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Best CCW Ammo Test: Sierra and Black Hills

The ammo you use at the range isn't always the best carry ammo. Here are two great options from Sierra and Black Hills that will serve you well in your 9mm carry gun.

Best CCW Ammo Test: Sierra and Black Hills

Two quality 9mm defensive loads—Sierra’s 124-grain THD (Target Hunt Defense) on the left, and Black Hills’ 115-grain EXP (Extra Power) on the right. 

Back when I was just getting into handguns, most ammunition makers had just one or maybe two lines of defensive handgun ammunition, and that was it. Winchester’s Silvertip. Federal’s Hydra-Shok, etc. Now, not only are there a lot more ammunition manufacturers, they have much more extensive offerings when it comes to defensive ammunition. This might seem confusing, but in reality, it’s not—they are all pretty darn good, you just have to figure out which best suits your needs. Let me cover two 9mm defensive loads—one new, and one new to me.

Sierra Bullets

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In the Clear Ballistics blocks the Sierra THD penetrated 17 inches and expanded very nicely. The JHP has a big cavity.

Sierra THD—this is a brand-new product from Sierra, and while it will soon join their regular lineup it currently is only being offered as part of a package deal—buy a Walther PDP pistol, get 100 rounds of Sierra’s 9mm THD (WaltherArms.com). THD stands for Target Hunt Defense, and this is meant to be general-purpose ammunition good for everything. Sierra is one of the biggest names in the ammunition industry (they’ve been around 70 years), but they made their bones making bullets, and only (relatively) recently have gotten into selling loaded ammunition. Sierra bullets can be found in ammunition loaded by just about every U.S. ammunition company. The 124-grain THD bullet is a traditional cup-and-core jacketed hollow point, a copper jacket over a lead core, with a somewhat large cavity. The advertised velocity is 1,090 fps, although you should remember that is out of a full-length test barrel, and the speed you’ll get out of a smaller CCW gun will be less, sometimes 10% less depending.

Black Hills Ammunition 

Black Hills EXP—I’m not sure when they came out with it, but I recently became aware of Black Hills’ 9mm EXP offering. This is a 115-grain bullet loaded to produce 1,200 fps out of a four-inch test  barrel. EXP stands for Extra Power, and this ammunition is hotter than the standard 9mm load while being a bit less than a true +P load. The bullet they use is a Sierra JHP, an older proven design with a smaller cavity—it has proven itself to be reliable in feeding, while still expanding.

Testing CCW Ammo

To test these bullets, I first chronographed them, and there were no surprises there—out of the 4.4-inch barrel of my SIG P226 the velocities were as advertised. The 124-grain Sierra THD provided 1,088 fps, and the Black Hills 115-grain EXP gave me 1,209 fps. Recoil on both was a little hotter than baseline 9mm (which traditionally is a 115-grain bullet at 1,150 fps), but just barely, and quite controllable. They especially seem a good choice, recoil-wise, if you’re looking to feed a smaller carry gun. I decided to do a little gel testing as well. I had several blocks from Clear Ballistics (CB) on hand. CB advertises these as having the same density/providing the same performance as true FBI-spec 10% ordnance gelatin blocks, but that’s not true. They’re close, but generally the Clear Ballistics blocks are a little less dense, so you (probably) get a bit deeper penetration and (possibly) less expansion than with true gel blocks. Their advantage is they are convenient, reusable, and produce consistent results.

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Black Hills’ 115-grain EXP is not quite a +P in velocity, which means it’s a good choice for smaller guns. In the Clear Ballistics blocks it penetrated 13.25-inch and expanded to 0.54".

Sierra’s 124-grain THD bullet penetrated the blocks 17 inches (through the first 16-inch block and into the second), which is very good performance. The bullet expanded evenly, and it expanded to a .53-inch diameter. It retained basically 100% of its weight, with no fragmenting. Black Hills’ EXP load penetrated the block 13.25 inches and expanded to .54-inch diameter. This is exactly the comparative performance I was expecting—the lighter faster bullet expanded a bit more, and didn’t penetrate as deeply. It did not fragment or lose any pieces of jacket either. FYI: the FBI thinks that to do its job properly, a defensive pistol bullet should penetrate between 12 to 18-inches. Any less and you won’t hit vital organs, and any more and you risk overpenetration.

These are two types of ammo meant to be carried in defensive pistols and used in that role. But Federal just came out with a new 9mm Gold Medal Action Pistol Match load that I want to use to make a point (FederalPremium.com). This is accurate ammunition meant for competition, and is deliberately soft shooting for reduced recoil. It features a FMJ-FP (full metal jacket flat point) bullet and a velocity roughly 950 fps—which is honestly hotter than you’d want if you were handloading USPSA/IDPA ammo to make minor power factor (125 PF), but I understand Federal wanted a built-in margin of error and went for a 140 PF (bullet weight x velocity/1,000). A lot of people still carry full metal jacket ammo in their carry guns, and this is a huge mistake. Unless you are so broke that you can’t afford food, you should be putting hollowpoints in your carry gun. Seriously. Stop making excuses, or trying to justify it, because all of your reasons are wrong. You deserve better ammo in your carry gun—you owe it to yourself and everyone else.

The purpose of a hollow point isn’t just to expand, transferring more shock to the bad guy and creating a larger wound cavity, so he more quickly stops what he’s doing, that hollow point acts like a drag chute on a race car, slowing it down to (hopefully) keep that bullet from zipping right through the bad guy and into a bystander. Unless you’re trying to shoot through cover (something all handguns suck at)  you won’t have an issue with underpenetration. You don’t need FMJ bullets to reach the vital organs of the bad guy. Most 9mm FMJ ammunition will penetrate FBI-spec gel blocks 20–24-inches, depending on bullet weight, nose profile, and velocity. This is generally too far and will almost guarantee overpenetration, while (more importantly) transferring very little impact energy to the bad guy. Out of curiosity, I tested Federal’s Gold Medal Match 9mm load through my Clear Ballistics blocks.

best-carry-ammo-black-hills-04
Federal’s Gold Medal Action Pistol is a great practice/competition load, but FMJ ammo like this should be avoided for self-defense.

Again, this is a slow heavy bullet, heavy for caliber, but with a flat nose—however, that combination was apparently just right for penetration. This load penetrated my two blocks laid end-to-end easily. At 32-inches of penetration, the bullets kept on going. I fired a number of rounds, and they all performed just the same. The gel blocks barely even twitched. Just like a bad guy. Pistols work very poorly (compared to rifles and shotguns) at stopping fights, so you want every advantage you can get. Ammunition loaded with modern hollowpoints, like the Sierra THD and Black Hills EXP loads, give you want you want. Save that FMJ ammunition for practice and competition.


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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