Top 5 Defensive Rifle Loads

Picking a serviceable load for your defensive rifle is often much more straightforward than your sidearm. Pistol ammunition pokes holes that vary slightly depending on the size and expansion of the projectile as well as velocity. But the amount of damage from even a mediocre rifle cartridge exceeds what you will see from most pistol rounds. The bottom floor of rifle cartridges usually starts with bullets flying at muzzle velocities exceeding 2,000 feet per second, double the speed of many conventional pistol cartridges.

Few rifle rounds won’t work for personal protection, but rifle rounds can be too powerful. Many conventional soft-point and full metal jacket rounds can zip straight through the intended target and carry on downrange with potentially dangerous results. Here are five defensive rifle loads that you should consider for your home defense plan.

cci stinger ammunition box
A .22 rifle is not an ideal choice for defensive use, but with the right ammunition, you can do a lot with one.

CCI Stinger .22 LR 32-Grain HP

In the role of a defensive rifle, a long gun chambered in .22 LR is not the bottom of the barrel; it is actually under the barrel. The .22 LR is smaller and does not enjoy the great velocity advantage of larger centerfire rifle rounds that are on the list. But .22 rifles are ubiquitous and produce no felt recoil. Although the .22 LR is essentially a mild pistol round, it is better out of a rifle barrel and can still be surprisingly effective. For the small game rifle turned defensive carbine, consider the CCI Stinger 32-grain hollow point. 

The Stinger is a hypervelocity .22 rimfire round that is intended for varmint hunting, but it is a round often recommended for personal defense if a .22 is what you want to go with. This is primarily because CCI produces some of the most reliable .22 rimfire ammo on the market. With CCI Stingers, there are few, if any, dud rounds in the pack and the extra power of these rounds ensures that some finicky firearms run reliably. The ballistics are not too bad either. The CCI Stinger’s lighter 32-grain bullet can achieve velocities exceeding 1,400 feet per second and punches surprisingly deep.

hornady critical defense 223
Hornady offers either a 55-grain or 73-grain FTX round for the .223 Remington.

Hornady Critical Defense .223 Remington 55-Grain FlexTip

There used to be a time in which centerfire rifles in the home defense role were met with controversy because of concerns usually involving overpenetration of the intended target. Thankfully, there is no shortage of loads for intermediate rifle rounds like .223 Remington or .300 Blackout that deliver without delivering too much. Some users of the AR-15 insist that 55-grain FMJ ammunition is excellent for personal protection because of its tumbling characteristics. Never mind the fact that FMJ or full metal jacket ammunition in larger calibers are the rounds that over-penetrate and any FMJ becomes suspect.

Fortunately, there are many excellent expanding loads available for the .223. The Hornady Critical Defense 55-grain FTX is worth a long look. It uses corrosive-resistant nickel-plated cases. Its proven FTX projectile is a bonded jacketed lead bullet with a polymer plug that resists plugging with clothing on impact, allowing for uniform expansion in a variety of mediums. The 55-grain weight will shoot accurately in AR platforms and other .223 rifles with a rifling twist as slow as 1:12 inches, where heavier loads might not stabilize.

hornady subsonic 300 blackout ammo
Whether you opt for supersonic or subsonic ammo, the .300 Blackout can get the job done.

Hornady Subsonic .300 Blackout 190 grain Sub-X

The .300 Blackout is essentially the 5.56 NATO round with the neck resized to accept a .30 caliber bullet. This allows a typical AR platform to shoot a deer-legal round with a simple barrel change. The .300 is also available in a wide variety of loads that make it applicable for either hunting or personal defense, particularly when paired with a suppressed rifle.

The Hornady Sub-X load is a subsonic load that uses a heavy-for-caliber 190-grain bullet for reliable cycling with minimal gas blowback out of a suppressed rifle. The Sub-X bullet utilizes the same FTX bullet technology as you will find in Hornady’s proven Critical Defense line of ammunition.

speer gold dot .308
If you are running a full-powered rifle round like the .308, consider a good hollow point load if collateral damage is a concern.

Speer Gold Dot Personal Defense .308 Winchester 150 grain HP

Full-powered battle rifle rounds like the .308 Winchester are criticized as being overpowered no matter the load for home defense. But defensive rifle uses are not necessarily always in the confines of the home. Whether you are running an AR-10, an M1A, or any number of .308/7.62 NATO rifles, it might be a good idea to keep a box or two of defensive ammunition in addition to proven barrier-busting FMJ.

Consider the Speer Gold Dot .308 150-grain load. It uses a Uni-Core bonded lead-cored hollow-point bullet that retains its weight after expansion, allowing for good uniform penetration. Not that penetration is an issue with the .308. However, many .308 soft-point loads on the market can pass completely through a target and keep going. The Speer load brings some balance. It does so with a uniform spire-point bullet that cuts through the air like FMJ, unlike other defense .308 loads like the Hornady Critical Defense 155-grain load, which uses a more rounded bullet profile.

hornady leverevolution .357
Hornady’s LeverEvolution ammunition performs equally well in revolvers and carbines.

Hornady LeverEvolution .357 Magnum 140-Grain FlexTip

When a defensive rifle comes to mind, chances are an autoloading rifle like the AR, AK, or M1A comes to mind. But the lever action rifle is the original defensive rifle and there are plenty of classic and modernized versions to make use of for personal defense. Traditional lever action calibers like .30-30 and .45-70 are proven the world over, but pistol caliber lever actions in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum give you the advantage of ammo compatibility with a revolver in the same caliber. Some loads that work well in a revolver, might overperform and underpenetrate in a longer carbine barrel. Some rounds work well in a rifle but not the revolver. If you are looking for the closest thing to the best of both worlds, consider the Hornady LeverEvolution line.

The LeverEvolution line is available in larger lever-action rounds, but these rounds shine best in .357 Magnum and .44 Magnum. It uses an FTX-like bonded bullet, but the polymer plug is tipped, allowing the rounds to slice toward a target with less drop and wind drift compared to traditional blunt-nosed rounds used in lever actions. The LeverEvolution round is meant for big game, but it performs equally well with uniform penetration and expansion, whether you are running them through a service revolver or a lever gun.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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