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“The only reason I carry a .45 is because they don’t make a .46.” How many times have I heard that old chestnut? Technically, they now make a .46-plus – the .500 S&W Magnum (.500 bullet diameter) and the .480 Ruger (.475 bullet diameter), to name a couple — but they are heavy-duty revolver rounds and a bit much for self-defense. I guess you could carry them, but you’d better wear a pretty big coat to hide them. At any rate, the old .45 ACP is the largest commonly available self-defense round going. How did it get to be that way? We cover this and much more in our search for the best .45 ACP Ammo.
Continue reading for the whole backstory, or skip to the review section for my take on:
|Ammo||Price per round|
|Winchester Ranger T-Series||Out of stock|
|Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel||$1.40|
|Federal Premium Personal Defense HST||$1.29|
|Remington Golden Saber +P||Out of stock|
|Federal +P Tactical Bonded LE||$0.70|
|Hornady Custom XTP||$1.55|
|Magtech Auto FMC||$0.30|
A Little Backstory
The .45 ACP was the brainchild of John Moses Browning. As I have written before about the history in my Best .45 ACP pistol article, the Army was not happy with its .38 Long Colt service round after its failure to stop Moro insurgents in the Philippine War that occurred between 1899 and 1902. The story was that the tribesmen would chemically alter their mental state (read: get high), wrap themselves tightly with grass, cane and other vegetation as a sort of body armor, and proceed through the hail of anemic .38 Long Colt bullets to lop off the heads of our servicemen. This led to the breaking out of the old Peacemakers in .45 Colt from storage, which solved the problem. At least this is the way I’ve always read that it happened.
The truth may not be quite as dramatic as the story, but the truth was that the .38 round was ineffective at stopping them. So, Army Ordnance General John Thompson (of Tommy-gun fame) and Major Louis LeGarde of the Medical Corps conducted ballistic tests to determine actual damage caused by various projectiles. They used various forms of test media, including live animals. The result was that the General recommended a service round of “not less than .45 caliber” with a full-metal-jacketed (FMJ) bullet fired out of (surprisingly in 1904), a semi-automatic pistol…not a revolver.
Enter Mr. Browning’s New Gun
John Browning had been experimenting with a .41-caliber round but quickly answered the call to start development of a self-loading .45-caliber pistol and matching rimless round. He settled on a 230 FMJ round-nose bullet at about 830 fps and then designed the ubiquitous M1911 from which to fire it. In 1906, trials were held, and we all know which pistol was selected. The M1911 was adopted in 1911 (hence its name), and the rest, as they say, is history. The gun was in service from 1911 to 1986, with some special-ops units keeping the old warhouse around to this day. Some pistoleros claim that the 1911 is the best battle pistol ever designed.
Perhaps one of its most famous (and vocal) supporters was Col. Jeff Cooper, a very famous gun writer, firearms trainer and overall handgun and rifle expert. His writings were erudite and learned, and were backed by experience. His legacy still lives on today at the Gunsite Academy, which started out as the American Pistol Institute in 1976. He taught the “modern technique” of pistolcraft, such as two-handed Weaver-stance shooting that brought the sights to eye level and other related skills. His pistol of choice was the 1911. Due largely to that gun, the .45 ACP is going strong today. It is chambered for many pistols and not a few carbines. I have owned several 1911s and other .45 ACP pistols over the years. My .45 ACP pistol ownership is represented currently by a Springfield Armory XD(M). You can read about my experiences with the Springfield Armory XD(M).
A Quick History Lesson
We always think of the military-issue bullet as weighing 230 grains, but the original bullet that passed the Thompson-LeGarde tests weighed 200. It was only after deliberations and modifications that it became standardized as the 230-grain we all know today.
The original .45 ACP case used a small pistol primer. It was when the Frankfort Arsenal manufactured the round that a change was made. The FA made all its own primers, so a “mid-size” primer was used. After more deliberation, the powers-that-be standardized on the large pistol primer so as not to add to the confusion. There are several small-pistol-primer-loaded factory rounds available today, however, that work well.
Two Basic Bullet Types
The .45 ACP is loaded today with two basic bullet types. There is the FMJ round-nose (or its cast equivalent) 230-grain bullet for practice, target and competition. For self-defense, there are a number of more exotic bullet types available with the jacketed hollow point (JHP) leading the pack with bullet weights of around 165 to 230 grains. Of course, it’s hard to make a general statement that limits the old round to just those types that I’ve mentioned here, but it’s a start. There is a greater selection of ammo for the .45 now than at any other time of its long life.
Popular…But Not Like The 9mm
The .45 ACP is not as popular as the 9mm for self-defense purposes but it has stood the test of time and still has its many adherents. It seems to me that the .45 continues its popularity with us older shooters who may have had more experience with it than with other popular self-defense rounds like the 9mm or .40 S&W. Forty years ago when I started carrying a concealed weapon and wanted to carry an autoloader, the 9mm had not made its “splash” on that scene yet and the .45 was the only real choice other than the .380 or .32. It was shot out of a 1911, as double-action .45s were not numerous and those that existed were not totally reliable.
That’s not to say that younger folks aren’t shooting the .45… it’s just that it seems that we of the older crowd are more vocal and “protective” of the round when compared with other self-defense cartridges than a lot of the younger shooters who may have had experience with only the 9mm in a carry-gun role.
A good sign of the old .45’s long life is its resurgence, of sorts. It has never really “gone away”, but with all the new bullet technology that’s being applied to it, it is more popular now than ever before. As I said above, the 9mm is more popular than the .45 for a few reasons…
- Weight: 9mm ammo is lighter and smaller, so more rounds can be carried in magazines. This leads to:
- Capacity: The highest-capacity 9mm I know of is the Tanfoglio (EAA) Witness Match and Springfield XD pistols with their 19+1 capability. The highest-capacity .45 ACP guns that I know of are the Remington RP-45 and FN FNX pistols, which hold 15+1. (There are probably more examples of each type out there but these are what I could think of off the top of my head). The weight difference isn’t great, but with 19 115-grain rounds in the 9mm’s magazine compared with 15 200-grain rounds in the .45 ACP’s, you will notice it.
- Cost: 9mm is usually cheaper than .45 ACP, if you compare similar types of ammo. Notice I said “usually” …specialized ammo for either caliber can be expensive.
- Availability: I have seen more boxes of 9mm ammo in local shops than .45 ACP. This is not a hard-and-fast rule, but is something that I’ve noticed over the past few years. 9mm is cheaper to stock, since dealer cost is usually less than corresponding .45 ammo.
So, where does that leave us? I felt I must compare the two calibers, as both are popular but the 9mm is king in terms of gun and ammo sales, as of this writing. Does that make the old .45 any less of a self-defense round? Not hardly. There’s another old quote that I’ve heard throughout my shooting career that goes like: “The .45 starts out the diameter that the 9mm needs to expand to in order to be effective”, or words to that effect. Now, don’t take me to task for that — I don’t believe that the 9mm lacks “stopping power”, whatever that is. With modern ammo, it’s been shown by more than one experiment that all three major self-defense autoloader rounds — the 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP — are fairly statistically equal in incapacitation ability, given proper bullets and velocities.
The only reason I mentioned that is because I’ve heard it so often. There are many, many .45 fans out there, of which I am one. I simply am pointing out that the old .45 isn’t the only self-defense game in town.
So, what do type of ammo do we shoot? Well, what’s our purpose? For general practice, target and competition, a cast or jacketed round nose or semi-wadcutter bullet works well and saves a bit of money over JHP or other self-defense rounds. For your carry gun, though, when you are finished with practice you load it jacketed hollow points. This type of bullet is better in that role over the full metal jacketed-bullet. This presents somewhat of a dilemma as you should practice with what you carry, but there are ways around this. We will look at this situation later.
Full Metal Jacket
We know from above that FMJ means full metal jacket. The bullet is totally encased (except for maybe the base, which is sometimes left exposed) in a copper jacket. This totally surrounds the bullet and keeps lead from contacting the gun barrel’s rifling. For many years, the military had used FMJ bullets as they fed in full-auto weapons where exposed-lead bullets would hang up. In terms of civilian usage, .45 ACP FMJ bullets are best used for practice and for targets or competitions, not self-defense.
Jacketed Hollow Point
The jacketed hollow point (JHP) is the bullet best suited for defensive purposes. The bullet consists of a lead core encased in a copper (or other) jacket like the FMJ bullet…the difference is that the nose, or tip, of the bullet is left uncovered so that soft lead is exposed. This theoretically causes the bullet to upset when it hits the target. The bullet deforms, with the jacket and core splitting and peeling back in a flower-petal fasion.
This causes the bullet’s diameter to increase, thereby creating a larger wound channel. Of course, there are factors that may prevent the JHP from performing in the real world as it does on ballistic gel blocks. If the bullet has to go through a thick coat or other heavy garment, if it strikes a major bone, if it is somehow deflected upon entry…these are all things that can stop a bullet from expanding to a larger diameter or from penetrating to its full potential. Even so, JHP bullet ammo is the recommended choice for self-defense purposes.
So What Self-Defense Ammo Do I Buy?
OK…you just bought a box of practice FMJ ammo. With FMJ ammo, it is not as critical as it is with JHP and are wanting to buy a carry load that uses JHP bullets. What do you do now? First, you experiment…you buy a box of two or three of the rounds discussed here, as the rounds I’ll discuss have all been proven and any of them would make great carry ammo. I get asked “Why two or three different boxes? Why not just one? This ammo is expensive!” True. But, if you buy just one load, you may not realize the full potential of your carry ammo situation.
What I mean is, if you buy two or three different loads, maybe the second one you try is more accurate or reliable than the first one (the only one you were going to buy). If you go with three or more different types, your odds of finding a really good load for your particular gun greatly increase. You just may end up with a load that puts five rounds in an inch or so at fifteen yards and feeds reliably…there’s your carry load.
Try To Match The Bullet Weights…Two Reasons
There are a couple of important things to remember when you’re choosing both your practice and carry ammo. First, match the bullet weights of both your practice and self-defense loads if at all possible, or at least get close. In other words, if your experimentation with JHP ammo tells you that a 230-grain bullet performs best, then buy 230-grain FMJ practice ammo. There are two good reasons to try to match bullet weights.
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Matching bullet weights means that the recoil between both rounds should be similar. Notice I didn’t say equal, because self-defense ammo tends to be loaded hotter than FMJ rounds and will probably kick more.
It is better, though, to shoot the same bullet weight in both loads rather than to practice with, say, a 230-grain FMJ but carry 185-grain self-defense ammo. The recoil will be close, but if you’re really trying to “dial in” your ability with your carry load, then you might find yourself getting used to two different recoil impulses which can interfere with having only one ingrained in your muscle memory. Your ability to pull the gun down after a shot to regain sight acquisition could be compromised, for one example. Of course, the difference wouldn’t be huge, but some folks like to practice with a timer in order to hone their skills or for competition and for them, sometimes a few tenths of a second may make a difference.
Let’s face it — if you carry 185-grain JHPs then a similarly-loaded 200-grain semi-wadcutter or round-nose load, recoil should be close enough to practice with. It’s when you jump from 230 to 185 that differences, however slight, can occur. So, try to use the same bullet weight (or close) for both types of ammo.
The second reason to use the same bullet weight for both purposes is sight adjustment. A 230-grain bullet should, within reason, strike the target roughly in the same spot as another similarly-loaded 230-grain bullet, regardless of type. Notice I said “similarly loaded”. If one 230-grain bullet clocks 820 fps and the other over 900 fps, the point of impact most probably will be different, at least by a little. Now, if your gun has an adjustable rear sight, you are good to go as long as you keep the sight set for your carry load — don’t bump it back and forth, just leave it set. If your practice load hits “two inches down and three right” from where your carry load prints, it really doesn’t matter if what you’re honestly trying to do is practice self-defense skills with self-defense ammo.
Practice ammo should be just a means to an end, not an end in itself. What if your gun doesn’t have an adjustable rear sight, or if it’s drift-adjustable for windage only? If your gun doesn’t have an adjustable rear sight, hopefully, the two loads’ points of impact will be close enough together on the target so that it doesn’t matter. There is one more factor to consider, however, that you may have to take into account.
Bullets Hit Lower On The Target — Why?
Most of the time self-defense loads are loaded hotter than the plain-jane FMJ loads, even to the point of bearing the description of being +P. What typically happens to those bullets that are pushed out of the pistol’s barrel at a greater speed than your practice load? They will usually strike lower on the target. Why? It’s because the faster bullet exits the barrel before that barrel has had the time to rise in recoil as far as it might when shooting a slower load. Is this a major concern? Not if you understand what’s going on and have your sights properly adjusted for your carry load. What will most often happen is that your practice load will hit a bit higher than your carry load on the target.
Just remember this and you’ll be good to go. Before I learned this, I would try to adjust my sights for both loads, “chasing the holes” on the targets. The main thing is to practice, practice, practice with both loads. This is the only way to discover any quirks or anything else that you should be aware of with each type of ammo. Let’s look at ten individual .45 ACP loads — three for practice and seven for carry.
You might be wondering why some ammo contains a +P label. You should only use P+ ammo for guns rated for +P ammunition. P means pressure. It’s overpressured ammunition — a cartridge loaded with a higher amount of gunpowder. You can increase the velocity and power without needing to buy a new gun or upgrading your cartridge size. But greater power also means increased recoil. Using this kind of ammo in a smaller handgun can be uncomfortable.
Using guns not made for +P ammo may cause damage to the firearm, which may also result in injury. It’s best to check your firearms first if you plan to try +P ammunition.
How To Know If a Gun Is Built for +P?
Check your gun’s manual, it should mention if it’s rated for +P ammo. If you don’t have your manual, take your gun to a gun dealer or a gunsmith. They will know.
So congrats for absorbing all that information about the .45 ACP ammo! Now it’s time to look at the best .45 ACP ammo out there right now.
Our Picks for Best .45 ACP Ammo
In this review I cover
|Ammo||Type||Penetration||Expansion||Muzzle Velocity (fps)||Weight (gr)|
|Winchester Ranger T-Series||JHP||14.2"||1.010"||885||230|
|Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel||JHP||12.9"||0.707"||820||230|
|Federal Premium Personal Defense HST||JHP||14"||0.84"||890||230|
|Remington Golden Saber +P||JHP||15.7"||0.758"||1140||185|
|Federal +P Tactical Bonded LE||JHP||14.7"||0.842"||950||230|
|Hornady Custom XTP||JHP||18.1"||0.56"||900||200|
|Magtech Auto FMC||JHP||15.1"||0.771"||837||230|
Winchester Ranger T-Series 230 grain
Winchester is a brand that served law enforcement for more than a century. It means quality and an exceptional line of high-performance handguns. Itsammunition has impressive expansion and velocities.
The Ranger T-Series is one of the highest-performing loads. It features a modified SXT bullet with a brass primer cup that reloads with its nickel-plated brass casings. It has a reverse taper jacket tube design and the base of the lead core is exposed. The jacket is crimped around with serrations that create six petals. It has a velocity of 935 feet per second (fps), an average penetration of 14.2 inches, and a consistent expansion of 1.010 inch. It’s viable for personal defense and tactical use.
- High-end performance
- Consistent expansion
- Proven reliability for years
Speer Gold Dot Short Barrel 230 grain
The Speer Gold Dot proved itself reliable for self-defense and service loads. It’s one of the top loads used in law enforcement. The design is a hollow-point cavity filled with elastomers. It features reinforcing ribs for the petals. The bullets are chemically bonded, providing weight retention for better accuracy. It has a velocity of 820 fps and an average penetration of 12 inches, which is enough for self-defense. It also has a consistent expansion of .707 inch on average. The Short Barrel in its name means it can work in barrels as short as 1.9 inches, making it a great choice of .45 ammo for those who use subcompacts.
- Proven reliability for self-defense
- Can work well in guns with short barrels
- Low penetration
Federal Premium HST Personal Defense 230 grain
Like Winchester, Federal is one of the biggest names in firearms. Federal designed this ammo to create a massive expansion. This round is also used by law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Even though the bullets aren’t bonded, it’s still excellently made. It performs well even in shorter barrels, having a velocity of 890 fps. In ballistics, it has an average penetration of 14 inches and a consistent expansion of .84 inch”. It features a preskived tip that can cause the bullet to expand into large petals and create a large permanent wound cavity. Unlike standard rounds, the Federal Premium HST Personal Defense ammo sports a design that can prevent the bullets from getting “plugged” when shooting through barriers.
- Great expansion and penetration
- Design that prevents bullets getting plugged
- Unbonded bullet design
Remington Golden Saber +P 185 grain
Remington’s bullet’s core is bonded with its jacket for maximum performance. Its copper alloy jacket has deep serrations that allow expansion. The added pressure results in a velocity of 1,150 fps or so, leaving a standard 5-inch barrel. Its average penetration is 15.7 inches and has a consistent expansion of 0.76 inch. Remington designed its lightweight rounds for self-defense and light hunting.
- Lightweight and delivers high velocity
- Great penetration and expansion
- +P might give more recoil
- Can only be used for guns built to withstand +P ammo
Federal Premium LE +P Tactical Bonded HP 230 grain
The +P feature gives the Federal Premium LE’s great velocity of 950 fps. It was also developed for law enforcement officers. This .45 caliber bullet can leave a .842-inch exit wound and has an average 14.1-inch penetration. The bullets are in a bonded hollow point design to maintain weight. Its nickel-plated brass cases are boxer primed and reloadable. This round has great expansion and penetration. Despite its +P rating, the velocity is slightly higher but is still manageable.
- Nickel-plated brass allows better reload
- Bonded bullets for weight retention
- +P gives more recoil
- Can only use guns built to withstand +P ammo
Hornady Custom XTP 200 grain
Another high-grade ammunition that’s an excellent round for self-defense. The Hornady Custom is more affordable than other high-end bullets, yet its quality still rocks. The lead core of the XTP is swaged for near-perfect balance and improved stability. It features small serrations which weaken the copper jacket. This design ensures a reliable expansion even at low velocities. Its brass material isn’t as good as the nickel-plated for reloading but you can still reload these cartridges efficiently. If penetration is a concern, this round has an average penetration of 18.1 inches, which is higher than the standard. It has an average expansion of 0.56 inch. The Hornady Custom .45 ACP round has a light bullet weight, allowing a higher velocity of 900 fps.
- Great accuracy
- Consistent expansion
- High penetration (above the 18-inch range standard)
Magtech .45 Auto 230 grain
Magtech is a brand that’s part of the large CBC Global Ammunition. It’s a big corporation that produces billions of rounds yearly. It has numerous plants in several parts of the world. Much of what it manufactures goes to NATO and military forces. Sellier & Bellot is also one of its brands. The company is known for its exceptional quality and affordability. Magtech, for example, has a strong reputation in the U.S. It’s great to use for recreational shooting, especially if you’re new to using a gun, because of its cheap price. Magtech Auto FMC offers a muzzle velocity of 837 fps, an average penetration of 15.1 inches and an expansion of 0.771 inch. The Magtech is a sweet deal for its price.
- Made in high quality
- Great for target shooting
- Price is cheaper only when purchased in bulk
Federal American Eagle 230 grain
American Eagle is a Federal Premium brand that is one of the biggest names in ammunition. It’s one of Federal’s popular lines that can be found almost anywhere. For its reasonable price, its muzzle velocity of 890 fps is not so bad. It can closely match a decent velocity of some of the high-end rounds. It’s a midrange product that is reloadable and great for use in target practice.
- Easy to find
- Great to use in range shooting
- Muzzle velocity of 890 fps is middle of the pack
Blazer Brass 230 grain
One of the cheapest ammunition you’ll find. The Blazer Brass’ price makes it great for recreational shooting, target practice, and tactical training. Brass-cased, boxer-primed, and reloadable. One thing to note about Blazer Brass .45 is that they use small pistol primers instead of the standard .45 ACP large pistol primers.
- Reliable and affordable
- Great for range shooting
- Uses smaller-than-average pistol primers
PMC Bronze Ammunition 230 grain
PMC is more affordable than Blazer Brass, but it’s still great ammo. It’s made of brass, which makes it a great alternative to steel-cased products. Its cheap price makes it a great round to use for range shooting.
- Reliable and affordable
- Great for range shooting
- Occasional misfeeds
So…what’s the takeaway from all this? Which of these rounds will be your carry or practice rounds, if any? Are there better loadings out there? Will these cartridges function in your three-inch General’s Model Colt 1911?
There are a lot of questions that I simply can’t answer in an article such as this one. The only way that you will learn the answers to these questions is to buy as many different loads as you can afford and test them in your own gun(s). If you can only buy one box at a time, no worries…start with that one, wring it out and then when you are able, buy box #2 – a different load. Once you’ve either: immediately found a load that works remarkably well in your .45, stick with it; or, have worked your way to the bottom of our list here before you find something that is a perfect carry round for you, then you do this:
- Buy as much of it as you can, but only if you’re SURE that this is the best load for your gun.
- Once dialed in and you’ve determined the load is the one you want to keep, explore buying it in quantity. Unless you have a favorite online supplier, start with well-known sites such as LuckyGunner, Midwayusa, or similar enterprise. You should be able to lower, even if it’s by only a small amount, the price per round by buying 500 or 1000 rounds at a time. This system should be applied to both practice and carry ammo.
- OK…you’ve got your perfect ammo. Now what? Shoot it, of course! Practice, practice, practice. That’s the only way to prove to yourself that the ammo truly works, and to prove to yourself your own shooting skills are improving.
If you are wondering about the expansion or penetration qualities of that ammo, line up some water-filled milk jugs at your range, if they’ll let you. Shoot them. This should give you at least an idea of…
1. Terminal Milk Jug Ballistics — milk jugs are not humans but you should get an idea of your ammo’s expansion and penetration characteristics in a water-based medium. Most ranges might have a problem with this, so now is the time to visit your friend’s farm and find an out-of-the-way empty pasture as a test bed for your shooting experiments. At the very minimum, check the accuracy of your load. If you can’t hit with it, the best bullet in the world won’t do you any good.
2. Sight Adjustments — make sure your loads shoot to point of aim. Remember, sight in for your carry load and don’t change that…your other load is just for practice, so just remember how to hold in order to hit with it.
Have fun during the selection process…that’s the fun (if expensive) part…selecting your practice and carry ammo. Let me know below if you find what you’re looking for!