How Federal Changed Law Enforcement

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The world of law enforcement ammunition was altered drastically in the 1980s, and Federal was at the forefront of that sea of change.

Generally, prior to that time, Federal, and every other ammunition manufacturer, had a catalog of commercial handgun offerings and marketed some of those items to law enforcement. But in the 1980s, advances in manufacturing allowed ammo makers to create handgun bullets far more capable than ever before. Ammunition began to be designed specifically for and sold only to law enforcement. Next was the wholesale switch to semi-auto pistols from revolvers by police agencies. Lastly, and most importantly, was the creation of the FBI Ammunition Test Protocol and its impact on hollow-point bullet design.

A Changing Landscape

Federal put out its first law enforcement catalog in 1978. Every handgun, rifle and shotgun cartridge featured in that catalog came from the commercial line. It was a simpler era—most police officers in America were armed with 38 Special/357 Magnum revolvers, and perhaps the most well-respected 38 Special round was the “FBI Load,” a 38 Special +P 158-grain lead hollow point. The non-jacketed lead bullet in this load was found to expand well even out of the short barrels of snubnoses, and it was heavy enough to provide good penetration.

That began to change in 1984, when Federal brought Nyclad ammunition into the line, and it was first marketed to law enforcement. This handgun ammunition featured lead bullets clad in Nylon jackets. These bullets offered the softness of lead for greater expansion, with reduced bore fouling. Perhaps most importantly, they were cleaner, producing less airborne lead, making them better suited to the indoor ranges often used by law enforcement agencies.

Then, on April 11, 1986, everything changed with the now-infamous “FBI Miami Shootout.” Eight FBI agents went up against two heavily armed felons in one of the longest gunfights in American history. When the shooting was finally over five minutes later, two FBI agents were dead and five more wounded, and more than 150 rounds of pistol, rifle, and shotgun ammo had been fired.

The FBI laid a lot of the blame on “poorly performing” pistol ammunition—both bad guys took what were ultimately fatal hits but kept on fighting. To help ensure something like this never happened again, the Bureau spent a lot of time and effort developing what would become the FBI Ammunition Test Protocol.

This Protocol involves specially prepared blocks of 10 percent ordnance gelatin, which is meant to simulate the resistance of human tissue. The complicated, eight-step test involves shooting bullets into bare gel blocks as well as those covered with heavy clothing or set behind various barriers—plywood, drywall, sheet metal, and auto glass.

To meet the FBI’s standards, handgun bullets had to penetrate the block at least 12 inches after passing through the barrier. Once they did that, hollow points, which expanded the most, were scored higher. Spoiler alert—no 38 Special or 9mm Luger ammunition at that time passed the FBI Protocol. So ammunition manufacturers went back to their drawing boards, designing hollow-point bullets for the new 40 S&W and other smaller cartridges.

While the Hydra-Shok bullet design was developed in the 1970s, Federal reworked it in the late ’80s to better perform in the new FBI Protocol. It featured a sizable hollow-point cavity with a center post designed to provide greater expansion and deeper penetration than traditional JHP bullets. The Hydra-Shokwas a huge success and is still in Federal’s line-up today, along with recently redesigned Hydra-Shok Deep.

Perhaps the most successful Hydra-Shok was the 147-grain 9mm Luger, which provided both deep penetration and controllable recoil at a time when many agencies (including the FBI) were moving to semiautos. Many SWAT teams liked this ammo in their suppressed MP5 subguns because it was subsonic while providing JHP terminal performance. The success of Hydra-Shok in the FBI Protocol resulted in Federal being chosen as the primary ammunition supplier to the FBI and then other federal LE agencies.

A New Era

This era showed the introduction of other cartridges specifically marketed to law enforcement and not available commercially—one of the most well-known is Federal’s legendary 9BPLE. Federal had been making their 9BP jacketed hollow-point round for years, and it was very popular both commercially and with police. This 115-grain 9mm had a profile very close to that of a FMJ bullet, so it fed reliably. The new “LE” offering was a +P+ version loaded to much higher pressure/velocity.

The 1990s became the 9mm +P decade—American law enforcement agencies were adopting 9mm semi-autos, and ammo makers developed tougher bullets and added velocity to their LE ammo to improve its performance in the FBI Protocol, where penetration is (almost) everything. Before the FBI Protocol, there was no standardized test for defensive ammo. Now, the FBI Ammunition Test Protocol is the definitive test, and no law enforcement agency will authorize duty ammo that can’t pass it.

Hydra-Shok dominated the market when it was introduced, but Federal engineers continued to innovate, and in 2002, they introduced HST. Initially sold only to law enforcement, HST was specifically designed to pass the FBI Ammunition Test Protocol and give police officers the performance they needed in their duty handguns. Many professionals consider HST to be the finest defensive handgun ammunition on the market today.

Federal has remained at the forefront of ammunition innovation for law enforcement. Following in the footsteps of its Nyclad ammunition, in 1996, we introduced BallistiClean handgun ammunition line, produced at the request of the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). This ammunition combined lead-free projectiles with toxic-metal-free primers, ideal for use at indoor ranges. The line has expanded and now includes shotshells and frangible ammunition.

In 2001, Federal introduced EFMJ (expanding full metal jacket) ammunition for officers working for departments that prohibit the use of hollow-point ammunition. EFMJ bullets have the smooth, round external profile of standard FMJ ammunition for the utmost reliability but upon impact expand like traditional hollow points, giving officers the terminal performance they both want and need.

Long Gun Gains

But law-enforcement-specific ammunition isn’t just about handguns—in 1990, Federal introduced what would become known as the “Tactical Twelve”—a reduced recoil 12-gauge 00-buck load that immediately became the go-to shotgun round for American law enforcement and is still the standard. This 9-pellet load was slightly slower heading downrange, but the reduced velocity and improved buffering meant that the shot pattern was drastically reduced in size.

This significantly extended the range of department scatterguns, while being more comfortable for smaller officers to shoot (an important consideration with the influx of female street officers). In the 1980s, law enforcement use of rifles was nearly limited to sniper rifles. By the mid-1990s, that was changing as the “patrol carbine” concept gained traction, but there was an issue with the AR-15s that were so popular—the small, high-velocity rounds they fired tended to disintegrate when fired through glass.

The most well-respected 308 Win. load by LE snipers at the time was Federal’s 168-grain BTHP Match, due to its extreme accuracy, but that bullet wasn’t designed for terminal performance at all.In response to American law enforcement’s need for rifle bullets that held together after being shot through glass, while still providing the necessary terminal performance, Federal introduced Tactical Bonded rounds in 223 Rem. and 308 Win. These were a game changer and soon defined “barrier blind ammunition.”

Federal continues to dominate the law enforcement market with the Tactical Bonded rifle cartridges—they are the standard against which all other competing designs are judged. In fact, when it comes to law enforcement-specific ammunition in general, Federal is the standard.

Anniversary Edition Hydra-Shok

Celebrate a century of Federal ammunition with special-edition packaging of our all-time favorites. The throwback packaging honors classic Federal handgun products like this Hydra-Shok 45 Auto load.

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Anniversary Ammo Packaging