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Carry Clones: Ballistically Matched Self Defense Ammo and Practice Rounds

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A local physician used to attend many of the action pistol matches; he was probably the wealthiest competitor there, which was apparent by the fact that he competed with Federal Hydra-Shock ammo. Yep, that can get expensive, especially for him since he used the same ammunition to practice. His logic for doing this — and it was sound logic — is that he wanted to train with the ammo he might have to fight with. Doc could afford it, but most of us can’t, creating a problem that needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, manufacturers have already thought of this; you can purchase factory ammunition like Winchester’s Train & Defend that offers ballistically matched loads for 9mm Luger, 380 Automatic, 38 Special, 40 Smith & Wesson, and 45 Automatic. All you need to do is purchase a box of the “Defend” loads and a box of the matching “Train” loads, and their point of impact and felt recoil should be nearly identical. Federal took the concept a step further with their Practice & Defend Combo Packs, which include 50 rounds of HST ammunition and 50 rounds of ballistically matched Syntech training ammunition in the same box. It’s offered in 9mm, 40 S&W, and 45 Auto.

Federal HST practice and defend

With their Practice & Defend line, Federal makes finding a practice load that’s a ballistic match to your carry load very easy.

Of course, given our current state of affairs, you have about as much of a chance of finding these loads as you do to replace Keanu Reeves in the next John Wick flick. This leaves you with three important questions:

  1. How important is it that your practice ammo is a ballistic match to your carry ammo?
  2. How do you verify that a practice load matches your carry load?
  3. Can you create hand loads that duplicate carry load external ballistics?


We’ve all heard the expression, “train as you fight.” It’s sage advice and the reason we conduct defensive handgun training drills that might replicate real-world situations. Just like a soccer player trains with the correctly sized practice ball in game-like situations, you want to train with ammo that’s affordable but also hits in the same spot and induces the same recoil impulse as your carry loads. Otherwise, you might as well practice with a different gun.

remington UMC

Practice ammo is generally much more affordable than carry ammo; the trick is finding one of each that are a ballistic match.

With regard to affordable practice ammo that’ll have the same point of impact as your carry ammo, inside 10 yards or so it’s not a big deal. From a self-defense standpoint, at these close distances, the difference in point of impact is generally of no consequence; you’re trying to place shots inside an incapacitation zone, not drive nails. On the other hand, having a similar recoil impulse is important so that your recovery between shots when practicing emulates what you’ll experience in a fight. Also, in the case of semi-automatic handguns, the recoil impulse needs to be similar to work the handgun properly.

Hornady Critical Duty 9mm ammo

Carry ammo is engineered and assembled to provide maximum terminal performance. Sometimes the same point of impact can be difficult to find with ammunition loaded with the primary objective of affordability.

Where all of this becomes more important is when engagement distances increase. Reflex sights are becoming more popular on concealed carry handguns, and with practice, lethal-zone hits are more easily obtainable at greater distances. If you want to practice at distances beyond 10 to 15 yards, you need practice ammunition with the same point of impact as your carry ammo. Fortunately, when you find it, the recoil impulse will likely be very similar.


When it comes to recoil, aside from handgun reliability, the measure that matters is you. The best place to start to find a match is to compare published external ballistics. If two loads use the same bullet weight and generate similar muzzle velocity, they’ll also generate a similar amount of kinetic energy. If the kinetic energy at the muzzle is roughly the same, so too will be the recoil impulse. You can simply mix a magazine or cylinder with both loads and shoot them to see if you can discern a difference.

Winchester Train and Defend

Winchester Train & Defend ammunition does a good job of delivering similar recoil impulse with near-identical points of impact.

With regard to point of impact, the verification is less subjective and requires a more scientific approach. Place a target at 25 yards and fire a 10-shot group with your carry ammunition. You can do this off-hand if you can keep all the shots in a 6- or 8-inch group, which is well within the capability of a decent defensive handgun shooter. Alternatively, you can shoot the groups from a bench. Next, mark each of those shots on the target with a marker, and then repeat the exercise with the practice load you’re considering, using the exact same point of aim.

The obvious goal is for all 10 shots fired with the practice load to land within or nearly within the group fired with the carry load. If they do, you have a perfect match. But chances are you’ll have several shots that land wide, and maybe even a flyer or two. Draw an outline around the carry load shots and draw another outline around the practice load shots. What you’re looking for is at least half of all the shots fired to be inside both outlines. If they are, you have a pretty good match.


Working with hand loads for both rifles and pistols to create a more affordable practice load that shoots the same as a carry or hunting load can be some work. With some lottery ticket luck, you can get it right the first time. What’s more apt to happen is that you’ll spend a lot of time at the loading bench and a lot more time at the range practicing your use of four-letter words. Because of the potential complexity involved with this endeavor, we asked Tim Sundles of Buffalo Bore Ammunition for advice.

Tim sundles Buffalo Bore

When it comes to making ammunition, Tim Sundles knows a lot. At Buffalo Bore, he makes some of the best ammunition money can buy.

Buffalo Bore Ammunition is known for manufacturing some of the hottest and bone-crushing ammunition on the planet. One of Sundles’ 9mm loads was used to stop a charging grizzly by an Alaskan outfitter, and he tells us one of his 380 ACP loads saved a soldier’s life in the sandbox. 

Sundles said he’s not a fan of cheap practice loads because, “If I were to be involved in a defensive shooting of another human, I want my point of aim, recoil impulse, muzzle blast, and report to be the same as what I practiced with, so there are no surprises at that moment of truth when lives are at stake.”

carry ammunition self defense ammo verification

This test target shows a 10-shot group with a carry load, outlined in red, and a 10-shot group from a practice load, outlined in black. With more than 10 overlapping shots, these loads represent a reasonably good ballistic match.

He also said, “After producing tens of millions rounds of ammo for the general market, I know there is no guarantee that any one load will shoot to the same point of aim as another, in the same gun. So, let’s put assumptions where the sun doesn’t shine, because that’s where they belong when it comes to discussing guns and ammo. Only testing will provide truthful answers.”

Referring to 9mm Luger as an example, Sundles said, “You may think all jacketed 115-grain bullets, when driven at equal velocities from the same pistol, will have the same point of impact at 25 yards. That’s simply not so, because other factors enter into the equation. Bullet core hardness, jacket material, bullet base shape, and location of the ogive are some of the things that can all make a big difference on accuracy potential and where one load strikes relative to another at any given distance.”

carry ammunition

Carry ammunition can be expensive. If you can practice with a less expensive load that matches its performance, you’ll save money and shoot more.

Stressing there are no guarantees, when trying to design an affordable practice load that’ll approximate your carry load, Sundles advised there are some basics that’ll improve your chances. First, he suggests sticking with the same bullet weight. Second, try to discover what propellant is used for the carry load. And third, attempt to discover the bullet jacket material in your carry load and try to match it with the bullet you’ll use for your practice load. Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than smart, so you might want to just put several loads together and test them.

Most importantly, Sundles said, “If you’re a hand loader, you’ll not know anything without a quality chronograph. If you’d like answers, you have to invest in getting one; a chronograph is essential in producing a load with a velocity that is safe and matches your carry loads.”


You can spend a lot of time and money working to create a practice hand load that matches your carry load. Some may consider this an enjoyable exercise; there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if your primary concern is hitting your target, you want to maximize your time on the range, while spending the least amount of time and money. That’s hard to do while you’re spending all your time and money trying to fabricate a hand load that shoots just like your carry load. Hell, you might as well be like Doc and practice with your carry load; it might even cost less.

carry clones defense ammunition  sig p320

When you find a practice load and carry load that perform the same, buy in bulk.

Regardless, whether you’re purchasing or making your own practice ammunition, the sensible alternative might be to practice at closer distances, using smaller targets, while demanding more precision from your shooting. If you restrict your practice sessions to inside 15 yards, you’ll find it much easier to identify carry and practice loads that shoot with a similar recoil impulse to the same point of impact. The bottom line is that it’s the fundamentals of marksmanship that have the most to do with hitting and missing. 

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