Monday, March 19, 2012

Denim and Gel Testing 380 Ammo

Regular readers know I get all worked up about catching bullets.  I'm not sure if I'm a closet ballistician or maybe it's just a little Ralph Nader in me trying to discover the good and the bad about stuff and letting people know about it.

A couple of weeks ago I packed up my ballistics box and some blocks of SIM-TEST and went out to the range to validate that some particular brands and specific 9mm loadings would indeed perform as designed, and marketed, when shot out of tiny 3" barrels.  Most of these loads were developed for service length pistols so you really need to check and see if the projectile velocity is sufficient to cause bullet upset and expansion.  That trip worked about pretty well except for blowing up my ballistics box because it couldn't handle the energy dump from the rounds.  You can read about that here.

After a few weeks of planning and thinking about how I could possibly improve my testing process, I hit the range again last weekend with a new approach to testing.  The ballistics box project has been put on hold and I've decided to just focus on using SIM-TEST media for my work.

Sunday afternoon was pretty productive.  I managed to capture data on 4 popular 380 auto loads and even set myself up to do some comparative analysis between two different sets of loadings.  While my SIM-TEST media isn't yet calibrated to FBI Standard Ballistics Gel, I'm working in that direction so hopefully soon I can report my penetration depths in standard measures.

I think it's time for some pictures.  I used a 2.5" barrel for my tests primarily because I really like the test gun and no one seems interested in doing denim and gel testing a barrel less than 3" in length.  So that's my value add to the shooting and concealed carry community.

My testing set up would make any CSI fan cringe.  It's dirty, dusty, exposed to the elements, but it's private and all mine while I'm borrowing it.  It's so nice to just do your work without a bazillion people watching and asking what you are doing.  I can't say enough nice things about the folks that let me use their range for my tests.

I tested 4 popular loads this week and all my data is summarized in the picture below.  If you are struggling to read the data points collected on each bullet, I apologize.  Try clicking on the picture as that usually shows the image in full size.  Normally, I would just stop here, but I've decided to take things up a level and have started producing some short videos on each load.  You can watch them in HD and full screen on your computer to see the stats on each load in bigger type and more bullet detail.  It's very easy to read.  Being a one man show, the camera work looks like the Blair Witch Project at times as I have to manage the camera and what I'm trying to do with my other hand at the moment, but it's better than leaving that aspect completely out of the review.  I think I'm also unique with my reviews because I test two rounds from each tested load.  From experience I find this is really important due to the huge velocity variations we've been seeing from the ammunition industry since 2008.  I had a shot to shot variance of over 100 fps on one load and all tested rounds came from the same box of ammo.  

The Videos - Gel Batch 1

My Comments:  Probably the oldest bullet technology tested, but one that has been hanging on forever is the Federal Hydra-Shok.  I remember buying these in the early 90's, but they may be even older than that.  After seeing how all 4 rounds stack up, the Hydra Shok sacrifices expansion for penetration.  It's impossible to deny there is expansion, but it's not as dramatic as others tested.  Penetration was much greater than it's paired partner the Winchester Ranger T that's up next. 

My Comments: I really don't know much about the Ranger T Series other than what I have read.  Back when you could buy the Winchester Black Talon ammo, you were basically buying the Ranger T bullet with a black lubaloy coating.  Looking at the violently expanded rounds, you can see the talons if you look closely.  With such a slow starting speed, the violent and impressive expansion really creates a drag on the projectile.  Unlike the Hydra-Shok, the Ranger T sacrifices penetration for expansion. 

The Videos - Gel Batch 2

My Comments: The Speer Gold Dot probably has the best reputation of any of the .380 JHP offerings.  It consistently tests well showing good expansion and penetration.  It's also a bonded bullet and without looking it up, I believe it was the first bonded 380 bullet.  In 2009, if you asked 10 internet bulletin board contributors what .380 ammo to carry, I estimate that half would have said Gold Dot with the other half recommending loads from Hornady, Remington, Federal, or Winchester.  The Gold Dot gets it's name from the tiny gold dot at the center of bullet after it's expanded.  Unfortunately, I wasn't seeing the dots this week.  The Speer Gold Dots were equally fast with all other loads tested, but expansion was not dramatic.  Yes, they did expand but more like the Federal Hydra-Shok than the other Winchester loads tested.  The Gold Dot trades expansion for deeper penetration.

I couldn't leave the range with full water jugs so I decided to go old school ballistics testing with a Gold Dot and 4 water jugs.  Instead of my normal 2 layers of denim, I upped it to 4 layers for this test.  You can hear the surprise and disappointment in my voice in the video.  4 layers was just too much for the Gold Dot tested and expansion suffered greatly.  This is why we need to test and retest our carry ammo.  I learned that Gold Dots might be fine in warm weather, but they may not be your best choice when the cold weather clothes come out.   

My Comments:  The last rounds tested were the comparatively new Winchester Supreme Elite PDX Bonded ammo.  I knew almost nothing about this other than the velocity data I previously captured on the load and that the bullet used in the Ranger T was supposed to be used in the PDX.  They look similar when compared before they are fired.  Like the Ranger T, the PDX showed some incredible expansion.  Also like the Ranger T, the PDX trades expansion for penetration.  The Gold Dot almost completely cleared the gel test block.  The PDX was found inches from the end of the gel test block.

Overall Comments on the Day
 I would have loved to see a 13" penetration and .650" expansion from one of the two test samples in Gel Batch 1.  Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to see that from any of the 380 rounds I've tested and will be testing in the future.  This is especially true when you realize we are only working with a 2.5" long barrel.  Up the barrel length to 4" and maybe that would be possible with some of these loads, but if I'm carrying a 4" barrel it's not going to be a 380.  The good news is that all 4 showed some expansion from the short barrel and for me, that's what is most important.

So stay tuned as more tests are coming.  In addition to 380 acp and 9mm I'd like to dip down into the .32 acp loads and step up to testing the .38 Special, .40 S&W, and 45 auto.  With some of the larger calibers I may do a short vs. long barrel comparison so we can really see how much performance is lost with the shorter mouse gun length barrels.


  1. What was the penetration of the Gold Dots and PDX1?

    The Hornady Critical Defense should be tested too.

    1. I didn't report penetration because the SIM-TEST blocks used for the PDX and Gold Dot tests were way too soft. I can say that the Gold Dot penetrated deeper than the PDX, which is consistent with their expansion.

      Hornady CD test is coming. Hopefully soon.

  2. Great test - It intersting to see the Gold Dot and the denim! Have you ever tested any Glaser Blue or Silver? I hear stuff both ways on them. I also once did a test on 9mm "air freedom" from Extreme Shock for drywall penetration - The stuff pretty much worked - and made nasty wounds in phonebooks. But my tests were not nearly as controlled as yours.

    Thanks again!

  3. I have not done any testing with the exotics primarily due to cost and availability. Ideally, I like to practice with my carry ammo if possible so it could get expensive quickly. I also think it would be difficult to benchmark vs. traditional projectiles since they are built for different performance criteria.

    I'm getting hints that I should test the pure copper HPs out of short barrels and let folks know how they perform. I'd like to do it, but the cost of the rounds from Corbon, DoubleTap, Buffalo Bore, Grizzly, and MagTech are roughly double to triple the price of normal SD rounds. The one exception was the COP ammo, but we all know how that worked out.

    So much to test, and that's just in .380 acp.

  4. The amount of work, costs and presentation involved in these very thorough ammo tests is impressive, to say the least. I only wish I carried a .380 so I could make use of the data!! Regarding shooting through denim I was wondering if you have considered inserting a form of resistance that would simulate bones? My thinking is that a center of mass hit would likely be in the chest where the rib cage provides protection.

    1. Thanks for the comment Bob. I appreciate it.

      This all started with my initial testing last summer when I as trying to determine which FMJ was fastest and produced the most muzzle energy. Immediate feedback told me that many wanted to see the same info for HP ammo so everything came together on this blog post.

      I received more feedback that terminal testing was equally important and I should head down that path. That sounded interesting to me so I started heading down that path. I switched out of 380 and started terminal testing 9mm from 3" barrels and learned even more interesting things through observation of results.

      The recent purchase and use of SIM-TEST is another stop on what I consider a journey to develop a consistent testing process I can apply across cartridges from .22 LR through .45 ACP. I have plans to start testing .32 ACP and .40 S&W soon. Again, my focus will be short barrels of 3" or less as there appears to be a huge void of data in this area, but these seem to be the most popular CC barrel lengths.

      I'm still developing my prototype ballistics box. If I can get that working, I will be able to layer multiple media types quickly, easily, consistently, and hopefully economically. Your thinking is in line with mine, and I will figure out how to get that data.

  5. Since I always have a P-32 on or close by me, I'm looking forward to your upcoming tests! And thanks for hosting such great gun blog.

  6. Very nice presentation. I was curious as to whether you used the factory Sim Test or whether you diluted it. The factory Sim Test seems too dense so I am experimenting with diluting to around 50% by volume to approximate a calibrated media.

    1. Hi JJ. I think it's one blog post back from this one, I run through my process of hydrating the factory SIM TEST to density that's more like ballistics gel. If you're doing it for yourself, you may want to watch the video in the blog post.

  7. I'll add my compliments to the other readers'. My son just bought me my first handgun: a S&W Bodyguard 380. He and I had discussed many guns, and I wanted a gun with excellent concealability but decent stopping power. I also wanted to find defensive carry ammo that would maximize the effectiveness of every round.

    Your blog is a great resource and it focuses exactly on the issues that I am interested in.

    By the way, during my first trip to the the range with my Bodyguard, I nicked my left thumb several times. I think the nail of my right pinky was doing the damage. I added a Garrison grip extender to the magazine - problem solved.