September 16, 2021
Two of the best 9mm loads from what I’ll call the “Golden Era of the Wonder-Nine” are still available, and both are still excellent choices for defensive use—the Winchester Ranger 127-grain +P+ and the Speer 124-grain+P Gold Dot. First, a brief bit of history and ballistic philosophy to explain how these loads came to be:
On April 11, 1986, eight FBI Agents went up against two heavily armed felons in one of the longest gunfights in American history—the FBI Miami Shootout. When the shooting was finally over five minutes later, two FBI agents were dead and five more wounded, and over 150 rounds of pistol, rifle, and shotgun ammo had been fired.
The FBI laid a lot of the blame on “poorly performing” pistol ammunition—both bad guys took what were ultimately fatal hits…but kept on fighting. As a result, the Bureau spent a lot of time and effort developing what would become the FBI Ammunition Testing Protocol.
This complicated, eight-step test involves shooting bullets into bare ballistic gel blocks as well as those covered with heavy clothing, or set behind various barriers—plywood, drywall, sheet metal, and auto glass. To pass the FBI’s standards, the handgun bullets had to penetrate the block at least twelve inches after passing through the barrier. Once it did that, hollowpoints which expanded the most were scored higher.
When the Protocol was codified, no 9mm or .38 Special rounds on the market would pass it. None. However, this was an era when police departments began switching en masse from revolvers to semi-auto pistols…and most of those pistols were nine-millimeters (the Beretta 92, S&W 2nd and 3rd Gen autos, and then in the early 90s the Glock).
Ammunition manufacturers began trying to figure out how to get their 9mm offerings to pass the Protocol, because soon many police departments began requiring that of their duty ammo. Federal went one route with the heavy-for-caliber 147-grain Hydra-Shok. It penetrated deeply enough, but because it was slow, expansion was honestly a rare thing. And still is with this and other heavy 9mms.
Other manufacturers went the other way—they made their ammo faster in hopes it would penetrate deeply enough on the FBI test, and if it didn’t, they made their bullets tougher, so they held together when shot through barriers. In the 1990s, ammunition manufacturers discovered that mid-weight 9mm bullets (+/-124-grains) pushed at increased speeds provided the best combination of velocity, penetration, and expansion. Heavier bullets didn’t go fast enough to expand, and lighter bullets tended to come apart when shot through auto glass, etc.
The 1990s became the 9mm+P decade, and two of the best and most successful examples of that were the Speer Gold Dot 124-grain +P round and the Winchester Ranger 127-grain +P+.
The Speer 124-grain +P 9mm Gold Dot has an advertised velocity of 1,250 fps, and it will do that out of duty-length barrels. Speer’s Gold Dot bullets have a core that is bonded to the jacket, which helps keep the two together when punching through intermediate barriers like drywall and auto glass. If you look down into the cavity of the hollow point you’ll see a gold dot, hence the name. These are premium rounds, with nickel-plated cases and low flash powder. Felt recoil is on par with other similar rounds. Over several decades this load has been proven time and time again in actual police shootings, maybe more than any other +P 9mm load. Any questions? Didn’t think so.
Winchester’s Ranger load features their SXT bullet, pretty much the same one used in their legendary Black Talon round (but not painted black, so it’s more friendly). They now call this part of their T-Series line of ammunition. This bullet jacket is thicker at the nose for better penetration, and six aggressive petals to guarantee expansion upon impact. In fact, the jacket tends to peel back quite a bit, making expanded bullets quite wide, often .70”. This aggressive expansion helps reduce overpenetration.
Winchester’s Ranger 127-grain +P+ load is one of the very few +P+ loads on the market, and in fact Winchester has never sold it commercially, only to law enforcement, because of how hot it is loaded. You can find it for sale online in many places—and if you’re worried, buying ammo intended/marked “For Law Enforcement Only” isn’t illegal. This load has an advertised velocity of 1,250 fps, and out of duty-length barrels (four inches plus) it will do all of that. Out of the 5.31-inch barrel of a Glock 34 it will do over 1,300 fps, and actually make USPSA Major Power Factor. Which is why it was my carry load for about a decade.
The SXT bullet doesn’t have a bonded core and when fired through certain barriers (i.e. auto glass) it tends to shed its jacket, and often it sheds fragments of its jacket, but the core still penetrates to full depth, which is why so many police agencies have and in fact still do use it.
While there are newer defensive 9mm offerings, both the Speer Gold Dot and the Winchester Ranger are still being produced, and still excellent choices. But because they are loaded hot, I recommend using them out of the larger guns for which they’re intended.