The Rationale for Defensive Hollow Points

By Massad Ayoob
Posted in #EDC
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The Rationale for Defensive Hollow Points

February 22nd, 2024

7 minute read

Editor’s Note: The statements reflected in this piece are the author’s opinion and do not constitute legal advice.

Ever since hollow point handgun ammunition became readily available in the 1960s, anti-gun and anti-police groups alike have been antagonistic to the concept. In the 1970s, the liberal magazine The Nation published an article titled “The Vietnamization of Main Street” which decried American law enforcement’s rapid adoption of hollow point duty ammo. The article contained every shibboleth imaginable, with terminology such as “dum-dum bullets” and “bullets shaped like the nacelles of jet engines” and gross exaggerations like “the bullets don’t explode…you do!”

This photo shows a Springfield Armory 9mm 1911 handgun with Federal Ammunition 124-grain hollow point bullets. The load has proved to be accurate and effective in defensive shootings.
Hollow point bullets represent a significant portion of the defensive-style ammunition designed for handguns. This Springfield Garrison 9mm 1911 is shown here with Federal Punch ammo.

That bunk has been a template for the “antis” ever since. You can find the classic article “Defending the Self-Defense Case” online that appeared some years ago in Champion, the journal of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. It was written by Attorney Lisa Steele, who is generally considered the leading appellate lawyer who specializes in self-defense cases that went wrong at the trial level and resulted in unmeritorious convictions.

In the article, Steele points out that often, prosecutors who were either clueless or unscrupulous tried to paint the use of expanding bullets as “indicia of malice,” designed to “rend and tear and cause unnecessary pain and suffering and greater lethality.”

Shown in this digital image are four cartridges for revolvers. Each uses a different projectile which is the point to the illustration. From left to right, they are a lead round nose, semi-jacketed soft point bullet, a semi-jacketed hollow point bullet and a lead semi-wadcutter. A special note about the LSWC bullet — some effective hollow point bullets are made with semi-wadcutters. They have an open front, deep cavity and use soft lead to increase the probability of expansion.
Bullet configurations, from left: round nose, semi-jacketed soft point, semi-jacketed hollow point, and semi-wadcutter. Hollow points are recommended for typical defense purposes. Image: Massad Ayoob

Can this be a problem in court after a legitimate self-defense shooting? Of course it can. Does that mean you shouldn’t load them in your defensive firearms? No!

It means that you should be able to explain why you chose that ammunition, and explain it in a way that a jury selected by the other side for their lack of knowledge of guns and ammo can understand!

Explaining the Use of Expanding Bullets

A little bit of history is in order. Back in the 1970s, there was a move within the ACLU to get the police use of hollow points banned. The chosen ground zero was the state of New Hampshire, and taking the point was a very anti-gun state legislator named Dudley Dudley.

In this photograph, we see the politician Dudley Dudley during the 1970s. She opposed the freedom of Americans to purchase effective ammunition for self-defense. Fortunately, her attempts to pass the anti-rights legislation were defeated by rational arguments and reasonable people.
New Hampshire politician Dudley Dudley attempted to ban hollow point ammunition in her state, but was effectively countered by the rational arguments offered by the author. Image: Circa 1970s/Public Domain

Leading the other side was a legendary New Hampshire lawman named Earl Sweeney, then president of the NH State Chiefs of Police Association. I was a young police firearms instructor and gun writer in that state, and Earl asked me to come in to speak against the pending legislation at the State House.

Ms. Dudley managed to filibuster until time was almost out, and with only a few minutes of the hearing left, Earl threw me in as the only witness for the police side. I used the following four arguments. As I spoke, I saw that the people on the Committee kept looking at one of their members, an older gentleman, who kept nodding in the affirmative as I spoke. He turned out to be a retired surgeon, a “dominant juror” as it were. When it was over, the Committee voted the anti-hollow point bill “inexpedient to legislate,” and ACLU’s hoped-for flashpoint was dead in the water. 

In this photograph, the author has a Speer G2 expanded hollow point in ballistic gel. Speer's Gold Dot and G2 lines are exceptional for protecting good men and women in these United States of America.
Speer G2 147 grain 9mm, with synthetic insert in hollow point cavity, performed well in ballistic gel. Image: Massad Ayoob

The arguments had worked, and I’ve found them to work since in decades of expert witness work in criminal and civil court cases. I offer them to you as follows, not necessarily in order of priority, because order of priority will depend on the particular circumstances of the given shooting incident.

Hollow Points Reduce the Likelihood of Overpentration

Expanding bullets reduce the likelihood of a bullet exiting the body of the violent offender to strike an innocent bystander.

Many armed encounters occur in poor light; tunnel vision occurs in the majority of such incidents; and the offender’s body may be so close and/or so large that it simply blocks your view. In a home defense situation or a street encounter with friends and/or family present, one of your loved ones may be behind the opponent and invisible to you, or even running in behind the assailant to pull him off you. In a self-defense shooting, the body of the offender is the only backstop you have! While nothing is 100% certain, expanding bullets minimize the chance of a shoot-through with fatal results to the innocent.

In this photograph, Hornady Critical Duty 45 ACP FlexLock bullet penetration testing shows the bullets penetrate between 13" — 14" which many people consider to be ideal.
Shown here is a Hornady Critical Duty .45 ACP bullet penetration test. The goal of a hollow point bullet is to penetrate enough without over-penetrating. Image: Hornady Manufacturing Company

Full metal jacket rounds in the 9mm Luger, .40 and .45 ACP class can penetrate up to 30” or more of muscle tissue-simulating FBI formula ballistic gelatin. The best hollow points, according to FBI specs, will be over 12” but not over 18”, and in some particularly “bystander-rich environments,” light and fast bullets penetrating perhaps 10” but with wide wound channels might be more suitable.

Hollow Points Reduce the Likelihood of Ricochet

A hollow point bullet also reduces the likelihood of a ricochet that could strike an innocent bystander.

Shown in this digital image, a Springfield Armory Prodigy is shown with Federal Punch 9mm ammo.
The Springfield Armory Prodigy is suitable for competition, home defense and duty carry. It is shown here with Federal Punch 9mm hollow point ammo.

The round-nose full metal jacket “Geneva Convention bullet” that the prohibitionists recommend instead is highly likely to ricochet and travel on an unpredictable angle that could strike a bystander, with more than enough residual velocity to kill or cripple. The hollow nose bullet’s tip is shaped like a cookie-cutter: it is much more likely to bite into a hard surface it encounters and bury itself therein, or at least tumble and quickly decelerate, reducing its wounding power.

Hollow Points Decrease the Delay in Making an Attacker Stop

Over several decades, the hollow point bullet has unquestionably proven that with hits in the same place and angle, they stop fights sooner.

In this photograph, the author shows us a recovered .45 caliber expanded hollow point bullet that was used to harvest a wild pig during a hog hunt.
The author instantly killed a large hog with this Federal HST 230 +P hollow point. It created a wide wound track and with ideal penetration through heavy bone and soft tissue. Image: Massad Ayoob

This has been the experience of every single law enforcement agency that has had institutional experience with non-expanding as well as expanding bullets in actual gunfights in the field. The prohibitionists argue, “So, you want to kill your victim faster!” On the contrary, the very reason the cop and the law-abiding citizen alike are allowed to shoot someone is to stop him from killing or crippling his next intended victim. The sooner he is stopped, the better Society’s good intentions are served.

All of the above points are so well-established as to be simply unquestionable. They meet the standard of the Courts as proven to “a reasonable degree of scientific certainty,” under both the old Frye standard and the more recent Daubert standard for admissibility of expert testimony. The final point is subjective enough to be debatable, but I believe the weight of the debate lies solidly on the pro-hollow point side of the argument. That fourth point is this:

Hollow Point Bullets Are More Humane

The expanding bullet is arguably more humane for even the violent criminal who has forced a Good Person to shoot him.

In this photograph, we see several police officers conducting performance and penetration testing of hollow point ammunition in ballistic gel. This test was done in Utah.
Shown here is a police test of bullet penetration. The testing was conducted in Utah using FBI formula ballistic gelatin. Image: Massad Ayoob

How can that be? See the third reason, above. While the criminal may give a fatal coup de grace shot to his murder victim, the Good Person is trained to cease fire as soon as the threat stops. If the hollow point bullet stops the threat faster, it’s obvious that fewer gunshot wounds will have to be inflicted upon him before we can safely stop shooting him. The fewer wounds he has, all other factors being equal, the more likely he is to survive given today’s state of highly advanced emergency medical trauma care.

The Bottom Line

Armed citizens don’t use hollow points just because police do; that would open them to the false allegation of “wanna-be cop.” On the contrary, they use them for the same reasons the police do, reasons articulably beneficial to Society and the safety of the innocent.

In my opinion, don’t use ineffective, old-fashioned ammunition. Use hollow points and similar expanding bullets for the very good reasons described above, and be able to explain those reasons to those who would judge you.

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Massad Ayoob

Massad Ayoob

Massad Ayoob is a renowned firearms expert with decades of experience in the firearms community. He's the author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles and has extensive experience as a law enforcement officer, competitive shooter and expert witness.

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