Critical Defense Vs HST: Which Ammo Is Better For You?

When choosing self-defense ammunition like Hornady Critical Defense and Federal Premium HST, the most important deciding factors are penetration and expansion. You need to be sure that when you make the choice to pull the trigger in a self-defense situation your ammunition holds up its end of the deal: neutralize the threat. Ammo needs to reach an attacker’s vital organs—without passing straight through—and cause enough damage to stop an assailant.

When comparing Critical Defense and HST ammunition, Federal Premium HST is the overall better choice for self-defensive shooting. HST penetrates more efficiently and expands to a larger diameter in ballistic tests than Critical Defense ammunition. HST also functions more consistently and is capable of neutralizing a hostile target in a greater variety of defensive scenarios.

To understand why HST makes for more effective ammunition than Critical Defense, it is important to understand the anatomy of a self-defense round and what makes the HST stand out. It is also important to know a few specialized circumstances where Critical Defense may be a better choice.

Federal Premium HST Vs Hornady Critical Defense

HST and Critical Defense are both hollow-point self-defense cartridges available to consumers. Unlike target or range ammunition, hollow-point rounds are made to pass through hard targets (obstructions) and expand in soft targets, increasing the axial diameter and overall wound channel. This leads to a greater chance of incapacitating a hostile target and diffusing a life-threatening situation. 

In hunting, the same type of ammunition is appreciated. In order to humanely and efficiently take a game animal, proper penetration and bullet expansion are essential. With the wrong ammunition, you run the risk of wounding the animal and losing sign of it, which is something you want to avoid.

Knowing the correct ammunition for the situation is critical, and while hollow-points find popularity with both hunting and self-defensive shooting, there is generally far more testing being done on bullets designed to be used against human threats.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation sets several standards for penetration depth, one of which states that between 12-18” through simulated heavy clothing and ballistic gelatin is considered usable for law enforcement and personal defense. These tests were replicated and published by using both HST and Critical Defense ammunition.

AmmunitionPenetration DepthExpanded Diameter Velocity
Federal 124 gr HST (9mm)18.3”.61”1135
Hornady 115 gr FTX Critical Defense (9mm)13.1”.50”1143
Federal 230 gr HST (.45 ACP)14.0”.85”822
Hornady 185 gr Critical Defense(.45 ACP)17.6”.59”941
Federal 99 gr HST (.380 Auto) 22.5”.35”893
Hornady 90 gr FTX Critical Defense (.380 Auto)13.2”.52” 910
Federal 180 gr HST (.40 S&W)18.5”.67”1084
Hornady 165 gr Critical Defense (.40 S&W) 16.6”.60”1075
HST vs. CD

Federal HST ammunition out-performs Hornady Critical Defense rounds in all four of these popular handgun calibers: 9mm Luger, .45 ACP, .380 Auto, and .40 S&W. While both of the cartridges perform well when matched with the FBI “penetration test”, the HST in most calibers is closer to the target, more consistent, and most importantly: never under-powered.

Federal HST penetrated deeper in each of the calibers above with the exception of the .45 ACP, which is made up for by impressively larger expansion than its Critical Defense competitor. Similarly, the HST expanded larger in every caliber except one—.380 Auto—which is made up for with its impressively greater penetration depth.

What Does HST Mean in Ammo? 

Ammunition manufacturer Federal Premium introduced their HST ammo in 2002. Originally, the ammo was intended only for law enforcement use and was sold as such. In 2015, Federal made a Personal Defense line of ammunition including HST that was available to the public. 

HST doesn’t actually mean anything. It is not an abbreviation as some people commonly think. HST is a uniquely designed hollow-point ammunition created to maximize expansion without limiting penetration, and it has been extensively tested by Federal Premium to meet this goal. Because of this, HST ammo has found popularity within both law enforcement and civilian defensive shooting.

What is Critical Defense?

Hornady’s Critical Defense ammunition was not designed with law enforcement use in mind. Critical Defense was designed for civilian defense situations involving compact handguns with short barrels. Unlike HST, Critical Defense was designed for limiting penetration, as over-penetration and under-expansion can be an issue with very short-barreled compact handguns.

Critical Defense is a well-rounded defense cartridge suitable for neutralizing a threat wearing a light-to-medium layer of clothing at relatively close range. Unfortunately, there are many self-defense situations where this isn’t the case, and we do not get to choose where, when, and how we are threatened by an attacker.

The Issue With Under-Penetration 

Think of an active shooter scenario. If you are in a defensive encounter with an active shooter, and you both have your firearms drawn, where are you going to look and fire your first (and most important) shot? Chances are you are going to lock eyes with your target’s weapon and fire the shot that may be your only chance at diffusing the situation without retaliation. 

We see this all the time. What may happen is your bullet goes straight to the target’s hand—maybe to the bone—maybe to your target’s weapon—and hopefully to your target. What happens next? You have hurt your target, but have you neutralized the threat? Will they be able to fire back? Will you be as lucky as them?

Ammunition Consistency

Ballistic tests like the ones described by the FBI and Lucky Gunner Labs take a five shot grouping and average the results into the final velocity, penetration depth, and expansion. What many people fail to see from the direct results is how consistent—or inconsistent—those five shots actually are.

Below is a video from the popular Ammo Quest series of ammunition testing and ballistic tests.

In the video, the YouTuber says “ when we are looking at the gel block of the HSTs through denim, basically I’d say if you ever wanted to see what absolute perfection was like from a handgun, this is it. “ He goes on to say: “ we have five bullets that performed more consistently, more perfectly, than just about any bullets I’ve ever tested.”

The Exception

While the Critical Defense round is designed for and performs well in short and compact handguns—think M&P Shield—many people still prefer the HST in those same style guns. There are, however, some scenarios where Hornady’s Critical Defense may make a more suitable option.

 For example, home defense inside a large house where walls are thin and there are multiple occupants. We know one of the fundamentals of firearm safety is to know what is beyond your target, but unfortunately, without adequate training, the situation can quickly turn to panic and a complete lack of rational decision-making.

Many would argue, however, that training is more important than picking the perfect round, and there are far too many situations where the extra penetration you are gaining with the HST would be too essential to give up.

Law Enforcement

HST was originally designed for law enforcement use until demand triggered a release in a civilian line of products which became known as Personal Defense HST like the cartridges described earlier in this article. There is a separate product line still available known as Law Enforcement Tactical HST, which as the name implies, is available through law enforcement channels only. 

Hornady, the maker of Critical Defense ammo, also makes a product line called Critical Duty. Critical Duty is advertised as an “on-duty / patrol” cartridge, where Critical Defense is marketed towards “back-up weapon / off duty”. 

Similar to HST, Critical Duty has a strong background in FBI testing and is more suitable for firing through obstructions such as auto glass, drywall, and plywood. Despite this alternate, specifically designed cartridge, Federal HST still sees more use in active Law Enforcement than any Hornaday product.

Cost Effectiveness

Anyone who uses a firearm on a regular basis knows how quickly ammo can siphon your bank account balance. Defense rounds are more expensive than training rounds by nature, and there is very little price difference between buying HST and Critical Defense ammunition. 

With self-defense rounds such as HST, a good range habit is to shoot just one or two magazines of your expensive hollow-point ammo and leave the rest of the practice to the less expensive full metal jacket range ammo. It is important to practice occasionally with your defense rounds and get a feel for their quality and accuracy before you find yourself in a situation where you need to use them.

The Bottom Line

If you are looking for self-defense ammo that is going to take care of business in the vast majority of personal protection scenarios, HST is a better performer than Critical Defense without a doubt. Grab a box for yourself and give it a shot so that you will be ready to defend yourself and your loved ones.


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Justin Pikulski

Justin is a tactical enthusiast and writer from Massachusetts. He spends time away from work studying nature and practicing self-sufficiency. His hobbies include motorcycle camping, shooting, hunting, foraging, hiking, photography, and travel.

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