9mm Ammo for self defense

Best 9mm Ammo in 2021 [Self-Defense & Target]

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Invented way back in 1901 by none other than the legendary Georg Luger, 9mm Parabellum (or 9x19mm, or 9mm, or 9mm Luger) is one of the most prolific cartridges in the world today. But what is the best 9mm ammo?

From military special operation units to college shooting sports teams to millions of concealed carriers, 9mm has done it all and will continue to do it all for a long time to come.

So in a world with more brands and types of 9mm than you can shake a stick at, how do you know what is the best?

How do you even define what is “best”? And where can you get a good deal on it?

We’ll have that info and a lot more as we look at the Best 9mm Ammo.

Definitions and Explanations

Before we begin in earnest, let’s look at some cartridge basics so we’re all on the same page. Then we’ll look at what the best 9mm ammo is.

We’ll look at bullets, cartridges, and other factors that impact a round’s effectiveness.

Bullets

Deconstructed 9mm
The basic elements of a 9mm cartridge (left to right) primer, case, powder, and bullet.

Hopefully, we all know what a bullet is – that’s the projectile that exits the barrel (at least that’s the plan).

While you’ll often hear people use “bullet” as slang for the entire cartridge, technically speaking a bullet is just one part of the cartridge.

Bullet Types

While any part of the cartridge can change the performance characteristics, the bullet design will have the most impact on the target since it is what literally impacts the target.

4 of the best 9mm ammo types (and a battery for scale) from left to right: AAA battery, Full-Metal Jacket, another FMJ, Federal HST Jacketed Hollow Point, and Hornady Critical Defense FTX Polymer Tipped Jacketed Hollow Point

FMJ (Full-Metal Jacket) – A copper “jacket” encases a lead core. Pretty simple and pretty cheap to make.

The important point is that only copper touches the barrel’s rifling, unlike a cast lead bullet that has no metal coating.

FMJ 9mm deconstructed
Depending on the manufacturer your FMJ might have a different color than most.

FMJ bullets are great for practice, competition, or as less expensive ammo in order to save costs.

JHP (Jacketed Hollow Point) – this bullet consists of a lead or other core covered by a copper jacket with a carefully engineered and tested opening in the bullet’s exposed, soft nose.

There are many different types and brands of JHP cartridges, more than we can list here.

To keep it simple, we’ll just say that the opening is there to enhance expansion once the bullet hits the target.

Engineered so that the bullet will split open and to allow “petals” to expand.

Once expanded, the bullet is commonly almost double the size and can do a lot more damage.

An added benefit is that it takes a lot of energy to do this and thus greatly slows the bullet in the target. This goes a long way in preventing overpenetration.

Other – there are a few newer bullet designs out that weren’t there a couple of decades ago.

Personally, I haven’t seen reliable third-party testing that proves these concepts out. I have see dozens of independent tests proving the effectiveness of JHP and HP bullets.

Cartridge

As partially explained above, a cartridge consists of a case, a bullet, some powder, and a primer.

For factory ammo, it is rare to know what exactly kind of powder is in each cartridge type, but the bullet weight and design should be readily available.

If you get into reloading, you’ll want to learn more about powder. Until then though, it’s okay to just trust the manufacturer.

Pistol Caliber Comparison

 

BONUS: This image is from our Handgun Caliber Guide. I highly recommend reading it, if you want to learn more about pistol and revolver cartridges.

A Note About Penetration & Expansion

Something I often need to remind new gun owners is that life isn’t a video game. You don’t have 100 Health Points and 9mm doesn’t do 1D10 piercing damage per hit.

However… Dead is dead. You can’t make something dead-er. Not even the best 9mm ammo can do that.

9mm vs .45 ACP Bullets and Gun
Doesn’t matter what size caliber you get shot with, dead is dead.

Some factors are related to the gun you are using, like barrel length. Others are environmental, like living in Southern California anytime Vs. North Dakota in winter.

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s dig in.

Barrel length

Generally speaking, 9mm is designed for 4-5″ barrels. Getting ammo for barrels shorter than that is a niche application that has only recently been addressed in the marketplace.

If you’re using something shorter than 4″, you might want to double-check and see if there are some ballistic gel tests with your chosen ammo.

Climate

If you live in an area where shorts and T-shirts are pretty much worn year-round, you can get by with bullets that may not penetrate as far.

Conversely, if you are having to defend yourself in a cold climate where the bullet must get through a heavy coat or more, penetration becomes the deciding factor in what you buy.

Winter might make it easier for you to conceal carry, but it also means a lot more layers to poke through.

There is one path of thinking where FMJ bullets might be the answer for those of you living in the really cold areas where bullets need a lot of penetration.

You might solve the issue by using a hollow point round that is designed for penetration in addition to expansion (such as any of the options from Hornady that feature a polymer tip). That might be a more reliable choice.

Bullet weight

Common 9mm bullet weights normally available at most stores are 115, 124, and 147 grain.

The 115-grain loads tend to be higher velocity and the 147s somewhat slower, even subsonic.

A good compromise is a 124-grain bullet, this is also super popular with the police and military. In fact, NATO standardized on a 124gr design.

As with the climate comparison, you have a choice of going with zippier speed/great expansion or slower/better penetration. These are generalities, of course – exceptions abound in the real world.

I’ve mentioned penetration and expansion – what am I talking about, specifically? Let’s loosely define the terms as they relate to ammunition.

Penetration

Defined as piercing or passing through something. The FBI standard (a good standard to live by) looks for between 12 and 18 inches of penetration in ballistic gel.

Some rounds excel in penetration – in fact, they penetrate too well. One concern is that a bullet will pass through its intended target and injure an innocent bystander beyond the target.

Expansion

In relation to a handgun bullet, expansion is its ability to enter a target and end up at the end of its journey with a larger diameter than when it went in.

The bullet designed for expansion is usually a JHP, where there is a jacketed bullet body with a soft, sometimes exposed, lead or polymer tip.

Expanded bullets

There are many different types of expanding bullets, but the differences don’t really matter a lot to the average person.

While they might take a different path to get there, they all get there.

Kinetic Energy

As the name suggests, this is the amount of energy the bullet has.
To figure bullet energy, take the bullet weight (in grains) times the square of the bullet velocity (in feet per second) divided by 450,437.

So, as an example, a bullet weighing 115 grains at a velocity of 1150 fps would yield 337.6 foot-pounds of energy.

Energy figures can be tricky and shouldn’t solely determine a bullet’s effectiveness. As I say below, sometimes energy looks good on paper but does not translate well in the real world in terms of the bullets’ actual effectiveness

If you want to test this information for yourself, a simple chronograph will help give you accurate data.

Choosing Self-Defense Ammo

Professionals and amateurs alike have published dozens, even hundreds, of tests and protocols for testing ammo.

While some of them are silly and some of them are practical, the gold standard is the FBI Penetration Test.

The FBI has tested thousands of rounds and has developed a standardized test to even the playing field.

We could do a whole article just on the test (and we should…) but the short version is that it tests ammo using a gel block and includes things like heavy clothing, drywall, simulated car doors, and automotive glass.

Bullet gel with heavy clothing
Lucky Gunner recreating part of the FBI’s test for heavy clothing

Generally, for the average public, the main thing we need to worry about is heavy clothing. Statistically speaking, it’s very seldom that a civilian needs to shoot through drywall, a car door, or a windshield in a self-defense shooting.

Winter layers, on the other hand, depending on where you live might be worn for half or more of the year.

heavy clothing for ballistic testing

Good defensive ammo will penetrate heavy clothing, expand, and will not over-penetrate the body.

It can be hard to tell the good from the bad unless you set up your own ballistic gel. Thankfully the people over at Lucky Gunner have done a huge range of testing and that info is available to us.

If you’re ever in doubt about a brand of defensive ammo, check out their lab test results to give yourself a clearer picture of what is going on.

That said — all of the ammo types we recommend are ones we trust our lives to. We do so because we have researched them and shot them ourselves in training.

FMJ Target/Practice Ammo

Really there are only three things I want from my training ammo — I want it cheap, I want it reliable and I want the point of impact to roughly match the point of impact of my carry ammo.

And of the three, I’ll lean on the cheap side.

Be it for training or just for plinking on the range, FMJ ammo is perfect to keep your costs down.

Another great way to hurt your wallet less is to use steel or aluminum-cased ammo. Steel might be harder to find these days as most of the steel case ammo options came from Russia and those sources have been recently banned. Hopefully other countries will pick up the slack.

Aluminum- and steel-cased ammo should still be floating around though.

Both are great for making ammo costs less and they are perfectly safe to shoot in your gun. You might run into feeding or extraction issues though since those metals behave differently than brass.

That said, give it a shot in your gun.

Best 9mm Ammo (self-defense and on the range)

As a note to our readers, we apologize that much of the ammo we’re about to recommend might not be in stock when you are looking for it.

Since COVID started last year, the demand for guns and ammo has gone through the roof.

Combined with CDC safety measures, supply chains being greatly disrupted, and a host of other reasons — this ammo shortage has not passed us by yet and is likely to continue for several more months.

We’ll do our best to update this article as ammo becomes more available.

1. Magtech 115-Grain

One of the best brands of practice ammo for the money is Magtech.

Normally, you can find this for a good price and lots of it. I’ve burned through several thousand rounds of Magtech and never had an issue.

Something that is nicer about it than most cheap ammo is that it isn’t too dirty. More complete burns of the powder mean better MV and less cleaning.

Magtech, a member of CBC Global Ammunition, makes all their own components. The ammo is manufactured in Brazil but the corporation is worldwide.

2. Remington UMC 115-Grain

Another good buy in 115-grain practice ammo is the Remington UMC.

Remington as a company has had a rough time of it the past 10 or so years, but it’s looking like we’ll be seeing the brand come back in force soon.

Bought by Vista Outdoors during the Remington bankruptcy sale last year, they’ve been working non-stop to get things back up and running.

While everything else Remington might have gone down in quality during their final days, the ammunition line was about the only thing that maintained the quality that Remington was once known for.

Now in the hands of Vista Outdoors (who also own Bushnell, RCBS, Hoppes #9, Federal, CCI, Speer, Blazer, and a lot more), we’re confident that this will still be great ammo in any caliber.

Only time will tell if they remain one of the best 9mm ammo brands ever made.

3. Winchester NATO 124-Grain

If you’re looking for something with a little more oomph, Winchester makes a 124-grain NATO-spec cartridge that comes out to about 20¢ or so per round.

Finding true NATO spec ammo is not as easy as it seems like it should be, but Winchester does a great job of holding their line to high-quality standards and delivering a product that we can trust.

124-grain is also my preferred weight for self-defense ammo, so training with decent-priced and high-quality 124-grain NATO ammo is a good match-up.

4. Federal Train + Protect 115-Grain VHP

The first JHP round I want to discuss is something new from Federal.

The Federal Train + Protect and is loaded with what is called a Versatile Hollow Point (VHP) that weighs 115 grains.

The company, known for its many lines of excellent ammo for both handguns and long guns, introduced a load in 2017 that is a bit less expensive than a lot of self-defense ammo out there.

Using their proprietary VHP bullet, the round is touted as being more affordable, yet still very effective.

There is a huge benefit to being able to train with the ammo you also carry. Your POI will always match your sights, the recoil will always be the same, and you can stockpile one brand of ammo whenever you see it on sale.

The downside… since the ammo shortage started, this ammo has been very hard to find. Harder than even the other major self-defense ammo types.

5. Federal 124-grain HST

The Federal 124-grain HST is a round that was originally sold only to law enforcement agencies. Thankfully, it has been sold to civilians for the past several years and we love it!

Its track record is excellent in terms of use against hostile targets. It uses a non-bonded bullet, but the bullet tends to hold together with the best of them.

If you have either a shorty nine or a full-size duty pistol, the HST is a good choice. You’ll get good penetration, expansion, and performance with this round.

Federal 124-grain HST Expansion
Federal 124-grain HST Expansion

It passed the F.B.I.’s strict penetration requirements while expanding very consistently. Its reputation for breaching intermediate barriers yet still expanding is well known…that is one reason why police agencies use it.

It is also my preferred personal carry cartridge and my pick for the best 9mm ammo for self-defense out there. I keep my 9mm guns loaded with 124gr HST. I even keep my Ruger .380 loaded with 99gr HST.

6. Hornady Critical Defense 115 Grain

The Critical Defense round from Hornady has earned a great reputation as a reliable self-defense round.

What sets it apart is the nose of the hollow point bullet is filled with a flexible material that prevents the hollow point cavity from being plugged as it enters the target.

Hornady Critical Defense 115 Grain Expansion
Hornady Critical Defense 115 Grain Expansion

This also aids the expansion factor of the bullet as it is pushed backward.

Although kind of rare with modern bullets, the nose of an HP bullet can get plugged with debris, and can sometimes cause the bullet to behave like a solid-point projectile and just go straight through the target with little-to-no expansion.

Expansion is controlled, so you get very good penetration, as well.

If you want something with a little more spice to it, Hornady also makes a Critical Duty version that is loaded a little hotter.

In fact, the FBI has awarded Hornady with multiple contracts for Critical Duty +P ammo in both 9mm and 40 S&W.

These are designed for better barrier penetration, so increase the risk of overpenetration in say a home defense situation.

But if windshields are a concern for you, that extra power might be what you want.

If the FBI says it’s one of the best 9mm ammo options in the world, then you can trust it for sure.

7. Speer 115-Grain Gold Dot

The gold Dot has been around for a while because it is very effective.

According to sources, it is the #1 law enforcement 9mm round being sold.

It was one of the first 9mm rounds to use a bonded hollow point bullet, coupled with superb penetration characteristics.

When I can’t find my Federal HST for carry use, Speer Gold Dot is my second choice.

Speer 115-Grain Gold Dot Expansion
Speer 115-Grain Gold Dot Expansion

The nice thing about Speer also is that because it is the officially approved round for so many police departments, finding it in bulk is normally a lot easier than many other brands. Another possible advantage involves litigation after a shooting. It might go down better in court if you use the same ammo that the police use… nothing fancier or more “deadly”. Some prosecutors might be a bit less liable to hammer you on the ammo selection point.

If you want to train with what you carry and have the money to do it right — this is a great option.

8. Winchester PDX-1 Defender 147-Grain

Last but by no means least, let’s add the PDX-1 Defender round to our list.

The only round on our list to use a heavier 147-grain bullet, the PDX-1 has certainly garnered a great reputation.

Being one of three loads adopted by the F.B.I. as a duty/service load, the 147-grain load meets the tough protocols the F.B.I. imposes on its ammo. (The other two companies awarded contracts were Hornady and Federal’s parent company Vista Outdoors).

Winchester PDX-1 Defender 147-Grain Expansion
Winchester PDX-1 Defender 147-Grain Expansion

The round employs bonded bullet and nickel-plated cases for good terminal performance and reliable feeding, respectively.

Another benefit of the PDX-1 is that it uses a low-flash powder formulation, a definite plus when shooting in reduced light. If you’ve ever shot in darkness or right at dusk, the flash can be disorienting.

Imagine having to shoot in darkness or near-darkness at multiple assailants or someone shooting back – you get the point.

The PDX-1 is a great choice for a heavier 9mm bullet load. There’s something to be said about bullet weight and how it relates to momentum.

This is also a great option if you use a suppressor on an HD gun. Either carbine or pistol, subsonic defensive ammo is hard to come by but allows you to make your suppressor the most effective it can be.

One downside though is the price, even for one of the best 9mm ammo options out there — this is on the pricey side.

Conclusions

This was a lot of information to get through, but hopefully, you’re a lot more prepared now than you were before! Not only learning about the best 9mm ammo but a whole lot more to boot.

If I can leave you with some parting wisdom, I will. Choose proven ammo. Don’t get what is new or sounds cool, get what is common and standard.

There is a reason why the FBI or the LAPD or the NYPD trusts their lives to a select few brands of ammo.

For everything else, save as much money as possible and shoot more!

And in case you need even more to read, take a look at these:

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26 comments
  1. I wish you could have use the new Black Hills Honeybadger 125 gr. Round,

    https://www.midwayusa.com/product/150958/black-hills-honeybadger-ammunition-9mm-luger-subsonic-125-grain-lehigh-xtreme-defense-lead-free-box-of-20

    Or the Underwood’s 115 gr. Round.

    https://www.midwayusa.com/product/688225/underwood-ammunition-9mm-luger-p-115-grain-lehigh-xtreme-penetrator-lead-free-box-of-20

    Would of been great to see how they did against the big name manufacturers.

    1. John, I would imagine that either of those rounds would do very well in tests, as real-world experience with them has proven. They are high-quality defense rounds with a good reputation. Thanks for the comment!

  2. I’m a newb with a little help from a relative. I found this article extremely useful and I feel way more knowledgeable than before I read it. I bought a subcompact 9mm for home defense and hiking. I was looking for affordable practice rounds and reasonable defense rounds that I could afford to practice with occasionally. This article gave me a solid foundation. Thank you!!!

  3. A lot of good info! I ‘d add a few points:

    Bullet performance is a big factor in deciding viability as a defensive cartridge, but for me it’s probably not the biggest. I’d rather hit first with a somewhat lighter hitting bullet than hit second with a heavier one. In home defense situations you’re probably under 10 yards, so accuracy isn’t as big a factor in picking your loads.

    But feeding reliability is, and for me that absolutely excludes any exotic bullet types or cases which could potentially increase the likelihood of a jam. No large-notched bullets or sharp angles for me, just more traditional round jacketed hollowpoints with brass or nickel cases.

    One thing rarely commented upon in these types of articles is the effect of firing a weapon indoors on a shooter’s unprotected eyes and ears, especially in a darkened area just after waking up. A bigger blast is going to be more disorienting and make it tougher for follow up shots or quick decision-making. I would like to see some objective data on muzzle flash, recoil, and loudness. +P loads yield a ballistic advantage, but also produce significantly louder reports and sharper recoil. For me, the trade between a little more damage per hit and a little delay from my own muzzle blast is not worth it.

    1. Keith, boy, you sure hit the nail on the head. Some loads/guns are SO loud and generate a huge fireball that you would be totally out of it in terms of seeing or hearing a threat for a long-enough time that the bad guy could do more damage. A good point – any studies done that anyone know of? Thanks for writing!

  4. Not that I’ve done exhaustive research on ammo, but my gosh what an informative, easy-to-read-and-comprehend article. And flush with useful information to boot! My city has a gun show coming up soon and I’ll be using the lessons learned from your article as the basis for my ammo shopping.
    Thanks a ton, Mike!

    1. Kate, sorry for the late reply but I’m glad I could be helpful. Please let us know how the gun show buying went, and thanks for writing!

    1. Edward, I’m on the list to receive a 57 for review – Ruger is sending me one to try. Stay tuned! Thanks for writing.

  5. Am I wrong or does it look like the Federal HST ends up with the largest diameter expansion, and a nasty ragged edge for destruction? Any worries about feeding, as a fellow below said is more important to him (understandably) than a few hundredths expansion etc.

    1. Marvin, no feeding issues that I know of. And, reliability is king – if a round won’t feed, fire or eject, its expanded diameter hardly matters. Thanks for writing!

  6. Scratching my head here…….. For at least 100 years, FMJ has been “the” ammo issued to military and law enforcement across the globe, and then it seems with the advent of “exotic” ammo, it’s been relegated to “training” or “target” ammo status. My dad fought in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. I did two tours in Vietnam, and my son was a Navy SEABEE. ALL of our ammo over those years was FMJ, and I can say it worked very well in combat situations. Why has it suddenly become relegated to an almost undesirable status?

    1. Dave, I don’t think it’s been demoted – I just think FMJ is cheaper to manufacture than JHP or other types of bullets so it gets used more for training and target work. After the Hague Declaration of 1899, countries thought that all JHP-type bullets were banned for warfare, but it actually said only those bullets that were meant to cause excessive bodily harm were not to be used, or words to that effect. I do believe we use JHP ammo now, since about 2015, but I could be wrong. I think it’s mostly due to the cost savings that FMJ enjoy over JHPs that the former bullets are used in training and target situations. Evidently, the Army in particular wanted expanding bullets issued, especially when they went with the Sig M17. There is nothing wrong with FMJ ammo, but expanding bullets are very popular. I am not an expert on this matter – does anyone else out there have a comment about it?

  7. Great article and good info as always. My choice’s with 9mm I simplified based on barrel length…4″ or longer is HST 147gr, less than 4″ is corbon dpx 115+p.

  8. You do know that when the FBI makes an ammo decision, it’s as easy as them walking across the street and asking the DEA FTU what they are using, right? And then going with the same ammo. Just as when DEA wants to decrease shooter proficiency standards, shorten the course, decrease funding for training, ammo, and equipment, and cheapify the whole training experience, they walk up the hill to the FBI FTU, and ask what the FBI is doing, and copy it!

  9. Fred, that’s good – you’re probably right! Who knows how things are really decided… not me, for sure! Thanks for writing.

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