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Pressure Points — Do You Need +P Ammo?

How Different Is Standard From +P Ammo When It Comes To Your Average Carry Gun?
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Here in the US of A, our preeminent “non-magnum” defensive handgun cartridges include the 9mm, .38 Special and .45 ACP. All feature +P versions in more than one bullet weight by more than one ammo manufacturer.

SAAMI’s cut-and-dried specs quantify a +P rating in terms of pressure increase—for the 9mm it equals a 10 percent bump; .38 Special, 9 percent; .45 ACP, a 9.5 percent bump.

Without getting into headache-inducing numbers like 35,000 psi and stuff, we got curious as to what you might expect “out of the barrel”—say, for a given 147-grain 9mm standard pressure load compared to a 147-grain +P? Obviously, we didn’t have the time, ammo and instrumentation required to quantify everything. But what we did do was grab a mix-and-match assortment of same-weight standard and +P loads from different makers to see what we could see.

It was an interesting undertaking, which took place on a broiling hot day in late May up at Crescenta Valley Sportsman’s Club. It was so sunny we actually had to supplement the plastic chrono sunscreens with a long section of cardboard we’d purloined off an old target frame.

We resorted to this on the advice of an electronics-savvy club member after getting some fairly whacky numbers off the chrono (when you see a reading of 1,400 feet per second for a 185-grain .45 ACP from a pistol, you know something’s amiss). There are, of course, obviously factors involved besides the existence or absence of a +P rating. Not all brands chronograph the same (despite having the same bullet weight), nor do all handguns (despite having the same barrel length). In fact, not all chronographs chronograph the same. But we figured even a ballpark comparison might be interesting. Here’s what we used:

Guns: We got hold of a pair of .38 Special launching pads to compare a carry snubbie with a larger “nightstand” type revolver. The 2-inch was a vintage S&W Model 49 Bodyguard while the 4-inch was a K-Frame Model 15. Our 9mm was a GLOCK 17, the (just under) 4-1/2-inch-barreled classic responsible for lighting the fuse on the Great Polymer Explosion. Our .45 ACP was a Commander-size S&W Scandium 1911 with the requisite 4-1/4-inch barrel. We figured it’d be tough to come up with a more typical (and proper) big-bore carry auto.

In terms of velocity, the legendary +P 158-grain “FBI Load” shaded the standard pressure 158-grain RN decisively in a 4-inch revolver. In a 2-inch gun, the difference was considerably less dramatic.

Ammo: For the .38 Special, we wanted to go Old School by comparing the classic +P FBI load—a 158-grain SWLHP—with the often maligned standard-pressure 158-grain LRN. And since it seems the hotter stuff in the lighter weight range is now the Big Thing, we checked Federal’s +P HST JHP Micro. It’s a flush-fit, wadcutter-like 130-grain number that looks to be more cavity than bullet and is expressly designed for small revolvers. For our standard pressure comparison, we used Winchester’s delightfully pleasant-to-shoot little 130-grain FMJ.

Our 9mm representatives were in the 147-grain weight class and included Buffalo Bore’s potent +P Outdoorsman Hard Cast and CCI Blazer standard-pressure TMJ. For the .45 ACP leg of our caliber trifecta we used the Barnes +P 185-grain TAC-XP and the standard pressure Speer 185-grain GDHP.

Surprises? Well, the real one was on the .45 ACP side of the ledger. Speer’s hot 185-grain JHP surpassed its +P “weight mate”—Barnes’ 185-grain TAC XP—by 82 fps. In the 2-inch .38 Special, the +P 158-grain’s advantage over the standard-pressure load was 78-fps, considerably less than the 156 fps margin it enjoyed in the 4-inch gun.

The full-size GLOCK 17 got the most out of both 147-grain 9mm offerings. As expected, Buffalo Bore’s +P offering was faster. Both of these heavyweights would offer considerable penetration, but for practice, the CCI Blazer TMJ would be considerably more economical.

What was a bit of an eye-opener was the 130-grain Federal +P had a 124-fps advantage in the 2-inch gun but only a 78-fps advantage in the 4-inch. It would appear Federal engineers really did tailor it to “Micro” .38 carry guns!

Not surprisingly, Buffalo Bore’s 9mm Outdoorsman +P was right at the ragged edge of “subsonicness.” It exceeded CCI’s excellent and economical Blazer by 140 fps.

The difference? In terms of effectiveness, the velocity boost at the less-dramatic levels probably isn’t as critical as other factors—bullet configuration and weight and how they affect expansion and penetration. Then there’s the controllability issue. Recoil-wise, what’s not much of a big deal in a full-size platform becomes increasingly apparent as the gun gets smaller and lighter.

Of the guns/loads used, the only two where the recoil difference between our particular standard and +P pairings was blatantly obvious to me, was with the 2-inch steel Model 49 Smith and the 9mm GLOCK. But nothing was unmanageable, although an alloy J-Frame .38 or an ultra-compact 9mm could prove to be a handful for some folks with the +P’s we used.

Surprise! Our +P Barnes 185-grain .45 ACP offering was slightly “out-chronographed” by the Speer 185 GDHP. But both offer very efficient bullet configurations and manageable recoil, even in this Commander-sized Scandium S&W 1911.

Federal’s .38 Special +P 130-grain HST JHP resembles a flush-fit target wadcutter, right up until you peer into its cavity.

A New Entrant

When it comes to +P ammo, everything is about cutting-edge performance and design. A new offering on the market takes the whole concept of maximized velocity to another level. That ammo is the ARX Preferred Defense +P 9mm round from Inceptor Ammunition. It is a 100 percent frangible ball type/round nose projectile that is extremely lightweight. The non-expanding round is designed to feed easily (due to its round nose) and has grooves on its nose that delivers enhanced performance in soft tissue.

Inceptor Ammunition’s ARX ammo features a non-expanding frangible projectile that is ultra-light and fast, delivering a lot of power on target.

The +P 9mm offering from the company has a projectile that weighs in at a mere 65 grains and clocks in at an average of just under 1,700 feet per second out of the muzzle. That translates into just over 400 ft. lbs. of energy — and all with reduced recoil and muzzle rise. This is a really intriguing round with a lot of potential as a serious defensive round.

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