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Realistic Ballistics Testing

How do you select your duty ammo? Whatever is available at the local gun store or police distributor? From an article in a newsstand magazine? The guy on your department who is the best shot? Whatever the neighboring city, county or your state is using?

Whatever the criteria, ammo selection is not a matter to be taken lightly. Your decision could ultimately become a matter of life or death. Yet so often we do not adequately test the ammo in any way, keep up to speed with the changes or even do solid research on the choices. This is especially true of agencies lacking the resources to do ballistics gelatin testing.

This was the impetus behind hosting a ballistics test day at Adamax Tactical Academy. We wanted to gather and distribute information to officers who need it. To accomplish that goal, we needed to partner with someone who could provide the materials and expertise, and the area representative for Remington agreed to do the test.

Adamax provided the range facilities. Remington supplied 16 blocks of ballistic gelatin to demonstrate its own law enforcement ammo and to let the attendees test their own current or proposed duty ammo other than Remington. To accomplish this goal, a shortened version of the FBI ammo test protocol was used, which left enough gelatin for the individual officer tests. From small to medium-sized Midwest agencies, 33 officers attended.

Careful Testing Procedures

The preparation for the gelatin test is a precision process. The blocks must be carefully made with the exact 10 percent ratio of gelatin to water, cooled for the correct amount of time and kept cooled until the time of use. The spacing of the shooter platform, chronograph and gelatin block stand must be accurately measured. Then a pellet rifle with a known velocity is fired to document penetration, which verifies the gelatin’s consistency.

A rigid fixture jig must be used to consistently position the variety of intermediate barriers in front of the gelatin block, in some cases at precise compound angles. These common tactical barriers include heavy clothes, auto glass, sheetrock, plywood and sheet metal.

A member of the audience was selected to fire the weapons, and another member was chosen to verify and record the results. The entire group examined the penetration measurement and extraction of the bullet. As all the pistols involved were service/duty type, the barrel length was not a significant factor. For the rifle test, all were done with same AR-15 M4 rifle.

After each shot, the penetration depth of the slug in gelatin was measured; then the slug was recovered from the block. Fragments were also recovered. The recovered slugs were placed on a placard with the manufacturer, bullet type and chronograph velocity recorded for each. Later, each slug was weighed and measured to determine the percentage of loss and expansion. Once completed, the slugs were affixed to a poster with the test results for that individual round.

Ambient temperature was 80 F. The chronograph was a CED Millennium. The gelatin blocks were spaced 10 feet from the muzzle. Tactical barriers (glass, etc.) were placed immediately in front of the blocks. Penetration was measured with a steel ruler and confirmed by at least one neutral participant.

In bare gelatin, all bullets from all four calibers penetrated more than 10 inches (meeting the Border Patrol spec), and none penetrated (much) more than 14 inches. All expanded as designed. By this one test, all loads in all calibers seemed to perform about the same.

Auto Glass vs. Bullets

After the auto glass and then heavy clothes, four of the dozen loads tested failed to penetrate at least 10 inches. This was one each in all the calibers: one in 9mm, one in 40 S&W, one in 357 SIG and one in 45 ACP. The debate continues over the minimum amount of penetration for police duty ammo. The Border Patrol uses a minimum of 10 inches, while the FBI uses a minimum of 12 inches. No one thinks less than 10 inches is acceptable.

Glass is hard on bullets. The average weight retention of the dozen handgun bullets fell from 95 percent in bare gelatin to 85 percent after auto glass and heavy clothes, not counting two recovered bullets that were too deformed to measure. The 40 S&W caliber had the most consistent penetration, regardless of the load selected. The 45 ACP had the least consistent penetration. While only one load was tested in the caliber, the 9mm does not seem up to the task of auto glass and heavy clothes.

The real eye-opener was the 5.56mm rifle results. In these tests, the bullet was fired through auto glass into gelatin covered with heavy clothes. Two of the five loads were clear failures, penetrating less than 6 inches. One of these failures, surprising to some, was 55 grain FMJ ball. FMJ ammo is not good against glass! The best load, of course, was the load specifically designed to perform well after glass—Federal Tactical. Runner up was the Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded bullet, again, designed to defeat glass.

Officer-Involved Shooting

Terminal ballistics tests should be part of the police ammo selection process. All the major ammo makers have this sort of ballistic gelatin information on file. Ask for it.

Following the tests, a local police department where one of the attendees worked experienced an officer-involved shooting in circumstances that mimicked some of the auto glass/auto sheet metal tests.

The suspect was seated in a car when the engagement began. The 5.56 NATO bullets fired were either badly distorted or totally fragmented. The bullet nose was bent or skewed but showed no real expansion. As a result of this experience, and the bullet tests showing how bullets could perform against car bodies, the department is researching an ammo change. That is what ammo tests are all about.

I can’t pass up on the opportunity to say “the proof is in the pudding” when it comes to ballistic gelatin testing. This testing will positively confirm or positively refute previously conceived notions about one particular duty round or another.

The test procedures are a bit labor intensive and it is a bit expensive. As such, it may be a practical option for several smaller agencies to combine efforts to host a test session. Be aware of the logistics involved: gelatin preparations, securing a chronograph, obtaining barrier materials, etc. If using an arms manufacturer as the proponent, be sure it will allow attendees to test their own duty ammo.

Lastly, consider expertise outside the usual range cadre. A paramedic instructor attended our last session and remarked that there was valuable information to pass along to his trainees. The chief of detectives from a neighboring jurisdiction requested to send homicide detectives to the next test to study wound ballistics. The bottom line is, it only makes sense to test the ammunition you may need to stake your life on.

Ron Yanor is retired after a 25-year law enforcement career. He spent 19 years on a 22-operator, multi-jurisdictional tactical unit, with nine years as the training and intel officer.

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2011

Rating : 9.0

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