Hornady Critical Defense .38 Special 110 Grain Defensive Ammo: A Good Diet For The Snubby?

The shooting community has come to trust the Hornady brand throughout the decades, and with good reason.  Their ammo and components are outstanding. Over the years, I’ve used and reviewed many various rounds from Hornady, and it has all proven to be top-notch ammunition. Today, we’ll look at their Critical Defense .38 Special 110-Grain bullets. Not long ago, I also reviewed Hornady’s Critical Duty 9mm 135-grain ammunition, which is excellent ammo. Both projectiles utilize a similar projectile, which I’ll explain very shortly.

Normally, I prefer a bit heavier projectile than 110 grains for defensive use in the .38 Special. Why? Penetration. More penetration allows the bullet to reach vital organs, which is crucial in stopping a hostile attacker in the unfortunate case we’d have to use our firearm in defense. So, how will these light-for-caliber 110-grain rounds do?


Not having any ballistic gelatin on hand with which to test the rounds, I decided to go another route. I used 1-gallon water-filled plastic jugs. Now, before readers fire up their computers and send me scathing emails about how water is not ballistic gelatin and how neither of those mediums is the same as a human body, I’m going to agree with you. They are not.

However, consider this: the human body is made up of as much as 75% water. So, shooting into water is not completely insane. I’ll admit that shooting into water jugs is really, really far from being a reliable scientific measure. That said, it can offer a very vague idea of how a bullet might perform in flesh. And water, being consistent, can give somewhat consistent repeatability as far as shooting rounds into it.

Yes, I’d have much rather had a more realistic medium to test out this ammo. However, there was one glaring problem: I found myself to be fresh out of spare bodies to shoot into! I checked with my neighbors, and none of them had any either, so I was simply out of luck. I mean, borrowing a corpse isn’t as easy as borrowing a cup of sugar from Mrs. Smith next door. It appeared that I was stuck with the water jugs.

Expanded Critical Defense round.
The Critical Defense round after expansion. It opened up perfectly, which was to be expected. It appears that all weight was retained too. [Photo: Jim Davis]
The bottom line is that I was curious how the Hornady Critical Defense projectile would look after it passed through four layers of denim and eventually stopped in water jugs. And I got my answer. It appears that the bullet retained 100% of its weight and expanded in textbook style. It penetrated all the way to the rear wall of the third 1-gallon jug, which is similar performance to most other hollow point ammunition that I’ve ever tested in a similar manner. As I said, these tests aren’t very scientific, but they’re fun, and they do offer a measure of repeatability.

And honestly, lacking gel, what other means do we have to do any sort of test on ammunition? Sure, we run rounds through our favorite weapons platform, shooting groups on paper. That proves accuracy and reliability, but that’s about it. So, the water jugs offer a little more information as to how the bullet acts when it hits something more substantial.

Frankly, I was surprised that this light 110-grain .38 round penetrated three water jugs; I expected less penetration. This penetration makes me feel more confident to carry this ammunition in my revolver.

Hornady Critical Defense Nomenclature

This Critical Defense ammo is brass cased. The red tip is immediately apparent, as it consists of a polymer Flex Tip, which does a couple of things for this ammo. First, it’s not technically a hollow point. The polymer ball in the tip won’t clog up with clothing material or building material to make the bullet act like an FMJ round as can happen to some hollow point ammo.

Critical Defense rounds on the box.
The polymer Flex Tip doesn’t allow the bullet to plug up with debris as some hollow point rounds do. Recoil is also mild. [Photo: Jim Davis]
That polymer tip initiates expansion and does so reliably. From a legal standpoint, these bullets can be used in jurisdictions that prohibit the use of hollow point ammunition. For people so afflicted by those laws, this ammunition is a real game-changer.

According to Hornady, Critical Defense ammo has powder that’s made for use even in very short barrels. An interesting side note is that, as this is written, Hornady announced that they temporarily suspended the use of nickel plating for the bullet cases (normally, they’re nickel-plated, but the rounds here are brass). Apparently, nickel is in short supply, and rather than stop producing ammo, they are simply using brass for the moment.

Hornady Critical Defense vs. Hornady Critical Duty

Hornady has Critical Defense ammo and Critical Duty ammo. They have differences and they are intended for different audiences.

Critical Defense ammo is intended for civilian defensive encounters and is optimized for use in short-barreled, concealed carry-type handguns. It’s not intended for barrier penetration like law enforcement ammunition is.

Critical Duty ammo is intended to be barrier blind so it can penetrate the FBI’s requisite 12-18 inches of flesh after going through various barriers. It is not optimized for short-barreled handguns. Critical Duty does meet the FBI’s requirement for penetration. Hornady’s website goes into more detail, but this is the long and short of it.

The Platform

For this review, I chose the Smith & Wesson 642 Airweight revolver. It has a 1.88-inch long barrel and weighs 14.6 ounces. It has an aluminum frame and a stainless-steel barrel, all of which has a matte silver finish. It has an internal hammer and is double-action-only with a heavy trigger pull. Holding five rounds of .38 Special ammunition, it is a very compact, light revolver. The little piece is handy to slip into a pocket and can be fired from inside the pocket because there’s no external hammer to catch on anything.

S&W 642 .38 snubby.
The S&W Airweight 642 is an old favorite. Very light and compact, it can be fired from inside a pocket because there is no exposed hammer. This snubby has logged many miles with the author. [Photo: Jim Davis]

At The Range

Recoil of the Critical Defense ammunition is fairly light and muzzle flash was minimal. In fact, I dare say it was pleasant to shoot.

I didn’t fire the Hornady round for extreme accuracy; rather, I rapid-fired it at police silhouette targets at realistic distances (out to 15 yards). It performed quite well at such ranges. That said, even more realistic distances would take place within five yards, and the ammo is more than accurate enough for defensive use.

S&W 642 and Hornady rounds.
Hornady’s Critical Defense 110 grain ammunition with the S&W 642 .38 revolver. The mild recoil and muzzle blast were appreciated, and it was not unpleasant to shoot. Accuracy was definitely acceptable. [Photo: Jim Davis]
The fact that there was light recoil was something I appreciated because the S&W 642 can sting a bit with stout loads. This is not +P ammo, so it was quite tame to fire. According to the information on Hornady’s box, this ammo has a muzzle velocity of 1010 feet per second. At 50 yards, it drops to 940 feet per second. Certainly not screaming velocity, but it seems to get the job done well enough.

Final Thoughts

Hornady has a winner with their Critical Defense ammunition. Some people might be deterred because it’s not up to duty specifications, and not intended to penetrate all sorts of barriers while still going deeply into humans. But honestly, if you’re carrying these loads in a snub-nosed revolver, you’re not likely to be shooting at things behind barriers; you’re probably just using it for defensive use. And for that, these rounds are great.

Currently, Hornady’s Critical Defense .38 Special 110-grain ammo is available for $26.99. A standard box has 25 rounds instead of the usual 20 rounds that other manufacturers include, so you’re getting some extra rounds in the box.

You might want to check it out for your revolver, it’s good stuff. Getcha some!

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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