Smaller Made Better

By Mike Wood

Hydrashok being loaded into a magazine

According to figures provided by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), 2020 was a record-breaking year for firearms purchases. An estimated 21 million new firearms were sold in 2020, and an estimated 8 million Americans purchased their first firearm as part of this buying frenzy. The trend continued through 2021, with monthly records pushing numbers ever higher.

Most of these firearms are handguns designed to serve as defensive tools both inside and outside of the home, and the influx has helped generated a strong demand for suitable ammunition to feed them. Thankfully, Federal engineers recently harnessed advancements in design, materials and manufacturing to create some of the best ammunition ever in 380 Auto and 38 Special +P—cartridges that new and established shooters count on for home defense and carry.

Market Leader

Hydra-Shok was one of the first bullets to incorporate advanced technology in its design, with its signature, fluid-redirecting post in the center of the hollow-point cavity. It excelled in the ammunition testing protocol developed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after its deadly 1986 Miami Shootout and soon became the most popular round in American law enforcement. The public followed their lead, and Hydra-Shok soon became one of the most trusted and desired rounds by armed citizens.

More than three decades later, Hydra-Shok is still one of the best choices in defensive handgun ammunition, but as technology, materials, manufacturing processes, and our understanding of both bullet design and terminal ballistics has improved, new opportunities were created to improve the performance of this old favorite.

Making A Great Bullet Better

So, Federal set out to improve the Hydra-Shok with an energetic new team. Initially, their focus was on the “service calibers,” which were most frequently chambered in the larger guns used by law enforcement, military and commercial users, such as the 9mm Luger, 40 S&W and 45 Auto.

The design goal for these calibers was to seek deeper penetration, without sacrificing expansion or weight retention. Federal engineers wanted the bullet to reliably penetrate to between 14 and 16 inches in the FBI’s test protocol, and they succeeded handily. The resulting Hydra-Shok Deep offers a 70 percent improvement, across the board, over the old Hydra-Shok design, in the FBI’s rigorous testing.

Collateral Benefits

As work progressed on these calibers, Federal engineers realized there was a significant potential to boost the performance of less powerful chamberings like 380 Auto and 38 Special.

Since these calibers are typically found in smaller guns that are optimized for concealed carry, it didn’t make sense to judge them according to the 14- to 16-inch standard preferred by the FBI for service-size, law enforcement duty guns. However, Federal’s team knew they could use the enhanced design to push these bullets past their normal limits and get reliable penetration exceeding the FBI’s 12 inch minimum in gelatin, while still achieving close to 1.5 times expansion. They succeeded, and changed our performance expectations for these calibers, particularly when they’re fired from compact and subcompact handguns.

380 Auto Performance

To illustrate, in the bare, calibrated gelatin proscribed by the FBI protocol, the 99 grain 380 Auto Hydra-Shok Deep bullet penetrates to 13 inches and expands to 0.496 inches (about 1.4 times the original diameter). In gelatin covered by FBI-standard heavy clothing, it penetrates to 13.5 inches, while expanding to 0.514 inches (about 1.45 times the original diameter).

Hydra-Shok 380 Auto in ballistic gel

This is exceptional performance from a 380 Auto bullet. While the classic 90-grain 380 Auto Hydra-Shok has long been respected for its strong performance, it penetrates about 30 percent less in bare gelatin than Hydra-Shok Deep (with only 3 percent more expansion), and penetrates about 13 percent less in FBI-standard heavy clothing (while expanding 9 percent less).

The 380 Hydra-Shok Deep outperforms other brands as well. It penetrates 32 percent more in bare gelatin than the next-best 380 Auto bullet on the market (while expanding only 5 percent less), and penetrates 19 percent more than that bullet in FBI-standard heavy clothing (while expanding 6 percent more), according to Federal’s tests.

38 Special Performance

The 38 Special +P Hydra-Shok Deep is equally impressive. The 130-grain bullet penetrates 13.2 inches of bare ballistic gelatin and expands to 0.551 inches (1.54 times its starting diameter), when fired from a revolver with a 1.875-inch barrel. In FBI-standard heavy clothing, the bullet penetrates 13.4 inches and expands to 0.548 inches (1.53 times its starting diameter) from the same short barrel.

38 Special Hydra-Shok Deep in ballistic gel

This is extraordinary performance from a snubby revolver. Most 38 Special and 38 Special +P loads struggle to get beyond 9 inches of penetration in these tests, with only a select few going as deep as 11 inches, but Hydra-Shok Deep does it regularly, while expanding to more than 1.5 times the original diameter. This is industry-leading performance for the 122-year old cartridge.

The load also performs well from a larger gun. From a 4-inch barrel, it penetrates 14.6 inches of bare gelatin while expanding to 0.584 inches, and in FBI-standard heavy clothing, the bullet penetrates 16.1 inches and expands to 0.562 inches. This makes the load equally suitable for the large gun you keep for home defense and the smaller gun you carry concealed.

A New Standard

Federal dramatically moved the goalposts on 380 Auto and 38 Special performance. If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans who has purchased a new firearm for self-defense in the past couple years, and you’re looking for quality self-defense ammunition to load in it, you can rest assured the Hydra-Shok Deep is an excellent and trustworthy choice.