WHEN LIGHT IS RIGHT
LOW RECOIL HANDGUN LOADS CAN BE EFFECTIVE FOR DEFENSE AND CAN ENCOURAGE YOU TO PRACTICE MORE
Low recoil handgun loads can be effective for defense and can encourage you to practice more.
By Bob Campbell
You won’t be as effective with your defensive handgun if you can’t manage the recoil.
Handguns are not as powerful as shotguns and rifles, but within their limitations, they may be used effectively for personal defense. The handgun demands more practice to master than a long gun, and this means shooting plenty of ammunition. The problem is that handguns in effective calibers have a healthy kick.
Until the laws of physics are changed, this is a reality. It is also a reality that big-bore handguns have greater wound potential and are more likely to stop a felonious assault with a minimum of well-placed shots. Some of the popular defensive handguns including the snub-nose .38 and the Commander size 1911
.45—not to mention the .357 Magnum revolver—have all of the recoil I am willing to master.
One solution to the recoil problem is to take advantage of the many recent offerings from ammo companies that provide light loads in what we normally view as effective calibers.
For many years I have used handloads in practice sessions. I load lighter-than-factory ammunition by 20 to 30 percent. For those without access to handloads, there are factory loads for both practice and defense that are loaded lighter than service loads. Federal American Eagle is one such practice load. For defense use, the low recoil loads are sometimes labeled Personal Defense. Buffalo Bore offers Tactical Short Barrel Lower Recoil Low Flash loads. Hornady labels its loads in this niche Lite.
The means of achieving low recoil vary. Some use the same projectile as heavier loads but a smaller powder charge. Others achieve high velocity by using a lighter bullet that generates lower felt recoil. Recoil is reduced 40 to 50 percent. As an example, Federal Cartridge offers a low recoil .45 ACP loading. It reduced the bullet weight of the popular Hydra Shock from 230 to 165 grains, but maintained velocity at 1,000 fps. This makes for reduced recoil while maintaining acceptable penetration and reliable expansion.
Buffalo Bore is a custom-grade maker able to load different bullets for different missions. The Buffalo Bore hunting loads use bonded bullets that are designed to stay together at high velocity and penetrate deep into the vitals. But the company uses a faster expanding bullet in .357 Magnum low-recoil loads.
Hornady gets good results with its Lite loads by reducing bullet weight but keeping good velocity. The .38 Special and 9mm Luger Lite loads are reliable, accurate and offer good expansion.
On the down side, most low-recoil loads are not as effective against barriers such as vehicle glass and light cover as +P service loads. Against lightly clad threats, however, they will deliver superior wound ballistics. Be certain of your needs and consider the likely threat.
Here are some light load choices among specific cartridges:
“IN THE END, SHOT PLACEMENT AND GOOD CONTROL MEAN THE MOST.”
The Hornady Lite 9mm uses a 100-grain bullet with a pink tip. It is a Critical Defense bullet loaded to over 1,000 fps and specially tweaked to expand at modest velocity. I have gauged performance in my Honor Defense Honor Guard handgun and find it good.
A load that I am enthusiastic about would be especially appropriate for full-size handguns. The Black Hills Ammunition 115-grain EXP or Extra Power load is loaded as fast as possible without getting into +P territory. The 115-grain EXP clocks 1,233 fps from the Glock 17. This is faster than any standard pressure 115-grain load I am aware of but behind the +P loads. Wound ballistics are good without going to the harder kicking +P loads, which may also produce more wear on the handgun.
The .357 SIG is a powerful number, jolting a 125-grain bullet to 1,350 fps or more. This cartridge isn’t for beginners, and it demands attention to detail and the proper technique to master. For those who appreciate this level of power, it is a great service and defense cartridge.
Some find the .357 SIG offers too much recoil, and I have seen poor results in my training classes. One solution is the Hornady Critical Defense 115-grain load. Sensibly downloaded, the Critical Defense sails over the Competition Electronics chronograph at 1,203 fps. No hotter than a warm 9mm, this load offers good control. The Springfield XD demonstrated top grade accuracy with this loading. Function, feeding and cycle reliability are good.
The .38 Special isn’t always regarded as a heavy recoil loading. But put a .38 +P in an aluminum-frame snubbie and recoil may be brutal. Good grips are an aid, but snub-nose .38 geometry being what it is, there is a tendency of the cylinder release to put a bloody notch in the knuckle of the thumb.
Hornady offers the Hornady Lite 90-grain .38 Special low-recoil load. Though light weight sometimes means under penetration, this isn’t the case with the Critical Defense bullet. Hornady Lite bullets are designed to offer good penetration while expanding well.
Another choice is the Federal 130-grain HST. This bullet is loaded completely inside the cartridge case in the same manner as a target wadcutter. The result is good velocity with a minimum powder charge. The HST offers 900 fps and good expansion. This is a modern load with much to recommend it for taming recoil in the .38 Special revolver.
The .357 Magnum revolver has a well-earned reputation as the most effective handgun caliber ever deployed. The Magnum is a great stopper, but it also exhibits a great deal of muzzle blast and recoil. It is a daunting proposition to master the revolver without extensive training.
The rub is that prolonged firing with full-power loads is hard on the small parts of the revolver. An alternative is to deploy the most powerful .38 Special loads, which work well and function in the Magnum cylinder. An excellent choice is the Buffalo Bore 158-grain lead semi-wad-cutter hollow point. At over 1,050 fps, this .38 Special load offers excellent power and wound potential. You would be well advised to think hard before moving to a full-power Magnum.
Another choice is the Buffalo Bore Tactical Short Barrel Lower Recoil Low Flash 158-grain load .357 Magnum. Buffalo Bore uses a bonded bullet in its full-power loads to ensure good penetration. The low recoil loading uses a fast opening JHP that performs well at lower velocity. At 1,258 fps and 18 inches of penetration, this load meets the FBI criteria for a service load.
I appreciate the 10mm, but also realize the cartridge can be a harsh mistress. My personal SIG Emperor Scorpion isn’t docile but comfortable with heavy 10mm loads. When the FBI adopted the 10mm, there was a tier of loads, just as the .38 had been a standard with the .357 Magnum approved for some duties.
The standard 10mm loading was the Federal Hydra Shock, a 180-grain load at 1,050 fps. Faster than the modern .40 Smith and Wesson, this loading isn’t difficult to control in modern 10mm handguns yet offers excellent wound ballistics. This reduced power load meets FBI penetration and expansion criteria and makes a fine defense load with no drawbacks.
The Hornady 165-grain Critical Defense loading offers good expansion and lower recoil as a result of a lighter weight bullet. At over 900 fps, this load offers good expansion. A load with less expansion and greater penetration is the Hornady 180-grain XTP. Each is a good defense load with modest recoil. In a handgun with good weight, such as the Ruger GP100, these loads offer modest recoil and predicted good wound ballistics.
“THE HANDGUN DEMANDS MORE PRACTICE TO MASTER... THE PROBLEM IS THAT HANDGUNS IN EFFECTIVE CALIBERS HAVE A HEALTHY KICK.”
The .44 Magnum revolver is more than most shooters are willing to master. Even for experienced shooters, the .44 Magnum is a bear to handle. Yet, the Taurus Tracker and Smith & Wesson Model 69 Combat Magnum are compact Magnums that are popular outdoors handguns.
If you use the .44 Magnum revolver for home defense or concealed carry, you have a quality revolver with good sights and a heavy recoil dampening barrel—provided the piece is deployed with .44 Special ammunition.
A good choice in this duty is the Buffalo Bore 200-grain TAC loading. This is the single most accurate loading I have fired in my personal Ruger GP100. At over 1,000 fps, this is a heavy load that hits with real authority. It is controllable in the Magnum revolvers or the GP100 .44 Special.
Federal Cartridge Company offers a 165-grain 1,000 fps load in the personal defense line that seems ideal for use in a defensive handgun. This variation on the Hydra Shock bullet expands well and doesn’t fragment. Recoil is less than the standard 230-grain load and markedly lower than the 185-grain 1,100 fps +P loading.
This load is well suited to the Lightweight Commander-type .45. Buffalo Bore offers a 160-grain loading using the high-tech Barnes all-copper bullet. When you are using this bullet, the rules are altered compared to a standard cup-and-core hollow point. Even a lightweight all-copper hollow point may exhibit a good balance of penetration and expansion. The .45 doesn’t need a +P load, and these are excellent choices.
Much of the .45 Colt’s history, impressive as it is, was written with reduced loads. Most commercial loads used
26, 28 or 30 grains of black powder and a 250- to 260-grain bullet. Since Federal Marshals had access to military stores, chances are they used the military issue 250-grain/30 grs. powder loading.
Remington UMC offered a 40-grainsof-powder .45 Colt load that broke well over 900 fps even in short-barrel revolvers, but it probably wasn’t the majority load used. Smokeless powder loads were more in the 800-fps range. An 800-fps 250-grain chunk of lead is still impressive. There are a number of loads for the .45 Colt that outstrip the .44 Special in wound ballistics.
The Hornady Defense load breaks over 900 fps with a 185-grain FTX bullet. This load offers good penetration and is a good choice for home defense.
Low recoil and low flash and blast don’t mean ineffective. The handgun loads we have looked over here will do a good job for personal defense. In the end, shot placement and good control mean the most.
Above: Hornady’s 100-grain 9mm offers acceptable gelatin performance for personal defense. Round Right: The Hornady Critical Defense Lite 100-grain 9mm is a good performer with light recoil. Box Right: Hornady’s pink-tipped Critical Defense 9mm is a viable defense load.
Above: Hornady’s standard 110-grain .38 Special Critical Defense would be a good choice for lighter recoil in a .357 Magnum revolver.
Below: BuffaloBore’s Tactical Short Barrel Lower Recoil Low Flash .357 is a powerful loading, but less powerful than Buffalo Bore hunting loads.
Box Right: A pink accent identifies the .38 Special Lite loading. Ballistic Gel Right: The Hornady Critical DefenseLite .38 Special has demonstrated good results in ballistic gelatin.
Bullet Right: The Hornady .38 Special Lite is a standout in reduced recoil loads.
Right: The Federal 10mm Hydra Shock is a fine low recoil load and a good service load.
Right: Federal’s 10mm Hydra Shock offers excellent wound potential.
The .44 Special Critical Defense load is a good defense load with low recoil and good expansion potential.
Hornady’s .44 Special 165-grain Critical Defense offers good results in gelatin testing.