Heavy or Light Bullet Grains for Self-Defense? Considerations and Recommendations

Should you use Light-Weight or Heavy-Weight Grain Bullets for Self-Defense?

Heavy and Light Bullet Grains for Self-Defense

It is very important to evaluate and use the correct bullet weight or grain for your particular handgun purpose and application. Several factors and the inter-relationships among bullet grain, muzzle velocity, muzzle energy, penetration, expansion, recoil, and terminal ballistics for any specific load and handgun affect a shooter’s results and accuracy.

What is Bullet Grain?

A grain (gr) is a basic Troy weight measurement of mass for the bullet. It is not the weight of the entire cartridge but just the projectile or bullet that leaves the barrel. The grain indicated on an ammo box is often misinterpreted as being the gunpowder measurement when it really represents the weight of only the bullet.

One grain weight of a bullet is equal to 1/7,000th of a pound or 1/437.5th of an ounce. So, 437.5 grains equals one ounce. To give you a common example, a AA battery weighs about 385 grains. So, a bullet that weighs 124 grains equals .28 ounces. A typical box of pistol ammo displays the caliber number followed by the grain, then sometimes the muzzle velocity with the foot pounds of energy.

Some 9mm Self-Defense Bullet Grains, Muzzle Velocities, and Muzzle Energies

The particular load of ammo chosen significantly affects many factors, so choose your bullet grain and its performance carefully. 9mm Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) is a common self-defense round, so I shall focus on it. Comparison between any two given manufacturer’s 9mm JHP rounds can vary considerably in muzzle velocity, muzzle energy, and even accuracy.

Tip: It is best to try the various loads and grain weights for your use in your specific handgun with its features, along with your particular shooting skills and your personal characteristics.

See the chart below of the different typical grain weights of various 9mm JHP rounds, their expected muzzle velocities, and energies, as compared to a common Frangible round. Note the grains vary from 65, 115, 124, 124+P, 135, and 147 grains in most 9mm ammo. Also, note the comparison among the different types of Sig Sauer JHP 9mm rounds with grains varying from 115, 124, 124+P to 147 grains.

9mm Ammo Type & Bullet GrainMuzzle Velocity- Ft/secMuzzle Energy- Ft-Lbs
RNP 65 GRAIN Frangible1525336
Speer Gold Dot 124+P GRAIN JHP1220410
Speer Gold Dot 115 GRAIN JHP1210374
Federal Premium LE 124+P GRAIN HST JHP1200396
Sig Sauer 124+P GRAIN Elite V-Crown M17 JHP1198395
Sig Sauer 115 GRAIN JHP1185359
Hornady Critical Defense 124+P GRAIN  FlexLock JHP1175380
Sig Sauer 124 GRAIN JHP1165374
Federal Premium LE 115 GRAIN Hi-Shok JHP1160344
Hornady XTP 115 GRAIN JHP1151341
Federal Premium 124 GRAIN HST JHP1150364
Federal Personal Defense Punch 124 GRAIN JHP1150364
Speer Gold Dot 124 GRAIN JHP1150364
Hornady Critical Defense 115 GRAIN FTX JHP1140333
Speer Gold Dot Carry 135 GRAIN GDHP1120397
Federal Premium 135 GRAIN Hydra-Shok JHP1060337
Sig Sauer 147 GRAIN JHP985317

Match Shooting Goals to Various Bullet Grains

The shooter must know his/her primary purpose, use, or application when shooting, such as concealed carry, home defense, range plinking, hunting, or other personal protection. And whether primarily inside or outside, use of the handgun is mostly involved. The shooter must recognize the optimal caliber for the individual’s physical characteristics, medical limitations, grip strength, felt recoil comfort level, and other preferences. Understanding the bullet grains of particular rounds and their muzzle velocities and muzzle energies and matching them to each individual’ shooter’s characteristics and preferences will lead to optimal results. Several factors must be considered in evaluating bullets and blending all the variables to achieve the best hits and overall results.

Factors for Consideration in Evaluating All Bullets for Self Defense

Some of the factors to consider for the given use and expectations for the bullet weight are:

  1. Accuracy – The degree of accuracy desired for the purpose at hand is important. Certainly, competition shooting and pinpoint target hits are different from range plinking fun and up-close combat self-defense quick target hits. Considerations for long-distance game hunting at 100 yards are different than for personal protection at five yards. For concealed carry and self-defense in the usual three to seven yards distances, hits on target to stop the threat are necessary.
  2. Penetration
  3. Expansion
  4. Speed
  5. Distance
  6. Energy at the Target
  7. Felt Recoil and Actual Recoil Generated
  8. Target Hits
  9. Other Factors to Consider
  10. Caliber
  11. Gun Frame & Material
  12. Barrel Length
  13. Gun Weight & Size
  14. Sight Radius
  15. Wind and Gusts
  16. Shooter Skills & Variables: Strength in Hands, Grip Used, Characteristics

My Personal Comparisons Between Light-Grain and Heavy-Grain Bullets

Lighter Bullets Impact Lower Up Close

I have found in most of my 9mm handguns that lighter bullets, e.g., 115 grain bullets with normal and high-pressure +p loads, travel faster, flatter, and generally impact the target lower at close ranges, under 25 yards. Distance, reduced time in the barrel, stability, point of drop, arc of movement, and velocity are key influencing factors.

Heavier Bullets Impact Higher Up Close

On the other hand, for me and my specific 9mm guns and the specific rounds used, I have found that heavier bullets, e.g., 124, 124+p, and 147 grain bullets travel somewhat slower, stay in their flat trajectory a shorter time and then begin their drop, but generally impact the target higher only at close ranges, under 25 yards. At some point in time and distance along the trajectory, the heavy bullets will fall below the lighter ones due mostly to differences in trajectories.

Trajectory and Drop Over Distances

The trajectory of a bullet when it leaves the barrel of a handgun forms a parabola that will intersect points along the line of sight twice. Once when the bullet is rising and again when it is descending. In self-defense at seven to ten yards, the heavier bullet still rises above the pre-ignition point of sight and will hit higher than a lighter and faster bullet, which has left the barrel later in the arc of the muzzle flip and will maintain stability for the distance. At a longer distance, say 50 yards or more, the heavier bullet has passed the mid-point of its arc and then is falling more quickly, in response to gravity, than the lighter bullet and will then strike a target lower.

Power and “Felt” Recoil

For me and my particular 9mm handguns, my physical limitations, and for most of the specific lighter manufacturers’ rounds I have used, I found less power at the target and more “felt recoil” from the lighter bullets. But, this does vary considerably. Lighter rounds have less penetrating energy, and energy does affect actual handgun recoil, which is different than an individual’s “felt” recoil. Again, there are many variables that affect this, so you should try various bullet weights in your particular guns with your particular shooting skills, characteristics, medical limitations, and uses at various distances. For self-defense, shoot your specific 9mm handgun with 115 grain and with 147 grain bullets at 25 yards and less to see if you find, like I did, that the heavier 147 grain bullet hits the target higher almost every time.

Conclusions About Heavy-Grain and Light-Grain Bullets

Without a doubt, the particular type of handgun, the bullet grain weight and caliber used, the distance of the target, the purpose at hand, and the skills of the shooter are significant factors in selecting rounds for self-defense. Consider the main advantages and disadvantages of the bullet’s grain weight for yourself and your self-defense. Try the various weights of bullets and ammo types in your specific self-defense guns and make your own conclusions about the loads to use before you haphazardly use your gun for personal protection.

Tip: Probably, the most important reason to select a heavier and larger bullet for self-defense and stopping the threat is increased energy and power at the target, which improves terminal ballistics, including accuracy, penetration, and expansion. But get the correct bullet weight for your needs and particular gun.

Bullet Grains and Types Used by the Author for Self-Defense

Among others, I use these rounds and weights, velocities, and energies (not in any particular preference) below for my 9mm self-defense handguns. Due to the inconsistencies in muzzle velocities and energies for the different bullet grains, it is important to match them and practice with your specific self-defense handgun.

  1. Sig Elite 124 grain V-Crown JHP; MV=1165 fps; ME=374 ft-lb
  2. Speer Gold Dot 135 grain GDHP; MV=1120 fps; ME= 397 ft-lb
  3. Federal Premium HST 124 grain JHP; MV=1150 fps; ME= 364 ft-lb
  4. Speer Gold Dot 124 grain GDHP; MV=1150 fps; ME=364 ft-lb
  5. Sig Elite 115 grain V-Crown JHP; MV=1185 fps; ME= 359 ft-lb
  6. Federal Premium Hydra Shok 135 grain JHP; MV=1060 fps; ME= 337 ft-lb
  7. Hornady Critical Defense FTX 115 grain JHP; MV=1140 fps; ME=333 ft-lb.

Conclusions

Success in making your own conclusions and decisions about the bullet weight for your particular purposes, handguns, and characteristics. While what follows may not be best for you, here are my conclusions for myself based on my limited experiences and personal characteristics for self-defense with my specific handguns.

  1. Lighter grain bullets have the advantages of speed and straight short-range trajectories, with less stability over longer distances, less general expansion and penetration, with reduced time in the barrel due to increased velocities.
  2. Lighter grain bullets have less penetrating energy and power when they hit the target, are affected by wind gusts, have generally less actual gun overall recoil than heavier loads, impact the target lower at close ranges in the parabola, with generally snappier “felt” recoil.

(Note: A large frame pistol might help absorb some of the recoil, reducing “felt” recoil for some. Also, propellant burn rate can also affect recoil.)

  1. Heavier grain bullets have the advantages of increased power and penetrating energy, more stability in flight over longer distances from the weight, and better expansion and penetration (e.g., better to stop the threat and more humane kills for the hunter at long range.)
  2. Heavier grain bullets are less resistant to wind gusts, are somewhat more accurate and generally penetrate more at shorter distances, are slower, with more actual gun recoil, depending upon the manufacturer’s heavier load.

Photo by author.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2021 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.

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"Col Ben" is retired with 30 years service in the U.S. Air Force, with joint services Special Ops duty and training, and is Air Force qualified as "Expert" in small arms. He is a Vietnam-era Veteran. Ben is an experienced NRA-Certified Pistol Instructor, NRA Range Safety Officer, and FL Concealed Carry License Instructor. Ben recently wrote the book "Concealed Carry and Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection" (second printing) with 57 comprehensive Chapters about concealed carry and handgun principles, techniques, and tips for both experienced and new shooters. His reference book is endorsed by several organizations and is available on his website at FloridaHandgunsTraining.com. Contact him at ColBFF@gmail.com.
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R S Morgan

At least in my experience and research, in 9mm I have ended up a fan of the 147gr subsonic loads. Seems that both penetration and expansion are a bit better (all other things being equal, which of course these are not) with a bit less perceived recoil and noise. Particularly, in a shorter barrel carry gun, you get closer to the 4″ test performance with a heavier load. IF (a big if) the gun works well with the subtonics. My M&P9c runs very will with the 147gr V-crown but the same load in my LC9 or Browning HP isn’t a real winner. My basic approach comes down to this: shoot what the gun likes. The difference in ballistic is more than swamped by reliability.

Steven Kopischke

the heavier bullet has passed the mid-point of its arc and then is falling more quickly, in response to gravity, than the lighter bullet”

Gravity is a constant. Weight has nothing to do with “falling more quickly.” Air resistance is the key. However, I suspect a lighter bullet has air resistance characteristics quite similar to a heavier bullet.

MikeyW

It is simply a fact that the heavier bullet falls more quickly than the lighter bullet. Gravity is the reason it falls, not why it falls more quickly. The comparison between the heavier and lighter bullet is the sense the author is conveying. Perhaps he should have left out “in response to gravity.”

PM in Fl.

This article is intended to explore self defense rounds, I claim no expertise, but I don’t consider 50 to 100 yards Self defense. Maybe for police or military those distances pertain to defense , however I think of self defense to be at less than 25 yard range. You have to be shooting in a hurricane to worry about wind deflection when being mugged, and bullet drop due to gravity is of little importance at 7 yards.

Last edited 6 months ago by PM in Fl.
Junior Flav

Differences in bullet drop is a minor concern, unless there is a big spread in bullet weight, such as 65 grain versus 147 grain weights. Bullet weight, distance, wind resistance, and the gun used are variables that do significantly affect bullet drop. Col Ben is correct. Without a doubt wind resistance is a variable, but specifically distance and mass are also key. Mass enhances penetration and holds more energy over longer distances. So heavier bullets carry more energy and hold it farther downrange, but drop more considering the parabola. As he said, there are many variables that affect this.