Is +P Ammunition Really Necessary?

You don't get a big increase in performance from +p ammunition.

When it comes to defensive ammunition, a lot of people opt for +P loads as a matter of course. It’s certainly not a bad idea on paper; many police departments and federal agencies carry +P or +P+ in their duty guns.

The additional powder load nets an increase in velocity over standard rounds – though how much can actually vary – with the idea being that a jacketed hollow point round traveling at a faster speed will hit the target harder, penetrate deeper, and the result of the extra “oomph” – due to the increase in hydraulic pressure on the bullet – result in more reliable and wider expansion.

Naturally, the attributes of penetration and expansion are desired when it comes to a defensive pistol round.

However, this comes at a cost. The first cost is in increased recoil. As an overpressure round will exert a bit more recoil on the shooter (though some of us don’t mind too much) which can actually impede accuracy with some shooters.

When a person doesn’t like to shoot a round they tend to flinch or tense up prior to squeezing the trigger, a common reason for pulling shots off point of aim. Use of +P also accelerates wear on the barrel, the frame and the recoil spring in a semi-auto, requiring service or replacement of parts sooner than would otherwise be needed.

Granted, the typical civilian isn’t going to fire enough +P to wear out a pistol and, truth be told, neither are many police officers. That’s why police trade-in guns are usually a pretty safe buy. But is the extra velocity actually worth the extra recoil or the potential expense?

There’s a similar debate among waterfowlers, who are already thinking “not that stupid 3-½” shell thing again.” For those unaware, a 3-½” 12-gauge shotgun shell holds the same load as a 10-gauge shell, so you get a bit more shot and a bit more velocity with a slightly bigger shell. The argument (ongoing for decades) is over whether a 3-½” 12-gauge shell actually nets enough ballistic performance to merit the pain of shooting one.

A 2013 Field and Stream article by Phil Bourjaily attempted to answer that, by doing extensive testing at Federal Ammunition’s ballistics lab. For that test, they compared a 3-½” shell with a 3″ shell, both loaded with steel BB shot. The larger shell put 77 pellets in a 30-inch circle target at 40 yards. The smaller round put 63 in the same area, about 72 percent. Shot strings were 49 and 42 inches, respectively. The larger shell gave pellets faster ride – 1500 feet per second vs 1450 fps – but penetration turned out to be five inches in ballistic gel.

In other words, its’ an improvement…but not much of one.

Is it the same with +P ammunition?

Ballistic gel is a poor simulation for human flesh, and even if you add a few layers of clothing, it doesn’t come all that close. However, it comes closer than shooting a bullet into a water barrel.

The fellas over at Lucky Gunner Labs maintain a ballistic testing database, where they fire various self-defense loads and catalogue the penetration, expansion and velocity. While not perfect, it still gives you an approximation of how well rounds perform.

As for +P…it depends on the load, but when compared to a standard pressure JHP variant, it usually doesn’t buy that much more in terms of performance. For instance, their tests of Federal 124-gr 9mm HST rounds had the same penetration in both pressure loadings. The +P variant gained an average of 33 feet per second (1168 fps vs 1135 fps) and an average of 0.05 inches in diameter when fully expanded.

In the 147-gr load, Federal 9mm HST +P did penetrate an average of 1.5 inches deeper compared to standard pressure (17.7 vs 19.2) gained an extra 46 feet per second (1008 vs 962) but expanded drastically more, with standard pressure averaging .38 inches to the +P’s .60 inches.

Hornady’s Critical Duty 135-gr load in 9mm actually penetrated more deeply in standard pressure (19 inches vs 18.1 inches) though the +P loading gained 65 feet per second in velocity. Expansion was only marginally better in the +P loading.

Speer Gold Dot likewise only netted a gain in velocity in the 124-grain load of 9mm, with 1141 fps vs 1067 fps in the standard pressure load. However, that velocity didn’t net deeper penetration (the opposite; 16.4 inches vs 18.1 inches in standard pressure) and expansion was only 0.02 inches greater in the overpressure round.

And so on. There are other similar examples in their results.

Again, ballistic gel testing isn’t a great facsimile for actual ballistic performance in human bodies, but can at least provide an objective measure of how a bullet will perform. Additionally, plenty of officers have been able to trust their lives to +P ammunition and gotten good results with it.

However, it could be stated that +P ammunition is not, strictly speaking, a necessity, as the gain in speed and penetration isn’t necessarily astounding. Plenty of standard pressure loads will more than do the job.

Oh, and one more thing: you only need 3-½” shells if you’re a bad shot. Until next time!


Sam Hoober is a contributing editor at Alien Gear Holsters and Bigfoot Gun Belts. He also contributes regularly to Ammoland, Daily Caller and USA Carry.





  1. avatar Alex Waits says:

    Mindful of diminishing returns, squeezing out the most practical performance of a handgun cartridge is desirable.
    Because handgun cartridge.

  2. avatar Nanashi says:

    Depends on various factor. I’ve heard some handgun rounds the +P version and standard are so close the deviation is enough that they’re not even always faster.

  3. avatar Mark N. says:

    I gather from this article that unless you can put +P side by side with P with the same bullet from the same manufacturer, +P is a “maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t”proposition. I don’t have the resources to find out. What would be more important is how a particular bullet performs against clothing–since in most cases, your attacker will be armed. But no matter what you choose, it still comes down to hits on center mass or CNS, even if your HP doesn’t expand.

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Mark N.,

      Actually, I think bullet design/construction is going to be FAR more important than an extra 100 fps at the muzzle.

      For example I have heard plenty of people claim that standard pressure .38 Special 158 grain full wadcutters (with a muzzle velocity around 850 fps coming out of a 2 inch barrel if I am not mistaken) are reliable man stoppers: they penetrate deep making big holes. I sure would not want to be on the receiving end.

      1. avatar Robert Jones says:

        Having policed back in the day when Atlanta PD was stuck carrying 158 grain wadcutters in their .38s (hollow points were deemed “inhumane” by the city fathers) while the Atlanta metro county I worked for was carrying either 115 grain +P+ “Treasury” hollow point loads or full house 125 grain .357 Winchester hollow point loads in our S&W 686s (it depended on what you could qualify with) there was no comparison. APD got great penetration – little holes in, little holes out and bystanders downrange beware! The +P+ and mag HP bullets were awesome performers for us! There were drawbacks. Shooting our rounds in a closed in space was fantastically loud and muzzle flash in the dark was substantial. Always going to be trade-offs.

  4. avatar pieslapper says:

    Well, it’s not really about ‘necessity’, is it?

  5. avatar Joe R. says:

    “Is +P Ammunition really necessary”

    Not according to the NRA. They would likely be opening it to ATF review.

    1. avatar Stinkeye says:

      I’ve been known to poke at you a bit, Joe, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: that’s the best comment on the internet today.

      Well done, sir. You can take the rest of the day off.

      1. avatar Robert Hanlin says:

        Haha.. I totally agree! Took the words out of MY mouth.. LoL And it’s not about ‘necessity’ it’s about “If I want, I can as long as the weapon can handle it”..

    2. avatar sound awake says:


  6. I’ve long held the opinion 3 1/2″, and even 3″ shells were not necessary to have success waterfowling. At the same time I’ve preferred the +P’s for my J-Frame.

    I may now reconsider the net usefulness of the +P load.

    1. avatar Peter Wolf says:

      Tests tend to show that in 2 inch barrels it’s not that much of advantage at all. Most .38 Special ammo won’t expand, even with +P. Look at the Lucky Gunner ballistics tests.

    2. avatar jwm says:

      The only time I’ve ever gotten bullet creep was with +p loads in a j frame. Locked the gun up tight.

      1. avatar Stinkeye says:

        Was it one of the scandium-framed models, or just one of the regular aluminum frames?

        1. avatar jwm says:

          442 with aluminum frame and steel barrel and cylinder.

          The loads were Federals version of the old FBI load. 158 semi wadcutter hollowpoint, lead. 2 shots into a 5 shot string and the lead bullet walked out of the case mouth and jammed the cylinder in place. Had to manually force the bullet back into the chamber before the gun would function.

          Those same loads have never given a problem in any all steel gun regardless of barrel length. At least not in my experience.

          I relagate my j frame to non plus p loads now.

    3. avatar RidgeRunner says:

      “Why do you shoot those 3-and-a-half inch shells?”

      “Because they don’t make 4s.”

  7. avatar TruthTellers says:

    Hmm… why no talk about .38+P when .38 Special revolvers are generally rated for +P?

    It depends on the caliber, bullet weight, and gun. People have to test it themselves. I’m of the opinion that +P is best for .38’s, good for .45 ACP, and generally pointless in 9mm with the possible exception of the 147 grain that was mentioned here, that’s a significant increase in power.

    But you want to know something? Overpressure ammo is a stop gap in lieu of a larger caliber. .40 S&W beats standard pressure 9mm in power, .357 beats any .38 from a 3 inch or greater barrel length. If you want a light recoil in a handgun, you’ll have to use less powerful ammo or get a heavier gun.

  8. avatar Dillon Hunt says:

    “In the 147-gr load, Federal 9mm HST +P did penetrate an average of 1.5 inches deeper compared to standard pressure (17.7 vs 19.2) gained an extra 46 feet per second (1008 vs 962) but expanded drastically more, with standard pressure averaging .38 inches to the +P’s .60 inches.”

    According to the test results, the standard pressure 147 gr expanded to an average of .61″ The +P’s were rated at .60″

    Federal 147gr Hyra-Shoks expanded an average .38″

    1. avatar Mark N. says:

      Nice catch.If what the article reported was tru, then a standard HP would expand a nominal 0.023″

    2. avatar tfunk says:

      Jerk! I wanted to be the one to say that!! 😉

  9. avatar Curtis in IL says:

    Too. Many. Variables.

    The difference in barrel length between a Glock 43 and a Glock 17 will probably yield as much or more difference in velocity than +P vs. standard charge.

    It’s probably more important to shoot a round that’s optimized for the barrel you’re shooting it with. I have read that Hornady Critical Defense is optimized for compact handguns while Critical Duty is optimized for a full size duty pistol. But I haven’t seen chronograph data to support this.

  10. avatar Frank in VA says:

    “For instance, their tests of Federal 124-gr 9mm HST rounds had the same penetration in both pressure loadings. ”

    That test is why I switched to the standard pressure 124-gr HST for my SR9c when I finished up my +P supply. Why put up with extra recoil and slightly slower follow-up shots if the end result is virtually the same? On the other hand, if I were going back to a snubby .38 for EDC, where bullet expansion is less assured, I would absolutely carry +P. So, it depends on the platform.

    Overall, though, it seems to me like bullet design has evolved to the point where the best of today’s projectiles can do more with less. Less velocity, less bullet weight, less recoil. Which is all good.

    1. avatar No one of consequence says:

      Or less mass, higher velocity such as Lehigh’s penetrator rounds. Also less recoil with those.

      1. avatar Sam I Am says:

        In .9mm (yeah, intentional), lehighs penetrate two 16 in gel blocks. the 45mm (yep, again) opens to about two inches across the petals.

        1. avatar uncommon_sense says:


  11. avatar Prudiikal says:

    +p and +p+ solid lead 10mm is common up here in alaska because bears

  12. avatar Dan says:

    +p comes in handy when you are on the velocity threshold at which the ammo won’t reliably expand. Many non +p round don’t work well out of subcompact guns, whereas the velocity granted by high pressure rounds can give you expansion. Or if you want load commonality between full size and subcompacts.

  13. avatar former water walker says:

    I just look at expansion. I use non +P Sig Vcrown. In 9mm 124gr. I’ve used +P and I see no difference in recoil. Or follow-up shots. I absolutely would use +P on an anemic 38.

  14. avatar Rc says:

    I’ve never shot anybody with both loads…and that’s the only test that counts. For now, I’m standard pressure only unless it is scientifically shown that +P makes any kind of significant difference.

  15. avatar Sam I Am says:

    “Ballistic gel is a poor simulation for human flesh, and even if you add a few layers of clothing, it doesn’t come all that close.”


    Only shooting live humans can adequately tell us how any firearm round will function, and even then, only is perfectly replicable conditions. Neat trick, that.

  16. avatar Timothy says:

    How will I validate my superiority as a man without the most powerful round available in my caliber?

    I mean, I know I can shoot a .45 to prove I’m better, stronger, and smarter than a 9mm guy. But how can I gain the same “proven” level of superiority over other .45 guys unless I shoot +p++?

    Maybe I’ll have to just bite the bullet (as it were) and get a .460xvr for my everyday carry

    1. avatar Hank says:

      I’m gonna be honest and say I do feel more manly shooting my .44 mag at the range next to my friends shooting 9s, especially when they are literally afraid to shoot it. Until they do, that is, and they realize it isn’t so bad.

    2. avatar jwm says:

      Something, something, compensating, something something.

    3. avatar Cooter E Lee says:

      I got a ruger Blackhawk convertible .45 partially so I could have the option to shoot loads comparable to .44 magnum. It’s not really what the article is about, but it’s nice to be able to punch above weight if I choose to do so. It makes me more of a man to have a hand cannon.

      I don’t know if the added recoil is worth it in 9mm in a self defense situation, but I don’t see any real problem with it as long as you’ve trained with +p. If recoil is a big issue, maybe it’s time to go to a .380.

  17. avatar sound awake says:

    ask the fbi how really necessary a .38 special +P load was in miami florida circa 1986

    it ended a pretty serious gunfight when 9mm and 12 gauge 00 buck didnt

    1. avatar Andrew Lias says:

      I would also think it was dependent on the ammo maker too. As an example I would think something from a boutique maker like Buffalo Bore, Cor-bon or Underwood would be considerably hotter in +P. Or perhaps the Treasury Loads of past in .38 Special. I could believe that part of the reason the Treasury Load existed was 2.5″ .357 Magnum revolvers had a shorter ejector, and they made hot loads for it that were easy to control but gave additional power over .38 Spl.

  18. avatar joetast says:

    I used to coon hunt, we used.22 ‘s. When hit with a solid the dogs had a fight, using hollow points most hit the ground dead, using CCI Stingers really put the whammy to them. So disregarding head shots there was a big difference.

    1. avatar miforest says:

      in my decades of hunting experience, the difference between 22 RN and 22 HP is huge. out of a rifle. with squirrels, and rabbits, I use RN because it kills fine and doesn’t ruin meat. bigger varmints and coons HP is the way to go .

  19. Nope, Sam, +P certainly ain’t a necessity.

    Similarly, holsters and belts are not “necessary” either.

    On the other hand, we can all live better without plagiarism. C

    1. avatar Sam I Am says:

      “On the other hand, we can all live better without plagiarism.”


  20. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

    I’ve never seen a +p load in .357 magnum (the hot stuff is the standard pressure) so I’m going to go with no. Even if it were necessary, that’s why Mr. Keith went on to make the .44 and .41 magnums.

  21. avatar FedUp says:

    Did you quote those statistics from ShootingTheBull410’s P938 Ammo Quest?
    And did you look for numbers elsewhere, like Lucky Gunner, that compared the HST and HST +P from a full length barrel?

    I shoot a P938, and it’s never seen +P ammo. In part because STB410 proved that HST and HST+P were virtually identical in a P938, but it might be different in a G17, for instance.

  22. avatar David H. says:

    Shot placement rules, but if memory serves, Massad Ayoob looked into this in the 1990’s. LAPD issued a standard pressure 115 grn. 9mm, and LA County Sheriff issued virtually the same round in a +P version (maybe vice versa, point remains the same.). These are departments policing the same area and often crossed paths, but the +P variant was the better stopper. This was the perfect street laboratory – and the higher pressure/higher velocity paid off.

    While we cannot quantify energy and temporary wound cavity, which makes terminal ballistics all the more difficult to estimate, any hunter will tell you they play some part. I realize that flies in the face of current convention, but pushing an equal bullet faster has, except for the last 15 years, always been considered the “better” round. And, I’m not sure we have all the answers, even having read all the books, just because a theory is newer.

    Bill Jordan felt like he had “the Hammer of Thor” when the Border Patrol first went to what would be considered mid-velocity .357 magnums today. Adding a few hundred feet per second to a 158 grn LSWC made all the difference to him, and who can really argue with Bill Jordan?

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      David H.,

      I have to think there is a rather substantial difference between a 158 grain semi-wadcutter hollowpoint exiting the barrel at 850 fps and exiting the barrel at 1,350 fps.

      But that isn’t .38 Special +P: that is making the jump from .38 Special (a low pressure round developed in the late 1800s) to .357 Magnum (a medium pressure round developed in the 1930s).

  23. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    It depends on the cartridge.

    +P in 9×19? Feh. The 9×19 was already a pretty high pressure cartridge (35K PSI).

    +P in a .38 Special, .45 ACP or .45 Colt? Yes, because those cartridges in SAAMI versions are loaded to very low pressures (all well under 25K PSI) in order to not grenade older firearms. If you have a modern firearm, with a chamber in modern steel, you can dramatically increase the pressures in such rounds (esp. the .45 Colt and .38 Special).

    eg, The .45 Colt can be loaded in modern single action revolvers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a .44 Remington Magnum.

  24. avatar Quasimofo says:

    Heh, I run 3.5″ steel BB loads in my SBE2 for Canadas because I can. The denser pattern traveling a hair faster can’t hurt, but my hunting buds who run 10 gauges or 12 gauges with 3″ loads seem to do about equally well, too. Besides, you really don’t notice the effect of the recoil until later, after the adrenalin wears off…

    1. avatar RidgeRunner says:

      Same with my turkey gun. It’s a bitch patterning, but once you’re out there you never think about the 3.5 when a gobbler steps out. Or when you go pick him up.

  25. to uncommon sense, was that the 150 grain and not 158 grain full wadcutters that buffalo bore makes? because those I here are nasty, but I think they might overpenetrate a bit ( I am not sure but in the jelly test they did). 158 grain semi wadcutters are usually +Ps unless you use the buffalo bore rounds, and they have 110 and 125 grain standard preesure rounds as well that come out just as fast as the other makers’ +P rounds. and buffalo bore’s +P versions of the same rounds , well they are really 357 mags. I have heard from hornady that Citical Defense is for short barrels and critical Duty is for long duty length barrels. and their 110 grain non +P load in 38 spec is pretty good. and on the web, and in magazines, they have been testing regular light target wadcutters and guess what, they penetrate the jelly just as good as the non +P high velocity and +P loads from the other makers, with Federal having the highest velocity. and I use them in my snubbys. why beat my hand up when I don’t have to?

    1. avatar uncommon_sense says:


      I am not 100% sure if full wadcutters are normally available in 158 grain or 150 grain. (I was not specifically referring to BuffaloBore.) Either way, .38 Special full wadcutters have a decent diameter and mass and should be at least as effective as any other handgun round.

      In terms of potential for over penetration, I am not personally worried about that. Even if a full wadcutter went all the way through an attacker’s torso, I highly doubt its exit velocity is high enough to produce a substantial wound on a bystander’s torso. And, unless you are in a dense crowd of people, the odds of a pass-through bullet striking a bystander are very low.

  26. avatar Johnny 2Shins says:

    Its not necessary at all. Waste of good money.

  27. avatar Accur81 says:

    I use +P in my off duty guns, and the required standard pressure duty loads in my duty guns. Does +P have a benefit? Maybe. I know 124 grain HST averages 1218 FPS from my 4″ LED modified G23, versus 1153 for standard pressure.

    Having been in armed confrontations, I’ll take all the extra power I can (reasonably) get. I never wished for less firepower or less energy when facing a bad guy.

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  29. avatar Texheim says:

    There are no SAAMI specs on +p+

  30. avatar miforest says:

    as the local Luddite, I have to say I am neutral in on the +p issue except in 38 spc. . The 38 seems to get more of an expansion boost from + p than any other cartridge.
    in my 9, I’m fine with std pressure.

    I have no use at all for the 3.5 12 ga. I think they are a useless marketing gimmick. No quick follow ups with that one.
    Have hunted waterfowl with a 12,16, and 20 also have used a 12 with 3″ shells. Half a dozen trips to a skeet range would make more difference than using a bigger shotgun.
    The 16 and 3″ 20 is good for ducks and close geese over decoys. the 12 in 3 ” has more than enough power to kill anything you can probably hit. .
    YMMV .

  31. avatar allan s says:

    Perhaps there is the benefit that cycling might be more reliable?

  32. to UNCOMMON SENSE , thanks for your reply, buffalo bore makes 150 grain hard cast wadcutters @ 850fps ( so they say, more like 870fps) and they look pretty good. and that is what I thought you were referring to. and around were I live houses are close to each other so we need to be careful . all you need is one time overpenetration happens and you know what happens next. but with regular wadcutters, that will not be a problem. and they are a delite to shoot out of my 1960’s Colt Agent. ( for those who don’t know, a nice very well made revolver that is small, about 6.5″ long 14 ounces in weight and still packs 6 shots of 38 specials. and they all usually have a nice trigger pulls because Colt always hand fitted them, and I am lucky to have 2 of them)

  33. avatar Miles says:

    The +p helps in penitration where it is plywood or a car door the officer has to shoot through to stop the criminal. But if you really want a good round gold dot G2 is used by the FBI and law enforcement agencies around the U.S. that round has showed in its testing it has the same penitration from a 9mm as you would get from a 40 or 45.

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