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

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 extra “oomph” – due to the increase in hydraulic pressure on the bullet – results 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. An overpressure round will exert a bit more felt recoil on the shooter (though some of us don’t mind too much) which can actually impede accuracy for 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-automatic pistol, requiring service or replacement of parts sooner than would otherwise be needed.

SIG SAUER M17 9mm +P
Courtesy SIG SAUER

Granted, the typical civilian isn’t going to fire enough +P to wear out a pistol and, truth be told, neither will 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, reduction in accuracy, or the potential expense?

There’s a similar debate among waterfowlers, who are already thinking, “not that stupid 3½” shell thing again.” For those unaware, a 3½” 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 3½” 12-gauge shell actually nets enough added ballistic performance to merit the pain of shooting one.

A 2013 Field & 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 3½” 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 a faster ride — 1500 feet per second vs 1450 fps — but penetration turned out to be five inches in ballistic gel.

In other words, it’s 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 124gr 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 147gr 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 135gr 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 it 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 3½” shells if you’re a bad shot. Until next time!


[This post was originally published in October of 2017.]




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  1. +P ammo is definitely a nice luxury, and I love .38 Special +P., despite not caring for 9mm +P whatsoever. Out of a .357 Magnum Lever Gun (Winchester 92 and Henry Big boy), .38 Special +P is actually effective for varmit, small, and medium sized game (like Coyotes and Groundhogs) out here in Ohio where only straight-walled center-fire rifle ammo is legal for hunting.

    Also; I have 2 old Colt Pythons (1979 and 1981) that I regularly shoot .38 Special +P in, as the wife and I won’t shoot .357 Magnum out of them over the whole timing issue with them.

    There’s also the benefit of them being less expensive than .357 Magnum. I’ll give that an extra thumbs up.

    • That straight-walled etc. restriction applies only to deer and other legal game during the deer gun season. The rest of the year, it’s legal to hunt groundhogs, squirrels, coyotes, rabbits, etc. with a .50 BMG although I’d recommend against it as a common practice, being mostly a meat hunter and person who wants to be neighborly. With apologies to Possum.

      • I use .38 Special +P for groundhogs and coyotes. My .357 Magnum Lever Actions are my go-to choices. JSP works like a charm.

    • Hey JP interesting post. I believe laws have change in Ohio and tapered cartridges are now allowed. I’m no expert on this, so please check with the ODNR for the ordinance update.

      Have fun!

      Luis Felipe

  2. Use whatever load you want. Train accordingly to become effective with whatever works best for you and your gun. Let the noobs bicker and skirmish over caliber and load choices.

  3. Depends on the load and bullet weight. Velocity is important for expansion. But there’s a delicate balance – certain bullets are designed to work at certain velocities – going too slow or too fast can impact that bullet’s effectiveness.

  4. Hear hear on the 3.5″ Shells. Now as for me, 3″ hevi shot or Hevi metal gets it done every time. #2’s and #4’s!

    • Another expense to the 3.5 shells. My Benelli shotgun with the 3 inch chamber was 500 bucks cheaper than the same model with the 3.5.

  5. Meh…I use Sig 124gr Vcrown. Not +P. The tests look pretty good too. I may switch to HST in the future. Or not. Sig feeds & runs perfectly out of my lowly Tauruses too. Honestly I’d want my AR in a gunfight!

    • I carry a lowly Taurus also. The cheap thing has always gone bang and I carry Colt SCHP 9mm 115grn standard pressure and is reliable in my gun while mimicking in my gun to standard cheap fmj/ball 115 grain ammo like Winchester white box. In gel tests (you can web search this) it is about 16″ of penetration, great weight retention, and great expansion.

  6. I use +P+ in my sidearm for hog hunting in case my rifle quits on me. I want those rounds moving as fast as possible if being charged by a boar.

  7. Shot placement is king, but velocity can help. Interesting video below. He’s mentioned before that, when hunting with a handgun, there’s a noticeable difference between 9mm and 38 super.

  8. “Is +p ammunition really necessary?”
    It depends on the caliber and/or the firearm being used, generally .38sp benefits from +p
    So does .45acp. (rounds already anemic, exasperated by short barrel hand guns)
    Paul Harrell does a great explanation on +p.
    On YouTube.

  9. New FBI Magic bullet load is +P! But they said their “.40S&W” had hard recoil, harder to shoot well, wore out guns/parts faster. Seems they bought the same problems with the new cartridge.

    • I remember them saying that about the 10mm, not the 40. The problem with the 40 was they saw no practical advantage using it over the 9mm and it had some disadvantages. So they transitioned to the 9mm+P.


    Every slack jawed goober ever.

    147 grain 9mm don’t work better because they’re heavier, morons.

  11. An airweight j frame with +p loads is an absolute bear to shoot for practice. And the only malfunction my j frame has ever had was bullet creep due to recoil from a +p load. Locked the cylinder up and took some time to free it up.

    I reserve +p loads to my k frames for defense use only.

    • My thoughts, too. The kind of gun that would benefit the most from +P is a snub-nosed revolver, but that’s the worst kind of gun to fire them out of.

    • I mean if we count anemic rounds it kinda comes close. But for any moderate to heavy 357 load especially out of a longer than snub barrel I would not want to shoot the 9×19 that is matching performance.

    • The .357 has double the case capacity than the 9 and both run the same max pressure, so uh… do the math.

      Although some ammo manufacturers seem determined to turn the .357 into the 9mm.

  12. My EDC is a 9 mm 3.5″ pistol. All +P will do in a barrel that short is increase the muzzle blast. I am perfectly happy with 124 gr. JHP, which for me is a nice balance between weight and velocity. If you are looking for pure penetration, then the copper solids from Lehigh are terrific.

      • When Lehigh first introduced its ammo, it was tested by one reviewer who found that it had massively excessive penetration. Lehigh later introduced a reduced power 9mm to deal with that issue. I have some of the original loads, and they have a quite noticeable recoil thump out of my pistol. I do not doubt they will shoot through walls. I have not tested the velocity, not having such equipment.

  13. With all due respect to the FBI and their admirers… granting that shot placement is king… granting that pistols aren’t rifles… granting that you need to try to practice seriously with what you carry… granting that it needs to suit both you and the gun… I like to stick with math and physics.

    1. Penetration, beyond basic commonly accepted standards (e.g. 12-18″) is an arbitrary and personal preference.

    2. Velocity increases linearly. Dollar in, dollar out.

    3. Surface area increases exponentially.

    4. Muzzle energy increases exponentially

    So… all things being equal, given decent ammunition, would you rather get excited about investing in penetration and velocity or expansion and energy?

    I feel like the only guy with a mutual fund in a world of savings account (and Checks Cashed Now!) enthusiasts. +P+ rounds in widespread police usage all the way, folks. YMMV.

  14. I load +P in my .38 snubbie (Buffalo Bore lead free 110 grain HP). I’ve experimented with a wide range of 9mm rounds, from standard pressure to +P+ Underwood loads, in my PX4. I usually just go with a good quality HP (124 grain being my preference), but I do keep a box of Underwood 147gr +P+ flatnosed FMJ’s around for woods carry.

    For everything else, I mostly buy what’s affordable. With my .32’s (I have several), the best ammo is also often the least expensive. European brands like Fiocchi and GECO seem hotter than stuff like Armscor, etc. and I can usually get them 25-30% cheaper.

  15. Or for self defense you could go with a bullet that doesn’t have to deform to work and creates larger wound cavities than hollow points like the Underwood Extreme Defender loads. MAC and Iraqveteran8888 have both tested various loads and they out perform standard hps.

    • They’re also more expensive. Having written that, I have some Underwood Xtreme Defender/Penetrator in .32 ACP, .327 Fed Mag, 380, and 9mm and I’ll prolly get some in .40, .44 Spl, maybe some .38 Spl. Why? Why NOT?!!? But, I digress. For 9mm carry I usually load up with 124 gr Speer Gold Dot JHP’s. I feel comfortable with that. But, that exotic stuff IS appealing.

  16. “Oh, and one more thing: you only need 3½” shells if you’re a bad shot.”

    You only need a 30rd magazine if you’re a bad shot.

    (couldn’t resist)

  17. Didn’t the FBI wimp down from 10mm to 40S&W?,now they’re returning to 9mm;go with 357SIG to equal 357Mag 125gr JHP.In my 4″GP100:1st cylinder is 38Spec+P 158gr lhp[the” old FBI load”]followed by 2 speed loaders of 357Mag 158gr jhps.Any snubby is going to have horrendous muzzle flash and muzzle blast.IF,only if,I were going to a snubby,I’d go with 44Spec or 45Colt.In the Glock 30 [factory]230gers JHPs.You folks in NJ can’t use hollowpoints.Now what?.Are Glasers or Magsafes still available?,what about multiple [round]ball loads?

  18. So…

    While looking at velocity only is one thing.

    What seems to be missing is that generally manufactures try to match the bullets to the velocity, as any reloader knows, each bullet, especially hunting or defense ones has a velocity range for optimal expansion.
    Sure at some point launching it at the speed of light will make any bullet destroy any target, but for now lets assume small scale movements.
    Are your +P rounds taking advantage of the bullets design or are they just packing more umph for the sake of argument.
    If you’re loading +P just to bump velocity, then just go magnum or the next caliber up.

    But say for example. A 38 special standard load with a well picked jacketed bullet will do much better at stopping a threat than a +P load with a poorly chosen bullet that doesn’t expand as well or at all.
    As noted, this transfers to the hunting realm, though I would choose hunting handgun rounds over shotgun bb’s as a comparison.
    This is why partition bullets are popular, expand but carry a hammer behind it to keep shoving it into the target.
    On the other hand, some prefer defensive rounds to be totally disintegration as to reduce over penetration, this gets sketchy though, I have buddies carrying these new aluminum looking hollow rounds that weigh nearly nothing, sure it might not make it through drywall and kill a bystander, but how effective will it be against a person wearing clothing or a jacket? Tiny fragments of shrapnel usually do not instantly incapacitate an opponent.

    • Higher velocity will open a hollow point earlier in the path. The increased surface area creates more drag, which is why some the don’t penetrate as deeply. There’s more tissue damage because the permanent channel is wider at the shallow depths, but it’s pretty meaningless since critical organs and blood vessels tend to be protected by being deep in the body.

      • I stared at the luckygunner data for while, puzzled why some of the +P ammo doesn’t seem to show any added benefit. Then it occurred to me, when and where does the hollow point expand in its penetration? I think you must be correct.

      • Yes, but too high and it strips the jacket away and basically fragments, with less whole mass to help drive one large channel you get short small shrapnel wounds that cause long term damage rather than immediate stopping.

  19. “Oh, and one more thing: you only need 3½” shells if you’re a bad shot.”

    Or if you’re hunting buddies are rocking 10 gauges and want to start blasting Canadas further out, then it also may help. But yeah, 3.5″ 12ga shells aren’t a necessity for success.

  20. All the testing work on gel is great, but it has people focusing on controlled penetration.

    Now folks seem to believe that getting 12-18 is fine with any caliber.

    If that’s the case , we can all carry 22 magnums and do just fine.

    “Experts” can say that velocity doesnt matter until you get to rifles all they want.

    I’m not carry a rifle everyday. I do carry a handgun. If I carry a +P round that get 12-18 inches of penetration with more violence and energy, then I was that extra energy.

    Yes, increased recoil is a by-product. So be it. No free lunch.

    The Remington Golden Sabre is a great bullet in 9, 38, and 357. All will penetrate to at least 12 inches.

    The 38 is moving at 875 fps (2 inch) the 9 and 357 at 1100+. I tend to believe the one with more energy to dump will be more effective.

    The less-is-better argument is usually used because it takes less skill to wield. If you can hit with a caliber, choose something softer, but let’s not claim its better.

    • Wounding effectiveness is by damaging critical organs or causing significant blood loss. Reaching deep enough to reach the organs and punch a damaging hole are why penetration and expanded diameter are what’s considered. What does the extra energy do if the penetration and diameter are the same or less? If the extra energy doesn’t do damage, it’s just extra heat. The higher velocity at impact should have a better chance at defeating barriers. A complete FBI protocol includes barrier testing, but most unofficial testing is bare gelatin or maybe clothing.

      • Ok. So take a look at some 38 and 9mm loads in standard and +p loadings on the Lucky gunner site. Even a modest increase in velocity makes a difference in expansion.

        And you can discount temporary stretch cavities with handguns if you like. All other things equal, I will take a bigger stretch cavity.

  21. I alternate the 124gr +P with the 147gr std pressure HSTs in EDC clips…for that reach out and double tap!…. works good for me!

  22. Shoot them til they stop doing what made you shoot them in the first place. Sheesh! +p, +p+, JHP, FMJ, whatever…..

  23. I carry a Shield 9 most of the time. I run Hornady Critical Defense for the most part. Have shot Hornady Critical Duty a few times thru it. I didn’t really notice that much difference in recoil even in a smaller gun. It performed fine at the range with no noticeable differences out to 25 yards. When I carry my Ruger P89 I do run Hornady Critical Duty. Mainly because I like the way it eats it. The gun seems to cycle better with the hotter load. If their is any benefit as far as target damage. That makes it a plus.

  24. “[HST 147gr] expanded drastically more, with standard pressure averaging .38 inches to the +P’s .60 inches.”

    That doesn’t match the LG data cited by the author.

  25. The pressure increases from +P loads is modest – 8 to 10% (.38 Special is about 8%, .45 ACP is about 9.5%, 9×19 is about 10% increase).

    Where it seems like a better result is when you start with low, low chamber pressures to begin with. The .38 Special nominal pressure is about 17,000 PSI, and the .45 ACP is about 21,000 PSI nominal pressure. The 9×19 is a much higher pressure round, with nominal pressures of about 35,000 PSI.

    Modern handgun rounds have chamber pressures ranging from 35K to 40K PSI. Adding a bit more pressure might increase the velocity in modern handgun rounds, but the increase isn’t as pronounced as with old, low-pressure rounds.

    • No, it wasn’t. Josey carried 6 pistols on him and his horse. .44, .36 and a baby colt at .31. His +p Was a glassed Sharpes.

  26. I carry +P but I think you are better served with effective shot placement. Being able to bust the walnut at the base of the spine or blow out a bad guys heart or castrating him with a shot to the nuts will go a long way toward saving your life than putting a +P round in the guys arm. Just my 2 cent worth . Practice, practice, practice !!

  27. I keep and run Hornady Critical Duty 135 gr 9mm +P’s through my SIG P365. It eats them up. A box a month lets me run two mags (usually one per range session), to keep in practice with the load. For regular practice I run 135 gr FMJ handloads. I haven’t chrono’d the load, but I don’t notice but a mild reduction in recoil.

  28. +P, +P+, magnum…dont mean s#it if its not accurate. When I buy a new handgun (new to me anyway), I buy several possible self defense rounds and test at the range off sandbags at a 15 to 17yd target. What ever shoots the tightest group gets the nod. Rarely, actually never have I tested +P that shot tighter than standard pressure rounds. Have gotten excellent accuracy out of every Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty round I have tested in 4 calibers. That is rare.


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