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Ammo Testing Through Barriers: What Works Best for Defense?

When considering a defensive ammo to use, it's important to consider their performance through common barriers like sheetrock, plywood or sheet metal. Here's what we found out.

Ammo Testing Through Barriers: What Works Best for Defense?

Ammo Testing Through Barriers: What Works Best for Defense? (Firearms News photo)

“Barrier Blind” bullets are those which perform in ballistic gel (and presumably bad guys) no differently after passing through an intervening barrier. Why would you want handgun ammunition capable of this? Simply because most people try to put something between them and incoming gunfire if they know they are being shot at. Having a bullet design which will not only defeat a barrier, but then also provide sufficient penetration and adequate expansion could be crucial in certain situations. With many designs on the market, I decided to put seven 9x19mm Parabellum loads to the test.

My plan was to put these different designs through different barrier tests, similar to those found in the FBI Ballistic Test Protocol. First, I would shoot the bullets into a bare Clear Ballistics ballistic block purchased from Brownells. I would then place various barriers 18 inches in front of the block (the prescribed FBI Protocol distance) and again measure penetration, deformation/expansion and weight retention. Barriers would consist of two layers of 1/2-inch drywall placed 3.5 inches apart, one piece of 3/4-inch plywood, and the final barrier test would be two pieces of curved and corrugated 19-gauge (.0456 inch) Galvanized steel 3.5 inches apart.

Testing ammo through barriers for defense
Tarr tested three unique 9x19mm Parabellum loads, three traditional hollow-points along with one FMJ against various barriers to see if they were “barrier blind.” (Firearms News photo)

Three of the loads tested are completely non-traditional, without the usual jacket/core construction. For comparison, I also tested three hollowpoints, all very modern designs, two of which are advertised by their manufacturers as meeting the FBI Protocol. For a control, I tested traditional FMJ ammo as well with a Glock 19 used as a test pistol. The FBI believes a bullet needs to penetrate a minimum of 12 inches in ballistic gelatin to reach the vitals of a bad guy. Maximum penetration should be 18 inches to prevent over-penetration and hitting bystanders.

The Control: SIG Elite 124-grain FMJ

SIG Sauer Elite’s 124-grain Full Metal Jacket load is a conventional ball round with an advertised velocity of 1,165 fps. Velocity from the Glock 19 was 1,155 fps, and it had the stiffest recoil of any of the loads tested. Penetration in bare gel was 24.5 inches. The recovered bullet, apart from rifling marks, looked good enough to reload. This is why FMJ ammo is not recommended for self-defense; it tends to over-penetrate while not deforming. When fired through the double drywall barrier, the 124-grain SIG FMJ bullet penetrated 19.2 inches. When shot through the plywood barrier the SIG 124-grain FMJ bullet showed definite deformation in the nose. It still penetrated 22.2 inches of Clear Ballistics gel in a straight line. The sheet metal tests are usually where traditionally constructed bullets start looking ugly, and the SIG FMJ bullet was no 
different. It punched through both layers of steel without a problem, then penetrated to a depth of 20.5 inches. The recovered bullet had a blunted nose.

Testing ammo though barriers fort scott defense
The SIG 124-grain FMJ “control” bullets (top) recovered after testing. Left to Right: bare gel, drywall, plywood, and sheet steel. The Fort Scott Fort Defense 80-grain SCS bullets (bottom) recovered after testing. L to R: bare gel, drywall, plywood, and sheet steel.(Firearms News photo)

Non-Traditional Ammo

Examining Fort Scott Munitions’ 80-grain SCS (Solid Copper Spun) was the Genesis for these tests. A Kansas-based company, they use lathe-turned solid copper bullets with a somewhat pointed projectile and a heavy base. That weight imbalance is deliberate. They are specifically designed to have a rapid yaw cycle. Advertised velocity is 1,356 fps. Out of my Glock 19, it averaged 1,327 fps while having much less recoil than standard 9mm ammo.

In the bare block, the Fort Scott 80-grain SCS penetrated 20.2 inches, tumbled several times, and came to rest base forward. When fired through drywall, the Fort Scott homogenous copper bullet left a nice round hole and penetrated to a depth of 17.7 inches. It did not deform, came to rest point forward and did not appear to have tumbled. Fired through the plywood barrier, the Fort Scott SCS bullet penetrated 17.5 inches. I was surprised to note the recovered projectile appeared no different than the bullet fired into bare gel. It looked just about factory fresh. When fired at the double steel barrier, the Fort Scott SCS went straight through the steel layers and penetrated the block to a depth of 18.25 inches. The recovered bullet demonstrated a significantly blunted nose, with some silver streaks from the Galvanizing rubbing off.

NovX 65-Grain ARX Engagement: Extreme Self Defense

NovX Ammo is a relatively new company. They load their ammo using PolyTech’s copper polymer ARX bullet in the new ShellShock Technologies aluminum/stainless steel case. Due to these components, this load weighs barely more than half what a conventional 9x19mm cartridge would. The ARX bullet is a copper polymer mixture that while it may appear similar to frangible bullets, is meant to hold together. The three engineered flutes in the bullet are designed to work with the fluid nature of tissue and the rotational forces of the bullet to shove tissue away from the bullet, thereby inflicting a larger wound channel.

Their 65-grain copper polymer load is advertised as traveling at 1,575 fps, and out of my Glock 19, it posted 1,588 fps. In the bare block, the 65-grain ARX bullet penetrated 14.5 inches, which is impressive for such a light bullet. The recovered weight of the bullet was 64.2 grains, so it lost little to no weight and showed no deformation or expansion. The drywall slowed the NovX ARX bullet down some, but it still penetrated 13.2 inches. The recovered bullet had 100% weight retention and did not deform it at all. I was expecting the unexpected when firing this bullet through three-quarter inch plywood, and that’s what I got. The ARX bullet poked a clean circle in the drywall and came to rest, base forward, 12.2 inches into the block. The recovered bullet looked none the worse for wear and lost none of its weight.

The sheet steel test is where things got a bit interesting. After firing, I noticed the hole in the second steel layer was significantly larger than 9mm. Examining the block I noted numerous small bullet fragments (in chunk form) had penetrated shallowly (1.5–2.5 inches). The base of the bullet penetrated to 8.5 inches. The base weighed 31.8 grains, and the total weight of the recovered bullet pieces weighed 45.7 grains, for 70% recovered weight. From the holes in the steel, it appears the copper polymer ARX bullet fractured going through the first layer of steel and hit the second piece of steel like a tightly packed cloud of shotgun pellets. After penetrating the second sheet of steel the bullet fragments began to spread out and hit the block in a pattern about an inch and a half wide.

testing ammo through barriers black hills honey badger
The 125-grain Black Hills Honey Badger (top) bullets recovered after testing. From left: bare gel, drywall, plywood, and sheet steel. The 65-grain NovX ARX bullets (bottom) recovered after testing. L to R: bare gel, drywall, plywood, and sheet steel. (Firearms News photo)

Black Hills 125-grain Honey Badger

The projectiles in Black Hills’ Honey Badger line are slightly modified versions of the LeHigh Defense Xtreme Defense bullet. These are copper solid bullets with radial flutes designed to eject tissue away from the bullet, thereby increasing the wound cavity and terminal performance. It’s similar in philosophy to the ARX bullet, but a different execution. This ammo is deliberately loaded soft, to keep it subsonic. Black Hills advertises load at 1,050 fps. Out of the Glock’s 4.01-inch barrel, it averaged 964 fps and had relatively soft recoil. In the bare block, this bullet penetrated 15.8 inches and stopped base forward. Through drywall, the Black Hills’ Honey Badger penetrated 11.5 inches and again came to rest with the base forward. The recovered bullet had a bit of drywall dust inside the flutes but was undamaged, with 100% weight retention.

Fired through the plywood, the Honey Badger showered the range in small splinters, and I noticed a lot of them were stuck in the front of the ballistic block. After piercing the plywood, the bullet penetrated 9.5 inches into the block. The recovered bullet showed the flats on the front of the bullet were very slightly distorted from passing through the plywood. The steel test proved interesting. After punching through the two layers of steel, the 125-grain Honey Badger penetrated the ballistic block 10 inches. Examination of the recovered bullet showed that the sharp flats on the front of the bullet were no longer sharp or flat after passing through two-pieces of sheet steel, but it lost no weight in transit.

Traditional Jacketed Hollow Points 

I chose to test the +P 9mm Critical Duty load from Hornady for two reasons. First, because it is a traditional jacket/core bullet that has been designed specifically to meet and exceed the FBI Protocol. Secondly, because I’m selfish, this is my daily carry ammo. So, I was curious to see how it performed. Out of my Glock 19, it averaged 1,101 fps. In bare gel, it penetrated 17.2 inches with text-book expansion. Recovered bullet diameter was .51 inch, and the recovered bullet weight was 135.5 grains including the red rubber insert, so it lost no weight. After punching through two layers of drywall, the +P Critical Duty penetrated 15.5 inches of gel block. The recovered bullet looks odd as there’s no real expansion, and it looks like a kid tried to peel apart the hollowpoint using pliers, with little success. Through plywood, it penetrated 16.2 inches and expanded nicely with a recovered bullet diameter of .56 inch and 100% weight retention. When fired through steel it turned into a lopsided lead and copper mushroom, but it penetrated to an even 16 inches. The recovered bullet expanded to .49 inch and weighed 126.7 grains.

Recommended


Hornady crital duty barrier testing
All three of the traditional hollowpoints showed beautiful, textbook expansion and 100% weight retention when fired into bare gel blocks. (Top) From left: Hornady, Speer and SIG Elite. The 135-grain Hornady Critical Duty bullets (bottom) recovered after testing. L to R: bare gel, plywood, drywall, steel. (Firearms News photo)

Speer Gold Dot 147-grain G2

The second-generation Gold Dot was introduced several years ago. It features a shallow hollow point cavity filled with a nearly clear elastomer. Through it, you can see internal reinforcing ribs for the petals of the bullet, but no gold dot that gave the original bullet its name. From my Glock 19, the G2 averaged 942 fps. In bare gel, it penetrated 16.25 inches and expanded well. The recovered bullet had the best expansion of all those tested at .63 inch and 100% weight retention.

Testing the Speer Gold Dot G2 through drywall took the most time of any of the loads. I ended up firing three rounds as I couldn’t find the first two. After swapping to some fresh gel blocks, I fired a third time and was rewarded with a recoverable bullet. After punching through the double-layer of drywall, the G2 bullet penetrated 27.5 inches. The cavity of the hollow point was slightly opened, but there was no real expansion.

After recovering the third bullet fired, I found one of the first two G2s lying on the table. It must have fallen out of the gel block, and from its position on the table, it appears to have penetrated to about 28 inches. It again showed a slightly opened cavity but no expansion. The third bullet was never recovered. The plywood barrier beat up the G2 a bit. While penetration was 13.5 inches, half of the nose of the recovered bullet was peeled open while the other half was pushed in a bit. Recovered weight was 100%, with a diameter of .53 inch. When fired through the steel the G2 penetrated 13.7 inches and the recovered bullet showed a blunted nose very similar to the other two hollowpoints tested. Recovered bullet weight was exactly 147 grains, with a diameter of .46 inch.

Testing ammo through barriers speer gold dot and sig v crown
The 147-grain Speer Gold Dot G2 bullets (top) recovered after testing. L to R: bare gel, plywood, drywall, steel. The SIG Sauer V-Crown 124-grain JHP Bullets recovered after testing (bottom). L to R: bare gel, plywood, drywall, steel. (Firearms News photo)

SIG Elite 124-grain JHP

SIG Sauer jumped into the ammo market several years ago with both feet. While they now offer dozens of loads in both rifle and handgun calibers, one of their first ammo offerings (if not the first) was their 124-grain 9mm JHP. SIG JHP’s feature their “V-crown” projectile. This is a very traditional hollowpoint with a big cavity, but it is a modern design made with modern manufacturing methods. The posted velocity for this load is 1,165 fps, which is right on the border of +P territory. Out of my G10, it gave me 1,147 fps and was the stiffest recoiling load of the JHPs I tested.

In bare gel, this bullet penetrated 15.5 inches and had excellent expansion. Recovered bullet weight was 100%, and the recovered bullet had a diameter of .58 inch. In drywall, the SIG JHP punched through the double layer no problem and penetrated 16 inches into the gel block. The recovered bullet showed beautiful expansion with a recovered diameter of .55 inch and 100% weight retention. Through plywood, this bullet penetrated 18.7 inches. It expanded, but the petals of the expanded jacket look pretty flat from the impact. The SIG was the stiffest recoiling of the JHPs, and when it came time to shoot through steel, it did the most damage to the steel. The second layer of steel was impressively peeled back. The bullet penetrated the gel block 19 inches. The recovered bullet looks a lot like the SIG FMJ after being fired through the steel. Recovered diameter was .47 inch and it weighed 122.5 grains.

Conclusions

Testing ammo through ballistic gel
Speer’s 147-grain G2 performed (top) well in properly calibrated 10% ordnance gel in previous testing, but had some issues with the barriers. Hornady Critical Duty 9mm +P 135-grain Flexlock (bottom) with 4.625-inch barrel. 

Let’s look at the JHP performance first. If you want to judge the ballistic block performance of these bullets in FBI terms (even though the Clear Ballistic blocks do not meet the official FBI criteria), you’re looking at a 12 to 18 inches FBI preferred penetration depth. The only bullet, traditional or otherwise, which passed all of these tests was the Hornady Critical Duty +P.

Penetration was always between 12 to 18 inches, and while it didn’t really expand going through drywall, that’s not a disqualifier. As far as the other two JHPs, the SIG JHP performed very well, expanding in every test. However, when shot through both the plywood and sheet steel, it penetrated slightly more than 18 inches. The performance of the Speer Gold Dot G2 was seriously disappointing to me. In bare gel, it was great. When shot through steel, it looked like the other recovered hollowpoints while not penetrating as deeply. However, through plywood, half the nose peeled away, and through drywall, it acted like a FMJ and wildly over-penetrated. Three times in a row, so don’t call it a fluke.

Testing ammo through Sheet metal
The exit holes in the second piece of steel. From left: 80-grain Fort Scott SCS, 65-grain NovX ARX, 125-grain Black Hills Honey Badger, and the 124-grain SIG FMJ. (Firarms News photo)

As far as the non-traditional bullets, the results were very interesting to me. None of the bullets passed all the tests in the eyes of the FBI test criteria. Then again, none of these loads are claimed to by their manufacturers. The subsonic Black Hills 125-grain Honey Badger underpenetrated in every test but bare gel. The 65-grain NovX ARX bullet met the FBI depth criteria for every test except when it came time to shoot through steel, where it broke into pieces. What surprised me about the ARX bullet was that it doesn’t seem to deform. It either holds together or breaks apart, period. The 80-grain Fort Scott SCS bullet over-penetrated in bare gel, and again (just slightly) after shooting through steel. As for our control, the SIG 124-grain FMJ, it over-penetrated in every test.

Testing ammo through barriers for defense

All of the bullets, both traditional and otherwise, went straight through all of the barriers and into the gel blocks. None of them were deflected as I was expecting. Yes, the ARX broke apart, but all the pieces went straight into the block. Looking at the steel penetration results, most traditional hollow points appear little different from FMJ ammo after being shot through sheet steel. Compare the SIG FMJ to the JHPs after going through steel; it’s very hard to tell which is which. Compare that to the copper solid SCS and Honey Badger bullets.

Of all the ammo I tested, the Fort Scott round appeared the least deformed by passage through the steel layers and showed no deformation at all passing through any of the other barriers. While I wish it tumbled upon impact more frequently, I am more than impressed with its ability to penetrate barriers. It penetrated nearly as deeply as the SIG 124-grain FMJ in every test, while weighing less than two-thirds of the FMJ bullet and having half the felt recoil. The Hornady Critical Duty +P had the most consistent penetration depth of any of the rounds tested, but the Fort Scott was a close second. Between that and the lack of deformation, the Fort Scott Fort Defense SCS round of all the bullets I tested is the only one that appears truly to be barrier blind.

Testing ammo through sheet metal
The exit holes in the second layer of steel. L to R: Hornady 135-grain Critical Duty +P, Speer 147-grain Gold Dot G2, and SIG Elite 124-grain JHP. (Firearms News photo)

About the Author

James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.


This article was originally published in Be Ready magazine. You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.




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