The BEST pistol bullet weights, your tax dollars at work

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The BEST pistol bullet weights, your tax dollars at work

Category : Reloading

Law enforcement and military personnel have obvious needs for pistol cartridge performance. One of the driving factors has been, and continues to be, the “FBI Penetration Test.” The official name of this set of criteria is the: “FBI Ballistic Protocol.”

Here’s a PDF file from Hornady with complete details regarding the FBI Ballistic Protocol and Hornady’s research and offerings (bullets and cartridges) on the subject:  hornady-le-military-application guide

Your Tax Money & Research

As Law Enforcement agencies moved from revolvers to 9mm semi-auto pistols, the bullet weight that they first adopted was a 115 grain 9mm bullet. That was based on the WW2 research where the Germans used a 115 grain bullet in their Lugers. However, the various departments quickly discovered that the scenario had changed. Car doors, auto glass, and other barriers created new challenges. The 115 grain bullet, even when loaded at +P+ powder loads, just wasn’t beefy enough. Law enforcement keeps  very detail records of every shooting. And, as a consequence of the review of all of that information, a switch was made to 124 grain Hollow Points.
Well, if 124 grains was better than 115 grains, maybe an even heavier bullet would make sense. Turned out that the 147 grain bullets in 9mm were too heavy for reliable use against bad guys. So, the 124 grain bullets, after much tax payer money spent on studying the subject, was the go to bullet weight.

However, even the Speer Gold Dot and Federal HydraShok bullets (best designs at the time) would not pass the FBI Ballistic Protocol. So, some law enforcement agencies started drifting towards the newly- (at that time) developed .40 S&W cartridge. The pursuit of the perfect bullet weight for that cartridge soon yielded the 165 grain bullet as being the best performer. There’s a note in the Speer Reloading Data Book #14, .40 S&W, 165 grain bullets page,  to the effect: “Loads marked with approximate law enforcement loads.” That comment/note was very telling to me when I first bumped into it. It told me that tax payer dollars was spent studying the subject, and the 165 grain bullet was chosen as the most effective load for law enforcement [and presumably military use].

Likewise, for those agencies favoring the 45 ACP, the 200 grain bullets are deemed the best performing.

The basic construction of pistol bullets hadn’t really changed a whole lot over the past couple of decades. The FBI Ballistic Protocol was always looming large. Especially as the bad guys get more and more daring in their escapades. The bullet manufacturers sought new bullet designs, knowing that success with passing the FBI penetration tests would yield them a lot of new business. So, new bullet designs such as the Hornady Critical Defense bullets easily pass the criteria. In 124 grain bullet weight for the 9mm. Every test of that bullet yielded a 12″ to 18″ penetration, more than sufficient to make the FBI happy. A redesigned Federal HydraShok bullet also makes the grade.

Part of the ever ongoing debate about what chambering (9mm vs .40 S&W, vs 45 ACP, and even vs 10mm which is again in the discussion) is best is the results of this ballistics test protocol. The bullet designs have gotten so good in recent years that even the “lowly” 9mm passes with flying colors.


The state of the art bullets that will pass the FBI Ballistic Protocol are quite expensive for every day plinking. However, it’s important to practice with the same bullet weights that you will be carrying for self defense. You want point of aim to be the same, as well as felt recoil, etc. So, my urging is to reload your practice/plinking cartridges with the same bullet weights as you intend to carry. And, why not make use of the well-spent (my opinion) tax dollars that defined the current state of the art for cartridges for the law enforcement and military agencies to use in their every day activities.

ULTIMATE bullet weights for semi auto pistols:

9mm = 124 grain bullets
.40 S&W = 165 grain bullets
45 ACP = 200 grain bullets

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