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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?
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. If you want to know how they conducted their tests, you can read about it here. 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 that pistol here.
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.
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. 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.
One thing struck me as I compiled this list…how many of the 9mm versions of these cartridges I had listed on my “Best 9mm Ammo” article. By far, most of these were also included on that list. I guess it goes to show that, if you make a good, effective product, it carries through your product line. That reinforces my decision to include these ten .45 ACP loads on this “Best .45 Ammo” list. These are popular rounds among many different pistol carriers, whether law enforcement or civilian.
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To cut to the chase, here’s a table with the loads and some ballistic information.
.45 ACP Ammo - Test Barrel: 4 Inches
|Brand:||Bullet Weight:||Bullet Type:||Velocity (fps):||Energy (ft./lbs):|
|Federal American Eagle||230||FMJ||890||405|
|Federal LE Tactical Bonded HST||230||JHP||840||360|
|Speer Gold Dot||230||JHP||830||352|
|Federal Classic Hydra Shok Personal Defense||230||JHP||865||382|
|Hornady Critical Defense||185||JHP||900||333|
|Remington Golden Saber||230||JHP||875||391|
|Winchester Supreme Elite||230||JHP||882||432|
|Hornady Custom XTP||200||JHP||900||360|
Gel Tests, Anyone?
Another great chart can be found here. This is the .45 ACP section of luckygunner.com’s ballistic gel tests. You can see, at a glance, how most of the JHP rounds listed here performed and if the achieved the F.B.I.’s requirement of no less than 12, nor more than 18, inches of penetration. Each load is a link to more specific photos and information about penetration and bullet expansion about that load. It makes for some interesting viewing.
#1 Magtech FMC
Magtech is part of an international ammunition manufacturing consortium, CBC Global Ammunition. With plants in Brazil, Germany, the Czech Republic and the U.S. (in Minnesota), CBC Global is a huge corporation which produces over 1.5 billion rounds of centerfire ammunition yearly. A lot of that goes to NATO and allied military forces. If you’ve ever shot any ammo made by Sellier & Bellot, you’ve shot ammo made by this company. It is made in the Czech Republic. Anyway, that’s all well and good, but how does this ammo shoot? Like it’s supposed to. With a muzzle velocity of around 840 fps, it comes close to the original .45 ACP FMJ round, except that the original was out of a 5-inch barrel and this is out of a 4-incher. Very respectable ballistics. I’ve used this brand of ammo and I like it. It’s not too expensive but yet is accurate and reliable. For practice, it would work well.
#2 Blazer Brass
I like Blazer Brass .45 ACP ammo. It is made by CCI/ATK and is reloadable. There is the plain Blazer ammo in aluminum cases that is not reloadable…it costs a couple of bucks less per 50 than this does, so if you’re not a reloader, you might save some money (especially if you buy in bulk).
This is very reliable, with decent ballistics. With a muzzle velocity of 845 fps, the recoil impulse is going to be a little sharper than with some FMJ rounds, but not too bad. At least it will help you get used to your carry ammo. This is an excellent way of getting your practice in at a reasonable cost. One more reloading note – this brass uses small pistol primers, not large like most other .45 ACP cases. I can see no performance difference between the two.
I’ve gotten to the point where, if I see a box of “American Eagle” anything, I know it’s going to be solid ammunition. Made by Federal, the American Eagle brand is made to be sold for a little less without giving up performance. It is available for both handguns and rifles and is quite popular due to its quality and reasonable price. Care has been taken in its production. One area that this shows through is in the finished product…if you’ll notice in the screen shot directly below, the rounds are highly polished before being packaged for sale. This is not necessary, but it shows a willingness by Federal to stick to their high standards across all ammo lines.
As you look at the chart above, you might notice that the American Eagle FMJ load has a muzzle velocity of 890 fps, which matches or betters velocities of some of the self-defense JHP rounds. Why is this significant? Because, if you are looking for a round that closely matches the recoil that your chosen 230-grain JHP load delivers, this may be the right box of ammo to have in your range bag. It actually chronographs faster than some of the specialized loads shown. This may be the ammo that most closely duplicates your JHP load…only experimentation can tell you that. At least, it’s a place to start.
The Federal LE Tactical Bonded .45 ACP load was developed for law enforcement use, hence the “LE” in its name. Agencies were wanting a powerful .45 ACP load that used a bullet that would keep its core joined to its jacket upon target impact and not separate. This would aid in barrier penetration, among other benefits. So, Federal came up with a bonded-core bullet load that clocks 840 fps out of a 4-inch barrel and more out of a 5-inch gun. Expansion is fairly well guaranteed as the bullet and load were developed with that in mind, given the lower .45 ACP velocities. It is a reliable round, a fact born out by the number of LE agencies that carry it. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The Gold Dot bullet has been around for a good while. It was one of the first .45 ACP JHP bullets designed to expand at almost any reasonable velocity and was carried by many law enforcement agencies. It still is. I have talked to a few police friends, one of whom was a state trooper, and he said, to the best of my knowledge, that this round was standard issue for their Sig P227 handguns. At least it was at that time…sometimes ammo changes occur in LE agencies as you can imagine. The point is, as civilian carriers, we could certainly do worse than to emulate what the pros carry. With slightly more exposed lead at the jacket nose, expansion is secured. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The Federal Hydra-Shok round has, like the Gold Dot above, been around for a long time. The bullet is constructed with a central lead post instead of an empty cavity. The post is there to aid in jacket disruption and expansion while keeping the bullet fairly intact. It does work. Here’s an illustration of this unique bullet:
Notice how the jacket has peeled away but the central post is still intact. The post and scored jacket provide “programmed expansion”, meaning that terminal performance tends to be similar with each successive shot and is predictable. The bullet was released in 1988 after the F.B.I. asked for a bullet with better terminal ballistics then the standard “cup-and-core” projectiles of that time offered. If you are looking for something a little different in your carry ammo, you may want to give the Hydra-Shok a try. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The first thing you notice when you look at a Hornady Critical Defense round of any caliber is that the nose of the FTX (flex-tip) bullet is plugged with some sort of a softer material and is not open. Why? The tip acts as a block to keep debris, target material, etc. out of the bullet cavity. It then acts as some sort of wedge which helps push the jacket sides outwards, which aids in bullet expansion. Also, during expansion, the flex tip gets larger as it is pushed backwards which further aids bullet expansion. Another feature of this bullet is its penetration. The lead core has a fairly high antimony content, which helps guarantee deeper penetration. Being a bullet caster, I know that the higher the antimony content of my alloy, the harder the bullet will be. This is one of very few lead-core JHP bullets that uses any other type of additional metal in that core. The bullet’s core is locked to the jacket by Hornady’s InterLock groove, which seems to maintain structural integrity when the target is struck. This round typically performs well in ballistics testing. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The Remington Golden Saber uses a bonded bullet to help ensure that the core stays with the jacket for maximum terminal performance, which is born out in the ballistics gel test linked below. Here’s a quick, two-point summary…it penetrated almost 17 inches and expanded to over .74 inch. These are great results for a .45-caliber bullet that can’t generate the velocities that the 9mm, for example, can. The F.B.I. protocol calls for penetration to be between 12 and 18 inches – this round fits right in with those specifications. If you are looking for a .45 carry round that does both (penetrate and expand), check the Golden Saber out. For that ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The Winchester PDX-1 is a cartridge that uses the Winchester Ranger Bonded bullet, where the core is chemically attached to the jacket. (This is the same bullet, a bit larger, that the F.B.I. requested in a 180-grain .40 S&W load for its service weapons). The bottom of the bullet is open and it shows exposed lead. Some independent tests consisted of the bullet being fired from a 5-inch 1911 into four layers of denim covering wetpack (water-soaked compressed newspapers). The bullets regularly expanding to .86 inch and did not allow the core to separate from the jacket due to the chemical bonding. I know the wetpack test wasn’t exactly scientific, but at least it shows what this round is capable of. Couple this expansion with excellent penetration capabilities that meet or exceed the F.B.I. protocol and this round is definitely one to consider. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
The Hornady XTP bullet has earned a good reputation in whatever caliber it’s loaded. The large hollow point cavity, coupled with the scored jacket, helps initiate expansion in ballistic gel. The reason it’s included here is not because of its performance on gel, but because of its street record. I have read of some tests that had this load being shot through four layers of denim into 10% ballistic gel where the bullet shows only a small amount of expansion, and I have seen other tests where the bullet opened up to .86 inch or more. I guess it depends on whose tests you want to take your information from. I do know that this load is extremely popular. If you want a little more velocity, there is a +P version of this load that pushes the bullet to 1055 fps. Either way, you have a very decent self-defense round that uses a proven bullet, is popular on the street and is made by one of the premier mainstream handgun manufacturers of our times. Another bonus is that this load tends to be a little bit cheaper than a lot of high-end self-defense loads. You could surely do worse. For a ballistics gel test of this round, go here.
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,com, midwayusa.com 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!