9mm Ammo Types
There are several types of 9mm ammo designed for different applications. The largest two categories in the market are full metal jacket (FMJ) and jacketed hollow point (JHP). If you want to adopt a simple and effective approach to selecting ammo: use FMJ for most practice at the range and use the pricier JHP for concealed carry and also for some practice to remain acquainted to its particular feel. The following sections provide further detail on these and all other available 9mm ammo designs.
Full metal jacket (FMJ), also known as ball ammo though not actually shaped like a ball. These bullets have a lead core that is surrounded by a second metal, typically copper. The jacket prevents the soft lead from fouling the gun barrel. These bullets do not expand when hitting a soft target, so they do less damage compared to other bullets that are designed to expand. Since FMJ do not flatten, they can penetrate deeper and they run a greater risk of over-penetration and striking beyond an intended target. Due to their performance characteristics and their relative low cost they are geared for high volume target practice and are not typically a top choice for concealed carry. Note that any style 9mm bullet will quickly stop a human threat if it strikes an anatomically significant area. The military uses FMJ because the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 have limited international militaries from using bullets that easily expand or flatten inside the body.
One FMJ variant is FMJ flat nose (FMJ-FN) also called FMJ-truncated cone (FMJ-TC) referring to a bullet geometry with a flattened tip. The purpose of this design is to punch well-defined circular holes in paper targets and to minimize ripping. This can help to avoid ambiguity and disputes in competitive scoring.
A variant of FMJ-FN that is even more truncated on its tip is termed semi-wadcutter (SWC). Taking this design to the extreme you would have a completely flat-faced bullet with no taper and this would be termed a wadcutter. This extreme geometry would create feeding problems in semiauto guns so is not available in 9mm caliber, only semiwadcutter is available. Wadcutters are only mentioned for awareness as they are made for use in other calibers for revolvers and rifles.
Total metal jacket (TMJ), also called full metal case. Like FMJ, these lead bullets are coated in a second metal. The difference is that TMJ covers the base of the lead bullet at the casing interface while FMJ is left uncovered in this zone. Some competitive shooters attribute a slight accuracy advantage to TMJ vs. FMJ while others do not claim a difference. TMJ design also limits the dispersion of lead into the air upon firing. TMJs are not recommended for guns with ported barrels because the base jacket can be stripped off as the bullet travels past the port openings. Concealed carry pistols are generally not ported except for a few exceptions.
Brass enclosed base (BEB) is a lead bullet that is jacketed in brass including the base and most of the nose but excluding the tip area. It limits barrel fouling and lead vaporization. BEB ammo has much smaller market share as compared to TMJ and FMJ.
Non-jacketed refers to plain lead bullets with no outer casing or coating. No major manufacturers offer this type in 9mm caliber. It is a niche in hand-reloaded ammo -- for folks that like to be unique and contrarian. Unjacketed lead is not recommended since the ballistic energy inherent in the 9mm caliber enables rapid fouling of lead inside the gun barrel.
Polymer bullets or plastic bullets usually refer to bullets with a plastic jacket or coating that is intended to protect the gun barrel from lead fouling. These are a less common alternative to metal jacketed bullets. Polymer bullets can also refer to a bullet that is constructed entirely of a polymer-copper composite matrix as offered by a few manufacturers.
Match grade ammo is a generic marketing designation that many manufacturers use to brand their premium lines of ammo that are advertised to have less variation in manufacturing. There are no standardized criteria for match grade ammo.
Defense rounds are bullets that are designed to expand and/or fragment inside the target. This expansion also limits penetration, which can prevent overpenetration to unintended targets. There are multiple types listed below.
Jacketed hollow point (JHP) design enables a bullet to expand its cross section significantly upon entering a soft target. The pressure created in the hollow cavity of the front section forces the metal to expand outwards in a fashion termed as ‘mushrooming.’ Besides creating a larger wound cavity, the larger cross section leads to increased cavitation. Cavitation is a phenomenon in which rapid changes in pressure at the interface of the bullet cause the rapid formation and energetic collapse of vapor bubbles in soft tissues. This effect can damage tissue beyond the permanent wound cavity. JHP is legal in all states except New Jersey. It is the most common type of defensive ammo for concealed carry.
Jacketed soft point (JSP), sometimes abbreviated soft point (SP) and also called soft-nosed, are bullets that have a soft metal core encased in a stronger metal jacket that does not encompass the forward tip. The jacket prevents the soft core from fouling the barrel while the exposed soft tip allows the bullet to expand rapidly inside the target. It does not expand as much as a hollow point. It penetrates a bit further compared to a hollow point while not as far as a full metal jacket.
Proprietary names of bullets are commonly invented by various brands for the purpose of marketing. There are many variations on the design combinations of materials and geometries for personal defense rounds. Some have unique patterns of scoring or fluting to enable expansion or fragmentation in a soft target. Some are marketed under new acronyms (typically three letters) that are not adopted industry-wide, like these examples:
- SCS – Solid core synthetic
- TSJ – Total synthetic jacket
- TMC – Total metal coating
- CHP – Copper hollow point
- FTM – Fluid Transfer Monolithic
- ARX – Advanced Rotational Extreme
- RIP – Radically Invasive Projectile
Consider that if you are forced into a self-defense situation and have to take someone’s life, a prosecutor may plea to jurors’ emotions that you were out to kill someone if you selected to use bullets marketed with aggressive names such as ‘R.I.P. (Radically Invasive Projectile)’ or ‘Zombie Max.’
9mm shotshells have a hollow plastic bullet capsule that is packed with tiny shot pellets of uniform size. Shot sizes available range from 1.3mm to 3.1mm diameter. This type of ammo is intended for pest control at short range, as in dispatching snakes and rodents. It is not compatible with ported barrels as the port openings will snag the plastic and pellets. It’s not a good choice for self-defense.
Rubber bullets have a small metal core with a rubber coating or alternatively are a composite mixture of rubber and metal. They are less lethal compared to metal bullets but can still cause serious injury and death. Optionally they can contain a small amount of pepper spray that disperses on impact. They are mostly used for riot control applications by law enforcement. They are available for purchase by private citizens but do not serve any practical purpose for target practice or self-defense.
Blanks are cartridges that have no projectile. Paper or plastic wadding is used to seal the propellant inside the casing. You cannot fire a 9mm blank round through a stock semiautomatic gun, it has to be a special gun that is modified to shoot blank ammo. A blank round sounds like a normal gunshot. They are used in signaling, historical military reenactments, and in TV/movie productions. The rapid ejection of hot gas and the small wadding can still be lethal at close range.
Armor penetrating or armor piercing rounds have been banned by federal law since 1986. This ban includes cores made of steel, iron, tungsten alloys, brass, bronze, beryllium copper, or depleted uranium.
Frangible ammo, or frange ammo, has a bullet that disintegrates into small particles when it strikes a hard target. These bullets are fabricated starting from a metal powder, typically copper, that is pressed into a mold with binding agent and then sintered (heated below its melting point) in order to coalesce into a porous mass. Frange ammo is sometimes utilized in close-quarters combat and training for it, where richochet and over-penetration may be of concern. It is also sometimes used for shooting steel targets, again to prevent ricochet. Frangible bullets do not tend to penetrate soft targets as deeply as JHP bullets.
Incendiary ammo or tracer ammo contains a flammable material in the bullet that ignites upon firing and burns at several thousand degrees Fahrenheit. It traces the bullet’s flight path with a bright streak of light even in daylight. In some designs there is a second flammable material that is optimized to ignite flammable targets on contact. Legality varies from state to state. Bullet tips are painted, most often blue, to visually differentiate from other types of ammo.
Dummy rounds, also known as snap caps or drill rounds, are shaped like actual cartridges but have no powder. They are used for firearms training including dry fire practice. The tips are usually made of colorful plastic or anodized metal to differentiate appearance from live ammo. The base of dummy rounds is often constructed of plastic, rubber, or a spring-loaded metal plate in order to limit wear on the firing pin of the gun. ‘Snap cap’ is a trademark from A-Zoom company that is often used to refer to any brand of dummy rounds, and sometimes used in reference to any dummy rounds that have the spring-base design. In some models of dummy rounds the whole cartridge is made of plastic. Dummy rounds can be used to practice loading magazines. They are also used to simulate malfunctions. For example, it is possible simulate failure-to-fire by adding a dummy round into a magazine of live ammo, thus creating an opportunity to practice clearing the malfunction. They can also be used to set up stovepipe or double feed stoppage scenarios for practice in clearing these quickly.
A squib is a round that ignited but failed to sufficiently launch the projectile out of the gun barrel. Never fire another shot behind a squib round until you have a chance to safely clear the problem from the barrel.
A dud is a round that fails to ignite.
Silver bullets usually solve everything, though they are not currently available in 9mm caliber.
Check your state and local laws to see what ammo is banned. And check your gun range to see what ammo is banned. Laws and range rules vary drastically.
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