Frangible Ammo And Why You Should Use It

Winchester Ranger RA223SF 55-grain .223 frangible ammunition.

In the mad ammunition shortage of 2021, people are scooping up whatever they can get their hands on in terms of rifle, pistol, and shotgun ammunition. It’s definitely not a time to be an ammo snob, that’s for sure. Brass-cased, steel-cased, if it’s goes bang - it sells. In one’s journey to feed their defensive pistol or AR-15 rifle, one may run across in-stock ammunition of unusual types, including frangible ammunition.

“Frangible?”, you may ask, “What the hell is that?”

Simply put, frangible bullets are designed to disintegrate upon impact with a hard target, such as steel target plates, or even drywall and other building materials. The idea is to minimize the risk of injury from a ricochet or spalling. If you ever go to a range and are looking to shoot steel, they will often have restrictions on what calibers can be shot at it and at what range. You don’t want a fragment of that 5.56mm green-tip M855 projectile whistling back at you at supersonic speeds.

Not surprisingly, like a lot of things in the firearms world, frangible ammo was developed as a result of real world experiences.

Brownells

History Of Frangible Ammunition

With the advent of the first repeating rifles and metallic cartridges such as the .22 Short, the classic shooting gallery became a feature of circuses and traveling carnivals. And yes, as much as certain carnivals are today, the carnies didn’t consider safety too much until it bit them in the proverbial ass. Carnival-goers were falling victim to ricochets and spalling, even at short ranges using the low-power gallery loads of the day. Little Tobias would be dinging steel and impressing the heck out of dear old Dad, and would lose an eye for his troubles. Good times.

So, ammo manufacturers such as Peters (later purchased by Remington), Western (now Olin), and Winchester came up with frangible ammunition. The technology at the time was pretty primitive, with the projectiles often consisting of lead powder held together with various binding agents. The projectile only had to “survive” a flight of a few yards, so holding it together for long distances wasn’t a priority.

Later technology formulated lead/Bakelite projectiles, which debuted during World War II for Operation Pinball, where trainee pilots fired ammo at manned (yes, manned) target aircraft. Though the target aircraft, the RP-63, was armored like crazy, they didn’t want to take any chances, so frangible ammo was ordered as to not jeopardize the life of the target aircraft pilot.

After the war, frangible ammo found it’s way into more and more training applications, especially in close quarters, where the risk of ricochet is high. Other interesting uses included actual close quarters operations, especially in aircraft and other hazardous environments, where conventional ammunition could cause an explosion or rapid decompression if the officer or soldier missed their intended target. That 9mm hollow point load may be a superb performer on the ground, but it’s of scant comfort if you’re an air marshal on a 787 at 38,000 feet. One wrong move and that Speer Gold Dot hollow point goes blasting through the skin of the aircraft, and then the real fun begins.

It’s only rather recently that frangible ammunition became of interest to the armed citizen sector, especially nowadays with conventional ammo being in short supply. So, should the Regular Guy or Girl embrace frangible ammunition? Let’s break it down.

The Advantages Of Frangible Ammunition

Frangible ammunition had and still has a bad rap. Myself included, I always thought that despite the sound theory and use cases, it was a poor performer, and tended to cause more failures than normal. Stories of projectiles breaking apart in the loading or firing process abounded, resulting in failures to fire, or what amounted to burning dust exiting the firearm.

Of course, technology evolved, and modern frangible ammunition is made from various compressed metal powders, usually copper with tin or tin alloys as a binding agent. Well-produced frangible ammunition from a major manufacturer will rarely experience a failure of any kind - at least no more frequently than conventional lead ammo in most cases. So, why use frangible ammunition?

Frangible Ammunition Is Relatively Safe

Safety was and is the driving force behind frangible ammunition. Whether it’s in a training scenario where the targets are up close, or in a defensive situation where overpenetration is of paramount concern, frangible ammunition rounds reduce the chances of unintended injuries significantly. One favorite demonstration by frangible ammunition manufacturers is to do mag dumps from a pistol or rifle at ranges less than 5 yards on a steel gong target. Such actions would be borderline suicidal with conventional full-metal jacket ammunition. But with frangible, the projectiles become mere dust when impacting something harder than they are. Try it. Buy some frangible ammunition in your favorite rifle caliber, and shoot steel up close.

Protip: Double-check for the term “reduced hazard training” or RHT when you purchase. Companies like Speer, Federal, and National Police Ammunition prominently feature this designation on their products.

Note: Just because frangible ammunition isn’t supposed to ricochet doesn’t mean it’s entirely safe. Wear proper protective gear as always - and remember that you’re responsible for every bullet that leaves your gun.

Frangible Ammunition Is More Environmentally-Friendly

Ammunition components are a dirty business. Lead, bismuth, antimony, and some other fun things you probably don’t want to be breathing in. Sure, most of the major ammo manufacturers have upped their “green” game, such as Federal with their new line of Catalyst primers, but the ammunition itself still remains rather “dirty”. Even the lead projectile does “burn off” a little bit when being shot.

Now, it’s entirely possible to load up a magic powdery copper bullet into a cartridge stuffed with dirty propellants and nasty traditional primers, but most frangible ammunition producers have made the full pivot, and make their cartridges completely “green”. Speer’s RHT loads, featuring projectiles from Sinterfire (the biggest producer of frangible ammo!) feature clean-burning powder and the company’s CleanFire primers. It’s great, especially for indoor ranges.

Frangible Ammunition Reduces Dependence On Lead

Face it, at some point, whether through legislative force and violence or just plain consumption, it’s going to be harder to acquire lead in quantity. So, we should be exploring and pivoting towards alternative projectile materials to prepare for that eventuality. Whether it’s copper or some yet-to-be-formulated exotic alloy, we need to prepare, and frangible is a step in that direction.

SIG Sauer

The Disadvantages Of Frangible Ammunition

Frangible ammunition is great. It’s cleaner than conventional ammunition, and for training, it’s inherently safer. However, no product is perfect, and there’s some disadvantages as well.

Cost

Typically, frangible ammo has been known to cost more than it’s conventional brethren, sometimes up to 50 percent more. However, in the great Ammo Surge of 2021, the pricing is ironically a bit more balanced, with frangible being relatively on-par with conventional US-made brass-cased full-metal jacket ammunition. If you’re looking to save on raw cost, frangible may not be for you.

Penetration

Frangible ammunition is mostly used for training, where lack of penetration in a close-quarters environment is a desired feature and not a downside.

However, there exists frangible defensive loads, which have varying degrees of performance in ballistic testing, and little in the way of real-world data. However, technology advances, and ammunition loaded with projectiles like the Inceptor ARX look to be very promising.

National Police Ammunition 9mm 100gr Simulated Duty Round.

Should You Use Frangible Ammunition?

The million-dollar question is, of course - should you use frangible ammunition?

If you can find in-stock frangible ammunition for your rifle or pistol? Go for it, especially for training use. Modern frangible loads such as the Winchester Ranger RA223SF 55-grain .223 load or similar, and National Police Ammunition’s Simulated Duty Round in the 100 grain 9mm flavor boast similar performance to duty/defensive loads, with the added benefit of clean-firing propellants and close-quarters safety.

For defensive use? Research is your best friend. While new concepts in pistol ammunition often include frangible projectiles that can perform well for defensive use, there’s a lot of gimmicks out there. Much like cryptocurrency, do your own research. Ask questions - it’s literally your life.

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