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The topic of caliber and ammo choice is hotly debated by everyone from the rankest amateur to the seasoned professional, even including those who work in the wound ballistics field such as police crime lab people, coroners, and physicians.  Is this a complex topic?  It can be, but it needn't be, as long as you keep things in perspective as a private citizen who just wants to choose the right gun and ammo for personal protection.  Let's zero in on that.

The first thing you must realize and accept is that handguns are relatively low powered compared to rifles.  Forget Hollywood, forget bad guys being shot once with a handgun and flying through the air--it does not happen.  In most cases when someone is shot they will not react physically at all in the sense that the bullet has the power to move them--it simply does not.  I've watched a ballistic vest manufacturer strap on one of his rifle resistant vests, stand on one leg, and allow himself to be shot from a distance of about five feet with a .308 caliber rifle.  There was no reaction.  If this high-powered rifle couldn't move a man standing on one foot, you simply must believe that a handgun bullet will have no power to fling you around like a rag doll.  Can a handgun bullet make you move?  Sure, in a different sense--as a reaction to pain.  If you touch a hot stove or prick yourself with a pin you will jerk away from the source of pain.  It is no different being shot with a bullet.  If you feel pain--and you may not--you might jerk away from the source of that pain.  Otherwise, you will likely simply continue on with whatever you were doing.  Handgun calibers in use for self-defense fall under this.  There is no handgun caliber that will knock someone down as if it were a sledgehammer.  That said, some calibers are better than others. 

To talk about handgun power we must consider a couple of different things.  First is bullet weight measured in GRAINS.  (437 grains = one ounce.  7000 grains = one pound.)  The heavier the bullet the harder it hits, all else being equal (which it never is).   The next consideration is bullet diameter.  A larger diameter bullet makes a bigger hole, and a bigger hole is better than a smaller hole.  Finally we must consider the speed of the bullet, or velocity.  Velocity squared times bullet weight divided by 450240 results in the amount of work, measured in foot pounds, that a bullet can do.  We refer to this as energy.  Energy is sometimes overstated when considering the value or lack thereof of a given handgun cartridge, but the truth is that the higher the energy the better the ability of the bullet to do what we desire it to do--which is to rapidly incapacitate a violent attacker.

ImageI've mentioned this elsewhere and will mention it again--the goal of the armed private citizen under violent attack is never to kill his or her attacker, but simply to stop the attacker from any further violent action.  It is a fact of life that the most practical way to stop violent action immediately is by shooting the attacker, and anytime you shoot someone they may die.  They may die immediately, or they may linger and die weeks later.  Either way, the death of the attacker is unfortunate but clearly the attacker chose to put himself in the position where he might be shot.  The main thing is to stop the attack, thus saving our own life and/or the life of a loved one.

To that end a bullet of sufficient caliber (which refers to bullet diameter--one caliber equals one 1/100 of an inch, thus a .45 caliber bullet is approximately .45 inches), sufficient weight, and sufficient velocity is required to give us a good chance of stopping the attack.  In order to stop an attack immediately our bullet should strike the brain or the upper spinal column.  Even if you shoot someone in the heart and destroy it completely, there will be enough oxygen-enriched blood in the brain to allow conscious action for plenty long enough to kill you dead.  Make no mistake about it, when considering purely physical incapacitation, we should carry the most powerful handgun cartridge that we can shoot well.  Remember--handguns are all comparatively weak!

There are of course other reasons why an attacker may break off the attack, and these include a simple desire not to be shot by any kind of gun at all--he may not be hurt, he may not even have been struck by a bullet--in fact you may not have even fired your gun yet, but as soon as the attacker realizes that a bullet might soon be heading his way, he may choose to break of the attack and retreat.  Should we count on that?  Of course not!  Yet well-meaning citizens choose to carry .22s, .25s, .32s, and other extremely low-powered  guns everyday under the mistaken impression that just showing a gun will end the attack.  If you truly believe that you may as well stop reading now, because you've already bought into the biggest myth of them all.

Part One, Choosing the Caliber

I said I'd get down to specifics so let's do so now.  The best choices for personal defense by a private citizen are the same calibers chosen by law enforcement, security, or the military for their handguns.  We refer to them as "service calibers" and they include the .38 Special, the 9mm Parabellum (aka 9mmP or just 9mm), the .357 Magnum, the .357SIG, the .40S&W, and the .45ACP.  In addition we could also choose the 10mm Auto, the .44 Special, the .45GAP and the .45 Colt.  These cartridges are all .35 caliber or larger, use bullets of 115 grains or more, and have velocity sufficient to bullet weight and caliber to produce enough energy to get the job done.  Some are minimums at best, so let's take a quick look at each one.

.38 Special

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The .38 Special  (in actuality .35 caliber) has fallen out of favor in service-size weapons, but is still quite popular in very small revolvers.  Unfortunately these small revolver's only plus is size--they are small and light weight for ease of carry.   However they kick much more than full-size guns, they are difficult to shoot well, and the short barrels hold down velocity. 

ImageThe longer the barrel the more velocity you will get from a given cartridge.  The shorter the barrel the less velocity you will get from a given cartridge.   Subsonic cartridges, those which generally are slower than about 1125 feet per second (FPS), lose velocity faster than supersonic (over 1125fps) cartridges.

What does this mean?  Remember that velocity is a key component of energy, the ability to do work.  Less velocity, less energy.  Keep this in mind when considering a short-barreled handgun, especially when it is chambered for a subsonic cartridge like the .38 Special.

Are there pluses to the .38 Special?  Yes, in a service size handgun the recoil is light, the .38 Special is very accurate, ammunition is inexpensive making it affordable to practice, and there are many many loads from which to choose.  The ability of the .38 Special to rapidly incapacitate an attacker is limited however, and very dependent on ammo choice.  Most modern .38 Special handguns--which will all be revolvers--can also be used with a slightly higher-powered load called the ".38 Special +P."  The "plus P" moniker stands for increased pressure.  While this ammo is a little harder on your gun and kicks more, it is more powerful than the standard pressure (regular) .38 Special.  If you carry a .38 Special for defense, choosing +P ammo is a good idea.

9mm Parabellum

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From about the mid-1980s through the 1990s the 9mmP was the most popular police cartridge, and is still commonly used by the police.  While it uses a .35 caliber bullet, they are usually a bit lighter than the .38 Special--yet velocity is much higher.  This makes the 9mm a more powerful cartridge than the .38 Special overall.  In fact, although the 9mmP also comes in a +P version, the standard pressure version is more powerful than the .38 Special +P.  Additionally the 9mm has light recoil, even in smallish guns.  In service size pistols it holds up to 17 or 18 rounds, and in very small pistols can hold as many as eleven rounds.  While short-barreled 9mms will have less velocity than a longer barreled 9mm, the 9mm is a supersonic cartridge so it suffers less than a .38 Special when shortening the barrel. 

Are there any drawbacks to the 9mm?  It is somewhat ammo dependent so if you don't choose ammo wisely it is going to be less effective than you might wish.   In general however, the 9mmP is a good choice for the private citizen.

.357 Magnum


The .357 Magnum can be considered a lengthened .38 Special.  It is identical except for the Magnum's brass case being 1/10th of an inch longer than the Special's case.   This extra length allows the cartridge to be loaded to much more powerful levels--in fact the Magnum can have nearly twice the velocity.  That is significant.  Throughout the 1960s and up to 1980 or longer, the .357 Magnum was the most popular and far most effective police caliber.  The 125gr. (grain) JHP (jacketed hollowpoint) .357 Magnum load is one of the best cartridges in existence for stopping an attack fast. 

The downside to that power is great recoil, muzzle blast (noise), and, with many loads, increased muzzle flash.  (At night or in darkness the muzzle flash can momentarily blind you, making it hard to make follow-up shots.)  The Magnum is tough to control in a service size revolver.  In a small revolver it is nearly impossible for all but the highly practiced shooter.  For that reason I would not recommend the .357 Magnum for most private citizens just getting into the world of self-defense with a handgun.  One thing I should mention however--you can shoot any .38 Special cartridge in a .357 Magnum handgun.  If you feel you must have the power of the Magnum, you can begin with .38 Special loads and work up to the Magnum loads.   Ultimately, however, you will still have a six to eight shot revolver as opposed to a higher capacity pistol.  I don't see that as a big problem but some folks do.


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The .357SIG is an attempt to get the power of the .357 Magnum, specifically the 125gr JHP mentioned above, into a semi-auto pistol.  For the most part it succeeded.  Some people feel the .357SIG has a bit too much snap in recoil, and it does have a good deal of muzzle blast, but overall it is easier to control than any .357 Magnum.  Guns are not quite as common as those in other calibers, and ammo is not quite as varied or inexpensive, but if you like the idea of a high velocity .35 caliber round like the Magnum but want a pistol instead of a revolver, the .357SIG is certainly worth considering.

.40 Smith&Wesson

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The .40S&W has replaced the 9mmP in most police holsters.  It is estimated that 70% of American police use this cartridge.  This round has a lot going for it.  It is a good size caliber, .40, and has good power.   It can be had in both subsonic and supersonic loadings so is appropriate for shorter barrels with the right loads.  Most guns hold quite a few rounds, as many as 16 in the gun.   Recoil is not excessive for most people.   All but the smallest guns available in 9mm are also available in .40S&W in the same size gun, giving up only a couple of rounds capacity while gaining a good deal more power.  Unless someone is extremely recoil sensitive, I can think of no downside to the .40S&W cartridge.



the .45ACP is another excellent choice--large caliber, and, despite being subsonic, enough bullet weight to make it effective.  Recoil is not excessive for most people.  The only downside might be limited capacity, as the most comfortable handling .45s have single stack magazines, which is to say they only hold eight or nine rounds in the gun.  There are .45s where the cartridges are double stacked in the magazine but they tend to have large grips that are too large for many people's hands.  New designs are coming out however which are negating the differences.

The Others

ImageThe 10mm Auto was the father of the .40S&W.  Same bullet diameter but a longer case.  The 10mm is capable of higher velocities than the .40S&W with the same bullets.  In general however the 10mm has become a niche cartridge with only a very few guns still offered in this chambering.  Additionally, ammo makers have reduced the power of most of their 10mm offerings so that they are no more powerful than the .40S&W.   That being the case, the .40 is a better choice because it fits into 9mm-size pistols, while the longer 10mm requires a larger, .45ACP-size pistol.  If you have a good 10mm pistol, it is certainly excellent for self-defense but I would not recommend going out and buying one today.

ImageThe .44 Special is almost 100 years old.  It is very similar to the .45ACP except that it is designed for revolvers not pistols.  The main problem with the .44 Special is that there are few good loads made for it, while there are dozens of good loads made for the .45ACP.  Additionally, .44 Special revolvers are either large heavy guns like the big Smith & Wessons, or they are smaller guns only holding five rounds of ammo, and with short, velocity-robbing barrels as well.  I wouldn't recommend a .44 Special today.  Though it can still do the job, it has too many shortcomings.

ImageThe .45GAP is an excellent cartridge.  I would consider it one of the main choices except that it is so new (only a few years old) that it hasn't had time to really catch on.  Think of it as something like a shortened .45ACP that nevertheless is equal to the ACP in power.  But being shorter, it can be chambered in smaller guns than the ACP.  Currently if you want a .45GAP it will have to be a Glock or a Springfield, as I'm not aware of any other gun company making them yet.  While the GAP would be a good choice, it does hold fewer rounds than a .40S&W or 9mmP.

ImageThe .45 Colt is now almost 140 years old, yet still popular.  Everything I said about the .44 Special applies here.  While a .45 Colt will do the job, there are not many appropriate defense guns in this chambering, and I wouldn't recommend it today.

Part Two, Choosing the Ammunition

This is really quite simple, despite the dizzying array of ammo that confronts you in any well-stocked gun shop.  First of all choose a well-known brand, preferably of American make.  Ammo made in the USA is subject to the specifications of the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer's Association, a trade organization that regulates the manufacture of ammunition, and assures that you will get a quality product.  In addition to choosing USA-made ammo, I like ammo made by the large, well-established companies.  There are many smaller companies that make ammunition, but I believe the best quality and the best ammo overall comes from the "big five" makers: CCI, Federal, Hornady, Remington, and Winchester.

For whatever caliber you have chosen for self-defense, choose a load that uses a bullet that is within the standard bullet weights for that caliber.  Remember we defined "grains" earlier?  That information will be marked on every box of ammunition.  Here is a chart showing each aforementioned cartridge, the standard bullet weights in grains, and the ideal bullet weight for self-defense use:

cartridge  standard weight range  my recommended weight range 
 .38 Special 110-158grs  125-158grs
 9mmP 115-147grs 115-124grs 
 .357Magnum  110-180grs   125grs 
 .357SIG 125-150grs  125grs 
 .40S&W 135-180grs  155-180grs 
 10mm 135-200grs  165-180grs 
 .44 Special 180-245grs  200grs 
 .45ACP 185-230grs  any within standard range 
 .45GAP 185-230grs  any within standard range 
 .45 Colt 200-250grs  200grs 

You will also find some loads calibers that use lighter or heavier bullets than the standard weights listed for each caliber.  It's best to stick with the tried and true. 

As to bullet types, you should always choose a JHP.  FMJ (full metal jacket) bullets are for practice.  Plain lead bullets are for practice or target shooting specifically.  JSP (jacketed soft points) are usually hunting bullets.  Avoid the exotic loads, the ones using frangible bullets that "blow up" on impact.  Those loads can be effective, but they can fail just as often.  In order to incapacitate an assailant a bullet must penetrate to vital organs, and these exotic loads have very poor penetration qualities.

The modern jacketed hollow point bullet combines controlled expansion with sufficient penetration.  By expansion we mean the ability of the bullet to expand or  "mushroom" upon contact with flesh.  The larger the bullet expands the bigger hole it makes.  However the larger it expands the more that retards penetration, which is why controlled expansion is desirable.  Ideal bullet performance will see the bullet expanding at least .20 caliber more than its original size and penetrating to a depth of 12" minimum, this latter according to FBI standards.  You might think this sounds like excessive penetration, but consider that in a shooting everyone will be moving to try to avoid being shot.  The odds of shooting someone squarely in the chest like you do your paper targets on the range is unlikely.  If, for example, your attacker has his arm pointed at you while holding a knife or gun, and your bullet strikes his arm, you need enough penetration to go through the arm and into the body, as the arm itself is not a vital organ.

There are some plain jane JHP loads sold in the generic or so-called "white box" ammo lines from the various makers.  The "generic" lines include CCI's Blazer, Federal's American Eagle, Remington's REM-UMC, and Winchester's USA Ball.  This is all GREAT practice ammo, but for loading your gun for concealed carry or home defense, go with the premium hollowpoint loads.  These loads use the best bullets.  The generic JHPs are not nearly as good as the premium JHPs, and are not as capable of controlled expansion.  The loads I do recommend are the CCI Gold Dot, Federal Hydra-Shok, Hornady XTP or TAP, Remington Golden Saber, or Winchester SXT.  Some other good bullets from these makers include the Federal Hi-Shok, the Remington Express (in .357 Magnum particularly), and Winchester Silvertip.  If you choose any of these loads you will be carrying good ammo.

You may be wondering why I have not addressed the .380ACP, which some sources claim to be the least powerful cartridge you should use.  My answer is that I do not believe the .380ACP has the bullet weight and velocity, and thus energy, to be effective against a violent attacker.  Remember--all handguns are low powered, and cartridges like the .380 and smaller are so underpowered as to constitute little more than wishful thinking on the part of their owners.  Because that is how I believe, I can't in good conscience offer any advice about these calibers other than practice like your life depends on it, because it does.


copyright 2006 by the author, all rights reserved

Uploaded: 5/16/2006