Ammo updates: what's old is new and vice-versa
American Handgunner, March-April, 2004 by Charles E. Petty
Every year we eagerly await the announcement of new handgun amino from all of the major makers, but every year there is less and less to report. The reason isn't that nobody's trying--because they surely are--but rather the opportunities for quantum leaps are few and far between.
Since the 1985 introduction of Federal's Hydra-shok, we've known that high performance handgun bullets were possible. For a time Federal absolutely owned that market, but we saw a real flurry of competitive work and the playing field became pretty level with each of the manufacturers having a competitive product these days.
Over the last few years we've seen little change though, and my feeling is we are close to a situation of parity. Regardless of how you stand in terms of bullet weights and velocities--you can have a choice of good bullets in whatever weight, velocity or color box you like.
But that doesn't mean we won't see some new stuff evolve and, once more, Federal is a leader. The new load is called "HST" which is already being interpreted as Hydra-Shok Two by lots of folks except Federal. Back in the summer I was present when Federal showed the new bullet and they invited suggestions for a new name. Obviously none were forthcoming.
Any comparison with the original Hydra-shok is largely imaginary because there is no post in the hollowpoint. The best way to learn about any hollowpoint bullet is to study an expanded sample and compare it with those of other brands. Plainly put, there are only so many things you can do to make bullets behave the way you want them to and all of those involve planning in advance how the bullet will fail when it enters a fluid medium such as tissue.
Failure is Good
The use of the word "fail" may sound a bit strange at first but what the designs do are establish lines of stress so the metal doesn't have much choice about how the core and jacket respond to internal pressure. If you've looked at many expanded bullets you will probably notice distinct lines where they have opened up. There are a couple of important factors engineers use to control expansion. Too much is really just as bad as too little, because a bullet that comes apart may not give adequate penetration.
The hardness of the lead core is a very important part of the design. If it is dead-soft the bullet might over-expand, but if it's too hard it might not expand at all. You can often see marks or nicks in the bullet jacket around the nose. This is called skiving and is part of the process of establishing failure lines. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is seen in Remington's Golden Saber, where the skiving is deeply cut in a spiral fashion. Federal's new HST has skiving inside the jacket as well as around the nose. We can also see marks in the lead core that are established by the punch that forms the hollowpoint.
To the best of my knowledge the Federal HST is the only new offering in defensive ammunition. Speer continues to expand their Gold Dot ammo line with a 135 grain .38 Special geared toward maximum performance from short barrels. We also have a "new" cartridge in the person of the .45 GAP--you guessed it--Glock AutoPistol. The stated theory was to make a real gun on a 9mm frame. The good news here is I only have to report this stuff, but the Glock name carries a heap of weight and Winchester joins Federal and Speer in offering the shortened .45. There will be 185 and 200 gr. loads from Federal and Speer and Winchester will have a 185 and two 230 gr. offerings, an FMJ and JHP. All report velocities similar to those of comparable .45 ACP loads. I'm sure the bandwagon will be jumped on here and even more loads will be available as time goes by.
The 500 S&W Magnum continues to command lots of attention, both from serious hunters as well as those who have something to prove. We are witnessing a virtual explosion in offerings both in terms of factory loads as well as components for the handloader. After CorBon. Hornady was the first to come in with their own load, but now that Starline brass is readily available, smaller commercial loaders such as The Hunting Shack and Buffalo Bore have become competitors. CorBon will offer new loadings with 325 and 385 gr. bullets.
Of the "new" things, perhaps, the most impressive is "Blazer Brass" from CCI. Their aluminum-cased Blazer ammunition has been a bargain for shooters for years and some similar technology advances enable them to make reloadable brass cases at a very high rate of speed with very little scrap. When brass is made by the conventional cup and draw method, there is quite a bit of scrap material left when punching the cups out of brass sheet. The Blazer process begins with aluminum wire and turns almost all of it into useable cases.
Does Magic Exist?
As the playing field has been leveled, the advertising hype has calmed down a bit as well. Of course there will always be someone who wants to convince us they have found the Holy Grail. And customers who haven't gotten the message that magic bullets don't exist will buy some obscenely overpriced load and go forth into the world wearing the shining coat of hype-armor. The difficulty arises because somebody failed to inform the predator faction.
I have a friend whose byword is "critical thinking." It is simply the process of considering whether or not what you lead or hear is true or even reasonable. Beware of copy that has words that don't appear in average dictionaries. Words to watch for: "catastrophic," "devastating," explosive," phenomenal," and of coarse the always-popular "astonishing." I'm so jaded now, stuff like that rarely rates more than, "Oh really?"
One of my favorite replies, sadly not original, to the question of what amino somebody should buy is, "Lots of practice amino." The hype merchants want us to believe we can be well protected if we just buy the right stuff. Hey, this isn't just about amino is it? Not at all--in fact it is marketing 101. Buy this beer, car or after-shave and the Swedish bikini team is going to move into your house. Is that All-American or what?
We demand to know what's best in a field where judgements are almost entirely subjective. Even when we do have some objective measure such as the FBI ammunition test, the interpretation of that data is based largely on the opinion of the reader.
The ammo market has evolved into six different elements. From major American manufacturers we have "premium," "brand name" and generic loads that compete among themselves based on price and feature. A small niche market also exists for specialty ammo such as CorBon or Glaser.
The Other Guys
The fifth element is in the form of imported amino designed expressly for the American Market. Examples are Magtech, PMC and Wolf, who offer bargain-priced amino in most popular handgun calibers. For the American consumer, Wolf amino may be a bit different, since most of the loads use cases made of steel. It is drawn in much the same way as the brass we know, but the idea that steel is hard often interpreted to mean bad. That isn't true at all.
Most steel case ammo you see will have a shiny appearance due to a lacquer applied to improve reliability. Recently Wolf amino has changed to a polymer coating on the steel case. In nay experience it has been completely reliable. We, logically, think that since steel case amino is as hard as the barrel it must be harmful. That is wrong for several reasons. First the steel used in cartridge cases is far from the same as that used in barrels. Nor is friction a major concern because of the various coatings applied to the ammo. It is not, however, a good idea to try to reload steel cases. The dies simply aren't made for this task.
The last segment is the true surplus which can, literally, come from anywhere in the world. I suppose the most common would be the variations of 9mm and stuff like the 7.62x25 Tokarev. Sometimes surplus .45 ACP appears, but the majority of real surplus amino is for rifles and not within our boundaries. The most important thing about real imported surplus ammo is the standards used for it may not be equal to ours and sometimes we can encounter sub-machinegun amino a mite stiff for some handguns. Sadly the only way we have of knowing about amino with a label in Arabic or some other language, is the good word of the seller. This is especially true when primers are involved. Some surplus ammo will be loaded with primers that are corrosive and can ruin a bore if it not cleaned properly. This doesn't mean we can't shoot corrosive ammo--assuming it is otherwise in good condition--it just means we have to follow prescribed cleaning practices to remove the corrosive salts left behind. Really hot water and any household detergent will work perfectly for the job.
I guess we'd have to say there isn't too much truly new for ammo this time around. The Federal HST is interesting and I'm sure you'll hear more about it. I'm also sure the .500 S&W Magnum will make more news. But the real sleeper may be the Blazer Brass. Manufacturing economics possible might let the Good Ole Boys in Lewiston shake up the bargain amino market.