Ammo review: Federal’s .380 ACP and .38 Special Hydra-Shok Deep
These new Hydra-Shok Deep loads provide levels of ammunition performance previously restricted to service-size calibers and guns
I’ve been studying terminal ballistics since the 1980s, and while I don’t claim to be an expert, I’ve been fortunate to have access to many SMEs along the way. They’ve helped me to understand the science and engineering challenges that accompany this important field of study, and the education I’ve received has allowed me to differentiate between small changes (like a simple product line extension) and the significant ones that advance the art. At SHOT Show 2020, I was introduced to a new round from Federal that promised to be one of the latter.
An exciting find
Federal’s new .380 ACP Hydra-Shok Deep represented a significant advancement in bullet design, because it moved the performance goalpost for this marginal cartridge.
The .380 ACP had always suffered from an energy deficit that prevented the cartridge from obtaining both reliable expansion and sufficient penetration with the technology in use, so Federal’s team of engineers applied the lessons learned from several decades’ worth of experience, and redesigned the classic, .380 ACP Personal Defense Hydra-Shok bullet to incorporate the latest advancements in design, materials, technology, and production. The result was a brand-new product line called Hydra-Shok Deep. The Hydra-Shok Deep will not replace the classic Hydra-Shok, which continues to be offered by Federal, but instead is offered as an alternative for shooters who desire deeper penetration from the bullet.
Federal had previously updated the Hydra-Shok bullet used in service calibers like 9mm, .40 Smith & Wesson, and .45 ACP, but the .380 ACP was to be their first application of the “Deep” concept to a non-service caliber cartridge. The result of this effort was a bullet that maximized the use of the .380 Auto’s available energy, and delivered good expansion while still exceeding the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s desired minimum penetration depth of 12 inches, in both bare ballistic gelatin, and ballistic gelatin covered in FBI-standard Heavy Clothing.
Federal advises that in bare gelatin, the new .380 ACP Hydra-Shok Deep bullet, weighing 99 grains, penetrates to 13 inches and expands to 0.496 inches (about 1.4 times the original diameter). The company also states that in FBI-standard Heavy Clothing, the same bullet penetrates to 13.5 inches, while expanding to 0.514 inches (about 1.45 times the original diameter).
This is exceptional performance from a .380 ACP bullet. By comparison, the classic, 90 grain, .380 ACP Hydra-Shok bullet – which was well-respected for its performance in the category – penetrates about 30% less in bare gelatin with only 3% larger diameter, and penetrates about 13% less in FBI-standard Heavy Clothing, while expanding 9% less. The next-best performing .380 ACP bullet from a competing brand penetrates 32% less in bare gelatin, while only gaining 5% in expansion, and in FBI-standard Heavy Clothing, it penetrates 19% less, and expands 6% less than the new .380 ACP Hydra-Shok Deep.
The arrival of this new cartridge at the start of 2020 was great news for police officers who prefer to carry a compact .380 ACP pistol as a backup gun on duty, or as a primary weapon when off duty. By carrying the new Hydra-Shok Deep load in their smaller pistol, they can achieve levels of performance previously restricted to service-size calibers and guns.
A special encore
Federal’s great success with the .380 ACP Hydra-Shok Deep encouraged the company to apply the same effort toward another popular cartridge that suffers from the same low energy malady, the .38 Special.
Like the .380 ACP, the .38 Special cartridge’s performance tends to suffer when it’s fired from a compact gun, like the popular snubby revolvers with (nominal) two-inch barrels that are so frequently carried as backup and off-duty guns by savvy cops. In the service-size revolvers with four-inch barrels, the .38 Special (particularly in +P guise) usually does a good job of expanding and penetrating, but once you lose a few precious inches of barrel length, the bullets often fail to do both, and the officer is left with choosing between expanding ammo that runs too shallow, or penetrating ammo that doesn’t expand much at all.
So, Federal’s team went to work and applied the lessons from the .380 Hydra-Shok Deep project to the most popular revolver cartridge of all time, in an effort to expand the bounds of what’s possible with the 119-year-old standard. The result is the new .38 Special +P Hydra-Shok Deep, which will be available starting this year.
How does it work?
Like the other Hydra-Shok Deep designs that preceded it, the .38 Special +P Deep makes use of a host of improvements in materials and design to update one of the most well-known ammunition products to a new level of performance.
The old Hydra-Shok design relied upon a central post to redirect fluid forces to the inside walls of the hollowpoint cavity, to promote expansion. This general concept has been retained for the new Hydra-Shok Deep bullets, but with significant changes to the size and shape of the post and cavity. Rather than a tall and narrow post, with a roughly cylindrical profile, that’s centered in the middle of a relatively tight hollowpoint cavity, the new Hydra-Shok Deep bullet incorporates a conical-shaped post that sits inside a much more spacious cavity. This larger cavity, in conjunction with the improved fluid dynamics generated by the shape of the new conical post, helps to promote rapid expansion of the hollowpoint in the target.
While the central post is the most novel aspect shared by both the old and new design, there are significant differences between the generations. One of the most visible is the folded jacket on the new Deep bullet, which gives the hollowpoint cavity an unusual appearance. The folded jacket is a critical part of the new design, and is actually the structural element that’s most responsible for the expanded diameter of the bullet. Not only does it increase the internal volume of the cavity, it works in conjunction with the redesigned post to prevent the cavity from getting plugged up with clothing fibers or other material that would retard or prohibit expansion.
Additionally, the heavy copper jacket is what does most of the bullet’s mushrooming. Unlike the old Hydra-Shok, or most competing bullets on the market, the lead core of the Deep bullet doesn’t extend to the mouth of the cavity. Instead, the lead core stops well short of the cavity mouth, and the majority of an unfired Hydra-Shok Deep’s cavity consists entirely of the folded copper jacket.
When the new Hydra-Shok Deep strikes the target, fluid forces are redirected by the conical post to begin unfolding the heavy copper jacket and expanding the bullet. Since the copper jacket is skived, it opens up along those lines into a series of eight petals (in the .380 ACP and .38 Special bullets) that expand, then fold back, to form the mushroom. The short lip of lead that extends up into the inside of the cavity walls will mushroom as well, and curl over the base of the expanded petals, at the bottom of the cavity. This expanded lead mushroom is much smaller than the bullet’s overall diameter, which is dictated by the copper jacket, but it serves an important purpose, to protect the integrity of the expanded jacket, and prevent the petals from over-expanding and separating from the projectile.
The result is a bullet with a very unique appearance, when expanded. It doesn’t look anything like the other bullets on the market, even the old Hydra-Shok from which it was derived.
The performance is unique as well. When fired from the 1.875” barrel of a snubby revolver, the 130 grain, .38 Special Deep bullet clocks about 800 feet per second at the muzzle, as a result of careful powder selection. According to Federal, this energy allows the bullet to penetrate 13.2 inches of bare ballistic gelatin, and expand to 0.551 inches (1.54 times it’s starting diameter). In FBI-standard Heavy Clothing, the bullet reportedly penetrates 13.4 inches and expands to 0.548 inches (1.53 times it’s starting diameter) from the same, short barrel.
This is extraordinary performance from a snubby revolver. Most .38 Special and .38 Special +P loads struggle to get beyond about 9 inches of penetration in those test mediums, but the .38 Special +P Hydra-Shok Deep does it regularly, while expanding to over 1.5 times the original diameter. This is really super, and it represents a new benchmark for this legendary chambering.
Importantly, the .38 Special +P Hydra-Shok Deep performs very well from a service-size gun, as well. From a 4-inch barrel, the load clocks about 900 feet per second at the muzzle and reportedly penetrates 14.6 inches of bare gelatin while expanding to 0.584 inches. In FBI-standard Heavy Clothing, the bullet penetrates 16.1 inches and expands to 0.562 inches.
Sometimes engineers are forced to make choices that actually decrease performance out of a longer barrel to ensure a bullet will work well at the lower velocities encountered in shorter barrels, but the Hydra-Shok Deep bullets seem rather indifferent to velocity changes and work very well in anything you chamber them in. As a matter of fact, Federal engineers have tested the 9mm Hydra-Shok Deep in a 16-inch carbine, and found that the bullet performs nearly the same as when it’s fired in a 3-inch pistol barrel, achieving the same expansion, and about 0.75 inches more penetration. This is really amazing consistency from a handgun bullet.
Working on it!
The good news here is that the new Hydra-Shok Deep ammunition is superb, and it will help you to maximize the performance of your backup or off-duty handgun. The bad news is that the ammunition market is still in crisis, with record-setting levels of consumer demand outstripping the available supply of goods, so it may continue to be difficult to find these excellent products for a while.
Manufacturers like Federal (and their sister companies under the Vista Outdoor umbrella, Speer, CCI and Remington) are working 24/7 to produce ammunition, pushing machines and employees to their limit. They are actually making more ammunition than ever before, and are aggressively getting it to the market. The problem is, there’s just a lot more people chasing the product, and they’re buying a lot more of it than they did in the past.
Federal has already made a sizable quantity of the .380 ACP and .38 Special +P Hydra-Shok Deep, and they will continue to make more as quickly as they can. You may have to wait a while – or just get lucky in your timing – to find it, but I can assure you that it will be worth the wait.
The Hydra-Shok Deep has moved the bar for .380 ACP and .38 Special +P performance, and your compact backup or off-duty gun will be well-supplied with a magazine or cylinder full of this ammunition. Keep your eyes peeled for it, and be safe out there.