Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Ed Combs that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 13, Issue 7, October 2016 under the title, “Worth Its Weight: How Much Is Enough.”
I’ve mentioned this before: Basically any modern-manufacture firearm available new in a gun shop today is of high enough quality to function without failing very often. Oh, it might be uglier than the underside of a rotten saddle and sit in your hand like a whittled brick, but it will likely fire and cycle as intended.
I understand that it pains many shooters to read such heresy in these pages [Concealed Carry Magazine], but my point isn’t that you should buy inexpensive guns. My point is that you should never buy inexpensive defensive ammunition.
I once heard a man lament that, “You don’t always get what you pay for, but you always pay for what you get.” When he said it, he was complaining about the strength of a mixed drink served to him on a cross-country train. I’m here to tell you that the same can be said about a lot of ammunition, specifically imported ammunition. If you train with and carry nothing but corrosive North Korean mil-surp ball ammo, you shouldn’t be surprised if your results are less than optimal. I’m not talking about solid silver projectiles. I’m talking about spending on your ammunition like your life depends on it.
Which, incidentally, it just might.
GOING TO GROUND
When I was a boy, I was in a gun shop and saw a box of cartridges that cost more than $100. Adjusting for inflation, we’re talking about rifle cartridges that, in today’s dollars, were going for more than $10 a pop. I asked my father what they were and since he didn’t know, he asked the man behind the counter, who told us that they were cartridges for a rifle that you’d use on a dangerous game safari in Africa. Pointing at a Cape buffalo head over the cash register, he said something along the lines of, “When you’re facing something like that, it doesn’t pay to cheap out on your ammo.”
I would submit that a concealed carrier would have even less of a reason to “cheap out.” The man on the dangerous game hunt in Zambia went out of his way to put himself in that position and is probably enjoying the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. More importantly, for the purposes of this conversation, he would also be backed up by his “P.H.” — professional hunter — who would be holding a rifle chambered for a cartridge that is as close as you can get to a “problem extinguisher” this side of a 20mm depleted uranium round.
The concealed carrier who’s being forced to defend himself would rather be doing anything else at the time. Everything has gone wrong to such an extent that he’s now in a fight for his life, and if he manages to survive, he might well spend some time re-thinking his asset allocation. When the Cape ‘buff gets your scent, you’d rather know you bought the best. When a predator closes in and prepares to make you his meal, don’t be asking yourself why you absolutely, positively had to save $5 on 20 cartridges.
A PREMIUM ON PERFORMANCE
Will a less expensive cartridge “go bang”? Will its projectile leave the barrel at a speed that would make it dangerous to humans? Almost certainly, but will that projectile stop a deadly threat with the least number of shots possible?
Well … it might, but I wouldn’t be willing to bet on it.
Bearing this in mind, new shooters need to understand that premium defensive ammunition is worth what it costs for several very good reasons.
First of all, the cartridges themselves are extremely consistent. By this, I mean there are almost no physical differences from unit to unit within a box. The bullets themselves are of extremely uniform weight and size and are all equally and perfectly seated into the cases. The primers and case bases look almost as if they are clones of one another. There will be almost no difference between the amounts of powder each cartridge contains. This combination results in ammunition that, if it pairs well with your specific sidearm, will reliably perform more accurately and, therefore, be a safer and more prudent choice for your defensive needs.
Secondly, that uniformity doesn’t just lead to better accuracy, it leads to higher reliability as well. When it was designed, that specific cartridge was manufactured to operate in firearms of its type, and deviations from these specifications result in failures to feed, fire and eject. When each and every cartridge is identical to the tolerances possible with modern specialty manufacturing, the chance of your pistol or revolver experiencing an ammunition-induced malfunction drops to basically zero.
Third, the projectiles themselves will not only be of almost identical weight and dimension, more effort and resources will have been expended on their design and manufacture. Physically, they will be higher quality bullets. I don’t know how many rounds I’ve fired into gel over the years, but one reality immediately jumped to light: Certain ammunition contains projectiles that are extremely predictable. Sure, all bets might be off if you have to engage a home invader who’s wearing improvised body armor, but through our testing here at CCM, we’ve confirmed that money spent on quality jacketed hollow-points is as wisely as any concealed carrier can invest a few $10 bills.
There will occasionally be exceptions. I carried a Model 19 Smith & Wesson as a woods gun for many years, and try as I might, I could never find a cartridge that shot as accurately out of that old beast as the Winchester “white box” personal defense .38 Special +P jacketed hollow-points. It was, at the time, kind of an obscure load that I was only able to occasionally find at Walmart, but I bought them out of it whenever possible because it shot like a laser out of that old K-frame of mine and a box of 50 jacketed hollow-points rarely cost more than Wally World wanted for a box of target .38 FMJs.
I only bring this up because it is the one and only time in my decades of pistol shooting that I’ve ever even heard of the cheapest round on the shelf delivering the best accuracy and packing a quality defensive bullet. In literally every other circumstance I’ve ever experienced, a responsibly armed American would have to spend a little more on his “social ammo” than on his training ammo.
IT’S IN THE MAG
Equally important to folks who carry a defensive autoloader is purchasing quality magazines. Many have been the times I’ve seen a man spend a grand on a quality 1911 only to hamstring it by pairing it with nothing but 1980s government-contract mags. After spending $1,000 on a pistol, all of a sudden it’s time to save a buck, and in doing so, he manages to turn a gun that’s almost ultimately reliable out of the box into a shady jam-o-matic.
Whenever possible, you should only purchase OEM (original equipment manufacturer) carry magazines for your defensive pistol. What this means is that if you carry a Glock 19, you should use magazines manufactured by Glock, Incorporated. If you carry a Springfield or a Walther or a SIG, well … guess where I’m going to advise you source your mags?
The exception is the 1911. Though it will almost certainly ship with at least one magazine, if you’re going to follow my program of “have as many magazines for each pistol you own as the average 7-year-old has individual LEGO blocks,” you’re probably going to have to do a little research about your specific gun.
This is where our old friend Mr. Interwebs comes in. Never before have you been able to read reviews from so many different 1911 owners who will be able to steer you in the approximate right direction, and this is one of the few areas in which borderline random Internet chatter is actually worth something. You could bankrupt yourself buying and assessing every last 1911 magazine available. Reading about the experiences of other 1911 shooters who own your specific make and model of pistol can save you a lot of time and money.
Apart from that, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to get comfortable with the fact that ammunition and magazines will likely be an expensive component of your EDC. Mid-violent assault isn’t the time to be wishing you could spend that money over again.
Discover how you can join nearly 300,000 responsibly armed Americans who already rely on the USCCA to protect their families, futures and freedoms: USCCA.com/gunsamerica.