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Stacking Loads, Pile of Bullets

To be clear, the subject of this report is the alternating of different loads in a handgun. The first couple of loads may be one type and the following loads another, there may even be different loads interspersed in the magazine.

Stacking loads is a subject that has come up in my training classes, correspondence, and even in institutional service. Let’s look at the practice and see if it makes it a few steps up the logic ladder.

I will cover a few experiences that first brought the practice to my attention. An experienced officer I served with in the later 1970s, carried Glaser Safety Slugs for his first two rounds up, followed by 125-grain .357 Magnum hollow points.

He felt the Glasers would not ricochet and would stay in the body. If the adversary remained on his feet or made it to cover, the Magnums were the ticket.

An uncle carried a hollow point up first in his 1911, followed by ball rounds — he was not confident of the feeding reliability of his 1911.

Another officer carried a number of special-purpose loads on his belt, including armor-piercing ‘just in case.’ He felt the Glaser was useful for safely dispatching injured animals and the like.

He even carried shot cartridges for snakes because we got a lot of snake calls. Our range instructor was very much against any such practice. He felt that the only means of achieving real proficiency with the handgun was consistent practice.

A load that was reliable and accurate was his criteria. No two loads will fire to exactly the same point of aim. One of the oddest combinations ever found was the six-shot revolver issued to police in the Netherlands prior to World War II.

The first two cartridges were blanks, followed by two ‘gas loads,’ and finally two ball rounds. I once tested a load from Europe that featured ‘survivability’ as criteria. It was unimpressive! Let’s look at the practice of ‘stacking loads.’

Colt Python and Wilson Combat 1911 with magazines and speedloader
Spare magazines and speedloaders may seem to invite alternating loads, but the author finds no point in it.

Ways of Stacking Loads

Among the most common thoughts on stacking loads, is to load a low-penetration, rapid-opening hollow point first, or a frangible bullet. In a revolver, it may be the first two loads in the chambers.

In a semi-automatic pistol, it may be the first few rounds in a magazine. This doesn’t make sense for several reasons. First, modern hollow-point loads designed to expand, are formulated for optimum expansion.

The Hornady Critical Defense, as an example, meets my criteria for a defensive loading. If I need more penetration, I may choose the Hornady XTP or even Critical Duty. IF I could only choose one, I would be confident with any of the three.

Once I have chosen a proper loading, I will then test that loading and make certain my handgun is properly sighted-in. As for penetration, loading FMJ loads to ensure penetration is adequate isn’t a great idea.

I have tested the majority of modern defensive loads in the major calibers. As it turns out, full-power hollow-point loads penetrate as well as FMJ loads against light cover — sometimes better.

The nose of the hollow point closes, and the round penetrates. So, if you anticipate firing at felons behind cover, then use a modern loading such as the Hornady Critical Duty, not a full metal jacketed load.

FMJ loads with their rounded nose sometimes bounce. They may even bounce off bone and if they strike a human target they will produce a caliber-diameter wound and exit.

If your pistol doesn’t feed hollow points well, you need a change in pistols, not ammunition! Most of the feeding problems with the Colt 1911 and Browning Hi-Power several generations ago, were related to the ammunition, not the handgun.

A properly designed projectile and a cartridge with the correct overall length will feed in vintage 1911 handguns and Hi-Powers.

Colt 1911 and Browning Hi-Power
The author’s Hi-Power 9mm and Commander .45 are carried loaded with general-purpose JHP loads.

Another part of alternating loads, is to carry one load in the handgun and another on the belt.

Some years ago, a number of agencies specified the double-action revolver, .38 Special or .357 Magnum, and gave officers the choice if they were able to qualify with the Magnum, but they could only carry .38 Special in belt loops or speedloaders.

The rationale was that all officers could share .38 Special ammunition, but not all could share the Magnums. Since a reload is seldom needed, this was a bit out there, but made sense at the time.

On the other hand, several federal agencies approved the .38 Special for general issue, but approved .357 Magnum revolvers that had to be carried with .38 Special ammunition. In ‘special circumstances,’ Magnum loads could be loaded.

If you carry a modern self-loading pistol with good quality defensive loads, it is unlikely that the JHP loading will penetrate significantly less than a backup loading of FMJ ammunition.

If you are carrying one of the loads designed to fragment in a few inches of gelatin, you have an under-penetrating load I do not recommend for personal defense. It will be too late to slam a magazine home once the low-penetration load has failed!

As I stated, a load such as the Hornady Critical Defense offers as much, if not greater, practical penetration as FMJ loads, but with much more effect on a target if the shooter puts the bullet in the right place.

1911 with two spare magazines
Loading one spare magazine with a hollow-point load and the other will ball ammo isn’t the best choice.

A program for stacking loads I do find has merit, is to load the first cylinder of the revolver with a shotshell when you are hiking, spelunking or even hunting.

My friend Ralph Longshore was a legend for hunting down and busting illegal stills. He encountered a lot of snakes in the backcountry and carried a CCI shotshell the first shot up in his .38 revolver. This makes sense.

He encountered a lot of snakes and very few armed guards at stills, cinema aside. Many of the bootleggers owned dogs, and dogs are a good alarm. It was a rarity to find a manned still.

It is reasonable to limit penetration on some calibers — the .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger and .45 ACP will penetrate some 36 inches of water or gelatin, depending on the load, with non-expanding ammunition.

A high-quality hollow point will exhibit 14 to 18 inches, ideal for most uses. A psychological term I have used often is the ‘protection barrier.’

Those not sufficiently insulated from fear and monsters do not rest well. They have vague doubts considering their ability, perhaps even absolute doubts. Hardware cannot make up for this.

A serviceable handgun and a quality loading are good, but only practice and frequent trips to the range are any indication of your survival. Another step I have actually seen in my class, was a young man alternating ball and hollow points in his magazine.

He would carry many 115-grain loads, some ball rounds, and a few 147-grain 9mm loads. He had been confused, I suppose, by so many diverse recommendations, that he felt that he would cover all the bases.

I think that thinking about the load in the gun would be a terrible distraction, and this young man was a very poor shot when he first came to me.

It took time and discipline to raise his level of marksmanship to a factor that gave him a reasonable degree of confidence. He changed his loading habits along with his shooting habits.

After all, it is the first three or four cartridges that decide the fight, sometimes less. Getting on target and making an accurate shot is the single most important personal-defense criteria, given a caliber of .38 Special or 9mm Luger and above.

The difference between loads is really small compared to the difference in shot placement.

Expanded Hornady Bullets
The Hornady XTP and Critical Defense by Hornady are excellent personal-defense loads.

Another type of stacking loads might be in the wild, on the trail and while hiking. Preparing for protection against wild animals is reasonable. They usually only attack if sick, old or wounded — or if you intrude on their territory.

Like many of us, the big cats and bears like a certain amount of space between them and humans. In this type of world, it may be reasonable to load a single shotshell first in case of dangerous snakes.

Reptiles are actually easy to kill, and a walking stick is not as loud and very effective in most cases. If the snake is under your shoe, then certainly the danger of shooting your own foot is present if you lose your composure!

For animal defense, a cylinder full of hard-cast SWC bullets is the only answer for bear, beginning with a .44 Magnum revolver.

Wild hogs have proven dangerous in my home state the previous year, and the same loads would be ideal for taking out large hogs.

For the big cats and feral dogs, a fast-moving Hornady XTP in .45 ACP or .357 Magnum would be right, no stacking loads there.

I have looked over the subject, and after looking at the scenarios I have encountered, I see a lot of problems and little merit in alternating loads.

Save for the occasional need for shotshells when going into snake territory, I think that a good general-purpose load is best. That doesn’t mean I always carry the same load in a particular handgun.

As an example, when carrying the Smith and Wesson Model 69 .44 Magnum around town and traveling, I deploy the Hornady .44 Special 180-grain XTP.  At about 1000 fps, this is a fine personal-defense load.

When I am hiking and in territory frequented by dangerous animals, I load the .44 Magnum with 240-grain XTP loads. It hits hard on both ends of the gun!

Likewise, I carry the .357 Combat Magnum with 125-grain hollow points for general defense, but in those just-in-case scenarios, I carry 180-grain XTPs over a stout charge of H110.

However, I don’t carry both loads at the same time, I can’t see the need.

.44 Magnum S&W model 69
If you deploy the .44 Magnum for animal defense, then heavy SWC loads are best.

The Shotgun Excepti0n

This is when stacking loads DOES make sense.

Rifles are also best served with a good general-purpose load, no surprises there. There are varmint loads, deer loads and bear loads, but no reason to alternate the loads in the magazine.

A firearm that lends itself to stacking loads is the shotgun. This is the old buck and ball combination — buckshot followed by a slug. Here is the reason: buckshot is fairly short-range and also fairly low-penetration.

This is good for home defense. Buckshot usually stays in the body and it isn’t likely to be dangerous at longer range. Dealing with an adversary behind cover or one that has created distance and taken cover is another matter.

In that case, the Hornady American Gunner slug is good medicine. I might consider loading buckshot for the first four shells and slugs as the last two in my Benelli M4, just in case.

The shotgun also lends itself to rapidly shoving a slug into the loading port if need be.

three 12-gauge loads
Birdshot is for small birds, buckshot for personal defense, and 12-gauge slugs for deep penetration.


In the end, stick with a proven general-purpose load that exhibits a good balance of expansion and penetration and you will be well served.

Concentrate on marksmanship and tactics. If you are in choice country, a handgun with shotshells is good. For the shotgun, buck and ball may rule.

What loads do you choose to carry? Have you ever tried stacking loads? Let us know in the comment section below!

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