Hornady Critical Duty Ammo Review

Hornady Critical Duty Ammunition

The Critical Defense line of ammunition is Hornady’s premium line of ammo developed for law enforcement. As many of you know, I spent more than a decade in police work, so I have an acute desire to know what really works and to expose anything that is pure marketing hype.

While I cannot state that these rounds are definitively better than other premium loads from Federal, Speer, Remington or Winchester, I can say that I would pick these to carry over any of the other handgun loads that Hornady currently manufactures – and I think the company makes good ammo across the board.

Hornady specially tailored these rounds to the threats and environments that law enforcement officers encounter. In this review, I will go over each of the current loads as well as give you feedback about how they performed on the range. As time goes on, I will update this page with additional testing data, gel tests and new loads offered in this line.

As I explain more about the Critical Duty line, I will also show how it compares to the Critical Defense line so you have a clearer understanding between the two choices. While the Duty rounds will serve armed citizens as well, Hornady offers a different line of ammunition called Critical Defense that is loaded to better suit non-cops in many circumstances.

Background

Hornady critical duty ammo bullet

In November of 2011, Hornady announced a new line of law enforcement ammunition called Critical Duty.  This new ammo was carefully designed to meet the specific requirements of police use.  That is to say, Hornady built the ammo performance envelope around the FBI tests.

The Critical Duty ammo was initially available in two 9mm loads and one .40 S&W load. Since then, the line expanded to include the .45 ACP, 10mm, .357 SIG, and most recently the .357 Magnum. A .380 ACP load has been rumored, but has not yet appeared. I would expect that it would be difficult to make a 9×17 load perform to acceptable levels in the FBI tests.

General Design

Hornady Critical Duty ammunition uses a FlexLock bullet design that incorporates elements from previous company designs with the intent to perform well in the FBI ammunition testing protocol.

Critical Duty ammo cutawayThe bullets use the company’s Flex Tip technology, which is a polymer filled hollowpoint.  The Flex Tip prevents the hollowpoint from being filled when passing through clothing or another barrier. Yet, it also helps expansion when striking the target by compressing and putting pressure on the inside of the hollowpoint the same way flesh or a ballistic medium would.

Hornady uses an InterLock band to hold the bullet jacket to the core, rather than using a chemical bonding process often used by other manufacturers.  The benefit to this method is that the company can use a heavier, antimony-rich core rather than a soft, pure (or close to pure) lead typically used with bonded bullets. A high antimony lead alloy will allow for deeper penetration when compared to a softer alloy.

The Critical Duty loads featured slightly unusual-for-the-caliber bullet weights. For example, the 9mm loads (both standard pressure and +P) use 135 grain bullets. The .40 S&W load uses a bullet weighing 175 grains.  It is possible that Hornady ‘s use of a polymer plug plus a higher antimony content in the lead alloy are the reason for the unusual bullet weights rather than any engineering decision to develop a non-standard bullet weight.

Critical Duty ammunition use low-flash powders to reduce the blinding of officers who are shooting the rounds in low light conditions. A low flash has an additional benefit of making it harder to pinpoint the officer’s location when bad guys are shooting at him or her.

Rounds use nickel plated cases. Nickel is typically used to plate premium self defense ammunition. While I don’t know that it makes a great deal of difference, nickel is a metal with high lubricity. This – in theory – makes the cases easier to extract. Also, nickel is less likely to tarnish or corrode than plain brass when exposed to the weather. Considering how many times an officer is stuck in the rain or snow, this is actually an important consideration.

Hornady seals the primers and case mouth to help prevent moisture penetration.

Hornady gives a brief overview of the ammo in this video:

FBI Performance

As mentioned previously, the Critical Duty ammo was designed to perform well in the FBI testing protocol.  The protocol is an arbitrary set of standards developed by the FBI to measure ammunition performance.  While I do not think the protocol is proportionally reflective of law enforcement shootings, it does provide a standard by which two ammunition designs can be compared. In reality that is about all any lab test can hope to accomplish.

FBI logoThe FBI protocol includes shooting the bullets into calibrated ballistic gelatin. Some of the tests include the intermediate barriers of:

  • heavy clothing
  • drywall
  • plywood
  • sheet metal
  • laminated glass

Hornady states the FlexLock bullets in the Critical Duty line perform very well in the FBI protocols.  This is good from a static testing standpoint, but actual performance “on the street” remains to be seen.  Some other ammo lines have performed very well on duty, but failed to meet the standards of the FBI protocol. Likewise, a few ammunition lines have been developed for the FBI protocol, but had less than stellar results in the real world.

Critical Duty expanded 45 ACP

an expanded .45 ACP bullet

Bare Gelatin Test
loadpenetrationexpansionrecovered weight
9mm 135 gr15.25".555"99.9%
9mm 135 gr +P14.00".597"99.6"
.357 Magnum 135 grnot availablenot availablenot available
.357 SIG 135 gr14.00".580"99.0%
.40 S&W 175 gr13.50".573"99.3%
10mm 175 grnot availablenot availablenot available
.45 ACP 220 gr +P14.00".708"99.0%
Heavy Clothing Test
loadpenetrationexpansionrecovered weight
9mm 135 gr15.50".494"99.6%
9mm 135 gr +P14.00".597"99.6%
.357 Magnum 135 grnot availablenot availablenot available
.357 SIG 135 gr13.50".560"99.0%
.40 S&W 175 gr14.50".540"99.4%
10mm 175 grnot availablenot availablenot available
.45 ACP 220 gr14.43".686"99.1%

I’m cautiously optimistic about the performance of this ammunition, but I’m simply not familiar with any real world shootings with it. Even though the ammunition has been on the market for several years, I simply don’t know how many agencies have adopted the loads.

I am a firm believer that shot placement trumps bullet design.  Rapidly putting multiple rounds into vital areas is more likely to stop a fight than the choice of Federal vs. Speer vs. Hornady.  However, there are clearly some designs that perform better than others.  So, given my druthers, I’d rather rapidly put multiple good hollow points into a target than the same number of cheap FMJs.

In this video, Hornady runs the 9mm +P load through the FBI testing:

The popular Critical Defense line of ammunition is not designed to perform well in the FBI testing protocol. It is engineered for the violent encounters that an armed citizen might find themselves thrust into.

In general, this means that the Critical Duty will be more likely to defeat intermediate barriers and penetrate more deeply than the Critical Defense. That does not suggest one is better than the other, rather, one is more suited for a particular need than the other. Both are quality rounds.

Loads

FlexLock bullet cutawayAs mentioned elsewhere in this review, there are a number of different loads in the Critical Duty line. They are:

  • 9mm
  • 9mm +P
  • .357 Magnum
  • .357 SIG
  • .40 S&W
  • 10mm
  • .45 ACP +P

I detail each of the loads in more detail below.

9mm

Hornady offers two different loads in 9mm – a standard pressure and a +P pressure. Both use a 135 grain bullet.

For the standard pressure version, Hornady lists the muzzle velocity as 1010 fps. The higher-pressure loading has a muzzle velocity of 1110 fps. Hornady developed the specs using a 4″ test barrel.

I found both loads to be reasonably accurate and soft-recoiling. Even the +P load didn’t seem to jump as much as other brands of +P ammo. This might vary depending on the gun you shoot.

All rounds shot 100% reliably in each of the firearms tested.

135 gr standard pressure
firearmbarrel lengthvelocityenergy
DoubleTap Pocket Pistol3.0"868 fps226 ft-lbs
HK VP94.09"962 fps277 ft-lbs
Remington R-513.4"954 fps273 ft-lbs
S&W Shield3.1"929 fps259 ft-lbs
Springfield Armory XD(s) 4.04.0"1,000 fps300 ft-lbs

I’ve often found that Hornady loads are a little slower out of factory guns than the factory published numbers. If you look at the table above, you will see that the velocities I measured were slower than the published spec. That is to be expected with the shorter barreled weapons.

I measured velocities with a Competition Electronics ProChrono Digital Chronograph that was set up approximately 15′ from the muzzle, and the numbers represent an average of five-shots. Hornady’s specs may be more accurate to the muzzle velocity, and are likely to be measured with more precise equipment.

135 gr +P
firearmbarrel lengthvelocityenergy
HK VP94.09"1,069 fps342 ft-lbs
Remington R513.4"1,058 fps335 ft-lbs
SIG SAUER P290 RS2.9"989 fps293 ft-lbs
S&W Shield3.1"1,010 fps306 ft-lbs

The higher-pressure 9mm load measurably increased velocity. The increase on the company numbers is 100 fps, and that was closely reflected in the numbers I found. For example, there was a 107 fps increase in the VP9, an 81 fps increase in the Shield and a 104 fps increase with the Remington R51.

Recall

In July of 2014, Hornady issued a recall notice for lot # 3141635 of the Critical Duty 9mm 135 gr +P ammunition. This ammo may have light or no powder charge. In other words, if an officer has loaded with ammo from this lot, none of it may work. What a nightmare.

The bad ammo shipped between June 5 and July 16, 2014. If you think you’ve got some of this ammo, contact Hornady immediately.

.357 Magnum

New for 2015 is the .357 Magnum load. This load was introduced at the 2014 NASGW show and should be ready for the general public in early 2015. I have not had any of this to test yet, but when I can get some, I will post the results here.

357 Magnum Critical Duty load

From an 8″ test barrel, Hornady rates this load at 1275 fps. Hornady is using a 135 grain bullet, so the muzzle energy is listed as 487 ft-lbs.

I am a bit surprised to see the company develop a .357 Magnum load in the Critical Duty line. I imagine there are very few Magnum revolvers being carried by police officers in the 21st Century. Of those, I suspect that most are carrying a snubnose .357 as a back-up gun. Even more are probably carrying a .38 Special as a BUG, which is one caliber not represented in this line.

Dropping from an 8″ test barrel to a 2″ barreled J-frame is likely to drop the velocity a lot. Fortunately, the bullet design will help ensure expansion.

.357 SIG

Like it or hate it, there is little doubt that the .357 SIG is a high energy pistol cartridge. However, the Critical Duty load is slightly different from other loads from the major competitors in the space.

357 SIG ammo Critical Duty

The .357 SIG load uses a 135 grain FlexLock bullet similar to the 9mm rounds.  This is heavier than many of the .357 SIG rounds, which are typically 125 grains in weight.  The bullet weight may, in part, contribute to a relatively low muzzle velocity (for a .357 SIG) of 1225 fps.  The round produces 450 ft-lbs of energy.

By comparison, the Speer Gold Dot runs a 125 grain bullet at 1375 fps for 525 ft-lbs of energy. Likewise, the Winchester PDX1 is moving a 125 grain bullet at 1350 fps for 506 ft-lbs. Similar numbers can be seen from Federal, Corbon and others.

For this particular gun, the Glock 31 with a 4.5″ barrel was used for Hornady’s testing. The other brands likely used test barrels of 4″ to 5″ in length.

To date, I have not tested any of this ammo. When I do, I will post the results and my thoughts here.

.40 S&W

Given the proliferation of .40-caliber pistols in the hands of law enforcement, I would expect that this load sells well for Hornady. Slightly lighter than the original 180 gr bullet weight offering when the first .40 S&W guns were announced in 1990, the bullets are heavier than the popular 155 grain bullets frequently carried by cops.

In my testing, this load was completely reliable with no problems of any kind.

firearmbarrel lengthvelocityenergy
Walther PPX4.0"951 fps351 ft-lbs

Hornady rates this load at 1010 fps at the muzzle of a 4″ test barrel. My testing shows a slightly reduced velocity with the chrono set up at about 15′ from the muzzle. For further comparison, Hornady shows the factory data as 948 fps for this load at 50 yards.

I personally felt that this load’s recoil was in line with any other .40 load. It is a little harsher than a 9mm, but not as bad as some of the more stout .40 loads.

10mm

The 10mm load uses the same 175 grain bullet that is used in the .40 S&W. However, it pumps up the velocity to 1200 fps. Oddly, this load is listed as a “Cabella’s Exclusive.” Cabella’s is a well known outdoor store, and not the first place I would think of for law enforcement gear.

I have not tested this ammo yet.

.45 ACP

Hornady Critical Duty 45 ACP +P Ammo

The Hornady Critical Duty .45 ACP +P load uses a 220 grain FlexLock bullet. Most frequently, I’ve seen standard pressure 230 grain loads and +P pressure 185 grain loads in .45. A high pressure, heavy bullet load is relatively uncommon – but not unheard of.

I found the recoil was pretty mild – even for a +P rated load.  I’ve always found the .45 to have less felt recoil than the .40 S&W, and it was true with these loads as well.

Accuracy was very good with this load. Also, it ran 100% in the guns I tested.

firearmbarrel lengthvelocityenergy
Desert Eagle 1911-U3"883 fps381 ft-lbs
Glock 21 SF4.6"974 fps463 fl-lbs

Thanks to Bruce at Pocket Guns & Gear for running a test on the .45 ACP load with his Glock 21 and sharing the results.

Hornady lists this load at 975 fps from a 5″ test barrel. With the Glock 21 SF, a 4.6″ barreled pistol, I measured 974 fps at 15′ from the muzzle. That’s pretty darn close to the factory specs.

I’ve got additional testing coming up with another short barrel 1911 and a full length Colt 1911. As soon as I have the numbers from those tests, I will post them here.

This is the promotional video released by Hornady about the .45 ACP load:

Final Thoughts

There are a wide range of self-defense ammo choices on the market. Many of them are very good, while a few should be avoided. The Hornady Critical Defense appears to be a good pick for stopping bad guys.

I tend to default to the Speer Gold Dot for my carry ammo. I’ve seen what it can do in real world shootings, and it has always been a reliable performer in all of my handguns.

However, I would not feel at a disadvantage if I was carrying the Critical Duty load. There are a number of things I really like about this ammo, and the bullet design is one of them. The gel testing done at Pocket Guns & Gear and other locations shows these bullets tend to give good expansion across a range of velocities.

Hornady Critical Duty Family

If you are working for a police department, chances are you are required to carry a specific load. For agencies considering an ammunition change, Critical Duty deserves a look. Hornady offers ballistic demonstrations that I highly recommend you attend to see this stuff first hand.

Summary
Reviewer
Richard Johnson
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Hornady Critical Duty Ammo
Author Rating
4

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