Comments on Using Handloads for Self-Defense
By John Ross

Copyright 2007 by John Ross. Electronic reproduction of this article freely permitted provided it is reproduced in its entirety with attribution given.

Many shooters who reload ask about the best recipes for self-defense loads for use in their carry guns. Certain defensive-shooting writers, most notably Massad Ayoob, advise against using any handloaded ammunition for this purpose. They paint a picture of a prosecutor demonizing the shooter for wanting to craft special ammo even deadlier and with more maiming ability than what the factories produce. The single exception Ayoob listed (and here he was tepid in his endorsement) was for someone who needed a defensive load in a powerful, deep-penetrating caliber like the .44 Magnum. To avoid overpenetration and injuring others with a shoot-through, a less-powerful loading than factory fodder might be appropriate.

The instance of a prosecutor going after a citizen for using handloads in a defensive shooting has not actually happened anywhere that anyone can document. The Internet discussion boards call it an ďurban legend from Massad Ayoob,Ē which is maybe not fair to Ayoob. I donít think Massad ever claimed a specific case where it had happened, only that it could.

There is one area where handloads have caused problems for investigators, and ironically it is mild loads like the kind mentioned above that are most likely to get the shooter in trouble. This is in those cases where there's a serious dispute about how far away the shooter was from the shootee when he pulled the trigger. Forensic experts can pin this distance down very accurately if they have the gun used and identical factory ammo. Handloads, though, can vary widely depending on powder type and pressure level. Obviously, if forensics have samples of identical ammo, like the unfired rounds still in your gun, there should be no problem, although three or four samples may not be enough to perform the needed tests. But what if you've emptied your gun? How do you prove the stuff on your loading bench is the same as the rounds you touched off? The truth is, you canít.

Theoretical problem area: You whip up a batch of low-recoil, mild .44 loads with low blast signature, for lower recoil and to prevent overpenetration. You encounter a group of would-be attackers, strung out on whatever is that day's drug of choice, who are out "wilding" (which is what happened to the Central Park Jogger.) They ignore your demands to stop and drop their contact weapons (pipes etc.). They keep coming and you finally pop the closest ones at 7-10 feet, firing all 6 rounds at these two who keep pressing the attack as the third and fourth flee. Thug 1 is dead, Thug 2 crippled but alive, Thugs 3 and 4 free for now until Thug 2 tells the police who they are.

Because of your light load, the residue on the clothing of the dead and wounded is almost undetectable, similar to what a factory magnum load would generate at, say, 20 feet.

Will Al Sharpton get involved? Will Thugs 2, 3,and 4 claim they were over 20 feet away and on their way to church service when you opened fire on them? Will they all agree you screamed a racial epithet at them and when they turned to see who the Klansman was, you just started blasting? Will police say that if you thought they were a threat you should have retreated? Will they say you fired too soon? The likeliest testimony from forensics will be "Based on the forensic evidence, we can't say with any confidence how far Mr. Citizen was from Mr. Thug when he shot him. It may have been a few feet, but it may have been over 20. We don't know."

A prosecutor arguing that a defendant misused lethal force by creating extra-powerful handloads is an imaginative "what if" that has never actually happened in a courtroom. A prosecutor arguing that a defendant misused lethal force because he shot someone who was far enough away that he was not an immediate threat is a very real argument that has been presented to juries on many occasions.

Having said that, realize that I carry a .44 S&W where legal and have for 28 years. I have NEVER carried factory ammo. My load of choice for the 29 is a full power load using a 275 grain Jim Harvey (Lakeville Arms) 3/4 jacket semiwadcutter hollow point that expands violently. I am revising my thinking for the much lighter 329 (which I love.) I'm leaning towards a full wadcutter out of soft lead at 1000-ish. Time for more tests with ordnance gelatin.

John Ross 12/12/2003

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