Concealed Carry: Do You Need +P Ammo?

One shot stopping power… The facts bear out that a larger caliber is more likely to stop the bad guy than a smaller one. However, that information is based on bullets that struck the target. It does not account for how many shots it took to hit the target or the time split between shots. But what about smaller calibers with more power? Specifically, I am referring to +P ammunition.

The purpose behind the design of +P ammunition was to add enough energy to reliably deliver an expanded bullet deep enough to get the job done. This allowed smaller calibers to do the job as well as larger ones do. It did not require a lot of extra energy — it just had to be enough.

3 Hornady .45 ACP shells
Note excess pressure signs on +P cartridge case primer, above. Blowback actions are not the place to be hot rodding the .45 ACP!


The .45 ACP is standard for a good portion of the self-defense minded community. It has a great track record with standard ball ammunition. 9mm is the most popular, largely due to the advances of hollow point ammunition. .38 Special also ranks, so I’ll discuss it. Although I often carry a .38 as a backup, I’ll admit that the caliber has never been well regarded as a “fight-ending cartridge.” But what about 9mm and .38 SPL in +P?

+P Ammunition: A Compromise?

A hollow point expends part of its energy expanding its size after entering the target. It must be noted, the energy that’s used to expand the bullet is also energy that could have been used to drive the bullet deeper into the target and do more damage to the vitals. This reduces the advantage of a smaller caliber (hollow point) increasing its size once in the target.

I once had a political science teacher who favored the acronym TANSTAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In our decision making process to carry concealed for our own defense, we must accept certain compromises. If you want the bullet to expand, it’s going to suck energy. Remember, energy is the key to expansion and penetration.

Thus the +P was created, marketed, loaded, and carried. But at what cost? Additional stress on the firearm? Perhaps, but few people will ever shoot a gun enough to wear out the firearm. On the other hand, some guns were simply not designed to handle the additional stress, so it is a concern that must be considered.

In my opinion, the additional recoil of +P rounds is the deciding factor. I once had the opportunity of Bill Wilson’s ear (Wilson Combat). In one of our discussions, Bill talked about his shooting days. Even when Bill was shooting hundreds of rounds a day (on average), 100,000+ per year, he said he could shoot higher scores, in less time, with a 9mm than he could with a .45 ACP. Why? Less recoil.

9mm .38 and .357 cartridges
The 9mm, .38 SPL, and .357 — all are viable self-defense rounds that have benefitted from better powders and bullet technology.

So, why would we intentionally shoot a smaller caliber, that is less effective, with the advantage of lower recoil, only to mitigate the advantage by increasing the recoil with +P rounds? At first glance, I would not choose +P ammunition for the reasons I just stated. But is the increase in recoil with +P that much? How much accuracy and time between shots are you losing, versus the power increase? The amount of practice and the shooter’s skill will determine the answer.

The power increase, specifically whether it is necessary for hollow points, still weighs on me. A decade ago, you would not have found many options for hollow points loaded for .38 Special. The .38 simply did not have the power to open the hollow point and drive the round deep enough to reliably do the damage required.

Today, however, you will find several reliable, proven .38 Special hollow point options. Why? Powder technology, rounds designed to perform better with shorter barrels (1 5/8-inch versus a 5-inch barrel), and better bullet design and technology.

Box of Federal Premium HST ammunition
The HST from Federal Cartridge Company is a viable loading for personal defense. The 150-grain HST would be ideal, as it is purpose designed for short barrel handguns.

That means increased accuracy with less time to recover from recoil and reacquire the sight picture for a follow-up shot — with a smaller caliber.


Do you need to be carrying hollow point ammunition? For anything under a .45 ACP, my answer would be “Yes.” Do you need +P ammo? Personally, I do not see the need or feel the advantage is worth it — given today’s bullet and powder technology. But in the end, you’re defending your life and your loved ones. So, choose your load wisely and practice, practice, practice.

Which caliber do you prefer for self-defense? Do you carry +P ammunition? Hollow points? Share your ammo wisdom in the Comment section.

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