December 1, 2021

What Did People Use Before Hollow Points? A Brief History Of Self-Defense Ammo


Self-Defense Ammo Before The Hollow Point Was Invented

Obviously, the default for self-defense ammo is the jacketed hollow point. They established themselves as the best design defensive applications some time ago, and it doesn’t seem to be changing.

But what did people use BEFORE hollow points?

There were actually a number of different projectiles that were common before the advent of the jacketed hollow point; JHP was not the first expanding projectile nor the first type of projectile that was known for being advantageous for defensive applications.

What were people using back in the day?

A Brief History Of Projectiles

Ammunition development in the cartridge era is actually a fairly large topic, with a lot of minutiae a person could get sidetracked with. We’re going to go over the broad strokes so you get the general ideas without getting lost in technical details.

The dominant projectile for firearms for most of their history has been a simple round ball of cast lead.

In the mid 19th century, a number of people starting tinkering with flat-based conical projectiles, eventually leading to the Minie ball for rifles and similar projectiles for percussion revolvers.

The Minie ball, developed by Claude-Etienne Minie in the 1840s, is a conical projectile with a dimpled flat base to create a better seal inside the barrel of a muzzleloading rifle. The seal enables the bullet to better engage with rifling and gives the bullet a stable, flatter trajectory.

What was noticed was the Minie ball and related designs produced more devastating wounds, which eventually led to the conception and design of expanding projectiles for augmenting wounding potential.

The Dawn Of Expanding Ammunition

The first expanding ammunition emerged in the 1870s and 1880s in the “dumdum” bullet, first devised for big game hunting using express rifles.

The dumdum is a solid projectile with a hollow in the center; the projectile expands and/or fragments when penetrating tissue and bone.

While it was briefly used in a military setting, the Hague Convention of 1899 (followed by NATO regulations later) forbade military use. By and large, militaries adopted fully jacketed (full metal jacket or FMJ) ammunition, which is still mostly standard issue.

But a whole heck of a lot has happened since then, but also let’s get back to the question! What did people use for self-defense ammunition before the jacketed hollow point?

Cast Lead Bullets

The dominant bullet design on the civilian market until the early 20th century was a cast lead bullet. Typically, it would be a Minie ball-style conical or round-nose projectile set in the case.

That wasn’t the “self-defense load;” that was the EVERYTHING load as cast lead bullets are decent jacks of all trades.

Lead bullets spin and fly just like a jacketed bullet, but they also deform in tissue, giving you something of the best of all worlds. However, the advent of smokeless powders and the faster velocities required the use of jacketed ammunition in newer firearms.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the standard self-defense cartridges were to use cast lead or to just not give a crap and load FMJ.

Bear in mind, a through-and-through with pistol cartridges of that era weren’t as big a deal as you’d think.

9x19mm was only used by the German military. Most common civilian semi-auto pistol calibers were small and rather anemic, with .25 ACP, .32 ACP and .380 ACP being popular examples.

The same idea also applies to revolver cartridges of the era such as .44 Special, .44-40, .38-40, .38 Special, .38 Long Colt and .32 Short Colt.

In other words, over-penetration wasn’t always the greatest concern because most pistol calibers were rather weak. .45 ACP and .45 Colt were the most powerful cartridges you could get until .38 Super and .357 Magnum hit the market. Cast lead or FMJ…kind of worked.

If the bullet went through the target, it would have been robbed of enough energy to not be a significant danger to anyone close by…usually.

That said, an obvious need emerged for a bullet design that could penetrate but would also slow down in tissue to reduce overpenetration, which became a much more acute issue with the advent of .357 Magnum.

Semiwadcutter Hollow Points And Soft Points

Wadcutter and semiwadcutter bullets are cast lead bullets. A wadcutter is a plug of lead crimped into the cartridge case (the entire bullet is set inside the case itself) and a semiwadcutter is likewise a solid projectile, but with a flat nose and tapered shoulder.

An SWC is something of a halfway point between a round nose and a wadcutter. Both projectiles are common in target shooting, but SWC projectiles (being cast solids) were largely developed for hunting.

That said, through-and-throughs are a danger in the urban environment, which led to the development of the SWCHP.

Semiwadcutter hollow points are a semiwadcutter with a depression in the nose of the bullet. Just like with a dumdum bullet, this puts hydraulic pressure on the interior of the projectile, causing expansion to take place.

Now, they don’t work as well as modern JHP, but they worked well enough when used in service pistols (typically 4-inch revolvers) to be the standard for a few decades.

Another projectile design that emerged after jacketing was the jacketed soft point.

JSP bullets are semi-jacketed, with a hard copper jacket and an exposed lead core. They were mostly used as hunting ammunition, but eventually were adopted as self-defense ammunition by law enforcement and civilians alongside SWCHP designs.

Just as with SWCHP projectiles, expansion is not as dramatic or reliable as with modern JHP bullet designs, but is effective enough. JSP bullets are also still used in handgun hunting applications, and are still the default hunting projectile design for rifle hunting.

Prior to the advent of jacketed hollow points, JSP and SWCHP bullets were more or less the default choice for self-defense ammunition in pistols.

Are These Good Choices If I Can’t Find Hollow Point Ammo?

Okay, so if you can’t find your preferred brand or box of JHP…what about cast lead, wadcutters, SWCHP or JSP ammunition? Is that an acceptable choice?

The short answer is…it’s better than hardball. The longer answer…

For the most part, these are decent-enough choices of self-defense ammunition…with some cautions.

Cast lead today is usually harder than the cast lead of yesteryear. Therefore, it may not deform as well and you therefore have to worry about overpenetration.

Traditional wadcutters are typically propelled at lower velocity. Some testing has shown they work very well with lower-velocity calibers such as .380 or .38 Special, but tend to be little better than hardball at faster velocities.

Soft-point and lead semiwadcutter hollow point bullets do work…but they only work well when they achieve sufficient velocity. Just like hollow points they are velocity-based, and there’s a velocity band in which they have to be to work correctly.

Short- or shorter-barreled handguns will not usually allow the bullet to reach sufficient velocity for expansion. The old .38 Special +P 158-grain SWCHP loads work decently in 4-inch barrels, but not in 2-inch snubbies and the same is true with soft points.

But remember, too, that almost all of the efficacy of ammunition is in placement.



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