even after the glass breaks. Side windows are made from tempered glass which is stronger than laminated glass (i.e. it takes more force to break it.) When tempered galls does break it does not hang in the frame like laminated glass does when it breaks. Tempered glass breaks into many small discrete pieces (maybe 1/4 inch or so across) and the frame is left completely open. That is why firemen carry a tool with a small sharp point — like a spring loaded prick-punch. Use that on a side window and one can get instant access to the interior of the car to put out a fire or extract an injured occupant. Therefore, applying this to firearm use against car windows– here is what I think would happen — if you shoot through a windshield you will puncture it and leave a (more or less) discrete hole slowing down the bullet significantly and leaving most of the glass still hanging in the frame – regardless of whether you use ball ammo or hollow point. The second shot will do the same thing. If you shoot through a side window the first shot (ball or hollow point) will cause virtually all of the glass to come out of the window frame, small pieces of glass will fly everywhere, and your second and subsequent rounds will not be impeded by any glass at all. The “bottom line” — I agree with the author — carry hollow-point self-defense ammo in your carry gun. Also be aware of the difference between the glass in the side window v. the windshield. Shoot through the side windows if you have an option–regardless of whether your target is inside of the vehicle and you are outside or vice versa.

    • G50AE

      The Gold Dot Hollow Point has always been one of the better rounds against glass. Golden Sabre from Winchester is another good option.

    • G50AE

      Ed Murphy I am officially citing you for a paragraphs violation for the above post. It’s not that anyone is opposed to a post that long, but please break things up into paragraphs to make it easier to read.

    • Jim L

      RE tempered glass, if it’s tinted with film, it’ll probably hold together, not that it matters at all.

  • dilbert bob

    The author may not realize that certain states have banned jacketed hollow point ammunition in concealed carry situations.

    • retfed

      As far as I know, only New Jersey bans hollow points for concealed carry, and that’s pretty much a moot point since it’s next to impossible to get a carry permit. Interestingly, though, hollow points are legal in a gun kept inside the home.
      More politician logic.

      • bjensen

        Not a NJ resident but I thought HP rounds were banned altogether in NJ (except for LE) not just in the neigh impossible to get carry permit situation.

        • retfed

          NJ statute NJS2C:39:2 Section f.1 prohibits non-LE from possessing hollow-points. Then Section f.2 says, “Nothing in Section f.1 shall be construed to prevent a person from keeping such ammunition in his dwelling, premises or other land owned by him . . .” and also allows transporting such ammo from one place the person owns to another (as long as it’s not in a gun).
          And people get paid to write this idiocy, and other people go to jail for not obeying it.

          • bjensen

            Thanks, not that I ever plan on living in NJ but it’s good info.
            I wonder if NJ considers Pow’R Ball ammo to be hollow point (or for that matter Critical Defense) another good option for residents fortunate enough to have a permit would be Federals Guard Dog (which was cheaper when it was just called EFMJ and came in standard packaging)

      • G50AE

        I though that rounds such as the Glaser Pow-R-Ball and Federal EFMJ, were designed as a workaround to said law. I may be wrong though.

        • retfed

          The wording of the law is “any hollow nose or dum dum bullet.” I don’t know how that’s been interpreted. If I recall, NJ originally banned the EFMJ, then allowed them. I don’t know about the Pow-R-Ball. I personally would only carry ball in NJ. I don’t want to be a test case.

  • cgray

    Well, I’ve been shooting longer than you’ve been alive, so I think I know a little about the subject. Hollow points are excellent for A. not expanding, and B. expanding and not penetrating. Shot placement and penetration are far more important than expansion. Over-penetration is hilariously overrated. But hey, keep doing the ammunition manufacturers’ bidding, and I’m sure they’ll continue to pay you.