Why You Should Care About Ammo Testing

I know, “yawn,” right? Hey, I could have written the title like “16 Secrets About Ammo Testing the Government Doesn’t Want You to Know!!!11!!!” In all seriousness, there are a lot of folks out there who think that ammunition is mostly the same and completely disregard testing. It isn’t my place to tell you what to do and you can’t help it if it bores you, but here are a few reasons that you might want to pay a little more attention to ammo testing, even if you’re not a bullet nerd like me.

YouTube channels like The Chopping Block, Buffman, The wound Channel, and ShootingTheBull410 and of course our own TFB TV produce independent tests of ammunition. This independent testing is very important to understanding the potential of effectiveness of a given load. Most people do not have access to the testing results from professional labs and if you have even the slightest bit of skepticism, testing published by the manufacturers themselves might be less than perfectly credible. To be sure, the testing from some YouTube channels amount to little more than paid advertisement. Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a difficult task. But those honest reviews really are important.

The reason they matter is that not all ammunition works the same. Even high quality loads with excellent reputations may not function properly in the right circumstances. Gold Dot is widely considered to be the “gold” standard of defensive ammunition but in one of our tests on TFB TV the short barrel 9mm + P 124 grain failed to expand in heavy clothing. That was a very surprising result. These informal tests can open our eyes to things that the community always just accepted as fact.

Granted, the difference in stopping power between a 9mm JHP that expands and one that doesn’t is not profound. But there is a difference. And when the outcome is literally life-and-death that performance difference, small as it may be is very important. I want to carry the very best possible ammunition. When the worst day in my life comes, when everything is going wrong, I want the things that I can control to go right. Informal testing can tell me whether Sig V-Crown is a mediocre performer and it can show that Liberty civil defense penetrates way too shallowly to be considered.

As important as this informal testing is, one should still remain cognizant of the fact that the people performing the tests are not themselves experts. Although I have performed hundreds of gel tests, I know that I am not actually an expert. While the experience from those tests and the knowledge gained from reading about the subject is certainly useful, I have not made a career of it. I haven’t read nearly as much on the subject as a professional and I lack the medical and physics foundation to really understand the subject the way they do. That is why I have to refrain from forming my own opinions and you should disregard any other amateur who indulges in their own opinions. We must defer to the findings of actual experts. What that means, is to refer to papers such as “Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness” or this article on defensive ammunition choices and apply those concepts to the performance observed in informal testing. It would be to your benefit to then seek out professional testing for the same loads. Amateur testing is much more useful for ruling out a defense load and should not be taken as the final word for its effectiveness. It’s also important to consider that not all informal testing maintains the same level of professionalism. While most of us understand that we aren’t an actual ballistic lab we do attempt to maintain those standards which are practicable in the field. It’s not sufficient to just shoot a bullet into a block of goo and marvel over the pokiness of it. The purpose of testing is to gather empirical measurements, not subjective interpretations. So as you watch these informal tests look for the measurements, compare them to the established standards, and ignore the opinions of the testers. And yes, that includes myself.


Andrew is a combat veteran of OEF and has performed hundreds of ballistic tests for his YouTube channel, The Chopping Block (https://www.youtube.com/user/chopinbloc). He is an avid firearm collector and competitor and lives with his family in Arizona. If you have any questions, you may email him at choppingblocktests@gmail.com


  • No one

    Your tests don’t speak of birdshot as a magical one shot stop eviscerater round so therefore anything you say is biased and unprofessional!

  • BattleshipGrey

    Lucky Gunner has done some testing as well and has a pretty comprehensive list and good documentation for many self defense loads. http://www.luckygunner.com/labs/self-defense-ammo-ballistic-tests/

    • Giolli Joker

      I did not check in detail the methodology, but the amount of data they put together (and the way they make it easily accessible) is nothing short of impressive.

      • PK

        BrassFetcher is another good one.

        • BrassFetcher was the original ammo tester, back in the dark days before Youtube.

          • PK

            Interesting! I recall that once when I was posting gel results on either The Firing Line or The High Road, someone mentioned him as another resource.

          • Yup, he’s been putting out great testing since 2004, and is a certified expert / former ARDEC guy.

            Prior to Brassfetcher, most of the testing online involved guys shooting water jugs and wet newsprint. One of the unsung hero’s of the online gun nerd community.

          • PK

            No kidding, I was mocked back a long while for “shooting jello” instead of doing the proper “wet phonebook testing”. Weird times, on those late 90s-early00s forums…

          • Those were good / silly times: when .45 > 9mm, shotguns > .223 poodle shooters, and iron sights > optics.

            It will be interesting to go back in 10 years from now and review today’s forums, and see what “gospel” currently advocated is viewed as completely backwards and retarded.

          • PK

            No kidding! Who knows what the future holds, but the things “everybody knows” sure did change in a short time. Personally, I think we’re on a better track these days with free exchange of information, repeatable experiments, and the ability to create and share hi-res photos and slow-mo video on a fairly tight budget.

            The internet is mankind’s most powerful tool, in my estimation! Groups of people get together and act as one brain, thinking through problems and coming up with ideas.

        • neckbone

          Have you done any testing with the cavity backed bullets? They’re pretty new, only a year or so.

          • PK

            Cavity backed? I’m not sure what you mean. Supercavitating bullets have been around for a while, at least as early as 2011, as have hollow-nose (inside the jacket), but if neither of those is what you mean, then I really don’t know what you’re asking.

            The type with a hollow nose and a knocker, yes I’ve tested those and they’re outstanding in gel and in hunting. Truly amazing performance.

            The supercavitating bullets are something I’ve been unable to get my hands on, although if I do find a source I’ve wanted to test them for years now.

          • neckbone

            Cavity backed bullets is the name. Just allows more powder behind the longer non lead bullets. Supposed to open up at really low velocities too. I haven’t tried them, and it seems nobody heard of them really. The guy must only sell a few hundred a month.

          • PK

            Oh, I see them now… I didn’t search for that exact term, and I’ve certainly never heard of it. Seems like an extreme version of the old-style hollow based bullets, but in modern copper jackets. I expect they would function similarly to other projectiles with a similar hollow point but otherwise be unremarkable in terminal ballistics.

    • Big Daddy

      The lucky gunner testing was very flawed. But it does you you a baseline idea.

      • Michael Boudreaux

        flawed how?

        • Big Daddy

          Read it and compare it to the FBI protocol.

          • Michael Boudreaux

            “The goal of our project is to test as many loads as possible in order to determine how they compare to the FBI standard recommended penetration depth of 12-18″. We also want to know how well the bullets expand when they encounter a barrier of heavy clothing before entering the gel. Whenever feasible, we tried to duplicate the testing protocol reportedly used by the FBI, but our first priority was to be consistent, using the same procedure and conditions for every load we tested.”

            “Each shot was fired with the muzzle approximately 10 feet from the surface of the gelatin block. The FBI used to test handgun ammo at 20 yards as well as 10 feet, but they found very little difference in the data at these two distances. The current practice of the FBI is to use the 10 foot test for handgun ammo, and that’s what we’ve followed here.”

            “We used the same type of fabric specified in the FBI heavy clothing test, which calls for the following:

            cotton t-shirt material (approximately 5.25 ounces per yard, 48 threads per inch)
            cotton shirt material (approximately 3.5 ounces per yard, 80 threads per inch)
            Malden Mills Polartec 200 fleece
            cotton denim (approximately 14.4 ounces per yard, 50 threads per inch)”

            “To get an idea of how a bullet will perform under various real world conditions, the FBI tests each load with a variety of barriers placed in front of the gelatin. They start with a plain block of “bare” gelatin with no barrier, and follow up that test with a barrier of heavy clothing, and then hard barriers of steel (to simulate an auto body), plywood, wallboard, and auto glass. Because non-law enforcement self-defense shootings are highly unlikely to involve firing through walls or cars, the bare gelatin and heavy clothing tests are most relevant for the average civilian gun owner. In order to test as many loads as possible, we opted to skip over the bare gelatin testing and conducted all of our testing only with a heavy clothing barrier. Most of us train to fire at the vital zone or “center mass” high in the chest area of the target, which is an area typically covered by clothing.”

            seems like they followed fbi standards to me

          • Except they skipped one of the most important steps of the FBI protocol, calibration. They trusted the clear ballistics gel’s claim that it isn’t needed. But testing has shown that clear ballistics gel needs to be calibrated even more than normal ballistics gel.

          • Michael Boudreaux

            I mean, it’s not stated in the article whether or not they calibrated it.

          • It has been a couple of years, but IIRC the response from Lucky Gunner was exactly what I wrote, that Clear Ballistics says it meets the FBI spec for 10% ballistics gel without claibration, thus they went with it.

          • Now I should mention if all you are planning to do is blast some rounds and see how they expand. Calibration isn’t needed.

            But in order to create comparable results, and see if they meet the FBI standard calibration is 100% important. It was repeatable mediums like ballistics gel that turned wound ballistics truly into a science.

          • Michael Boudreaux

            well tfb isn’t letting me link to their website for some reason but on Clear Ballistics website they have an faq section that outlines their testing protocols and says they can send documentation to prove their testing

          • Having it test in a climate controlled factory, and having it test in the real world are two separate thing. Clear Ballistics Gel is well known to not calibrate in the real world.

            In fact the whole point of the calibration shots is to ensure that the gel has been handled correctly. 10% ballistics gel is very temperature sensitive. Though clear ballistics gel might be less temperature sensitive, it isn’t insensitive enough.

          • Michael Boudreaux

            gotcha. Yeah I’m by no means trying to say i know everything on the subject, not at all. I’ve just always taken lucky gunner to be a reliable source and it takes alot for me to change that. Especially after having watched dozens of ballistic gel tests that were outside in the sun for who knows how long.

          • There are very specific procedures on how to properly handle standard 10% ballistics gel. Including how it must be stored, how long it can be out of storage, and how long the calibration is good for.

            That is why people who have some idea of how hard this stuff is take the home ballistics testers results with a huge grain of salt. And why we hold the results from professional testers that do this for a living at a much higher level.

          • Big Daddy

            Yep that’s the most important part.

          • Big Daddy

            Did they set up the correct gel and test it with a BB? if not this is all for nothing. As far as I remember they did not.

          • Michael Boudreaux

            It wasn’t stated if they did or not.

      • BattleshipGrey

        Okay, I’ll bite, in what way(s) was the testing flawed?

      • John

        Well, we all know how AMAZING the government is at doing things right so I would not be surprised if the FBI substituted a stack of pizzas and a few cans of Bud Light for “10% ballistics gel” and just called it good.

  • PK

    I’ve never actually met anyone who doesn’t, at the very least, find gel testing visually interesting.

    Anyone aware of gel testing tends to put at least some stock in it, being the current best we can do to determine what works and what doesn’t, to what standards, and with what level of consistency.

    • William Elliott

      a good gel test with a good calibration or comparison of a known quantity gives you a good metric to see how a bullet SHOULD perform in soft tissue [Murphy not withstanding]. That’s why I like it when an FBI tested bullet is shown tested next to the newest uber round. We know what the FBI test protocol is, and how the bullet should perform given those protocols, and if there is deviation, it can be compensated for.
      Its like the old joke about aircraft cockpit window testing…you know how the window SHOULD perform against the turkey cannon…but it keeps breaking anyway….then you figure out you forgot to thaw the turkey before the test.

  • NeverForget

    These are my choices after pulling data from sources Andrew mentioned and plugging 100+ sets into a spreadsheet.
    9mm Shield, Federal HST 124 Grain +P P9HST3
    9mm Sig 2022, Federal HST 147 Grain P9HST2
    Full Size M&P 40 S&W, 180 Grain Federal HST #P40HST1 / XM40HC
    FNX 45 ACP 230 Grain +P, Federal HST P45HST1

    • PK

      P9HST2 is a favorite of mine, as well. Great out of practically any 9x19mm handgun, and the rest of the HST lineup in other calibers performs nearly the same. I’m amazed how close to ideal the results of each caliber manage to come, in fact. HST is impressive stuff, given the right weight/velocity choice for the caliber and barrel length.

      • NeverForget

        You are right about the variables,9mm,40 cal,10mm can have only an 8% performance spread if weight/velocity,barrel length are matched up.
        The high velocity rounds,357 Sig,and 10mm do damage that the numbers don’t reflect.It is my opinion that a full size 45 still rules.
        There is data the web that shows 45 acp is not affected to badly by shorter barrel lengths.

        • PK

          That’s what I love most about the HST line-up! There are choices for everyone, choices which produce great ballistic results.

          Personally, I lean toward the thinking that .45acp is less effected by barrel length because it’s already a substantially slower cartridge. Nothing wrong with that, given the right bullet selection. For my uses and after a thorough look at the data, for defense against human attackers I’ve decided on the 9x19mm primarily.

          My choice aside, so long as the right load/barrel length is selected, all of the mentioned calibers seem to be at the peak of what can realistically be expected out of any of these calibers – and they turn out to all be very similar.

  • A.WChuck

    Ammo testing is important, which is why a trust others doing the testing far more than I trust this guy.

  • Big Daddy

    There’s so much information out there that civilians are not privy to. I tried to get a dialogue going with Massad Ayoob and he cut me off. They just do not want us to know. It’s the “just listen to us, we’re the experts” type mentality I dislike. The fact is there are a lot of police and LEO shootings using specific ammo and firearms that are detailed and the effects are there to read for LEOs, NOT US. They know what works and what doesn’t because they shoot people.

    The dentist guy Dr. Roberts has been much maligned but he usually is right about ammo choices just not the terminal effects of gun shots. It’s simple, when in doubt just use what the larger police forces are using. If you say I cannot afford that I say BS, you cannot afford not to. You can’t go wrong with 9mm 124 +P Gold Dots or .45ACP 230 SP Gold Dots. Although HST performs about the same, no other 2 rounds are as good in performance and consistency. The only consistent 9mm in 115 grain is the Barnes full copper. Some others perform well enough but use duty ammo not the civilian stuff like Critical Defense, use Hornady Critical Duty.

    The fact is handgun ammo rarely kills unless three things happen. 1- a magic golden BB that does extreme damage which is rare, like a head shot but even those do not always lead to death 2- the person is shot many. many times and bleeds out quickly or there is a lot of damage to vitals or 3- the person shot does not get medical attention fast enough. A trauma surgeon will also say gunshot wounds from a handgun are all about the same unless it’s a very high powered one like a .44 magnum. Most people survive handgun wounds but rarely survive rifle wounds. Use the handgun to get to your rifle.

    Now Shotguns are a different animal, just never use birdshot. Some people say it’s good, especially close up. You would need a golden BB for it to work, just no, don’t use it. Again use what LEOs use which is usually 00. And shotguns require a lot of training to use properly, yes you need to aim and no the sound of a slide racking doesn’t work on criminals.

    This is a very complex subject, I think it all begins with the terminal performace like gel testing.

    • FightFireJay

      “You can’t go wrong with 9mm 124 +P Gold Dots…”

      This has been proven incorrect. Did you not read the article? Testing has shown them to be inconsistent performers.

      • Big Daddy

        Testing by whom? By the FBI? No….by the people I know that helped the FBI? No. You trust this place like it’s the bible…LOL. The 124 +P 9mm Gold Dot is by far the ammo of choice by the people who in fact do these tests. HST does not penetrate as much but is close enough.

        • FightFireJay

          1. Do you have access to the FBI’s testing? I don’t. So I must rely on folks who utilize the FBI’s protocol to test ammo.

          2. The FBI is also concerned with post barrier penetration performance, which ranks much lower on my list of concerns as it is much less likely that I will have to root out a bad guy behind cover.

          3. Wasn’t it a 9mm Gold Dot that over expanded and failed to penetrate deep enough during the Miami-Dade FBI shoot out that spawned the great increase in bullet technology that we now see?

          4. The FBI doesn’t even issue the 124 +P God Dots.

          And look, I’m not saying that the Gold Dot line up isn’t a good set of JHPs. BUT, I am saying that it’s an older generation of engineering and it’s not as consistent as some of the newer bullets.

          Also, other than the “Micro” line of HST (known not to meet the 12″ FBI minimums) what testing have YOU seen that shows the HST to under penetrate?

  • Old Tofu

    it’s like the writers no longer know who is visiting this website

  • Dave Biggers

    Ballistic gelatin test are an excellent way of testing how bullets perform in ballistic medium.

  • Bigg Bunyon

    It’s not that I don’t care about ammo testing, it’s that to a large extent it’s duplication …. over and over and over and over ad infinitum. Ammo tests are like soap operas, you can miss a year’s worth and catch up in a matter of minutes.

  • Andrew, any chance of doing a reduced powder charge test of M855A1, similar to your previous test on the 62gr Fusion?

    Right now there is no data on what the minimum vel is for m855A1 to fragment, so I think I’m not alone in craving this sort of test. If it fragments down to 1700fps like the Fusion expands at, that would make M855A1 a 475 yd round. And of course, if it fragments at an even lower velocity…

  • Aaron

    One could conversely argue that in the age of social media such infotainment is unnecessary. Reputation can be lost in the blink of an eye so it behooves the manufacturer to be honest about what their product is and is not. The decade of the internet (’96-’06) is over.

    Then again…*Thinks of 9/11 quacks, Flat Earthers, and moon landing deniers.*

  • John

    I love the gel reports on ammo! They help me make decisions based on actual tests and not the ads that say “Greatest defense round ever!”. If you compare the same ammo on two or three different YouTube channels, you get a pretty good idea of what the round can actually do.

  • No one

    There still isn’t anyone that wants your overpriced gimmick garbage rounds that have been proven to suck horribly.

    Get out.

  • Shoot All Hipster

    I wanna know where all that IWBA stuff went that was floating around on .pdf format a few years ago??

  • mosinman

    Firearms not Ammunition shilling

  • edicius4

    Those are all good channels, but the conclusions drawn by ShootingTheBull410 I find irresponsible and inaccurate. He is of the penetration is everything religion, and would prefer a BB that penetrates 12 inches than a expanded .45 bullet that penetrates 10. I can;t help people who don’t want to believe in the Strasbourg Goat tests. If PETA hadn’t gone after the sponsors of that test, we would have a lot more raw data. I own the 1994 Anual Guns & Ammo Handgun Buyers Guide that published the information, and the PDF of all the data. And I run a youtube channel testing “exotic” 380 loads that, if you trust the “Strasbourg” (the tests really happened at Fort Bragg under private commission in their well known “Goat Lab”) results, give the .380 ACP equal stopping power (measured as incapacitation time in the “Strasbourg” tests) to a traditional lead hollow-point from a 45acp, or faster incapacitation time than 40S&W and 9mm.