For all range use (plinking/target practice) FMJ (full metal jacket) is your cheapest and most abundant option. There are many brands of ammunition in today’s market, and what works in another person’s gun may or may not work in your gun. It would be advisable to purchase a few boxes of different brands, to get a feel for what your gun functions well with. Some popular brands to note to help you get started in your search for target ammunition: Federal Champion, Winchester White Box (WWB), Remington UMC, and Blazer Brass.
Note that all of the above particular brands/types listed are brass cased ammo. Ammo may also come in steel cased, and aluminum cased. Both of these are generally cheaper than the brass cased ammunition. There has been a lot of debate about whether or not steel cased ammo will cause harm to your gun or not. It is my opinion that because the steel that this ammo is made with is softer than the steel parts your gun is made out of, the steel cased ammo will do no harm to your gun, whatsoever.
I have put several hundreds of rounds of steel cased ammo through my own guns, and there are people that have put several thousand rounds of steel cased ammo through theirs, without any problems to report. Aluminum cased ammo will most definitely not hurt your gun, but some guns may have difficulty feeding this type of ammo reliably. One brand that comes to mind is Blazer. This ammo is just sold as Blazer, without “aluminum” appended to the end of the model. Some people have reported that the aluminum case sometimes will get stuck in their chamber after firing, causing a failure to extract, which causes a failure to feed. I have not had any problems with this ammo in a couple of my guns, and as I said once before, you need to try these different types of ammo before buying a particular brand in bulk. It is also important to know that most steel cased ammo is berdan primed, and will not be reloadable. The same can be said for the aluminum cases. Although not berdan primed, the aluminum case becomes brittle after firing, and attempting to reload the aluminum cases may lead to your case exploding in your gun, likely causing damage to your gun and yourself.
Steel cased on the left, aluminum cased on the right.
For personal protection, I recommend looking into a JHP (jacketed hollow-point) round. Again, without going into a discussion of terminal ballistics, I’m just going to give my thoughts and my knowledge on the subject of JHPs. You want a JHP for personal protection because (typically) the fired bullet will expand upon impact of its target. This allows for a larger wound channel in your target, and will stop an assailant much faster than a FMJ round, which will likely pass through a person with a relatively small wound channel. Your goal in a defensive situation is to stop an assailant as fast as possible – neutralize the threat, and the less shots it takes you to do so, the faster you will accomplish this. One common misunderstanding of JHP ammo is that it does not over-penetrate barriers. A bullet travelling at the speeds fired from a typical pistol (anywhere from 800ft/s to 1400ft/s) will most definitely penetrate your standard backstops in a house – drywall, 2x4 studs, tables, etc. A JHP is not a magical person stopper round either, but its expansion properties definitely help to create a larger wound channel. Not only will you need good ammunition, you will also need to place your shots effectively. If you’re under attack by a person under the influence, they might not even feel that they were shot, and you will need to take a vital shot that will literally stop them in their tracks.
There are numerous brands and types of defensive ammunition on the market today. They vary in bullet shape, hollowpoint cavity depth, manufacturing process (bonded/nonbonded), and many more characteristics that each manufacturer will advertise as the best bullet in expansion and penetration tests. In my opinion, I feel that most modern JHPs are about equal in man-stopping capabilities, you just need to find one that will reliably feed in your pistol.
Be sure to test fire your newly purchased defensive rounds through your pistol and the magazines you’ll be using them with to ensure that they cycle through your gun just fine. Although this can be expensive, many people will shoot up to 200 (some people even more) rounds of this premium defensive ammo, before deeming it a feasible round for their use in defensive applications. If you don’t have the funds to support such testing, some JHP testing is better than none, and you should at least put a few magazines worth of it down range.
To make things even more complicated, manufacturers have defensive cartridges of the same caliber, but of different weights and velocities. Such designations will be seen is 115gr, 124gr, 127gr, 147gr (I’m using 9mm as an example). This number designates the bullet’s weight in grains. After the weight, the manufacturer will list +p, or +p+, which designated a more powerful, or hotter load. You should not shoot +p or +P+ ammo too often through your gun, as it will put increased stress on your frame and slide, and will accelerate wear and tear. The purpose of these variations is to allow a shooter to compromise between penetration and expansion, and find a happy medium between the two important characteristics of JHP ammo. There are many tests that have been documented on all sorts of JHP ammo, as well as Youtube videos that show results of expansion and penetration.
Another factor that I feel is worth at least mentioning is the muzzle flash of the different types of defensive ammo. In a low light situation, the muzzle flash from your gun will likely ruin your night vision for a second, and you want to try and minimize this possibility. Some manufacturers assemble their defensive ammunition with low flash powders, or powders that may burn a different color so as to have as little effect on your night vision as possible. As far as knowing which brand has the best type of JHP ammunition with the lowest flash is up to you. There will always be a personal research requirement when searching for defensive ammunition to accompany your defensive pistol.
I hope this lengthy guide has helped you in your search for the right pistol. I’ve said it several times before, and I’ll say it again. This guide was never meant to be the end-all-be-all, go-to solutions manual to finding your handgun, but I hope you can take what I’ve learned and compiled here to aid you in your decision making process. I am always learning more almost every day. This guide is meant to be a working, breathing work in progress, and will be constantly updated and revised according to comments I receive and with more that I learn.
A List of Today’s Popular Semi-Auto Handguns
Smith and Wesson (M&P Series)
Beretta (PX4 and 92 series)
CZ (CZ75 B, SP-01, and P-01)
Springfield Armory (1911’s, and XD series)
FN Herstal (FNP series)
Sig Sauer (P226, 220)
H&K (USP series, P2000)
Ruger (SR9,40, P series)
There are many other brands and models that I have not listed, but these are, from what I have seen, the most commonly discussed firearms.