If you eat the wrong kind of food you might get a stomach-ache. You could put on some extra weight over time or get a little hyperactive. You might even make yourself sick, but you’re not likely to die. On the other hand, if you feed your gun the wrong kind of ammo, it could kill you.

The first thing defensive handgun ammo has to be is absolutely reliable, and individual guns often have very specific tastes in what they like to digest. So don’t go buy (or make) one box of anything. Buy a bunch. If you’re feeding a semiautomatic pistol, buy a whole bunch. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your gun likes what it’s eating until it has gobbled up enough, say a couple hundred rounds, of the same stuff without any sign of a cough or a gag. You need to be shooting this much on a regular basis anyway, so it’s no big deal.

So what kind of ammo would you like to feed your gun if you can get your gun to like it?

There are three basic food groups: (1) Military-type ammo loaded with heavy full-metal-jacket round-nose bullets; (2) Performance ammo loaded with expanding bullets of various kinds, softpoints or hollowpoints, usually at elevated velocities; (3) Hyper-velocity ammo loaded with lightweight frangible bullets.

For all defensive purposes, whether on the street or in your home, you can eliminate military ball ammo right off the bat. Hard, non-expanding bullets will go sailing right through walls and windows and human bodies to punch holes in things and people you can’t even see. This is only considered good form on a battlefield where everything in front of you is a target.

Overpenetration is not the only problem with this kind of ammo. Full-metal-jacket (FMJ) bullets make nice, clean, caliber-size holes in people, which means that, unless you hit a vital area such as a major bone structure, the heart, the brain or some other part of the central nervous system, the person you need to stop immediately may not even know he’s been shot until he bleeds to death during his next coffee break.

Performance ammo is designed to shut down an attacker before he eats you up and spits you out, not a few minutes later when he’s leisurely gnawing on your bones. This is mostly accomplished with a bullet that starts growing larger as soon as it enters your attacker’s body. A high-velocity expanding bullet not only creates a bigger hole, often twice its original size, it also encounters more resistance from flesh, bone, muscle and organ tissues that can’t contain the rapidly expanding mass of your projectile plowing through it. So a lot of your expanding bullet’s energy, which in an FMJ bullet might be spent sending it a couple of miles over the next hill, is expended within the enclosed space of your attacker’s body in earthquake-like shock waves to the system that damage vital organs your bullet doesn’t even touch. Instantaneous or rapid incapacitation is supposed to be the result.

It is not, however, quite that simple. In the first place, softpoint bullets come in various degrees of softness and hardness, and some hollowpoints open up faster or slower and bigger or smaller than others. And terminal bullet behavior is crucially effected not only by bullet construction but also by striking velocity as well as the nature of the substance the bullet strikes. In the second place, all attackers are not created equal. They come in large, small, hard, soft, heavily clothed and half-naked varieties. Some are fueled with adrenaline, some by dope, some by three-day-old pizza. They can be motivated by greed, lust, desperation, criminal insanity or plain old meanness. So, depending on your particular attacker’s personal makeup and the exact nature of the bullets you choose to plant in his chest or thereabouts, your results may vary.

High-performance expanding bullets are developed primarily under controlled conditions in a laboratory. A gaping hollowpoint operating under these conditions never fills itself up with a fur ball from a stolen sheepskin vest and thereafter behaves as though its point was not hollow at all. A test bullet is never fired into a massive bone at just the right angle to deform its trajectory and force it to peel off into a screaming tailspin and crash into the goldfish bowl in the next room. Well-designed expanding bullets fired into ballistic gelatin or water or wet newsprint or any other consistent, predictable test medium will always make perfect mushroom-shaped missiles, so that you’re assured of lethal results should you ever have to defend yourself from any of these things during an otherwise peaceful promenade through the lab.

The truth is, modern expanding bullets usually work pretty well on bad guys too. Bullet design has come a long way in recent years. Which is why every law enforcement agency in the country loads them in their pistols. Which is why the boobs in New Jersey banned them. If they find one on you, you go to prison, even if no gun is attached to it and you don’t even own a gun capable of firing it. In effect, it’s against the law to actually kill New Jersey criminals, because that would unfairly prevent them from being elected to political office.

A landmark of modern handgun bullet design was the Black Talon jacketed hollowpoint (JHP) released by Winchester in 1991. The load quickly built a reputation for effectiveness, and I remember digging the big .45 Black Talon slugs out of the Los Angeles Yellow Pages after they’d blasted through water jugs to admire their massive and still completely intact flattened shape encircled by those six razor-sharp “petals,” or buzz-saw blades as we called them, a unique feature of Black Talons which Emergency Room surgeons learned to hate because they were always cutting their fingers up trying to carve the bullets out of the few bad guys who stopped off at the ER on their way to the morgue. All the talk about flying buzz-saws offended the excruciating sensibilities of the hysterical antigun crown, though not so much as the very name of the cartridge itself. Thus, the pioneering Black Talon went down as the only racist bullet in history, and Winchester voluntarily renamed the load (Ranger SXT) and printed “for law enforcement agencies” on the box, though this ridiculous claim had no legal meaning whatsoever. As though cops are allowed to defend themselves with the best tools available, but private citizens are not.

Now a decade later, there are plenty of effective JHP bullet designs out there, from the original Remington Hydra-Shoks to other versions of the folding-petal-design pioneered by Black Talon and now blessed with less descriptive and more politically correct monikers. Many are loaded in +P (high-pressure, high-velocity) cartridges, and can be devastating indeed.

If one of the more lethal effects of certain types of rapidly expanding bullets is the fact that they tend to break up or fragment inside the body, you can take the premise a step further and use pre-fragmented loads, or frangibles. There are various designs in this area too, and they can all be shockingly effective under the right conditions. Because they are absolutely certain not to hang together in a single projectile, they don’t penetrate very well, which can be a potential problem if the bad guy is wearing really heavy and tough clothes. On the other hand, the same limitation can be a blessing in a house gun because you won’t be shooting through flimsy interior walls into your big-screen TV in the next room or something even more valuable. If your home is your castle, that is if your interior walls are four-feet thick and made out of giant rocks, you don’t have to worry about this. Otherwise, it can be a serious concern.

What frangible bullet designs lack in weight they make up for in velocity, which can push the hydrostatic shock effect on the bad guy’s soft body tissue into the stratosphere. A solid and proper hit with a frangible bullet can stop a hot-to-trot aggressor cold, just like in the movies, by churning up his insides like a ripe watermelon. But frangible rounds can fail too, by blowing up too soon, not penetrating deeply enough into vital areas, behaving in unpredictable ways that sometimes accompany hyper-velocity travel in inner space.

Performance ammo costs more than plinking ammo. Expanding bullets cost more than solid bullets. Frangible bullets, because they’re all made by hand, cost a lot more. This does not mean you can skip the step where you shoot a whole bunch of them in your gun to make sure they feed reliably. Think of the investment as life insurance.

Personally, being a tad on the conservative side, I still load most of my carry guns with the vintage Black Talons I’ve stockpiled over the years, and in the heaviest weight available for the caliber. In my case, that means 230-grain .45 ACP, notwithstanding the fact that there are plenty of equally excellent defense loads available today and that the lighter weight bullets at higher velocities have an outstanding record of one-shot stops. I’ve always really liked the buzz-saw effect, and I like to make ER surgeons whine.

In my house guns, since I don’t yet live in a castle, I favor frangible loads but prefer the ones whose explosive effects are a little more controlled just in case the guy I shoot has a fat wallet over his heart or a metal plate in his head.

Bottom line: don’t feed your carry gun the equivalent of pet food in some misinformed attempt to save a few bucks. Take it out for the best dinner you can find. And let it smoke a fine cigar afterward.