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Hornady Critical Duty Ammo: Another Step Toward The Perfect Police Round
By Seth Nadel

The Problem: Equip police officers with a pistol round that can punch through all the barriers in the FBI test protocol, yet not over or under penetrate, and still expand. Answer: Hornady’s new Critical Duty ammunition

The folks at Hornady ammunition recognize the differing needs of police officers vs. civilians, and have developed a new handgun ammunition line specific to those needs. The civilian need to penetrate barriers is almost non-existent, so Hornady offers their Critical Defense ammo. This has been out for a few years, and is optimized for expansion rather than barrier penetration. We civilians are most likely to need to stop an attacker coming toward us, not one hiding inside a car or behind a wall. If they are hiding, they are not a threat. But this ammunition may not meet all the needs of police officers. The good folks at Hornady, after due consideration, have come out with a new ammo optimized for them.

Small Arms Review was invited to the Hornady factory for the unveiling of this new ammunition. Critical Defense ammunition is not tested in the FBI penetration protocol, as it was not designed for barrier penetration, which makes up 66% of the testing. By separating the two lines, each could be optimized for its projected use. The new ammunition is Critical Duty, clearly defining its intended users. Critical Duty rounds are heavier than Critical Defense caliber for caliber, and use a specially molded jacket to mechanically lock the core, jacket, and tip insert into a single unit. It is tested against the entire FBI protocol, with barriers of plywood, auto glass, steel, and wallboard.

Critical Duty is designed to work in a very particular envelope – punching through barriers and still expanding, and penetrating between 12 and 18 inches in ballistic gelatin. Thus, while it will penetrate the specified barriers and will not over penetrate risking harm to innocents downrange. With a potential lawsuit riding on every round fired, this is a very big deal. More important than a lawsuit, some officers have been wounded – a few even killed – by rounds fired by other officers to stop the outlaw that went all the way through. Thus the FBI protocol calls for a maximum of 18 inches of penetration in the ballistic gelatin.

The reverse of that coin is under penetration, the failure to get deep enough to affect vital organs. In many shootings, the outlaw has his/her hands up, shooting at the officers, and blocking his vital organs. So a handgun round must be able to pass through a jacket, forearm, exit, punch through the jacket again, and reach the organs 3-4 inches inside the body - sometimes deeper, under layers of fat: thus, the minimum of 12 inches of penetration in ballistic gelatin.

Expansion is required to enlarge the wound channel - the diameter of the area crushed and torn, causing blood loss and malfunction of the organs. The FBI protocol calls for expansion of 1.5 times the original diameter of the bullet.

So, how do they do that – create a round that punches through wood or steel or auto glass, still expands, yet does not over penetrate? Many of the precise factors are industrial secrets, to protect the investment Hornady has made in this new product. But the new rounds are, as can be seen in the photos, NOT pure hollow points. They use a flexible polymer, of a very specific formulation and design, to force the jacket to expand. This ‘filler’ has been in development for over a decade. Designing this bullet was not a matter of “drill a hole in the front, squirt something into it, and call it good.” It took much experimentation to come to the exact formula and shape needed to obtain the performance desired. And the precise shape and formula has changed for other rounds in larger, slower calibers, such as the .45 ACP.

The other problem is how to keep the jacket intact while smashing through wood and glass – particularly automobile glass, which tends to strip jackets off of bullet cores, causing instability and deviations in the flight of the bullet after the glass. In the late 1970s a shooting was investigated where a .38 Spl JHP by another maker was fired at the driver of a car trying to run an officer down. The round struck the windshield directly in front of the driver, turned 90 degrees, and buried itself into the dashboard, where it was pried out with a pen knife. The driver survived to serve a long time in prison, and the officer was unhurt. But no one could explain this 90 degree change in the flight path in such a short distance – mere inches. We have learned much since that incident, and Hornady is applying that knowledge.

In the Critical Duty rounds, the jacket has an enlarged belt inside the jacket, mechanically locking the jacket to the core. It is literally swaged into a single bi-metallic piece, making it nearly impossible for the jacket to separate from the core. The design is related to their highly successful Interlock and Dangerous Game rifle bullets – indeed, what game can be more dangerous than a human? The jacket is then formed over the polymer insert, locking it in place as well. Then the jacket is scored, to enhance expansion once it is through the barrier. There is a lot of technology in this little assembly of lead, jacket material, and polymer.

Does it work? The professionals at Hornady were confident enough to run all of the FBI protocol tests live in front of the group of writers. These were single shots, not the full five round series for each test called for. If a single shot had failed, their new product would have been called into question, and the entire project set back. When first announced, the rounds only existed in 9mm and .40, the two most popular police calibers. Now they have adapted the technology to the .45 as well.

On a cold, rainy day, we gathered at the Nebraska State Patrol range to see if expectations had been met. Round after round was fired into the carefully prepared and calibrated blocks of gelatin, made precisely to the exact FBI recipe. Every round performed exactly as predicted, penetrating to exact depths and expanding as anticipated.

Each block was set aside for examination, and red dye injected to make the ‘wound channel’ visible. Then each round was removed and examined minutely. They had a chart of expanded rounds from their previous testing, and the shots matched that expansion precisely. In short, they have done it. They achieved penetration of the various barriers, surpassed the minimum depth, and expansion, without over-penetration.

The author tested the ammunition for both velocity and accuracy, but as this is duty ammunition it was only tested in duty guns. This is not +P+ or even +P ammo – both of which can accelerate wear on a gun over time. One of the elements we must understand is the end users, our police officers, who really don’t care about pressures or velocities. They only care about accuracy and results. From a 4-inch Springfield XD, the 9mm rounds clocked an average of 1,057.8 fps. A 5-inch Browning High Power averaged 1,034.4 fps, and a well-used SIG 228 with a 3.5-inch barrel averaged 963.2 fps. From prone (no point in shooting from a bench, as cops don’t use them) at 25 yards, the SIG shot consistent 3.5-inch groups, plenty good enough for a head shot at that range. The groups were a bit low and left, which one could adjust for if this were their issued ammo.

The Critical Duty ammunition is in packages marked “Law Enforcement Only,” but its sale will is not restricted – Hornady just wants to emphasize that this load is tailored for the law enforcement community, as much as Critical Defense has been designed specifically for the civilian market. And, it will exist side by side with Hornady’s Tactical Action Police (TAP), which many departments have found meets their needs.

The end product is the result of an entire production package, as the uniformity and quality control in making the ammo insures uniformity of performance. SAR was given an opportunity to tour their enhanced and expanded production facility. After years of working in separate buildings, they have modernized and brought together the flow of products and thus streamlining their operations. Their new layout means raw materials come in at one end, and finished products leave from the other. The factory is humming 24 hours a day, to fill the demand for quality ammunition.

Among the many impressive things experienced from the tour were the constant quality control and the family feeling about the place. As Manufacturing Operations Manager Pat Langer led us through the facility, he greeted by name almost every employee. And in the city of Grand Island, every person we met had a friend or family member employed by Hornady. They even sponsor family events several times a year, to foster that family feeling. They truly feel that they are all in it together.

As for quality control, every single work station had a ‘cull bucket.’ Every employee, not just specified quality control people, could pull anything that even just looked bad. Since most folks had worked there for years, they had become expert at machine setup, as well as what is expected of the end products. Most of them are shooters and/or hunters, and they know that a single defective piece can mean a missed target at a match, a spoiled hunt, or an innocent life lost – and they take it seriously. The slightest defect goes into the cull bucket.

Quality control is a way of life at Hornady. Every time anything changes on a machine – a different lot of cases, primers, powder, or bullets, a small sample is run and then the machine is shut down. It’s stopped until the lab can verify that there is zero change in the performance of the completed round. Only then can production restart. In addition, samples are pulled randomly, to insure the machine has not slipped out of adjustment. As a result, those cull buckets were mostly empty. Quality control is a constant, expected from every employee of Team Hornady.

At the end of the line, between production and packaging, was inspection. The inspectors had many years working there, and frankly, their eyes for perfection were better than mine. I closely examined several rounds from their cull buckets, and only the most minute, time consuming examination of each round could find what they considered a defect. The smallest scratch, the tiniest discoloration, and into the cull bucket it went. Those folks are good at what they do. When a bullet, case, round, or reloading tool goes into a red box, it wears the Hornady family name, and you can rely on it. And departments will be able to issue Critical Duty ammunition to their officers, knowing it can get the job done. Our officers deserve no less.


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