- Those very light loads for centerfire rifle cartridges? No problem.
- General practice ammo with less-expensive bullets? Easy.
- Something for an old pistol that's more effective than the round-nose factory ammo that's available? Can do*.
A trained expert, I am not. These are my conclusions based on what I've read and been told by people who've used these, and by my personal experience. So keep that in mind when you follow my advice.
What is the Purpose of the Load?
This is the biggest factor in your choice. Anything will work for punching holes in targets, but if you need something for hunting or self-defense, some are far better than others.
Let's take practice ammunition for an example. You've got three choices:
1) Cast or Swaged Lead Bullets
These are made by either casting lead in molds, or using a press to force (swage) lead into a special mold to shape it (hereafter both are just called 'cast'). They've been around for a long time, they're inexpensive, and can be had in many shapes. They either have a set of grooves formed in them to hold lubricant to prevent them fouling the bore, or some newer designs have a textured surface that holds the lube. Examples of some shapes available:
- Less expensive.
- May be available (especially if you cast your own) in weights and shapes not easily available otherwise.
- Can be loaded down to velocities for which you cannot safely use jacketed bullets.
- Cannot be loaded to as high velocity as jacketed bullets. (Both friction and the heat of the propellant gas can actually melt traces off, and that deposits in the bore; which is nasty at times to clean out.)
- A bit more messy to handle, due to the lube on the surface.
2) Jacketed Bullets
These bullets are copper or copper-alloy jacketed with a lead core, and are generally available in all the shapes of cast bullets. Note that some military surplus bullets, especially from other countries, may have a steel core with lead surrounding it, or a steel jacket with copper plating.
- Can be loaded to much higher velocity than a cast bullet without causing lead fouling in the bore.
- This is where you can find the high-tech, very reliable, expanding hollowpoint or softpoint bullets for hunting or self-defense.
- In some cases (especially in light practice loads) these cannot be safely loaded to as low a velocity as cast bullets.
- May not be available in some of the shapes and weights as cast bullets.
- More expensive (but for self-defense or hunting ammo, worth it).
- Military surplus bullets are not allowed at some ranges, due to the fire potential from the steel jacket or core causing sparks on impact with a rock or other bullets, and a greater ricochet potential.
3) Plated Bullets
A newer option, these are swaged lead bullets that have a thin coat of copper electroplated onto them.**
- Available in many shapes and calibers.
- Cleaner to handle than cast bullets.
- Less likely to have bore fouling when pushed to higher velocities.
- Less expensive than jacketed.
- Slightly more expensive than cast bullets.
- Slightly more difficult to load than jacketed; they're much like cast bullets in this respect.
- They cannot be pushed to the same velocities as jacketed bullets.
Which Do You Choose?
For general practice, any will work. You can save some money using cast or plated where appropriate, but if you want to make up very light practice or small-game loads, stick with cast. Jacketed bullets are much harder, and there are minimum propellant charges you HAVE to use to make sure the pressure will be high enough to overcome friction and push the bullet all the way out of the barrel; stuck bullets are a pain to get out, and a real safety hazard.
For self-defense or hunting, I'd personally stick with jacketed hollowpoints or softpoints. They can be loaded to high velocities, and modern designs and construction are pretty reliable about expansion and penetration. That said, if your defense pistol is an older type that can't handle the pressures of modern defense ammo (particularly the +P or +P+ stuff, which has very high pressures)***, a cast or plated wadcutter can be the best choice. Like the semi-wadcutter, the shape that makes it cut a nice, clean hole in paper tends to do the same thing in tissue. It's not as good as a modern hollowpoint, but much better than a round-nose bullet.
Let's take the old .32 S&W Long cartridge, which many revolvers were chambered for. There is a very definite limit to how hot these can be loaded, especially for the older guns, and these loads may not give enough velocity for a hollowpoint to either expand (fully, or at all), and if they do expand they probably won't penetrate very far. That's critical because if a bullet expands perfectly but cannot penetrate deeply enough to hit a vital point, it cannot be counted on to stop an attacker. For that reason, the recommendation I've seen from some sources is to use a semi-wadcutter cast bullet. These will generally penetrate quite well, hold together and don't break up, and the shape -- especially if it has a wide, flat point (technically called the meplat) and a sharp shoulder -- causes it to make a full-diameter hole as far as it penetrates. For that reason a lot of cast handgun bullets intended for hunting use this shape and a very hard lead alloy, so they'll penetrate far enough to hit vitals.
One Final Thought to Consider
There are arguments that using handloads as defensive ammo could cause legal problems if you do have to shoot; that gets complicated, and I'm not going to try to cover it here.
* For instance, the old .32 S&W Long cartridge. Lots of people have something chambered for it, but the only factory ammo nowadays has either round-nose lead bullets or (when you can find them) wadcutter target bullets.
** Some of the best hollowpoint handgun bullets are made this way: the core is swaged, then the jacket (much thicker than with practice bullets) is electroplated on. This type of jacket is bonded to the core and makes it almost impossible for the core and jacket to separate, a problem with a lot of hollowpoints in the past.
*** I once read of a self-defense instructor who had people come in with old revolvers that'd been in the family for years, usually in .38 Special but sometimes other cartridges. They couldn't afford to buy anything else right then, so they had to make do with them.