For personal-defense or home-defense handguns, particularly for the ever-growing numbers of compact and short-barreled pistols and revolvers on the market, proper ammunition choice can literally be a life-or-death decision. This choice is neither simple nor easy, and there are many considerations to be weighed. Hornady’s Critical Defense ammunition line offers a remarkable new alternative for the millions of Americans who are taking advantage of their legal right to carry firearms concealed on their persons for protection.
The fundamental purpose of a personal-defense handgun cartridge is to incapacitate a violent attacker as quickly as possible—to make him stop his assault before he can deal injury or death to you or your loved ones. Put bluntly, the bullet from a personal-defense handgun load must be able to penetrate deeply while opening as large a wound channel as possible, disrupting critical organ function and causing immediate, massive loss of blood pressure and attendant neural/motor function. Not “knock-down” power (there’s no such thing), but disruptive power. For this reason, expanding hollowpoint bullet designs have always been preferred for personal defense as opposed to solid nonexpanding bullets, which can penetrate deeply but do not typically cause immediately destructive organ damage even when passing through vital areas.
Unfortunately, there has been a fundamental drawback to expanding hollowpoint bullet design ever since the very first popular high-performance JHP handgun ammunition line, SuperVel, appeared on the market in the late 1960s. Hollowpoints are by definition more fragile than solid-design bullets. They have to be in order to upset. But this very characteristic also makes them subject to interference or damage from impact with external and internal materials such as clothing or bone, which can prevent them from expanding as designed (or cause them to expand prematurely and prevent sufficient penetration).
All the many hollowpoint bullet designs currently on the market (and there are many good ones) operate by the same basic principle. When a hollowpoint strikes tissue, pressure-liquefied protoplasm (which is 90 percent water to begin with) at the point of impact is forced into the hollow nose cavity, generating hydraulic pressure that forces the cavity open, peeling back the jacket material and “mushrooming” the internal core material. That’s if everything goes right. But if the nose cavity is blocked, either by being plugged (the “cookie-cutter” effect) or collapsed by barrier material or bone prior to deep-organ impact, hydraulic force is prevented from entering the cavity and the bullet essentially becomes a solid, failing to expand.
For many years, hollowpoint bullet performance was judged and compared by being fired into blocks of bare ballistic gelatin without any “barrier material” interposed prior to impact. (I have never forgotten the comment of a veteran major-city street cop from those days, who, after reading a gel-block performance report on one ammo maker’s new load, remarked, “That’s all very well and good, but we’re not often required to shoot at naked people.”) Then, following a widely publicized 1986 shootout in Miami where two FBI officers were killed while attempting to apprehend two criminals inside a vehicle, a new performance standard and test protocol for judging law enforcement handgun ammunition was developed. It required minimum bullet penetration and wound cavity standards in ballistic gelatin after penetrating a variety of barrier materials, including different thicknesses of clothing, wallboard, sheet metal, and automobile glass. This new FBI Standard revolutionized ammunition development and led directly to today’s wide range of high-performance hollowpoint handgun bullets.
However, even the best of today’s hollowpoint designs are still subject to cavity plugging from fabrics under certain conditions and to nose collapse from oblique impact with bone and other barrier material. Also, it is critically important for an armed citizen to understand that personal-defense ammunition standards and law enforcement ammunition standards are not the same—and should not be. Police officers may be called upon by their duty to exchange fire with criminals concealed behind walls or inside a vehicle. For an armed citizen, legally justifiable “personal defense” is just what the term implies: personal. Up close, exposed, face-to-face. Even in the most armed-citizen-friendly states, a civilian who shoots at a criminal blocked behind a wall or inside a vehicle will likely be considered by law to be engaged in a gunfight, not in self-defense. We can all imagine circumstances (think drive-by shooting) where returning fire at an obscured target might be our devout wish, but shooting at a vehicle that might also contain non-combatants on a public street is still a universal legal no-no.
The Critical Breakthrough
With all these considerations in mind, a few years ago Hornady embarked on a program to develop a line of ammunition specifically for citizens who carry or use compact concealable handguns for personal and in-home defense: a product line that would not be designed to meet law enforcement standards for wallboard, sheet metal, or auto glass barriers but would totally resolve the age-old problem of hollowpoint cavity plugging when penetrating an attacker’s clothing. Not just some of the time, not just most of the time, not just nearly all of the time, but each and every time. The result, after extensive experimentation and testing, is Critical Defense.
The key to the Critical Defense performance breakthrough is the application of a variant of Hornady’s soft polymer-nose Flex Tip (FTX) bullet design, which was originally developed for the company’s LEVERevolution line of lever-action rifle ammunition to allow loading of ballistically efficient pointed bullets in a tubular magazine without danger of primers being ignited under recoil. At a glance, a Critical Defense bullet looks like a Flex Tip bullet with the tip of the polymer cavity insert cut off at the front of the jacket. That’s almost right, but not exactly.
The polymer used in pointed Flex Tip bullets is pliable but not squishy. The Critical Defense polymer is much more compressible by comparison, and a piece of the insert material is easily malleable if squeezed between finger and thumb. The cavity itself is wide, deep, and straight-wall cylindrical with a flat 90-degree-edged bottom.
The best way to understand the function of the design is to think that what Hornady has done is use a hydraulically active medium to essentially “pre-fill” a very large hollowpoint nose cavity, thus eliminating the hole that might be plugged by an attacker’s clothing or other material while providing a jump-start to the expansion process. Upon impact, the soft insert polymer is compressed by the resistance of the target tissue and swells to impart equalized outward pressure around the entire circumference of the bullet cavity, causing the same uniform upset and expansion as if an open hollowpoint were fired into a “naked” unclothed medium. It works unfailingly whether fired through light summer clothing, heavy layered winter clothing, or even leather. The presence of the insert material also resists nose collapse should the bullet glance against bone just under the target’s skin (think, a rib), allowing the hydraulic expansion mechanism to keep operating.
Incidentally, the leather thing really impresses me. A few years back I shot a 150-pound whitetail facing directly chest-on at about 20 yards with one of the best performing .41 Magnum modern hollowpoint loads on the market. It wheeled and streaked away. After tracking the animal (essentially no blood trail) for nearly a mile, I found it dead. I recovered the bullet from the rear thigh, nearly 3 feet of full-length penetration through lungs, liver, and viscera. It was essentially reloadable—zero upset. The hollow cavity was plugged full with a perfectly circular wafer of cut-out deer hide, hair still attached. The hollowpoint had become a solid on impact. If it had not plugged, and had expanded as designed, the deer would have merely stumbled a few steps and collapsed.
So I ask myself: Which result would I prefer if facing an attacker? One that falls down right there or one that can still run a mile?
Hornady initially introduced Critical Defense ammunition in early 2009 with 90-grain .380 Auto, 115-grain 9mm, standard-pressure 110-grain .38 Special, and 110-grain .38 Special +P loads. New for 2010 are 165-grain .40 S&W, 185-grain .45 ACP, and 125-grain .357 Magnum loads. More will be coming.
The bullets for each caliber/load are designed so that the compressibility of the polymer insert material, the thickness and taper of the external jacket, and the skiving grooves in the jacket’s ogive are individually tailored for specific bullet velocity and weight. Plus, all loads are optimized for performance with velocities from short-barreled compact-concealment pistols and revolvers, while also maintaining performance in full-size guns of the same calibers.
Their performance is impressive.
Hands-On Test Results
My first experience with Hornady’s Critical Defense ammo was with the 90-grain .380 Auto load. I fired it at a distance of about 15 feet from a palm-sized 2.75-inch Ruger LCP into a block of ballistic gelatin, fronted by an FBI-standard “heavy winter clothing” barrier consisting of layered cotton T-shirt material, lined denim jacket material, and a down-filled parka. The bullet expanded instantly and fully, and it penetrated straight-line to a depth just over 10 inches. That’s deep enough to penetrate and disrupt any attacker’s vital engine and equal to what I would normally expect from a conventional 9mm JHP load from the same barrel length. Repeated firings duplicated the result. My attitude about the potential of the “marginal” .380 Auto for effective personal defense was instantly changed. (You may have watched me doing that, in real time, on Guns & Ammo Television. If you missed it, you can watch a clip of that Hornady Critical Defense episode here.)
More recently, I repeated the same heavy clothing scenario with the new Critical Defense 185-grain .45 ACP load, this time from a Springfield Micro Compact 3-inch Model 1911. Penetration this time was 11 inches, with picture-perfect expansion so perfectly symmetrical that the bullet ended up exactly front-on, with no yaw or tumble, and the red polymer Flex Tip plug coming to rest about a half-inch directly in front of the bullet. That only happens when a bullet’s upset is perfectly concentric, and it’s extremely unusual with conventional hollowpoint designs even in bare gelatin much less after plowing through a down parka. Interestingly, the flat nose of the polymer insert was pasted with a circle of mixed fabric, which tells you what would have happened to that bullet if its hollow cavity had actually been hollow.
From a full-size 5-inch Springfield TRP 1911, incidentally, full-upset penetration of the .45 ACP load reached 12.5 inches, and the 165-grain .40 S&W Critical Defense load averaged 13 inches from a 4-inch Springfield XD. Accuracy o
f all Critical Defense loads is the same as you’d expect from any of Hornady’s premium-grade handgun ammo, as revealed in the nearby table.
More Than The Bullet</b
There is more to Critical Defense ammunition than just the bullet, and it is in fact one of the most thoroughly thought-out products of its type ever developed. Hornady has also taken full advantage of the same recent advances in propellant technology it uses in its high-performance rifle innovations, such as the Compact Magnum rifle cartridges, to power its Critical Defense loads with a low-signature muzzle flash, lower-than-standard recoil compared to same bullet-weight/same velocity loads with conventional propellants, and improved burn-rate stability at a wider range of ambient temperatures.
Plus, the ogives of the Critical Defense bullets themselves are slightly more straight-taper than the curved ogive of Hornady’s other handgun bullets, both as a design parameter attendant to the upset function of the Flex Tip hollowpoint insert and to improve feeding with the autoloader rounds. The bullets in all Critical Defense loads are cannelured and crimped to avoid bullet setback in the case. Most autoloader ammunition is taper crimped without cannelures, which can allow bullets to be pushed back in their cases if repeatedly chambered and re-chambered in autoloaders, leading to an excessive-pressure situation when eventually fired (this is a common occurrence with carry-concealed pistols where the user may chamber the same round then replace it at the top of the magazine every time the gun is put away). That won’t happen with the Critical Defense design.
And finally, the entire Critical Defense line employs nickel-plated cases. Not just because they’re pretty but also because they are easily visible when reloading in low-light situations, and they do not acquire the scummy surface patina that affects standard brass cases when left in a magazine without firing for extended periods, which can cause drag and failure to feed/extract reliably in auto pistols.
Put simply: Hornady’s Critical Defense is the first, and only, handgun ammunition line designed and engineered at all levels specifically for the needs and situation of the modern American armed citizen, and it is the only handgun ammunition to once and for all solve the “hollowpoint problem.”