The 9mm is the current king of handgun cartridges, but it didn’t earn this honor by being the most powerful or the most shootable. It earned it through its superior blend of performance, price, and shooter-friendly recoil in a size that affords great magazine capacity. In short, it’s the perfect not-too-hot, not-too-cold Goldilocks bullet for handguns.
If that weren’t enough, the 9mm has benefited from the lion’s share of bullet innovation in the 100-plus years it's been around. In the past 30 or so years, innovation has ramped up and delivered designs with greater reliability and threat-stopping performance than ever before.
When combined with the previously mentioned benefits, the 9mm Luger is the best choice for armed citizens as well as police and military, a fact that’s demonstrated by the overwhelming number of agencies and global militaries that use the round. At the moment, there’s no cartridge that’s going to loosen the 9mm’s grip on the crown.
That said, let’s take a look at the most kickass, well-designed, and downright effective 9mm loads for self-defense.
Types of Self-Defense Bullets
Before we look into the specifics of different ammo products, let’s take a general look at the types of ammo available on the market now.
From Balls and Slugs to Full-Metal Jacket
A few kinds of bullet designs were created specifically for defending oneself against two-legged predators. But before that, bullets were just bullets. For instance, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank used the same balls in their rifle and carbines against each other as they did against bears, deer, and everything else.
Likewise, cowboys used lead slugs of varying calibers to put holes in both animals and people. Despite the somewhat crude and vanilla designs of these balls and wadcutters (a lead bullet that resembles a cylinder), they were effective at walloping both animals and people. Why?
The balls and bullets or slugs of yesteryear were made of lead and traveled relatively slowly compared to today’s ammo. The soft lead deformed and delivered much of its energy on impact, which put a hurting on the target.
As bullet velocities increased through new powders and cartridges, manufacturers designed lead bullets with copper jackets to prevent premature deformation. The full-metal jacket (FMJ) was born. FMJ ammo is great for feeding reliability, but not the best at dumping massive amounts of energy into a target or threat.
Designers regained some of the bullets’ previous lethality by lopping off the tip of the bullet, exposing a frontal section of lead. This was the birth of the soft point, an extremely effective hunting and self defense round and commonly found in rifle cartridges.
The soft point is great for high-velocity rifle calibers and magnum handgun rounds, but they require a good bit of steam to reliably deform upon impact. For handguns and low-velocity rifle cartridges, there’s a better way.
Today, the hollow point is the most ubiquitous bullet design for defensive applications. They’re effective and reliable expanders, even at low-ish velocity, due to a key feature. The hollow point starts with the basic soft point design but has a wad of lead scooped from the core of the bullet.
This void is where the magic of the hollow point happens. It’s designed to fill with material (flesh in self-defense loads) and expand as it passes through the target.
Today’s hollow points are reliable performers, feed smoothly in quality guns, and deliver excellent accuracy. They’re pretty much the perfect round to stoke your gun with — especially for self-defense.
The Best 9mm Ammo for Self-Defense
What makes these options the “best?” To make our picks, we’ve considered everything about each of these rounds — except for price (you want the best, right?). So we focused on proven performance, reliability, and design.
- Performance in self defense is about penetration and expansion. If you want to stop a perp NOW, it’s better that he has two holes in him than one. That gives you double the holes through which he can leak his lifeblood and regret the terrible decision he recently made. The FBI stipulates that a minimum of 12” is ideal for penetration to offer better (faster) incapacitation on two-legged critters.
- Reliability in terms of feeding and function is largely dependent upon your firearm. However, in popular handguns, these rounds have no complaints lodged at them. They’re all rounds you can count on in any self-defense situation.
- Design is important as well. Hollow point bullets are designed to open up with “petals” that peel back as the bullet travels through a soft target. We chose these because their design works well. There are images and gel test videos all across the web that prove how well these rounds open up reliably.
Now, on to the list! Not even the snarkiest keyboard commando would dare sh!tpost about any of these offerings.
1. Federal HST
Spoiler alert: If the 9mm is the king of the heap, the 124-grain HST is the 9mm's king of defense. It’s the latest iteration of the old Federal Hydra-Shok (which was a good bullet in its own right), but the old design sometimes struggled when passing through clothing. It would clog and not expand, which is a major problem when you’re relying on the hollow point design for self-defense.
TheHST removes the center post found in the Hydra-Shok, leaving a perfect hollow point. The core is lead and the copper jacket features deep skiving (cuts) that separate upon impact, letting the lead do its thing: peel back and bloom into a lovely (and deadly) lead flower.
The lead core and copper jacket are bonded to one another so that the whole package stays together when encountering barriers such as glass. Each case is also nickel coated. While there isn’t anything wrong with bare brass, nickel is more corrosion resistant and “slipperier” than brass, which delivers the most reliable feeding possible. You’ll see this across most premium self-defense loadings.
Kinetic Energy: 364 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,150 fps
2. Hornady Critical Duty
This ammo is made specifically to meet requirements of law enforcement agencies across the country. If you plan on carrying a gun with a shorter barrel, say less than 3”, go with this load. Critical Duty is optimized for full-size handguns.
When this round debuted back in 2011, the design of Hornady’s Critical Duty (and its sister load Critical Defense) innovated on the original hollow point design by adding a polymer plug to the cavity. While it might seem counterintuitive to fill the very thing that’s supposed to initiate expansion, hollow points can fail if their cavity gets plugged with stuff (clothing etc.) before target impact. Hornady fixed this failure point by adding the plug to ensure expansion, as if it’s preloading the cavity with flesh.
Clever. Maybe a little morbid, but clever.
Adding the plug also reduces the diameter of the cavity because the bullet no longer needs to be filled with tissue to expand. This narrows the profile of the front of the bullet, aiding in smooth feeding.
Kinetic Energy: 306 ft.-lbs
Velocity: 1,010 fps
3. Barnes TAC-XPD
Barnes is known for producing premium quality, all-copper bullets that many companies use to roll their own cartridges. The TAC-XPD bullet is a 115-grain beast that produces a scary-looking finished product when retrieved from ballistics gel (or a criminal).
The Barnes TAC-XPD is a high-pressure +P loading that offers consistently huge expanded projectiles. At full expansion, you can see up to .70”, which is DOUBLE the original bullet diameter. In other words, it comes out of the barrel as a .35”-diameter slug and leaves the bad guy only after it’s blown up into a .70-inch slug. Yowza.
Like most premium self-defense ammo, the Barnes XPD cases are nickel-coated for peak feeding lubricity. Barnes’ own TAC-XPD loading is made with a low-flash propellant that won’t blind you in low light, and despite its +P rating, is one of the softer-shooting self-defense loads.
Kinetic Energy: 323 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,125 fps
4. Winchester PDX1 Defender +P
The PDX1 Defender might not have the flashy marketing that some others do, but it flat-out works. Available in both 124- and 147-grain offerings, the heavier bullets are slower out of the gate, but penetrate deeper. The 124-grain offers a good blend of speed, recoil, and penetration.
The design of the PDX1 Defender provesthe adage, “the best solution is most often the simplest.” Its calling card is tough-as-nails performance that’s delivered by way of a deep (but not so wide) hollow point that resists deformation when encountering glass, wallboard, plywood, or any other barrier.
When it hits something soft and fleshy, it’s showtime. The Defender quickly and reliably expands to 1.5 times its original .35” diameter and zips through the target, wreaking havoc along the way. The construction of this bullet emphasizes reliability, from feeding to expansion.
Kinetic Energy: 396 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,200 fps
5. Browning X-Point
Browning has a long history of offering various types of ammunition, and the Browning X-Point is the company’s latest hardcore self-defense round.
The X-Point is a great option for those who prefer a heavier slug with rugged construction that’s going to penetrate deeply no matter what. The 147-grain X-Point gets its name from the X-shaped insert inside the cavity of the bullet. Browning points out that the X prevents clogs that can make hollow points fail, and when combined with tried-and-true jacket skiving and 147 grains of lead, you’ve got a heavy hitter of a 9mm defensive load.
The whole bullet is plated for slippery-fast feeding and extraction.
Kinetic Energy: 326 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,000 fps
6. Corbon DPX
Corbon is known for some wackier bullets (just look at the PowR’Ball) but the DPX is no gimmick — it’s an extremely formidable defensive bullet. It’s a solid copper piece like the Barnes TAC-XPD and has many of the same benefits, albeit at a cheaper price.
A monstrously deep and wide hollow point gives ample room for various materials to fill, initiating violent expansion. At 115 grains, it’s a lightning bolt and a soft shooter. In some guns, however, the huge hollow point that delivers awesome terminal performance can be the round’s Achilles’ Heel. Sometimes, the sheer diameter of the hollow point cavity can cause malfunctions when the round is stripped of a magazine and fed into the chamber.
Cheaper and older guns often have issues with large hollow points. Regular Glocks and SIGs will work just fine, but as always, before trusting your life to any gun or type of ammo, be certain that the combo works flawlessly.
Kinetic Energy: 399 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,250 fps
7. Sig Sauer V-Crown
Sig is no stranger to guns, but ammunition is a more recent addition to their holistic approach to weapon systems. Now, they’re aiming to be a complete provider — with guns, ammo, optics, suppressors, and more. The V-Crown is Sig’s premium self-defense and duty ammo offering.
The 124-grain V-Crown delivers perp-stopping magic through a deeply dished bullet with a notched jacket for reliable expansion. However, the V-Crown has an ace up its sleeve with a secondary and smaller hollow point (a hollow point within the hollow point, if you will). Sig calls this a stacked hollow point, and its goal is to ensure massive expansion — even if the main large cavity is plugged or deformed.
The cases are nickel-plated brass for easy feeding and extraction as well as excellent corrosion resistance.
Kinetic Energy: 364 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,165 fps
8. Hornady American gunner XTP +P
While you never want to skimp on something as critical as self-defense ammo, Hornady’s American Gunner line of ammo is designed to offer solid performance with a lower price tag.
As the name implies, these bullets are loaded with Hornady’s excellent and proven XTP bullets. The price of the XTP means you won’t weep openly when running a few boxes through your carry piece to ensure the two play nice together. In other words, your gun and the ammo you choose to carry in it should play nice together. Just because some clown on the internet says that the combo works, do not take his word for it. Make sure your gun and the ammo you use both run FLAWLESSLY for at least 100-200 rounds before you can carry them with complete confidence.
When you take the added bulk of a 124-grain bullet and stuff it in front of a +P charge of powder, the American Gunner XTP delivers ultra-reliable performance and awesome penetration.
Kinetic Energy: 380 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,175 fps
9. Hornady Critical Defense
Hornady Critical Defense is similar to Critical Duty, with a rubber plug inside the hollow point’s cavity to ensure reliable expansion. The plug negates the need for a huge gaping cavity, which many hollow point bullets require to initiate expansion. Like Critical Duty, the plug also brings the profile of the bullet to a sharper taper and point, for reliable feeding, which is job number one for a defensive load. It can’t stop a threat if it stops your gun from running.
The Critical Defense is specifically designed for shorter barrel handguns (the kind you’d typically carry concealed). The folks at Hornady crafted this cartridge with low-flash, low-recoil propellants, so shooting is easier to handle and doesn’t cause as much of a flash — big advantages when an intruder breaks down your door in the middle of the night. If that’s not enough, the casings are also bright plated nickel, making them easier to spot in the dark if you need to reload (but you probably won’t).
Kinetic Energy: 306 ft.-lbs.
Velocity: 1,010 fps
Which Gun Are These Rounds Good For?
In short, any handgun chambered in 9mm Luger will benefit from using one of these loads. A word of caution, however: not all guns chambered for 9mm are rated for +P rounds. The vast majority of modern guns are, but check your user manual to be certain. Too much overpressure will beat a gun to death, and eventually might KABOOM the slide right off the frame and into your face.
Teeny tiny micro compacts like the Kel-Tec PF9 are difficult to shoot no matter what you put through them. Their size combined with the 9mm round make them a handful. Big, full-size pistols like a Glock 34 are a joy to shoot, but difficult to conceal.
As with many things in life, many shooters opt for a compromise. Size-wise, a few middle-of-the-road options are the venerable Glock 19 with its 15-round capacity and great blend of shootability and concealability. Smaller options like the Springfield Armory Hellcat and Sig Sauer P365 series are smaller and thinner (where it really counts for concealed carry). They also carry 15 rounds or more.
Today is the golden age of high-performing, ultra-concealable, and affordable concealed carry guns. More people than ever are choosing to take their safety into their own hands, and for most, that means carrying a pistol chambered in 9mm Luger.
Until someone reinvents the proverbial wheel and devises a cartridge more well-rounded than the 9mm, it’s going to remain the king of handgun cartridges. Nowhere else will you find a better blend of ballistic performance, capacity, user-friendly recoil and price.
There are plenty of other handgun calibers that fall short of the 9mm’s bar-setting performance, but all have tradeoffs that quickly erode any advantage they might have over the 9mm, whether it’s in recoil, price, or capacity.
There’s a reason why the 9mm is so stinkin’ popular. It just works in all the right areas.
Check out our high-performance defensive 9mm ammo online at Pro Armory. We offer some of the best rounds on the market and ship them directly to your door for the lowest shipping price possible. So, stock your 9mm handgun today with great ammo at a price you can afford. Buy 9mm defense loads from the veterans at Pro Armory who actually give a sh!t about you.