A frangible essay on choosing the right ammo

People new to shooting (and some not so new) are often confused by the bewildering array of descriptions of handgun ammunition available now (don’t get me started on rifle ammo!). Full Metal Jacket, Total Metal Jacket, Hollow Point, Round Nose, Frangible, Boat Tail, Steel Core, Steel Case, Aluminum Case, Sub-Sonic, +P, +P+, etc.

Let’s simplify this a little. Some of the terminology above relates to specific purposes like hunting or target shooting.If that is your interest, join a forum of like-minded people so you can learn more about those specifics. If your interest is more along the lines of basic marksmanship at 25 yards or less, or self defense, then your options come down to two:

  1. FMJ / TMJ (Full Metal Jacket / Total Metal Jacket)
  2. HP (Hollow Point)

Full Metal Jacket and Total Metal Jacket are similar enough to be called essentially the same.  These both contain lead bullets coated with a copper or zinc alloy, but with minor differences in the manufacturing process that have little impact on the average user.  FMJ/TMJ bullets are less expensive than HP, so they are typically used as range and training ammo, and have greater penetration than HP (sometimes too much).

Hollow Point bullets expand after leaving the barrel, and expand more on striking something. The point is not to cause greater damage, but to minimize over-penetration, which could be a danger to innocent bystanders. A side benefit is greater surface damage to tissue, which translates to greater stopping power. In a defensive situation, a high-powered caliber like .40 or .45 in FMJ could pass right through an attacker and injure/kill someone else. I have a Soviet military pistol that would go through two people and the wall behind them. However, smaller calibers like the .380 might not have enough penetration to even injure someone if they were wearing heavy winter clothing, so some people suggest using FMJ for these smaller calibers.

Both of these types of ammo are also available as Frangible ammo, which disintegrates on contact with anything harder than itself. This eliminates the possibility of ricochets off concrete walls.

Some mention should be made of +P and +P+ rated ammo. These are pressure ratings, indicating that these cartridges generate more force (+P) and much more force (+P+) than normal cartridges of the same caliber. Think of it as steroids for your gun. If the manufacturer of your gun specifies that your gun is approved for those higher pressures, then use them if you want, but only if the gun is made to handle it. Note that there is no industry specification for .380 +P, so these should not be used for that caliber, even if it is available (which it is).

Keep in mind these points about ranges and ammo:

  • Some ranges do not allow uncoated lead bullets, as a possible health hazard.
  • Some ranges do not allow steel-cased ammo, simply for economic reasons. They recycle brass casings, and do not want to sort out the steel.
  • Most ranges do not allow steel core ammo, as it may throw off sparks in the bullet trap and be a fire hazard.
  • Pretty much all ranges disallow tracer ammo, as it is definitely a fire hazard. 
  • A range is generally the cheapest place to get ammo, unless you need something special, so I always buy extra when I go, to keep an inventory for the next run on ammo.

Knowing what to buy, and what not to buy, can save you both money and aggravation.

Author: Sandy Keathley

NRA-Certified Firearms Instructor