Sometimes oldies are goodies. Sometimes oldies are moldy and rotten. And sometimes, oldies are okay, but they’re a lot better in your memory than they are in reality. Which brings us to Federal Premium Hydra Shok. Hydra Shok was one of the first great hollowpoints. It’s a legendary design that has endured since 1988 — that’s 27 years of continuously being on the market. Hydra Shok was one of the first bullets introduced . . .

as a direct result of the FBI’s landmark 1987 Wound Ballistics Conference, which defined the standards for how hollowpoint ammo is designed to perform, and those standards are still the prevailing guidelines that govern how modern ammo is developed.

But that was 27 years ago, and while the Hydra Shok has soldiered on, there have also been other substantial designs introduced (including Federal’s own HST). Some of these newer designs have been superb. Some have been … er… disappointing. And still, the Hydra Shok soldiers on.

I’ve fielded many requests to test Hydra Shok. In fact, even here on TTAG, some folks have made statements along the lines of “Wake me up when you find some ammo that performs better than Hydra Shoks.” That’s how iconic Hydra Shok has been. Sure there’ve been complaints about its performance through denim, but it remains a decent design. Heck, up until this month, Hydra Shok has been Federal’s primary premium defensive offering for the .380 ACP when they announced HST.

So while I respect to the venerable design, I also note that not only has Hydra Shok’s parent company surpassed it, but the gun market has experienced a significant shift, too — today’s pocket nines (like the Shield and P938) are everywhere. But they weren’t even on gun manufacturers’ radar back when the Hydra Shok was developed. Even the GLOCK 26 (with its 3.5″ barrel) wasn’t introduced until 1995, a good seven years after Hydra Shok hit the shelves.

So — can the Hydra Shok still run with the best, even when fired from today’s 3″-barreled pistol? It’s rated at 1120 fps; my testing from the shorter 3″ barrel showed an average of just 1010 fps. That’s not unexpected, but it may be a factor in how the ammo performs from the short barrel

In this test, I fired three bullets into a denim-covered gel block, and witnessed one partial success and two complete failures to expand (which resulted in those two bullets over-penetrating all 32 inches of gel I’d set up.) I don’t know how far they would have gone; I had two 16″ blocks set up, and they overpenetrated both of them and were lost. I then used the remaining room in the block to fire two bullets into bare gel. Those two rounds did expand, but one under-penetrated by reaching only 11″; the other performed great, expanded well and penetrated to the required minimum 12″ distance.

The summary here is quite simple — whatever benefits the Hydra Shok may have exhibited in its day, it doesn’t compete against the best modern defensive ammo. Federal’s own HST vastly outperforms Hydra Shok when used in a 3″ barrel.

It’s not that they’re bad, it’s just that the state of the art has advanced and there are better options out there. Nowadays Critical Defense, HST, Corbon DPX and Winchester Defend all substantially outperform good old Hydra Shok. When you’re shopping for defensive ammo, there are many viable alternatives, and I can see no compelling reason to spend you ammo dollars on Hydra Shoks anymore.

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61 Responses to 9mm Ammo Quest: Federal Premium Hydra Shok

  1. It’s the standard personal defense ammo I carry. Burns clean and feeds reliably in both 45 ACP and 9MM.

    • When I bought my bulk ammo a couple weeks ago, I decided to throw in a box of FPHS. This is my carry ammo but one day I grabbed the wrong mag and shot it up on the range so I needed to restock. I paid $24.95 for a 50 round box. When I got it, I loaded up my mags but had an extra mag but only three rounds left. So I reordered two more boxes. They will arrive tomorrow. You can’t beat that price. My LGS charges that much for the 25 round box.

      • Federal and Winchester sell over run white boxes of JHPs. They’re loaded to the same spec as HST and Ranger, with the same bullets. The white box ammo uses brass cases instead of the sexy nickel-plated brass. Natchez had a sale of white box .40 Ranger equivalent on sale for $17.99 / 50 a few days ago.

        • Right, but having effective bullets matters to.

          So there are a huge number of extremely reliable and extremely capable rounds out there that are superior to hydroshock in many respects beyond just being as reliable.

          If your gun has reliability issues with other types of premium ammunition it’s probably time to start shopping for a new gun. If a gun can’t reliably operate under ideal conditions with almost every type of common premium ammunition then I don’t trust it to act reliably with any ammunition under adverse conditions.

    • It’s just that there are improved rounds in every aspect. You’ll be hard pressed to find a bad guy not wearing clothes and the hydrashock fails miserably against thick denim.

      • Hmmm….not many people around here wear “thick denim,” especially in summer.

        Food for thought: Don’t over think this stuff. Been to the morgue many times to see autopsies on people the “lab tests” and “conventional wisdom” of ammo suggest the ammo should not have worked. Have likewise seen the opposite…that those “better” ammos failed.

        Shrug.

        First rule: Have a gun.

        • It is kinda funny how when I start looking into hollow point bullets and the newest greatest advancements in such, I start to feel like what I carry is inadequate. Sometimes I have to just tell myself, “it’s a bullet, and it can be lethal”.

          I remind myself that hollow point technology is just helping stack the deck in your favor. A JHP or an FMJ round can both do a number on somebody when they catch it in the face.

  2. I’d really love to see a series like this in 45ACP. A lot of us older guys like the beefier cartridge and would love to see how this ammo stacks up in our favorite defensive 45s. (Glock 30s and “Commander” length 1911s come to mind.)

    • tnoutdoors9 on YouTube ran 45ACP 230gr hydrashok from a 1911 into an FBI spec gel block with 4 layers of denim and got some pretty impressive results. I’d be keen to see them through a short barrel too but if your self defense weapon is a full size 45 I would be confident carrying hydrashoks as long as they fed. The price online is pretty nice when other premium offerings are going for $30+ for a box of 50 and nearly that much for a box of 20 at local gun stores.

      • Oh, I’m not concerned about full size 45s. A Glock 21 or full size 1911 has more than enough barrel length to get the most out of the round. (Even a commander length has a 4.25″ barrel.) I’m more concerned about Defenders and Officers Model 1911s. Those have 4″ and 3″ barrels respectively. Or your compact Glock 30 or 36 with their 3.77″ barrels.

        Do you have a link to the YouTube video you mentioned?

        • @Tex

          I just actually wanted to be sure we were looking at the same video. (Google tends to personalize search results based on your search history.) To me that projectile looked like it was about to shed its jacket. Not exactly what I would call a top performance indicator. But thanks for the vid, I did learn something.

    • .45 testing is coming once I’m done with the 9mm. I have both a 3.3″ XDs and a 3.8″ G30SF and will do some testing to see how much of a difference (if any) is seen between those two barrel lengths, and then on to see which ammo performs best in them.

  3. I consider HST and Ranger to be the best stuff out there, so it’s what I load my mags with. Critical Duty / Defense seem comparable. If they make anything significantly better, and I can find it, I’ll load my mags with that. The Ranger also hits within an inch of my practice ammo at 7 yards in my .40s, so that’s also a big factor for me.

    If anyone asks, I’ll advise them to upgrade. If not, Hydra Shok is (usually) a lot better than FMJs. I’ve even referred folks to tests like yours and Tnoutdoors.

    • 9MM 124gr HST’s can be had in 50 counts for $26-$29 If you shop around. I like the Hornady Critical lineup and carried them the last several years, until the Federals started beating them on price.

  4. If people are more comfortable with hydra-shoks, more power to them. Shot placement still reigns supreme with handgun bullets, but I upgraded to HST’s anyway. The evidence (including StB’s own tests) is pretty strong that they are among the best designs out there now, so I figure why not give myself every advantage. They also feed very reliably in my Glocks, and can be found for .50 a round in the 50 ct LE boxes if you shop around online.

  5. Hydrashoks stunk in the 90’s too– for exactly the same reasons described here. Clothes clogged the HP, and the things wouldn’t even expand in water when clogged (in 9mm and .380), from 4″+ barrels. Never mind short barrels.

    I have my notes from the mid-90s, and the unexpanded bullets.

    HSTs are great. Hydrashoks– antiques.

  6. Crap. Total Crap.

    How I can I say this with such certainty? Because I got shot with one. 147 grain 9mm +p and it only penetrated 4-5 inches, an inch short of striking anything vital. Oh, it put me in the hospital for a couple days and I had about six months of recovery time but stoping? Not even close.

    I consider all hollow points and Hydrashok specifically to be less lethal ammunition.

    • “Oh, it put me in the hospital for a couple days and I had about six months of recovery time but stoping? Not even close. “

      So, you kept doing what you were doing at the time you were shot?

      Would love to hear this story…and, no, that’s not sarcastic. Genuinely interested…as I am in real-world shootings as data in general.

    • >> I consider all hollow points … to be less lethal ammunition.

      You are insane if you seriously believe that.

      As far as your experience goes, have you ever heard the saying “the plural of anecdote is not data”? The singular of anecdote is even more so.

      • I am far from alone on this. Just google handgun stopping power and start reading all the articles stating that penetration is THE single most important factor.

        • FBI maximum of 18″ of ballistic gel penetration not enough for you? The opinions of every expert and professional not enough for you? Then get a hollow point round with less expansion that still penetrates more than that, because hollow points are available that still penetrate beyond 18″. Do you really need the full penetration ability of an FMJ? Choose your optimum depth. At a certain point, it’s just obviously more than it takes to penetrate the human body. Would you select armor-piercing rounds if still legal for use on unarmored targets? Why not just go straight to hardcast lead? Is 60+ inches of penetration enough to penetrate the predatory grizzly bears disguised as humans in your neighborhood? If you can’t use an expanding bullet, I would think the Lehigh Defense Xtreme Penetrator would be enough penetration for anyone in 9mm to use against unarmed humans, yet with superior wounding (especially in the vital zone) compared to FMJ—but it sounds like you ought to be using a rifle of at least 5.56mm M855A1 for the Terminators you’re arming for. What’s your choice for home defense, .50BMG?

  7. Thanks for doing this test.

    I’ve said to people that if they can’t find better modern ammo (and some of these modern JHP rounds are rather difficult to find here in WY), go with Hydra-Shoks – mostly because they were the first JHP bullet that was a significant improvement over ball ammo, especially in 9×19. The reason why is that the Hydra-Shoks were among the first ammo really tested against a new standard for expansion performance. Most other HP/JHP designs were just “bench tested” – “Well, that looks good, so let’s go shoot a deer/goat/pig/etc in hunting season and see how it does.” Nearly all pre-Hydra-Shok ammo was “bench tested” for terminal performance – ie, not at all taking into consideration clothing, or muzzle velocities. It was most always a “it looks nasty on the bench, so it oughta work!” was the habit of the market.

    The requirement that a JHP round perform well out of a 3″ barrel is a really tough nut to crack for an ammo manufacture. They could simply go to a faster-burning powder, but that has limitations and liabilities. They could make the bullet open at lower velocities, but then it might come apart when the round sees higher velocities from longer barrels.

  8. Perhaps my inexperience on the topic clouds my judgment and perhaps someone can explain it all to me. First, all of my guns are loaded with a hollow point of one form or another. And yes, I have made sure they fire in that gun before accepting them. But are hollow point rounds really that much better for stopping a human threat than say a similar grain RN-FMJ? The reason I use them is that, yes I expect some expansion and perhaps better stopping power, but I rationalize more that I prefer they stop in solid objects like walls vice penetrating into the next room or dwelling. Having been on the receiving end of a 9mm 115g RN-FMJ I can tell you, that in my now experienced opinion, it definitely is not something I would like to experience twice.

    • This won’t completely answer your question, but keep in mind that one of the goals of defense bullets is to avoid over-penetration, i.e. going clear through the bad guy and into a good guy.

    • No, they aren’t. In fact in most cases they are worse as IF they expand all that does is reduce penetration, the most important factor in handgun wounds.

      You should read the FBI study on the matter, it basically shows that overpentration, stopping power, and the benefits of expansion are dangerous myths.

      http://www.firearmstactical.com/pdf/fbi-hwfe.pdf

      • Aerindel,

        Not sure from when you came, but handgun 9mm-.45 cal FMJs are universally poor self defense rounds against human beings. The FBI / barrier penetration specs of 12-18″ through calibrated gel, after penetrating common barriers such as denim, glass, wallboard, and sheet metal simulate common materials such as heavy clothing, automotive windshield, walls, and car doors.

        These tests are a commonly accepted and repeatable. They have revealed weaknesses in older bullet designs as well as impact expansion and weight retention thresholds for various velocities. Further, JHPs have the capability to generate larger permanent and temporary cavities when fired out of handguns. STB is a subject expert on this topic.

        Police and savvy civilians use high quality JHPs because they are the best self defense option available for handguns. The military uses FMJs – sometimes – because of illogical and antiquated requirements which are basically self-imposed (which I realize is an imperfect synopsis of the situation).

    • Modern hollowpoints make a pretty big difference (disregard the guy below who bases his claims on a single personal anecdote and a study from 1989 when efficient hollowpoint designs did not exist). Consider HST. In 9mm, it reliably expands to around 0.6″ – this is about 65% larger than the original bullet radius, and translates to a correspondingly larger permanent wound cavity (and note that the affected surface, and hence volume, is radius squared).

      • And corresponds to less penetration. Skin has been shown to be worth 4″ of ballistic jel Now imagine a round with 12″ of gel penetration. You shoot the bad guy, aiming straight for his heart, but he puts out his arm and your round strikes it first. Thats two layers of skin, some bone and 4″ or so of flesh. You just lost all your penetration. You may as well have aimed for an arm for all the ‘stopping’ your doing.

        Hollowpoints are a dangerous myth, supported not by science, but by marketing.

        • Saying that skin accounts for 4″ of penetration is not a complete description of the issue. The entrance layer of skin offers comparatively minimal resistance and can be largely ignored when it comes to a handgun-velocity projectile. The EXIT layer of skin may be something else entirely, and it is the exit layer that accounts for the claim of 4″ of penetration.

          First thing people really need to understand is that penetration through gel is NOT the same as penetration through a body. Bodies are made of a variety of tissues and densities and stretchiness and fluidity, gel is a largely single-density medium. That said, gel does represent (quite accurately) the density of human muscle tissue, and a bullet shot into gel, and one shot into strictly soft muscle tissue, will penetrate to comparable depths.

          But not all things are that easy to summarize. For example, a BB from a BB gun will penetrate 3.5″ of gel, but likely wouldn’t break a human’s skin. Which is why it’s simply absurd to go thinking that those “trocars” on a G2 RIP will “rip out all someone’s internal organs” or anything. They may not even make it past a rib.

          When it comes to skin, the entrance layer is usually backed by something harder — muscle or bone — and thus cannot stretch. As such, a bullet punches right through it, just as it would through the underlying tissue. But when it comes to the exit layer, that’s very different — when the skin can stretch out, then stretch it will, and that stretching can take up a lot of the bullet’s energy to overcome. This is most commonly seen in bodies where bullets are frequently found right below the skin on the opposite side of the body from the entry wound.

          Regarding the 12″ requirement — why did the experts in the field set the bare minimum to 12″, when many bodies aren’t even 9″ wide? Again, see the above — gel is not a body. Secondly, they set that minimum specifically to address the issue that Aerindel raises — if you have to shoot through an intervening arm, you’re going to need to add some penetration power to get through that arm. The FBI prefers penetration up to 18″, with a bare minimum of 12″. If the bullet goes deeper than 18″ in gel, then it in all likelihood would overpenetrate a body (most especially if an intervening arm wasn’t encountered). If a bullet can penetrate at least 12″ of gel, then it in all likelihood will have sufficient power to penetrate an intervening arm (including the heavy bones in the forearm) and still be able to reach and damage vital organs.

          Hollowpoints are infinitely preferable to FMJs IN CALIBERS THAT CAN PUSH THEM DEEP ENOUGH. Some calibers can’t. I wouldn’t use a hollowpoint in .22LR, or .25 ACP, or .32 ACP. No way — FMJ only for those. And almost all hollowpoints in .380 grossly under-penetrate too, and should be avoided. There are only a few hollowpoints in .380 that can penetrate sufficiently after expansion. When it comes to the .357, 9mm, .40, .45, 10mm etc, those calibers have plenty of power available to easily push an expanded hollowpoint to the required depths. Using a hollowpoint allows for greater damage to the target while grossly minimizing the (usually overstated) risks of overpenetration. Hollowpoints can also create more damaging wounds at the end of their travel due to them having sharper edges which may cut tissue that a round-nosed FMJ might otherwise have just pushed out of the way.

  9. For the longest time I was always under the impression that heavier the bullet the better the stopping power. But recent research seems to point out that that may not be the best way to go. Obviously for any given caliber and barrel length, the heavier bullets will travel slower than lighter bullets but there is a trade off in energy between heavy+slow and light+fast. Some new defense rounds are reducing the bullet weight beyond the norm which increases velocity. Combined with bullets designed for predicable and reliable expansion to maximize energy transfer, this seems to be a new trend. I also do not understand the ballistics gel testing. If one looks at the human body, there is an even money chance the round will hit bone and that only testing in soft tissue simulations yields only half the answers.

    • There’s nothing new about using lighter bullets to get more velocity and thus more energy. That’s something that’s been done for decades, and disproven over and over, but … big numbers sell, and so manufacturers keep doing it.

      Generally there are two schools of thought:
      1) Those who endorse the “light and fast” theory, in which “energy transfer” and “stopping power” and “hydrostatic shock” are frequently brought out as arguments in their favor.

      2) Those who reject the notions of “energy transfer” or “hydrostatic shock” or “stopping power”, and who instead focus on the damage the bullet does to the body in the ways that are proven to be the only reliable means of guaranteeing bringing a gunfight to as rapid a close as possible. Those folks are frequently referred to as the “slow and heavy” camp, since heavier bullets carry more momentum and (generally) penetrate deeper.

      Generally I fall in the second camp — that is where the established science has led me, and where the prevailing theories of bullet design among law enforcement ammunition are found. The major manufacturers generally make their ammo to conform to the FBI and IWBA guidelines, which generally means a bullet that penetrates more than 12″ deep, using any remaining energy to expand as large as possible, and frequently employing heavy-for-caliber bullets. The major manufacturers (Speer, Federal, Hornady, Remington, Winchester etc) generally make this type of ammo for self defense or law enforcement purposes.

      The “light and fast” camp usually is endorsed by the littler, “boutique”, or “exotic” ammo manufacturers — G2 Research’s RIP, Liberty, DRT, Extreme Shock, RBCD, MagSafe, etc. The lightweight projectile is frequently combined with some sort of fragmenting or frangible aspect to “maximize energy transfer” or “increase stopping power.”

      The FBI report from 1987 and the new report on the 9mm lay out their attitude quite clearly: “stopping power” and handgun-introduced “hydrostatic shock” are myths, there are no “magic bullets”, and the goal for handgun ammo remains: its job is to penetrate deep enough and hit hard enough to destroy the vital organs or CNS (spine/brain stem). IF it does that, the person hit is guaranteed to stop (immediately, in the case of hitting the upper spine or brain stem; fairly rapidly in the case of hitting the vital circulatory organs, although it still may take a good 10-15 seconds). No other type of hit is guaranteed to bring a fight to a close, from any handgun, using any type of ammo. Someone MAY stop — by doubling over in pain, or being scared, or choosing “flight” in the fight-or-flight quandary… but they may NOT choose to stop. The only way to FORCE them to stop, from a handgun, is to use ammo capable of reaching those vital targets (circulatory vital organs or brain stem/upper spine) and to hit them there. And the ammo that has been demonstrated to be able to do that is generally the “slow and heavy” type.

      I myself prefer the “fast and heavy” option whenever possible — 10mm, .454 Casull, or a good quality high-caliber rifle like a .308.

      Unfortunately, in my testing of short-barrel ammo, it seems like the heavy-for-caliber options are just not as reliable a choice as the lighter ammo. From longer barrels the ammo can get up to adequate speed so that it can perform properly, but from the shorter barrels it seems like the ammo doesn’t frequently get up to adequate speed in the first place before exiting the barrel. I’ve found more reliable 115 and 124-grain options from the 3″ 9mm pistol, than I have found reliable 147-grainers. There are some out there, but not many.

      • Thank you for the enlightenment. I understand the difference now. Simply looking at ballistics charts doesn’t seem to give the data you have collected and I now see why I was so confused. Keep up the good work.

  10. SOMEBODY (don’t remember who) recently did a gel test on Winchester’s “Train and Defend” 9mm cartridges, 147 g out of a 3″ barrel and the “Defend” (JHP) expansion performance was both excellent and identical between denim and bare, and penetration was around 15″. Absolutely perfect, made up my mind for me as fodder for my new LC9, though the test was another gun, barrel length should be the kicker. The fact that the “Train” ammo has the identical bullet profile, muzzle velocity, aimpoint and ballistics for less money (JHP) just sweetens the deal AFAIC, shoots softer (smoother?) than what I was shooting for breakin. How they do that with a 147g bullet I dunno, but if it works it ain’t stupid.

    I thought that test was by DG, but he’s posting here and hasn’t mentioned it, might be someone else.

  11. I think it was in 1992 that two Baltimore projects undercover narcotics officers shot a guy 17 times at a range of about 5 yards with 9mm hydrashocks and the perp survived. The cop he shot in the back of the head with a 9mm from about 18 inches survived too.

    As several people have said shot placement is the most critical thing.

  12. Damn you STB410!!! 😉
    …your endorsement of HST has severely impacted my ability to procure it.

    The last alert from SGammmo for 147gr was way back in Dec9 and the alert noted that there were 1800+ others receiving the alert for a measly 600 boxes. I don’t think they lasted an hour.

    STB410…. please lower your standards so people will go buy some other crap. 😉

  13. I never do understand why test results for a pocket pistol (anyone know of a .45 pocket gun? willing to learn.) seem to always break-down into calibre wars, and refusal to take actual results into account when cheer-leading for a favorite (even if less performing) bullet/cartridge combo. The point of these tests IS NOT COMPAIRSON TO SERVICE LENGTH firearms. The STB tests are named by calibre, and the set-up always reveals the actual firearm for the ammo test/quest. If someone wants elephant gun ammo tested, request that. Comparing a theoretical elephant gun performance to a pocket pistol doesn’t even make good non-sense.

    Note – just about all the ammo tests done by other than STB are restricted to a single round. Not sure why the others are not interested in a larger sample size. :Under any circumstances, a one-bullet test is on the order, of “oh, that was interesting”, but not useful for getting a hint of potential reliability.

    Just sayin’

    • “anyone know of a .45 pocket gun? willing to learn.”

      You may have to shop for pants that can accomodate it, but the .45 ACP Springfield XD-S has frequently ridden in my front pocket. And I’ve even carried a Glock 30SF there, when the pocket has accomodated it.

        • Yes, and racking the slide on Kahrs is problematic (although I love my Kahr gimme cap). The size may be manageable, but weight remains a serious consideration.

      • Thank you; new information. Looked at the XDS and it felt like something that would really be a drag carrying all day. Will go to LGS and shoot one to see if .45 in such a small gun is also more troublesome than a 938 when it comes to shot replacement/follow-up. Admittedly, it will take quite a bit to move me off the 938…but for home use, it may be an altogether different consideration.

  14. I’ve got these in one of my p226 mags cuz they were sold out of all other defensive ammo. I would have gone with HSTs if they’d had. They feed fine though.

  15. I’m an HST fan for SD.

    Over the last year, I’ve found stock in both 9mm and .40 SW…enough to have purchased 1000 rounds of each caliber. 147gr+P in 9mm for my G26 and G43, and 180+P in .40SW for my Browning Pro40.

    I use equivalent powered Federal American Eagle FMJ rounds for practice which pretty much match the recoil of the HST’s, and in tests for accuracy between the two types, it’s very close, so much cheaper to practice with the FMJ’s, and occasionally shoot the HST’s for confirmation.

  16. I simply alternate rounds in the mags of my EDC between the Hydra Shoks, and the +P Critical defense. Why does everything have to be a contest? Shoot until the threat is over. A magazine of options will provide.

  17. I hear about 9mm hydra shok failed tests, poor expansion, under penatrating,ect.
    Would anyone not be stopped by it? Would anyone want to be hit by one? If the answer is no, it’s doing its job. I’ve used this ammo for years, my LEO friends also use it off duty, there has never been a question about it. It seems when something new comes out, it’s always advertised as better and everyone has to get it.

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