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:



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.

.357 SIG

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.

.357 MAG­NUM

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 .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.

.45 AUTO

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.

.45 COLT

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.

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