Cold Weather and Ammo Performance

March 09, 2024
Cold Weather and Ammo Performance

With cold weather upon us, a common question has to do with defensive ammunition performance versus heavier and layered clothing. Mother Nature is brutal and cold weather exposure kills hundreds of people annually. Winter clothing has evolved over the years, but it is still thick and bulky. Contrary to some opinions, heavier clothing doesn’t slow penetration. In fact, it can actually increase penetration. Heavier clothing can also retard expansion, thus creating opportunities for overpenetration. The answer to the question of whether you should switch defensive ammunition in cold weather is a solid no and here are three reasons why.

  • Reach minimal penetration depth to hit the vital region
  • Expand to control penetration and reduce overpenetration
  • Minimize extra work of zeroing and adjusting point of impact

Extreme winter weather is no joke. Without adequate shelter or protection, it is easy to succumb to hyperthermia and other winter-related injuries. Those of us who enjoy the outdoors don’t want to stop enjoying said outdoors when the temperatures drop. The winter clothing industry is a billion-dollar industry. The more extreme the weather, the higher the clothing costs. The higher costs are associated with all the testing and development of new material. With time those costs eventually come down bringing high-end performance to the everyday hiker, camper or hunter. The high-end outdoor product line has actually become thinner and lighter over the years. That’s not to say heavier and bulky winter clothing is not popular. It is just interesting to see the advancement in technology.

The ammunition industry is no different. Premium defensive ammunition is priced at a higher cost due to the investment in new designs and materials. Penetration and expansion are the two predictable characteristics ammunition manufacturers keep in mind with their products. They want penetration on a consistent basis with a stated minimum and maximum depth. The reason why? To reach the vital anatomy located approximately 4–6 inches below the skin’s surface. Reaching the vital anatomy such as the heart and lungs offers the best chance at stopping an attack. Expansion has a dual function—creating greater damage with a larger surface area and reducing the risk of overpenetration. The real question on everyone’s mind is does wearing all this warm weather gear prevent adequate penetration and expansion?

Penetration Is Not the Problem

Many new to the concealed carry world will have honest questions about heavy winter clothing. The questions are generally framed as a concern and not a belief. I can see where they may have concerns with thick and bulky clothing, but modern defensive ammunition is quite impressive. These concerns are easily quelled with a careful explanation of terminal performance. When a projectile from a defensive round contacts the outer layer of clothing, the hollow point cavity begins to fill with the clothing material. It literally gets shoved into the cavity and can prevent the projectile from expanding. In a sense, it turns the hollow point round into a full metal jacket. The now-clogged, hollow point round tends to penetrate deeper. Not every round will experience this clogging effect, but a good majority of them will. The real problem is the overpenetration and shoot-through conditions that may be possible.

Realistic Penetration Depths

With the vital region located 4–6 inches below the skin’s surface, it is a bit of overkill to see 18 inches or greater during FBI testing. The best rounds will still penetrate 12–16 inches, which again seems a bit overzealous. Even cross body shots, which is when the threat is providing a profile view, still only need to penetrate 8–10 inches if they must pass through an extremity such as an arm. The sweet spot for just about any angle in which to reach the vital anatomy is approximately 5–8 inches of penetration. If we are able to consistently generate this penetration depth through heavy clothing, there is no need to consider other ammunition types or to switch ammunition based around the colder conditions. However, penetration is only one of the characteristics; expansion is the second.

Controlling Penetration

The clogging effect mentioned earlier is a real consideration with winter clothing. No matter the material—denim, cotton, polyester or natural—they all have the capacity to clog the hollow point cavity. If the projectile relies on expansion to control penetration, or overpenetration to be precise, there could be an issue. At ranges typical of defensive gun uses the velocity is still high enough to propel the clogged projectile beyond acceptable penetration depths. Projectiles that reliably expand against a variety of clothing material will help control penetration to ensure the maximum damage is delivered to stop the attack. The secondary effect is reducing the chance of injury or damage to bystanders and/or property as a result of shoot throughs. The ultimate goal is to deliver the maximum amount of energy at a depth to reach the vital region without over-penetrating and causing collateral damage. Before you consider switching ammunition, consider what cold weather really does to the concealed carrier.

What Cold Weather Really Does

I understand the concern about winter clothing and penetration, but if we are being honest, the bigger concern is getting to the pistol and shot placement. Penetration and expansion are mere academics if we cannot or do not hit the vital region. When the temperatures get cold, it can have a negative impact on performance. The fact that the carry pistol is buried deep under winter clothing means it is less accessible than in warmer weather. Practicing defeating multiple layers is of critical importance. Count on a slower or more tedious drawstroke, which means being more situationally aware. Hitting the vital region is a matter of marksmanship and something that could interfere with marksmanship is either cold hands or gloved hands. Experience at playing any winter sport turns our cold hands into clubs. Wearing gloves is a logical action to protect the hands from the elements. Shooting with gloved hands can also pose new challenges. While hands may be warm or less cold, the gloves reduce dexterity. Again, gaining access to the primary carry pistol under winter clothes is hard enough; wearing gloves makes it that much more challenging. Once we get the pistol into the fight, shooting with gloves is another consideration. There are plenty of good things that gloves offer, but intimate contact with the trigger is not one of them. Practice is the best solution. We don’t need to wait for cold weather to practice with gloves. But you do need to practice.

Unwarranted Work for Aiming

There are several variables to deal with when it comes to firearm and ammunition combinations. One of them is where do the iron sights hit with the preferred defensive round and/or what zero to select if using a pistol mounted optic? Manufacturers and bullet weights can perform differently. For instance, using a 115grain round in the summer and 147grain in the winter will produce different points of impact. This means if you maintain the same point of aim, both bullets will hit in different locations, or what is referenced as different points of impact. You need to factor this into aiming, so you have the best chance at hitting the target. This is a lot to put on anyone’s plate and a major reason I do not recommend seasonal switching of ammunition. There is a similar problem using a pistol mounted optic regarding the chosen zero. If the zero is for a 115grain round, the optic will need to be adjusted or re-zeroed for the 147grain round. Granted, once the optic is re-zeroed to the preferred round it should be good. It is still an extra step I find to be unnecessary. Should there be no point of impact, either confirmation or optic re-zero, what is the worst that can happen? If shooting against a bullseye-type target, there is the possibility of not hitting the bullseye, but striking one of the outer rings. When stress is added, the situation is compounding the potential for greater shooting error increases.

Winter weather is to be respected. Dress appropriately to protect against the environment. Heavy and bulky clothing often worn during cold conditions is not justification for switching defensive ammunition. The idea of having a summer load and winter load is unnecessary. The concern that heavy clothing will stop or reduce penetration is unfounded and actually untrue. Clothing has a habit of clogging hollow point cavities and increasing penetration. Once the cavity is clogged, the bullet exhibits full metal jacket performance. Expansion is a performance characteristic used to control penetration or reduce overpenetration. Without reliable expansion, excessive penetration is possible, leading to potential shoot through scenarios and collateral damage. Switching defensive ammunition also means different points of impact requiring either shifts in point of aim, or if using a pistol, mounted optics re-zeroing. The shift in point of impact could be minor or major and without comparison, the end user is left to wonder. With a well-selected defensive round that performs consistently through various types of clothing, to include heavy winter clothing, it eliminates the need to switch ammunition. This allows you to focus on the more realistic nature of winter defensive gun use—accessing the pistol quickly through multiple layers and having the dexterity to apply the marksmanship principles to hit the target.