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Big Green Blog

Calibrated Ballistic Gel VS Synthetic Ballistics Gel

06.03.2024 | By Remington Contributor

shooter aiming handgun

If you are in the market for a self-defense hollow point, there is a chance that you have either read about or seen the use of “ballistics gel” to test the terminal performance of ammunition. While it is entertaining to examine when shot with a projectile, ballistics gel serves a critical role in the development of numerous types of ammunition, the most notable being handgun hollow point bullets. Following the tragic 1986 Miami-Dade Shootout, the FBI introduced a highly scientific and controlled testing protocol that would allow agencies to evaluate and compare the performance of ammunition across the world, regardless of climate or location. The principal instrument at the core of this test: is a block of 10%, organic, calibrated ballistic ordinance gel.

gel block

When conducting an experiment, having a control within your test is critical. A control is an independent variable that cannot influence the test results. This allows you to compare the performance of new events alongside known events happening simultaneously under the same conditions. Without a control, you are not able to compare the results of your test to other experiments that have been performed at a different time and under different conditions. In other words, if you took your brand-new handgun ammo out to shoot into ballistics gel during an Alaskan winter, you would certainly expect different results than someone shooting the same test during summer in Florida. This exact phenomenon is why true organic ballistics gel must be calibrated before each shooting so that engineers can know that their bullets did not simply perform differently due to a change in ambient conditions. Per the FBI Protocol, data cannot be sampled from an organic gel block without the block passing a calibration procedure; a BB shot at a specific velocity must penetrate to a specific depth while the block is held at a specific temperature.

By comparison, synthetic ballistics gel often requires no calibration to prepare for shooting, meaning that a block of synthetic gel in Alaska would be expected to perform in the same manner as a block in Florida. For simple reference, anyone who has both frozen and microwaved food in plastic containers can attest that basic synthetic materials are certainly affected by temperature. Additionally, synthetic gels can often be re-melted after a shooting to be used again for another test. While very convenient, this re-melting process changes the physical aspects of the gel block which can in turn significantly change the results. This means that repeated shootings using remelted blocks will typically change the penetration and expansion data with each use. When researching any performance data about your defense load of choice, it is critical to compare results taken with calibrated, organic ballistics gel. Otherwise, the data reported cannot be reliably compared across different blocks of gel.

person holding a hyperion handgun

The most critical drawback to synthetic gels, however, is the fact that they are, well, synthetic. When the ballistic gel was introduced by the FBI in 1988, the compound for creating organic 10% ballistics gel was selected due to its similarity to swine flesh, which by comparison very closely represents human muscle tissue. The genuine ballistics gel formula calls for the use of controlled organic ingredients (yes, you can actually consume it) that are standardized within the firearms industry. Because ballistics gel is an analog for human muscle tissue, results that are taken from test shootings help engineers and ballisticians make practical decisions about how to design the most effective ammunition for self-defense scenarios.

However, synthetic ballistic gel does have a few unique and helpful uses. Synthetic ballistic gel is typically transparent, while organic ballistic gel is merely translucent. Because synthetic gels are transparent, they make for excellent displays that can be used in marketing events and conventions. Although the wound channels a bullet makes through organic and synthetic gel blocks will differ, the overall path is very similar and can provide an excellent way to display a bullet’s general performance to interested enthusiasts. In addition to being transparent, synthetic ballistic gel does not degrade nearly as quickly as organic gel does. Most synthetic blocks can last multiple months or even years, whereas the absolute maximum an organic block can last under refrigeration is 1-1.5 weeks before decomposition begins. In practice, this means that a used synthetic gel block can be displayed for extended periods, potentially indefinitely so long as there is no intention of re-using the block in the future. As with many things, the most significant benefit synthetic gel blocks have over organic gel blocks is convenience. Producing organic gel blocks often requires expensive, large-scale culinary operations consisting of scales, mixing bowls, agitators, molds for the blocks, and most significantly, large-scale refrigeration systems. Synthetic gels often can be stored in open-air, room-temperature environments and require little to no preparation before shooting. Because of this convenience, a substantial portion of the consumer firearms industry has resorted to using synthetic gel to represent a bullet’s terminal performance. Depending on conditions, of course, the synthetic gel can show performance changes of up to 40% when compared to their organic counterparts, meaning that any data sampled with synthetic gels cannot be studied as fact.

gel block

In conclusion, just as organic ballistics gel has a distinct purpose in technical ammunition development, synthetic ballistics gels provide an excellent visual tool for those interested in viewing the terminal performance of ammunition. Organic and synthetic ballistics gel blocks are held to entirely different, yet purposeful specifications which result in differing performance results. Choosing self-defense ammunition is as important as learning how to utilize your firearm in a self-defense situation. The bullet you shoot is what is going to impact your target; therefore, you want to make sure to research and choose the correct ammunition for your needs.

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