Tool Time

By Brad Fitzpatrick

Person loading HST into Handgun

Volumes have been written about the best handgun calibers for self-defense, and there is no shortage of internet threads and social media debates regarding the best cartridge for protection. But that back-and-forth bickering over which cartridge is most effective ignores the fact that bullet selection is a key factor in how a defensive firearm performs.

Law enforcement agencies like the FBI have specific criteria for bullet performance in their protocol testing, and those extensive evaluations are put in place to ensure agents have the right tool—and more specifically the right bullet—when lives are on the line. Those tests prove what experienced shooters already know—choosing a bullet for self-defense is not something that should be taken lightly, and it isn’t a decision that should be based on convenience or price alone. The primary objective in any self-defense situation is to neutralize the attacker, and bullet performance plays a critical role in doing that. Some bullets are simply better at stopping bad guys than others.

I carry different firearms depending upon the situation. I might holster a lightweight, subcompact single-stack 380 under light clothing on hot summer days or when I’m running trails. During the cooler months, I oftentimes carry a midsize double-stack pistol for the benefit of improved accuracy and increased magazine capacity. I like striker-fired guns, and I also own several single-action pistols as well. But my selection of defensive ammo doesn’t change much. I know what works, and that’s what I load in my gun.

Key Features

There are some critical features I demand in my self-defense ammunition. First, I want a bullet that is well-constructed—durable enough to penetrate barriers like heavy clothing, yet capable of expanding and delivering maximum tissue damage to stop an attack. Federal’s HST ammunition has proven itself time and again to be an effective defensive load, and it stands up well in the FBI’s strict test protocol. The hollow-point design features patented dual skives (cuts) in both the jacket and core to initiate expansion. The durable copper jacket promotes controlled expansion and doesn’t separate from the cannelure to help prevent detachment from lead core.

Federal HST 9mm 124 Grain

HST bullets expand effectively and maintain nearly 100 percent of their weight on impact, yet they don’t over-penetrate. The team at Federal conducts extensive testing on these bullets to ensure the design and velocity are optimized to caliber, and that means consistent performance for everything from light, subcompact 380s to more powerful 45 Auto and 10mm Auto pistols.

In addition to bullet performance, reliable functioning is a critical component of a defensive load. HST ammunition comes with smooth-cycling nickel-plated cases and Federal primers, and that means these cartridges function properly in a wide range of pistols every time you pull the trigger.

While HST is a proven performer, Federal offers another relatively new load that works well in defense handguns. Hydra-Shok Deep drew a great deal of attention when it was unveiled—not only for its impressive FBI protocol test results (penetrating 15 inches in bare ballistic gel, the optimal depth by FBI standards) but also because its unique center post design serves to penetrate barriers effectively without the risk of over-penetration. Available in 9mm Luger, 40 S&W and 45 Auto, Hydra-Shok Deep offers everything shooters are looking for in a self-defense round.

Federal Hydra-Shok Deep 9mm 135 Grain

Rounding out Federal’s Premium Personal Defense line is its newest offering: Punch. While other loads were built for the unique needs and extremely high standards of law enforcement, Punch is the first line created by experts specifically for everyday defense. Engineers focused on the most popular handguns, chambered in the top calibers, and developed rounds that provide the best all-around performance for self-defense. The intent was to build a more effective option through simplicity, and the result was a round that’s reliable, accurate and terminal. Like all Federal Premium Personal Defense offerings, Punch loads also feature nickel-plated cases, high-quality powders, and reliable sealed primers.

Person loading magazine with Punch packaging overlay

Another newcomer is Federal’s Syntech Defense, which follows on the heels of popular Syntech Range ammunition. The most striking visual feature is the bright polymer coating on the bullet, which reduces friction and barrel heat as well as metal fouling in your bore, making it one of the cleanest-shooting self-defense loads ever designed. But that’s not the only feature that sets Syntech Defense apart. The unique nose section is designed to separate into three segments on impact, creating multiple would channels, while the core continues to penetrate 12 to 18 inches.

Federal’s engineers thoroughly vetted the design, which differs from traditional defense bullet architecture but has proven effective during testing. The Syntech Defense bullet doesn’t use the cutting-edge copper jacket and core design that make HST and Hydra-Shok Deep stand out in FBI protocol tests, but it remains an effective and reliable option. And by using traditional brass cartridge cases rather than nickel-plated cases, Federal has managed to keep it quite affordable, with MSRPs for 9mm Luger starting at just $19.95 per box of 20.

Right for the Range

Becoming proficient with a firearm requires long hours on the range and lots of ammunition. However, the price of top-shelf self-defense ammunition prohibits some from shooting as often as they should. In addition to finding the right round, it’s also important to find an affordable practice load that allows you to spend the time on the range and become comfortable and competent with your firearm.

That’s exactly what Federal had in mind when it introduced another addition to the Syntech ammunition family: Syntech Training Match. It uses the company’s polymer-coated, lead-core TSJ bullet. The purple polymer (which easily distinguishes it from Syntech Defense ammo’s bright blue) greatly reduces heat and barrel fouling, and that is very beneficial for a training load since it reduces wear on your gun and requires less frequent barrel cleaning. Syntech Training Match loads have identical points of impact, velocities and trajectories as matching HST loads, so you know your training rounds will hit in the same place as your defensive rounds—but at a much lower price, as little as $19.95 for a box of 50.

Another key feature is the use of Federal Catalyst primers, which are lead-free and therefore perfect for shooting at indoor ranges. The bullet design also reduces splash-back when shooting at steel targets.

Federal Train + Protech 9mm 115 Grain

If you aren’t interested in purchasing two separate loads for training and defense, Federal also offers its convenient Train + Protect ammo. Loaded with the company’s clever VHP (Versatile Hollow Point) bullet and brass cases, Train + Protect ammo offers a multi-purpose projectile that expands reliably for defensive applications, yet it costs less than other rounds, making it great for the range. While the VHP bullet doesn’t have all of the high-tech, world-class features you’ll find in the flagship, FBI protocol-leading HST and Hydra-Shok Deep, it’s still ideal for the range and doubles as a functional personal protection load. It’s available in 50- or 100-count boxes in 9mm Luger, 40 S&W and 45 Auto, and MSRPs at as little as $30.95 per 50, making it an affordable do-all option for the shooter who wants a single load for all shooting scenarios.