Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special +P Review

The last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to do a considerable amount of shooting with the excellent Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special +P which uses Hornady’s FTX bullet. The Critical Defense line of rounds is designed to always expand regardless of whatever clothing it must first penetrate. Here’s Hornady’s boilerplate:

Since their inception, conventional hollow point pistol bullets have performed well, but have never delivered 100% reliability especially in self-defense situations. The patented Flex Tip® technology used in Critical Defense® ammunition eliminates the clogging and inconsistency that often plagues hollow point bullets. Hornady® achieved this by using the same tip material as used in LEVERevolution® ammunition.

Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special +P

Reviewing ammo is tricky, because there are a lot of qualities that are subjective interpretations on the part of the shooter. To hopefully avoid as much subjective information as possible, I’ll look first at the objective qualities of the Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special: Accuracy, reliability, consistency, and penetration.

The Hornady FTX bullet is based on the XTP bullet, which in addition to being a top notch self-defense round is also legendary for its accuracy. XTPs are popular with competition shooters looking for maximum accuracy. It’s no surprise then that the FTX bullet used in the Critical Defense ammo would also provide excellent accuracy. For accuracy testing, two test platforms were used: a Ruger GP100 with a four inch barrel and a Smith & Wesson 640 Pro Series. The guns were shot for groups off a rest at 25 yards for maximum accuracy, and freestyle at 15 yards as well. An interesting side note – I’ve found that freestyle slowfire groups at 15 yards produce mathematically similar results to sandbagged groups at 25 yards. This is obviously not the case for all shooters, and has much more to do with the individual marksman than the gun itself.

Out of the GP100, the average group at 25 yards was 2.15 inches. Owing to its shorter sight radius, the average group from the 640 opened up considerably to 3.44 inches at 25 yards. Five 5-shot groups were fired from each gun at each distance (15 and 25 yards), with the exception that the last group from the 640 was four shots because I was out of ammo. Best group of the day was a 1.22 inch group from the GP100 at 15 yards freestyle. Out of either gun, the accuracy from the Hornady Critical Defense rounds was excellent. I have held back a few rounds for testing out of a 6 inch revolver as well.

Revolver ammo is subject to reliability issues just like semi-auto ammo. A “feed” issue with a revolver occurs when a cartridge doesn’t fully seat in the cylinder during a speed reload, or if it sticks and doesn’t eject. This problem can be exacerbated by dirty cylinders as well, or by rough/dirty cases. The nickel plated cases of the Hornady Critical Defense fed without issue in the test platform GP100 during the recent IDPA Nationals. Fired cases extracted easily with a positive strike on the ejector rod, and new rounds were quick and easy to reload using the Comp-III speedloaders. In fact, the pointed shape of the FTX bullet makes the Critical Defense easier to reload in a hurry than other defensive pistol rounds. The large, flat ogive on other JHP bullets can make aligning the rounds with the charge holes difficult; Critical Defense doesn’t have this issue.

As mentioned, the Hornady Critical Defense was very reliable and very accurate. It was also very consistent, meaning that shot to shot there were no obvious variations in powder charge. Hornady states a muzzle velocity from a test gun of 1090 FPS with a 4 inch barrel, the rounds were able to provide at least 954 fps in all tests, and were sufficient to meet the IDPA power floor of 105 for Stock Service Revolver. Performance on steel was excellent, all the steel targets that needed to be engaged at IDPA Nationals went down with single hits from the Critical Defense.

My friend and colleague Richard Man did extensive penetration testing with the Critical Defense for Shooting Illustrated, which you can read here. Richard tested the Critical Defense using a 2 inch barreled revolver in 10% ordnance gel, where it achieved 10 inches of penetration at a fairly low muzzle velocity of 955 FPS. Other tests have shown similar penetration, ranging between 10-14 inches depending on the gun and consistency of ballistic medium.

The FBI standard for penetration is 12 inches after defeating 4 layers of denim, in many tests the Critical Defense .38 Special round failed that test…and in other tests it passed. This illustrates the problem with internet ballistics tests, namely that it’s impossible to know if proper testing methods were used, if the gel is calibrated correctly, etc. Richard’s test for Shooting Illustrated are the best of the lot, since Richard is a known entity and a professional.

Another note on the Critical Defense round – it is not a bonded round like Winchester Ranger or Federal HST. If you’re looking for a bonded round using similar technology, check out Hornady’s Critical Duty line of ammo.

The Verdict
Hornady’s Critical Defense .38 Special +P load is a solid choice for your carry guns. While it doesn’t consistently reach 12 inches of penetration in testing, it will provide reliable expansion after defeating most common types of clothing. It’s well made, fast to reload, and has Hornady’s excellent levels of quality control. This is my summertime carry load for my j-frame, and my match load for IDPA competition. In fact, I like it better as an IDPA competition load than I do a carry load, because of it’s excellent accuracy and easy reloading. I’d rate this 4 stars out of 5. If I hit 12+ inches of penetration reliably, it would be a lock for five stars.