Low velocity 9mm self-defense loads

A while back I made up some .40 S&W loads with “Gold Dot® Short Barrel®” bullets (it appears they have been discontinued) and then did velocity and milk jug penetration tests. I was very pleased with them.

A couple days ago I received an email from Drew Rinella. Here is part of it:

I met you very briefly a couple/few years ago at a Boomer shoot, so it was cool to find your site while researching low velocity results for speer gold dots. I saw that people were giving you shit in the comments about your low velocity 40 s&w gold dot SB loadings. I want to let you know that my terminal performance testing results have so far been great with loading the standard 147 gr 9mm gold dot at a low velocity.

I like the properties of the 147 grain 9mm gold dot bullet but I have always been frustrated by the challenging recoil impulse and inconsistent accuracy with their factory loading at nearly 1000 fps muzzle velocity, so I’ve been experimenting with loading at lower velocities. Despite the fact that they do not yet market a SB version of this bullet, I received an email back from that factory recommending a minimum of 850 fps for consistent expansion.

4.3 grains of Silhouette gave me 885 fps from a Glock 17. This was the most accurate and softest shooting load I tested which gave me the min recommended velocity. With this velocity I get consistent penetration of 4 water filled milk jugs, with the bullet puncturing a small hole into and bouncing off of the 5th jug. Assuming a 1.8x ratio of water to ballistic gel this slightly exceeds the FBI standard of 12″ ballistic gel.

Test #1: 2 layers denim

Penetrated 4 full milk jugs; bullet fully intact with signs of stress on the petals Expansion 0.525″

Weight 147.5 grains

Test #2: 4 layers denim

Penetrated 4 full milk jugs; one petal ripped off and stayed in first milk jug; signs of stress on remaining petals Expansion 0.563″

Weight 143.8 grains

As soon as the kids can drink more milk I’ll be testing with more materials including quilted denim, metal, wood, wallboard, and glass. I hypothesize less expansion and deeper penetration through these barriers based on observations of online video testing of factory loadings with this bullet, which I don’t necessarily consider to be a bad thing.

Silhouette was one of the few powders my thrower was able to throw consistently at these low charge  volumes, and gave me a small red fireball with some yellow sparks in low light shooting. CFE Pistol (my favorite powder for nearly everything else) wouldn’t throw consistently. Titegroup accuracy was very poor. AA#2 & 5 were consistent but wouldn’t give me the velocity I wanted without going into +P or +P+ territory.

Hornady XTP 147 grain at low velocity wouldn’t open up and looked like I could reload it and shoot it again. I definitely think Gold Dot is the way to go when downloading self defense rounds.

I figured there had to be other powders which would give the desired velocity so I went looking through all the sources on my book shelf. Here is a complete list of the powders for 9mm, 147 grain bullets, which yield velocities in the range of 850 feet per second.

Powder weight is in grains. Expected velocities are in feet per second. Some of the data is quite old and you should verify it with your own loading manuals or online to make sure the data is current and I have not made a catastrophic typo.

Powder C.O.L. Minimum Load Velocity Maximum Load Velocity
HS-6 1.100 4.3 773 5.0 885
Universal 1.100 3.0 803 3.3 869
Titegroup 1.100 3.2 855 3.6 929
SR 4756 1.100 3.2 800 3.8 950
WSF 1.100 3.3 800 4.2 950
AA #5 1.100 3.8 800 4.6 950
Solo 1500 1.100 3.8 800 4.6 950
HS-6 1.100 4.4 850 5.1 975
Blue Dot 1.100 4.2 800 5.5 1000
HS-7 1.100 4.4 800 5.6 950
AA #7 1.100 5.1 800 6.6 1000
Power Pistol 1.130 4.5 872 5.0 975
3N37 1.130 4.4 886 4.9 969
AA #7 1.130 6.1 867 6.8 961
SR 4756 1.130 4.2 841 4.6 957
HS-6 1.130 5.0 845 5.6 956
Unique 1.130 3.8 852 4.3 954
HS-7 1.130 6.1 866 6.8 953
WSF 1.130 3.6 840 4.1 931
AA #5 1.130 4.5 821 5.1 931

7 thoughts on “Low velocity 9mm self-defense loads

  1. Hmmm…..147 grains at 850 FPS sounds a lot like the 38 Special loads of yesteryear, 158 grains at 800 or so. Since that 38 Special load was deservedly citicized for ineffectivness, it seems bullet design is the critical factor.

    The Brits had a theory of “target duration,” basically meaning big, heavy slow-moving projectiles that spent more time in the target allowing more time for energy transfer. Whether that led to the .455 Webley, or came later as justification for the Webley, I don’t know. I do know that heavy large caliber projectiles – hard cast 260-325 in .45 Colt, or 250-275 in .44 Mag – with large meplats and moderate velocities (900-1100 FPS) are quite effective on thin-skinned game.

    If this 9MM/147 grain thing continues to pan out, it could be quite worthwhile, given modern magazine capacities and the problems with recoil control among shooters of smaller stature. Assuming, of course, that suitable projectiles, and factory loadings with them, are consistently available.

    Side note: it’ll cost money, but restaurant supply outfits usually stock 1 gallon plastic jugs in quantity. Empty milk jugs are “free” but if one needs a substantial number for testing, that’s one source.

    • The concept of “target duration” only make sense for a projectile that penetrates the target. For any projectile that stops in the target, the energy transfer answer is simpler: 100%.

    • Adding to Paul’s observation about energy transfer, energy is irrelevant. See also, this post.

      I’ve seen, and purchased, empty one gallon water jugs that are the same size and shape as milk jugs at grocery stores where you can “fill your own” water. I’ve also just purchased one gallon water jugs. On sale, I think, the cheapest are about $0.89 each.

  2. joe:

    years ago, francis sell, wrote on article in one of the gun digest issue (if memory serves) explaining why high velocity shotgun loads are an absolute waste of time, not to mention punishing on guns and shooter alike.

    the reason is quite simple. the faster things go, the more resistance they meet, which is quite obviously, self generated from the increased velocity. meeting more resistance, they slow faster. in shotgun pellets, the super velocity pellets are reduced to more or less normal velocities in no time. in shotgun pellets, he demonstrated that the “distance gained” from high velocity was negligible. this is why the brits shot loads of much less velocity than american magnums, and still manage to be the best game shots on earth.

    now, in rifle bullets, the gain in pain is rewarded by improved trajectories, but not a tremendous difference in terminal velocities. it is debatable whether as a practicable matter a .300 weatherby is of more utility than a standard .30-06 shooting same weight bullets, but the weatherby does get there first (by a bit), and is a little easier to aim at distance (assuming the shooter can stand the recoild w/out impacting his marksmanship.)

    i should think that pistol bullets, being very dull sleds ballistically, should behave quite a bit like shotgun pellets, with velocity gains being eradicated pretty quickly by increased resistance.

    w/ pistol bullets there is another factor to consider, however, and that whether the effect of a bullet is immediately incapacity inducing, or whether it takes a bit longer to do its handiwork. when an assailant is three feet away from you with a butcher knife it might be very well worth the increased recoil, noise and powder consumption to have the bullet incapacitate right damned now, as the saying goes. that is why i like the 9x23mm winchester over the 9mm luger, and prefer both over the .380 auto. btw, in my line of work, i read a lot of autopsies involving the .380 auto, and it “works,” if you have the time.

    john jay

    p.s. you may take some flak over your article, but, rest content, that you are right.

  3. Through extensive study on the subject I have come to the conclusion that only the physical cutting capability (permanent cavity) of the bullet matters in standard carry handgun cartridges. Human flesh and hollow organs are effected little by shockwave induced temporary wound cavity.

    Since +P loadings typically have similar penetration depths and permanent wound cavity diameters as standard or low velocity loadings of the same hollow point bullet, but are more difficult to shoot accurately and fast, I began seeking a more controllable alternative.

    I’m not sure what the velocity threshold is for a projectile to overwhelm the stretching capability of human flesh with its shockwave, but it appears this is where rifle cartridges like the 5.56 shine. Deer I have shot in the neck with 5.56 drop on the spot from a shattered spine even when the spine hasn’t been struck by the projectile. But since no standard carry handgun is capable of shooting at 3000 fps we are left with permanent cavity damage only.

    With permanent cavity damage we can adjust diameter and penetration depth the projectile. Tune your load and gun to your needs. In response to the comment above, 38 spcl may not necessarily perform terminally any worse than 9mm if bullet design is right, and I often carry one when I can’t carry a full size pistol. Trade off is capacity. 9mm is a long .380. If in the future a more controllable .380 bullet/loading is developed that meets FBI recommendations then that could be the logical evolution of the self defense handgun. In the woods I carry a 10mm and use a 180 grain XTP at 1110 fps. I’m trading some controllability and shooting speed (although I have tuned that load to my preferred recoil impulse) for potentially deeper penetration with a harder alloy bulley, slightly wider diameter than my normal 9mm, and stronger impact on thicker/harder animal bones.

  4. Hmm. Starting at the beginning, I’d want to know the reason(s) why reduced recoil is wanted in a 9 mm. In a PD carry gun, it’s probably not for attaining faster split times. See; I’m already speculating.

    If it’s control, or pain issue, there are things to look at besides downloading, such as the shooter’s hold on the gun.

    And why 9mm? As indicated above, there are calibers that are already, in essense, “downloaded 9 mms”. 380 Auto (though the bullets are lighter) and 9 mm Mak to name a couple more. A P250 in 380 is a pretty sweet shooter.

    Therefore I’d have to start by having a conversation with the shooter, and do some shooting with that person, so as to understand the problem we’re trying to solve.

    As an anecdote, some guys on a forum were trying to solve a “knuckle busting” problem by making a new trigger guard that left more space between the strong hand fingers and the back of the TG. When I chimed in about solving that by modifying the shooter’s hold, and exactly how to do it, they got all pissed, and yet that is the “software solution” to what is a software problem (the TG cannot bang your knuckles unless the gun slips in your hand, and that is easily prevented by modifying your hold).

    • .380s are generally much lighter guns than 9mm. The heavier gun the less the felt recoil for the same bullet momentum. And for the same bullet momentum, which is roughly proportional to penetration for a given bullet diameter and shape, the heavier bullets have a proportionally slower muzzle velocity. The lower the muzzle velocity the less sharp the felt recoil.

      And there are some people (for example: very slender, small boned women), even with a fair amount of training and practice, find a .380 painful to shoot. And even with 100 grain bullets at max velocities the .380 ends up with less penetration than a low powered 147 grain 9mm, which will have less felt recoil. Fire a 100 grain bullet with a MV of 950 fps in any .380 and compare the felt recoil to that of a 147 grain bullet at a MV of 850 fps in a full sized 9mm handgun. Which is more comfortable to shoot? Even though you aren’t a large man there are many women much shorter, lighter, and have far weaker hands and wrists than you. Arthritis can also play a role. The recoil can seem to rip the gun from hands that are unable to grip it tightly. If the 9mm gun is heavy enough, as long as the shooter can hold it outstretched, it will still function even with such a reduced load.

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