April 2018

Affordable Handgun Ammo: Is It Up to Par for Your Firearms Use?

A few months ago we received an insightful comment from a reader. He asked us to do an ammunition comparison on inexpensive loads from diverse makers. Here it is.

Affordable Handgun Ammo: Is It Up to Par for Your Firearms Use?

The little Walther P22 gave good results when testing 22 LR ammo for plinking and fun.

A few months ago we received an insightful comment from a reader. He asked us to do an ammunition comparison on inexpensive loads from diverse makers. How do they perform, he asked, compared to the big three (Federal, Remington, and Winchester) and the well-known Black Hills, Hornady, and Speer, and a few more. We are lucky to have so many choices, and because most, if not all, manufacturers subscribe to SAAMI standards, the ammunition should be safe and reliable.

There are two aspects to reliability: feeding and chambering properly and then going bang. We have run across poor ammunition that fail on either or both counts, but most of it is surplus ammunition from third-world nations. We won’t discuss it here. If a brand makes it to the national market, the product has some merit.

There are economy loads that offer jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) bullets, and most of these do not have the development behind them that the Big Three loads do. However, we did test some JHP loadings in this report because they were as inexpensive as any other loads, and, in some cases, were all that was available. The goal of this report was to fire as many types of ammunition as possible in both popular and less popular calibers and determine if we were getting our money’s worth in practice ammunition.

Safety came first, then reliable function. We also paid attention to powder burn. We have had experience with foreign-produced ammunition that simply did not have the powder technology of our domestic loads and the result was a lot of powder ash. If a load was particularly dirty — lots of smoke and debris — we took that into account.

Thankfully, the recent ammunition shortage that now seems to have abated had us searching out and trying anything we could find. Brand loyalty took a hit. So it is good to know if these inexpensive loads will function and if they are accurate enough for practice. Some of us like to fire for accuracy at longer ranges, but nothing tested wasn’t accurate enough for practice at 15 to 25 yards. Some of the loads tested are among the very few available in certain calibers. There isn’t a broad choice in 32 Smith & Wesson Long and 38 Smith & Wesson, as two examples.

It is worth noting that one of the raters has different criteria for loads, and they are reliability, dirtiness, and speed. His old Colt will not feed hollowpoints, so he concentrates on finding reliable rounds, getting a clean burn, and generating velocity, goals that are worthwhile to pursue.

As we told the reader who asked for this test, in our gun evaluations we strive to be fair and present a level playing field. That is why we use proven ammunition when testing a new gun. We generally include a generic ball load and one or two defense loads from the major makers when testing a new gun. This is only fair. Testing an unknown load with a new gun may not prove anything — does the ammunition or the gun bear the responsibility for failures? As one of our raters noted in his work at our sister publication, the well-respected American Gunsmith, and as a private gun fixer, he keeps a supply of generic ball from Federal, Fiocchi, Black Hills, Speer, and Winchester on hand. The gun is sick if it doesn’t feed these loads. By the same token, when testing the ammunition in this report, we did not pick up new guns, but instead relied on proven firearms from our team’s collections that have proven reliable and reasonably accurate.

We were able to collect loads in thirteen calibers for use in this feature. During the test, our shooters used a Bullshooters pistol rest to confirm accuracy. Some of the results were excellent, others poor, and most fair. Accuracy is relative, and the 38-caliber Iver Johnson break-top would not be in same accuracy range as a tuned 45 ACP or 9mm pistol, but we expected some type of pattern.

One note about these burner loads: Brand performance isn’t always consistent among the makers of inexpensive ammunition. One maker may have a poor load in one caliber and a standout in another. Let the buyer beware, but we found good loads for practice in most cases. We fired at least 50 rounds of each load tested, including 35 rounds off hand and three five-shot accuracy groups. Accuracy testing was conducted at a distance appropriate for the handgun.

In each case, we describe the performance of the test rounds, but we highlight one round in particular that we recommend.

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