Monday, December 19, 2011
Over the last 25 years, I’ve seen the requirements for law enforcement ammo go from one extreme to the other. In the mid-1980s, the concern about excessive penetration led ammo manufacturers to make ammo that would expand dramatically so that it wouldn’t over-penetrate the human torso and hit a non-hostile. Then, in April 1987, an incident occurred that changed how law enforcement viewed duty ammunition performance.
On a quiet residential street in a suburb of Miami, a close-quarters gunfight occurred between two armed robbery suspects and a contingent of FBI agents. The FBI paid a heavy price during the fight, with the loss of several agents’ lives. After-action reports of the incident concluded the agency’s 9 mm ammo needed greater penetration than originally thought—especially through hard objects like vehicles. The ammo companies then strived to meet a strict set of standards created by the FBI because ammo that didn’t measure up was deemed a “poor choice” for any American police agency.
Almost immediately, American police agencies started adopting heavy, slow-moving, deep-penetrating bullets—only to find they didn’t work as well in the street as they did in the lab. This led to mass confusion. Some stayed with the deep penetrators while others moved back to rapid-expanding bullets. It was a time of great dissension, with barbs and insults thrown back-and-forth between the two factions that developed, creating animosity and hindering progress.
The debate continues to rage today, but not with the same intensity as it did 15 years ago. We currently have the best ammunition ever created and it’s a direct result of several FBI agents who gave their lives that April day in 1987. There’s no doubt advances in combative ammunition have saved lives. If there’s a positive takeaway resulting from the FBI Miami shootout, it’s this fact.
Choosing Combative Ammo
The harsh reality: No single projectile will do everything. Ammunition manufacturers are coming close to the “ultimate” police round. But let’s face the facts. The perfect bullet, which will do all things, under all circumstances, in all environments, doesn’t exist—and never will. If you want a bullet that will stay in the body when no intermediate barriers are in the way, it probably won’t penetrate hard objects very well. If you want a round that will punch through something hard—like an auto body—it might over-penetrate an unprotected human torso. Combative ammo is a compromise. All an officer can do is choose ammo that best meets the work they do—based on testing protocols.
Another factor in the selection of combative ammo is the growing concern about the toxicity of lead and its affect on the end user. Anyone who’s shot for any length of time probably has elevated lead levels in their blood (I do and I take precautions). So the simple handling of ammo can be a concern.
As you can see, selecting the right ammo for police use is problematic, so do your homework and choose wisely. Let’s take a look at one of the many options.
ICC’s Frangible Ammo
International Cartridge Corporation (ICC) was the first major ammo manufacturer to dedicate its facility to completely lead-free frangible ammunition. ICC hires employees with extensive experience in research and development, military and law enforcement, ammunition manufacture and certified firearms instruction to make sure they produce the best possible product. They also keep track of changing street and field requirements. The company uses only the best bullet components made with patented technology at exacting standards.
ICC believes it has raised the bar for the future of lead-free frangible ammunition by producing rounds with controlled fragmentation characteristics that maintain lethal-penetrating capabilities. Conventional ammunition has a significant hazard associated with close-range fire, ricochet and over-penetration. However, ICC’s unique performance ability reduces hazards for the shooter without compromising firepower.
As I mentioned before, lead poisoning is common among shooters and firearms instructors because it can be induced by touch and inhalation. Conventional lead bullets are also said to cause an environmental hazard, resulting in millions of dollars in hazardous waste cleanup. Lead-free ammunition, now used by federal law enforcement, the military and many others, works well and dramatically reduces potential environmental hazards.
Frangible Ammo Myths
Although most shooters think of frangible ammo as something to be used on steel targets at close range, nothing could be further from the truth. ICC manufactures ammunition for duty use—not just training. In fact, the company developed a family of exclusive products to advance the lead-free frangible concept beyond typical training concerns to include tactical, duty, special-purpose and military applications. (It should be noted all NATO and law enforcement calibers such as 9 mm, .45 and 5.56 are available in frangible formats).
ICC claims they can engineer frangible ammo to perform just like copper-jacketed lead ammo. The duty-grade ammo from ICC is designed to fragment in the first six inches of flesh-like material, allowing the fragments to create a huge wound channel as they travel forward. This would certainly aid rapid incapacitation. However, the base of the fragmented bullet will travel 11–14 inches inside a block of ballistic gelatin—a consistent, homogeneous substance. This means that it will likely penetrate deeper in human flesh, unless a bone is struck.
Another myth regarding frangible ammo is that it will break apart, making forensic identification of the lands and grooves impossible. However, this isn’t the case for ICC ammo. Ballistic identification is possible with ICC ammo because the intact base retains such ballistic markings. Although this fragmentation will certainly enhance rapid incapacitation, the chief advantage of frangible ammo in the street is the elimination of ricochet rounds due to the bullet’s construction.
Testing ICC’s Ammo
I’ve worked with a number of lead-free ammo styles over the years, and I’ve found most lacking in both reliability and accuracy. In truth, many of these frangible, lead-free ammunitions are only good for inducing stoppages so that students can practice repeated “tap-rack” drills.
So as good as ICC ammo sounds, the best way to find out if it’s worth the money spent is to test it. I wanted to see if it shoots with the reliability and accuracy needed for duty. ICC sent me test samples in 9 mm, .40, .45 and 5.56. I shot these rounds through a Glock 19, Smith & Wesson M&P, Ruger SR-1911 and a Stag Arms Model 8 AR-15 carbine. The pistol rounds were bench rested at 25 yards, while the rifle round was tested at 100 yards. I also charted the average velocity of the loads using a Shooting Chrony chronograph placed 15 feet from the muzzle. (See sidebar for results.)
All of the tested loads came from ICC’s Green Elite Series of duty-grade hollow points, which are designed to match the accuracy and velocity of a traditional lead-cored, jacketed hollow-point load. This allows an officer or agency to seamlessly move from training to duty with the same ammunition. The results of the test would seem to lend credence to this claim, as the ICC Green Elite Series did prove to be duty-grade accurate and offer high-velocity that ensured breakup. Also, due to the fragmenting construction of the bullet design, the weight of the ICC ammo is less than the comparable load using a traditional jacketed, hollow-point design.
As far as reliability goes—an area I have great concern about—I wasn’t able to conduct a substantial test because I was only sent one 50-round box of each caliber. However, I can say those 50 rounds cycled through each of the weapon platforms without a single stoppage or malfunction, which is certainly encouraging. Further testing would be needed to make a definitive statement on accuracy.
So is frangible technology, like the products spearheaded by International Cartridge, the future of combative ammo? Although I can’t say with certainty, what I’ve seen here is certainly promising. I like the idea that companies like ICC are looking for options because when it comes to combative applications, options are always good!
ICC’s Ammo Test Results
Ammo Accuracy Velocity
9 mm 100 grain HP 2.5 inches 1,233 fps
.40 125 grain HP 3.0 inches 1,187 fps
.45 155 grain HP 2.25 inches 1,137 fps
5.56 155 grain HP 2.0 inches 2,997 fps
International Cartridge Corp.