We rate the best 9mm ammo for self defense using ballistic gelatin testing results. Testing actual ammunition in ballistic gel provides us with data on penetration and expansion of common 9mm rounds. That information, combined with some criteria of our own, allows us to make the best recommendations for you.
I also have some suggestions for the best 9mm ammo for range use and practice.
Hollow Point Bullets Are Designed To Expand
There are many different types of 9mm ammunition available. Picking the correct bullet type is important.
Hollow point bullets are widely recommended for for self defense over ball ammo (aka Full Metal Jacket/FMJ ammo).
The top reasons for using a quality hollow point bullet are:
1. Safer for you - The expanding bullet will be more effective at stopping the attacker because all of its energy will go into wounding instead of zipping down the street after it over penetrates.
2. Safer for bystanders - A bullet that doesn't penetrate through and through the attacker will not go on to injure anyone downrange.
3. Safer for the attacker - The fewer times the attacker must be shot to be stopped, the more likely they are to live. Remember, in self defense the goal is not to kill but to stop.
Ballistic Gel Testing Shows Bullet Penetration and Expansion
Clear synthetic ballistic gelatin provides a consistent medium for the testing of bullet performance. Test rounds were fired from a distance of 10 feet and were measured for expansion and penetration.
The ideal range for bullet penetration is between 12 and 18 inches according to the FBI. This is best applied to the average of several shots since individual bullets can penetrate more or less than the average.
Heavy Clothing Barrier
In line with the FBI testing protocols, and to more realistically simulate real life shootings, layers of cloth were placed in front of the ballistic gelatin. This creates a challenge for hollow point bullets because if the hollow point becomes clogged with material it can fail to expand. Unexpanded hollowpoints act like ball/FMJ ammunition and have deep penetration, often far deeper than the ideal 12-18" range.
Best 9mm Ammo - Self Defense
#1 Speer Gold Dot 115 gr
Gold Dot bullets are a "gold standard" in the world of modern ammunition, performing very consistently as a rule. This 115 gr round is a perfect example of that.
In testing, this lightweight round demonstrated a perfect blend of expansion and penetration. Coupled with the controlability of a standard pressure round, this is our #1 recommendation.
Expanded Diameter: 0.55"
#2 Speer Gold Dot 124 gr
Very similiar to the previous round, with just a little more weight. In testing, this midweight Speer Gold Dot round demonstrated a perfect blend of expansion and penetration. Coupled with the controlability of a standard pressure round, this is our #2 recommendation.
Expanded Diameter: 0.537"
#3 Speer Gold Dot 124 gr +P
This choice is very similiar to the previous round but since it is an extra pressure round (+P), it has more velocity and hits harder. This comes with a slight step up in recoil. If you're buying ammo for a small pistol, you may want to test this ammo for controllability with your chosen pistol before going all in with a large purchase.
Expanded Diameter: 0.53"
#4 Remington 115 gr HTP +P
Similiar to the previous choice, this is a +P round as well so it has a bit more velocity. This round uses a 115 gr bullet though, which generally will have less felt recoil. The result is an easy shooting self defense round that has excellent expansion, penetration as well as controllability.
Expanded Diameter: 0.53"
That rounds out our top recommendations for self defense 9mm ammo. As a general rule you can count on most any quality hollow point round from any of the major ammunition manufacturers to work well for your self defense needs.
It's important to test any ammunition that you plan to use for self defense in the gun you plan to use it in. By shooting 50-100 rounds you can determine if it is going to be reliable as well as how much recoil you can expect. These are both things that are best discovered before you have to depend on that particular gun/ammo combo to protect you. I consider the cost of one or two boxes cf cartridges for testing to be a small price to pay for the peace of mind that it brings.
If you're like me and enjoy quality, well researched information on ammo performance, I highly recommend the Lucky Gunner Handgun Self-Defense Ammunition Ballistics Test at the Lucky Gunner Labs. They have extensive data from their in-house ballistic gel testing on many calibers complete with photos, video and specifics for over 100 different self defense handgun ammunition loads!
Many thanks to Lucky Gunner for allowing the use of their data and many of their photos for this article.
Best 9mm Ammo - Range and Target Shooting
Choosing ammo for range, practice and training use is much easier than choosing self defense ammo.
If you are just looking to plink, anything that is reliable in your gun will probably work just fine.
If you want to practice with ammo that replicates the handling characteristics of your defensive ammo then you will want to pick practice ammo accordingly. It's not necessary to match every detail like weight and velocity exactly. But, if you load your pistol with +P ammo for defense then you will want to practice with +P ammo at least some of the time if you want the most realistic practice possible.
Here are our choices for practice and range 9mm ammunition.
#1 CCI Blazer 115 gr FMJ 9mm (Aluminum Case)
This wonderful aluminum cased ammo has been my go-to practice and match load for decades. After putting tens of thousands of rounds of it through dozens of different guns I learned a few things.
One is that it is absolutely reliable and clean. Another is that it is often the least expensive ammo you can buy - not counting low quality steel cased ammo. Either 115 or 124 grain is good-to-go!
That magic combo of cheap and good makes it our #1 choice.
#2 CCI Blazer 115 gr FMJ 9mm (Brass Case)
While the aluminum cased Blazer is my prefered 9mm ammo, I have shot plenty of this Blazer Brass as well. Essentially it is identical except the case is made of brass instead of aluminum. This typically increases the cost by about $1-2 per box of 50.
If you insist on nothing but quality brass cased ammo for your favorite blaster, it would be hard to do better than Blazer Brass.
#3 Sig Sauer 124 gr +P FMJ 9mm
This round is a Full Metal Jacket (FMJ) loaded to +P pressures. This load would simulate the recoil of your carry load if you are loading +P rounds into your self defense pistol.
With this stout load you can get realistic practice at a fraction of the cost of using your good (and expensive) defensive hollow point ammo at the range.
What is the Best 9mm Round for Self Defense?
A quality hollow point round that expands and penetrates to the ideal depth of 12” – 18” in ballistic gelatin. Our #1 recommendation is the Speer Gold Dot 115 gr round. See the five reasons why hollow point bullets are recommended plus all of our recommendations here Best 9mm Ammo for Self Defense & Target Shooting.
What is the Best 9mm Target Ammo? (:1f3af:)
Round nose full metal jacket (FMJ) will generally be the best ammunition for target practice and training because it can be purchased in bulk at lower prices than hollow point ammo. Our #1 recommendation is the Blazer 115 gr FMJ round. See all of our recommendations here Best 9mm Ammo for Self Defense & Target Shooting.