Personal Choices in .45 ACP Defense Ammunition

We have all heard comments like, "They all fall to hardball" or "Hit a man in the little finger with a 45 and he'll go down."

Most of us know that such claims are false but that emphatically does not mean that the .45 ACP is anything less than a very fine defense round…with the right loads. Despite tests showing equivalency of 9mm ball loads to 45, I do not believe it. The reason is simple. I have not observed it on either animals or people. I am personally aware of 45 and 9mm ball not doing the intended job and have seen both fail to stop even smallish critters like jackrabbits unless hit well, but the larger caliber did seem to have a bit "more" in this regard. Were I forced to use ball in an automatic, I would unhesitatingly choose .45 ACP if we envision face-to-face mortal combat using only handguns.

With expanding ammunition, it is my belief that .45 ACP is darned hard to beat assuming barrels of no less than 4" and preferably 5". The old saw that a hollow point will not expand at less than 1000 ft/sec is simply not true; at least not anymore. The ammunition makers today do manufacture factory ammunition that does and within velocity ranges that are realistic and from actual handguns, not test barrels.

Over the last century, the .45 ACP has proven itself a versatile round capable of extreme accuracy with light target loads to a highly-rated man stopper, though I believe the latter is sometimes overstated. It remains a most popular handgun round today and whether its effectiveness is overrated or not, .45 ACP is usually the yardstick by which other calibers/loads are measured.

This article is not intended to cover each and every .45 ACP load available. It will simply provide my choices based on personal observations and experiences coupled with reliable reports from others.

Service-size Handguns: To me this means barrels of 4 to 5". These would include the Commander-size 1911 pattern pistols, SIG-Sauer P-220 and the 5" 1911's for example. In my experience, these work well with any quality ammunition weighing 185-grains up. I personally prefer standard pressure ammunition in the traditional 230-gr. weight in such pistols. With better loads, expansion is usually reliable, recoil remains manageable for accurate quick fire, and most have proven accurate from quality handguns. My picks have normally possessed that most important aspect of the "serious handgun" and ammo combination: reliability.

Winchester 230-gr. Ranger (RA45T): Loaded in nickel cases, this JHP is the original "Black Talon" without the dark colored bullet. The bullet has also been tweaked to expand a bit more than the original and its jacket contains about 5% more copper than usual gilding metal. Though blunt, the bullet ogive is rounded nicely at the edges and the cartridge usually feeds with boring regularity in 1911 pattern pistols. I've shot it in Commanders and the P-220 as well with no problems. Though sold only to law enforcement by Winchester, it can be had for private citizens willing to look and there is no federal law prohibiting its use by non-law enforcement folks. (State laws can vary and it is up to each individual to know the laws in his or her state.)

It is a stellar load with regard to performance and meets or exceeds the FBI testing protocols. This load expands after passing through various intermediate gelatin testing, including the dreaded four layers of denim.

I find it very consistent in velocity, regardless of lot number. Shot into both water and super-saturated newsprint, the bullet has never failed to open for me, when using barrels of no less than 4". Expansion characteristics have been remarkably similar and I have not found this load to be "inaccurate" in any quality handgun. I have not seen any of these bullets pulled out of people. I have seen a couple taken out of deer and they expanded about like the ones fired into various test media including 10% ballistic gelatin. (Now and again, an expanded bullet actually removed from a living creature will be chewed up a bit as bone is sometimes struck.)

Let's take a look at some actual velocities from different length barrels. The average velocities listed are based on 10 shots fired 10' from the chronograph screens.

Winchester 230-gr. Ranger Average Velocity Results

Handgun

Barrel Length (inches)

Average Velocity (ft/sec)

Kimber Custom

5

886

STI Trojan

5

880

Norinco

5

841

Springfield Armory LW Gov't

5

886

Colt Commander

4 1/4

838

SIG-Sauer P-220

4 1/4

857

Colt Defender

3

797

I believe that the roughly 40-ft/sec deficit shown with the Norinco is due to mine having a "slow barrel" rather than anything with the ammunition. This gun typically shows average velocities that are slightly lower than when fired from other guns having the same length barrels.

At a ballistics seminar, a law enforcement friend of mine advised that the Winchester representative suggested going to the +P version of the 230-gr. Ranger if using one of the short barrel .45 compacts. If memory serves, the standard pressure was still "OK" at 3 1/2", but that was the cutoff; barrels of less than that needed the +P to achieve the velocity necessary for reliable expansion. I included the data on the Defender only for comparison purposes. For those interested, here is a link to an article done on Corbon's "Compact Gun" load. That round is standard pressure and specifically designed for 45's having shorter barrels:

http://www.hipowersandhandguns.com/Corbon%20160%20gr%20DPX.htm

Here is the Winchester Ranger 230-gr. JHP. If you look carefully, the "deadly" talons can be seen. I am not convinced that this aids significantly in the bullet's wounding ability. To me, this round's endearing attributes are reliability in feeding and consistent expansion coupled with usually fine accuracy. I have not noticed this bullet to be particularly prone to setback when cycled through the handgun repeatedly. That does not mean that this shouldn't be checked with ammunition being carried for self-protection.

Remington 230-gr. Golden Saber: Much more readily available to the general public, this is a load that I've become especially fond of…although my first encounters with it were not all that positive. The first batches of Golden Saber that I fired just didn't group well for me, but that was right after it was introduced. Since then I believe that the ammunition's been altered because it now groups most satisfactorily from a number of pistols I've tried it in. It was also the ammunition used in conjunction with the FBI HRT team's 50-yard accuracy requirements for their Springfield 1911 pistols. (It is my understanding that HRT has since gone to Winchester's RA45T, but simply because Winchester sells this ammo at lower prices than Remington does with their Golden Sabers.)

The Golden Saber's jacket is a brass alloy and not the traditional gilding metal used in most jacketed hollow points. Where Winchester altered their bullet's jacket to make it "softer" and more malleable, Remington opted for another approach: Make the bullet jacket extremely stiff, but engineer the bullet to expand and let the jacket do most of the "wounding." The petals on an expanded Golden Saber are not particularly sharp compared to the talons on Winchester's, but they are stiff and contribute greatly to the bullet's final expanded diameter. With the Golden Saber, the lead bullet does not provide the bulk of the expanded diameter. For those concerned with possible bullet/jacket separation, the Golden Saber is now offered in a bonded version but I have not yet tested it.

This factory Golden Saber was fired into super-saturated newsprint from a 5" 1911. Notice that the petals, though folded rearward, extended to considerably less distance than just the brass jacket. The bullet is deeply notched to help insure expansion.

Because the brass jacket on the Golden Saber is harder than traditional gilding metal, the bullet itself has slightly less diameter than conventional bullets. A "driving band" of normal diameter does contact the barrel and according to Remington, pressures generated as well as barrel wear are the same as for conventionally jacketed ammunition.

Remington 230-gr. Golden Saber Average Velocity Results

Handgun

Barrel Length (inches)

Average Velocity (ft/sec)

Kimber Custom

5

857

STI Trojan

5

853

Norinco

5

805

Springfield LW Gov't Model

5

858

Colt Commander

4 1/4

829

SIG-Sauer P-220

4 14

822

Some have expressed concerns about separation between the bullet and the jacket with the Golden Saber. I have seen this more in expansion testing when water is used than in other media, but it did occur on a deer I shot using a Golden Saber handload. The bullet and jacket separated to be sure but this occurred during the last couple of inches of penetration.

For those interested, here is a more detailed report:

http://www.hipowersandhandguns.com/45%20ACP%20Golden%20Saber%20Field%20Report.htm

At this point, someone will be wondering about Speer's 230-gr. Gold Dot. I like Gold Dots, particularly in 9mm and .38 Super, but have simply found them not to feed reliably in a fairly significant number of 1911 type handguns. In some they run as slick as butter but not so well in enough that I cannot list it as a favorite load.

If your pistol reliably feeds it and you prefer this round, I think you have picked a good one. Like the Winchester Ranger, the Gold Dot uses a more malleable jacket than conventional jacketed hollow points. I have found it to be accurate and a reliable expander. It normally averages between about 830 and 850 ft/sec for me from a 5" barrel.

Speer's Gold Dot is a bonded bullet in that the jacket is chemically bonded with the lead core. It takes velocities way beyond those for which the bullet is designed to even see it begin to try and fragment. In .45 ACP, this bullet is almost guaranteed not to do so.

I am aware of one shooting with this load in my area. A law enforcement officer was required to shoot an armed felon with it at close range. The felon was struck in the head and was dead before he hit the ground. The Gold Dot did expand. I am not sure if it fully penetrated the head or not. The officer's pistol jammed after the first shot.

Federal 230-gr. "Classic" JHP: Having the same profile as the company's HydraShok, this conventional JHP can be had for less money per shot than the flagship ammunition previously mentioned. It also comes in 50-round boxes. It is an older technology bullet to be sure, but one that has performed nicely for me in years past. I prefer it to the HydraShok and the reason is simple: I see no difference in performance.

Like the HydraShok, this load is usually more accurate than expected. Though it probably will not perform as well as some more modern loads after passing through intermediate targets, this does not automatically indicate that it is no longer effective as some folks seem to imply.

On the left is the Federal 230-gr Classic JHP. On the right is the HydraShok. Profiles are identical. I have noticed no difference in actual expansion between the two. Neither have I observed any lack of reliability due to the brass case being used instead of the nickel-plated one.

Fired into super-saturated newsprint, this is about normal for the 230-gr. Classic JHP. There is frequently jacket fragmentation…at least to some degree but I do not believe that this bullet is "ineffective." For folks preferring to buy their "serious" ammunition in bulk, this one would be a real contender in my opinion. This load averages about 860 ft/sec from the 5" guns I've fired it from.

I have not tried the Winchester USA 230-gr. JHP's so I cannot comment on them. I am guessing that they will probably perform about like the Federal 230-gr. Classic JHP, as both are "old technology" in design. These seem to be quite popular with many shooters but I think this is due to price more than possible performance.

Other loads that seem to work nicely despite some laboratory testing to the contrary come from Hornady. I have not shot their factory-loaded ammunition extensively, but have handloaded more than a few 200 and 230-gr. XTP bullets for my .45's. As with their 9mm bullets, the 45-caliber XTP is normally capable of extremely fine accuracy.

The bullet is not in favor with many people because it is not an aggressive expander. It is not designed to be. Usually the XTP will go to about one-and-a-half calibers in the test media I've tried and likewise in animals. This bullet will usually penetrate an inch or two deeper than its competitors' at similar velocities.

Of the bullets I've shot into various media and those recovered from actual animals, the XTP has been the most consistent I've seen from any maker. (Corbon's DPX may very well give it a run for top place in this regard, but I've not yet seen any pulled out of critters.)

The XTP bullet has fed reliably over the long-term for me in all of my 1911 pattern pistols and never missed a stroke from the P-220.

Both the 230-gr. Golden Saber (left) and the 230-gr. XTP (right) expanded nicely when fired into water from a 5" barrel. Both of these were handloads in the 850-ft/sec range. Note that the beginning of bullet/jacket separation is visible. I see this with bullets fired into water more than with other media or animal tissue, but it does happen. How bad or good this is I cannot say.

Despite the 230-gr. weight, some folks remain concerned with insufficient penetration and still with FMJ. This is their decision, but I respectfully suggest trying the Hornady XTP whether loaded under the "Custom" or "TAP" moniker.

I have shot two 130-lb whitetail deer with the 200-gr. XTP loaded to about 970 ft/sec, which is in line with the factory's +P version in the same weight. The deer went down, but no bullets were recovered as they completely penetrated the animal on broadside shots. Ditto for the one I hit with the 230-gr. XTP loaded to 850 ft/sec.

Please do not think that I'm suggesting that these are the only "good" loads for the .45 ACP. They are my choices based on informal testing and field results on animals coupled with reports from some folks who have used them in mortal combat situations. Above all, don't use any load that is not reliable in your pistol.

Best.