A Comparison of Handgun Calibers for Self-Defense
Copyright © October 3, 2016 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.
In several of my articles I have discussed different handgun calibers based on the recommendations I made in each article.
The purpose of this article is to consolidate my comments about some of the different sizes (calibers) of ammunition that can be used in a variety of handguns. This article will not discuss all the different calibers that are available for handguns. Instead this article will focus on the handgun calibers that I have recommended in the past and that I consider to be "common" calibers that can be purchased in most stores that sell handgun ammunition.
I fully realize that there are other "special" calibers that have been designed to meet specific needs and to yield specific results. Many of these special calibers can also now be purchased in most stores that sell handgun ammunition. However, during a serious long-term hard times event these special calibers will probably not be as easy to find as they are today. In addition, during a serious long-term hard times event you may have some of your close family members or close friends assisting you and your family survive because there is strength in numbers. If you have ammunition in a common handgun caliber then there is a chance that you may be able to share some of your ammunition with the people you trust and who are helping your family survive. However, if you only have a special caliber of handgun ammunition then the chances of your close family members and friends having that exact same type of special caliber handgun is relatively slim. The chances are much higher that your close family members and friends will own handguns that shoot some of the most common calibers available today, assuming that your close family members and friends have their own handguns. Even if you all agree ahead of time to invest in handguns that shoot the same exact type of special caliber ammunition, then you will still be faced with the problem of trying to replenish that ammunition when it is gradually used up during an extended long-term hard times event, or when you are forced to relocate to another area and you can only take a limited quantify of your ammunition with you (this assumes you have a variety of other very important items that you must take with you and you have both space and weight constraints).
A family that owns handguns that shoot common caliber ammunition will have a much better chance of acquiring more of that ammunition during a serious long-term hard times tragedy event. That family would also have a better chance of joining a larger group of honest trustworthy people if the family is bringing their own firearms and ammunition with them into the group and the group also owns and uses similar common caliber firearms instead of "special" caliber firearms.
Reasons for Buying a Handgun
Handguns are usually purchased for one or more of the following reasons:
This article will discuss handguns and ammunition for personal protection and this article will not discuss the other reasons for purchasing a handgun that are listed above.
- Job Related: If you are a police officer, or a security officer, or a federal agent, or a state agent, then your handgun is one of the items you must carry with you in order to do your job when you are on duty. You may be allowed to purchase and carry the handgun of your choice or your employer may specify a specific type of firearm that you are required to carry.
- Firearm Competition Events: Some people enjoy shooting contests and they will purchase a special handgun and then invest a lot of money in modifications to that handgun so they can be successful in shooting contests. It should be mentioned that some of the expensive modifications to a firearm will only improve the accuracy of the firearm by a very small amount. This small amount of accuracy improvement may be exactly what is needed to win a shooting contest when the shooter has the time to carefully aim the firearm at the target. However, this small amount of accuracy improvement will probably not make any difference if the handgun is being used to shoot at a live person who is intent on hurting you (or your family members) and you do not have the time to take careful aim at your assailant. In addition, although some modifications can make a small improvement in accuracy they can also cause occasional problems with the firearm jamming and not firing a round of ammunition. This may not adversely impact the final result of a firearm competition event but a firearm jam or misfire could prove fatal in a self-defense situation. Therefore I do not personally recommend most firearm modifications, except for modifications that improve the hand grip of the firearm or the addition of laser sights to a handgun.
- Investment: Some handguns are purchased as a long-term investment because it is an antique firearm or a special edition firearm or a collector's edition firearm. These firearms can be very nice investments but they are generally not used as self-defense handguns for personal protection.
- Hunting: Some people enjoy hunting with a handgun. However, the laws in most areas are very specific about which types of handguns may be used for hunting. Most hunters prefer to hunt with a rifle because a handgun does not have the range of a rifle and this requires the hunter to get reasonably close to a wild animal before they pull the trigger. This proximity to a wild animal increases the risk of the animal smelling, hearing, or seeing the hunter and either running away or attacking and killing the hunter. Therefore very few hunters use a handgun for hunting. However, many hunters carry a handgun in addition to their hunting rifle in order to help protect themselves in an unexpected close encounter with a predatory wild animal. They will also sometimes use a handgun to terminate a wild game animal that they previously shot with a rifle if the animal is still alive when they track it down and find it.
- Self-Defense: In the United States of America the majority of handguns are purchased by normal people for personal protection.
A picture of the components of a centerfire ammunition cartridge is shown below:
The components of a centerfire ammunition cartridge are:
A bullet has four basic characteristics as follows:
- Ammunition Cartridge: Centerfire ammunition consists of a metal case, a primer, gunpowder, and a bullet.
- Metal Case: The metal case holds the bullet in the top of the case, the gunpowder inside the case, and the primer in the bottom of the case.
- Primer: The primer is in the bottom center of the case. When the primer is struck by the firing pin of a firearm then the primer ignites and this ignites the gunpowder inside the case which forces the bullet out of the top of the case.
- Gunpowder: A measured amount of smokeless gunpowder is inside the metal case between the bullet and the primer. The type and amount of powder determines the velocity and energy of the bullet when it exits the case.
- Bullet: The bullet is the projectile in the top of the case that exits the case and travels towards the target after the primer in the bottom of the case has been activated.
- Diameter (Caliber): The caliber of a bullet is measured at its maximum diameter. Diameter (or caliber) can be measured in inches (0.400 inches or 40 caliber) or in millimeters (9 mm). Millimeters can be converted into inches by dividing by 25.352.
- Grain Weight: Bullets of the same exact diameter may be longer or shorter than other bullets. The longer the bullet the more it will weigh. Bullet weight is measured in grains (gr).
- Jacket: A lead bullet may or may not have a very thin metal coating called a jacket. The jacket may cover the entire outside of the bullet and it is called a Full Metal Jacket or FMJ. Or the jacket may stop at or near the top of the bullet and leave the flat top surface of the bullet exposed. This is common for hollow point and soft nose bullets, as shown in the picture below. A jacketed bullet helps to minimize the problem of lead fouling inside the firearm barrel.
- Nose Design: A bullet may have a pointed nose, or a hollow point cavity at its nose, or a flat nose, or a round ball nose.
- Pointed Nose: Handguns are not designed to shoot pointed rifle bullets. Pointed rifle bullets are designed for long distance shooting so the bullet can travel a long ways with a relative degree of accuracy and still have enough energy to penetrate and terminate a wild game animal.
- Hollow Point Nose: Hollow points are usually recommended for personal protection against other people. The hollow point of the bullet expands on contact and it spreads out to make a larger diameter hole and it should theoretically do more damage. However, the hollow point can become clogged when it passes through thick articles of clothing or through the hair on the body of an animal and this can result in less penetration and less damage. In these situations a soft nose bullet or a round nose bullet can be more effective.
- Soft Nose: A soft nose bullet flattens out quicker when it makes contact and this creates a larger diameter hole. Soft flat nose bullets do not collect material from clothing or from the fur of animals when they make contact and therefore they can make a bigger hole than a round nose bullet.
- Round Ball Nose: The round nose of the bullet more easily passes through heavy articles of clothing and through animal fur and this usually results in deeper penetration. Therefore ball ammo is a reasonable choice in winter weather and when traveling through areas that are populated with predatory wild animals.
Common Handgun Calibers
The above picture shows nine different handgun calibers with the shortest ammunition on the left and the longest ammunition on the right.
When selecting a caliber for a self-defense handgun the following variables are the ones that should be considered:
Some handgun calibers are designed for revolvers and not for semi-automatic firearms. In the above picture the 38 Special, the 357 Magnum, and the 44 Magnum are typically used in revolvers. Although you may be able to find a semi-automatic pistol that will fire one of these calibers, these calibers are generally not a good choice for a semi-automatic self-defense handgun because these calibers were not originally designed to be fired in a semi-automatic weapon.
- Accuracy: The caliber must be one that you can shoot comfortably and accurately. If the handgun is too big for you to grasp comfortably, or if the handgun is too small for you to get a good grip on it, then you will not be able to consistently hit the area you are aiming at. Being able to hit where you are aiming is absolutely critical in a self-defense situation. Therefore you should test fire any handgun you are considering in order to verify that you can control it and shoot it with a reasonable degree of accuracy at close ranges. Most self-defense situations happen at close ranges inside a home or building and the distance to the target is relatively short. Therefore you do not need a handgun that is accurate out to the same distance as a rifle.
- Caliber: The bullet should be large enough to kill or incapacitate a person who is trying to hurt you or your family members. The bullet should be large enough so that either one or two shots to the main body area will normally knock a person down. If the bullet is too small then one or two shots to the main body area may only cause minor damage to the person and this could make them really mad and they may still kill you and your family.
- Grain Weight: Bullets in the same caliber are available in different grain weights (sizes). A heavier bullet will normally have more knock down power than a lighter bullet. A heavier bullet will also usually result in less felt recoil when the bullet is fired and this will make it easier for you to maintain control of your handgun and hit the target more often than you miss the target. A heavier bullet will also consume more of the energy from the gunpowder and this will reduce the velocity at which the bullet exits the barrel of the handgun and this will also reduce the felt recoil when the bullet is fired. Therefore it is usually a good idea to purchase the heaviest grain bullet available in whatever caliber your handgun uses in order to maximize knock down power, minimize recoil, and improve your shooting accuracy.
- Semi-Automatic or Revolver: In a self-defense situation you will probably need to fire several shots to stop the person or the people who are attacking you. In this type of situation a semi-automatic firearm is an absolute necessity, in my opinion. A semi-automatic firearm automatically ejects each empty shell casing after it has been fired and it moves a new live round into the firing chamber for immediate use. This means you can easily keep shooting a semi-automatic handgun until it is empty. If you have a loaded spare magazine for your handgun then you can eject the empty magazine and insert a new magazine in about four seconds or less. Therefore, for self defense, a semi-automatic handgun is a far better choice than a revolver or a single-shot handgun. Finally, most semi-automatic firearms will hold more rounds of ammunition than a revolver so you would have more rounds of ammunition immediately available to defend your life and the lives of your family members.
Some handgun calibers are too small to be consistently effective in a self-defense situation. In the above picture the 22LR and the 32 Auto are generally too small to be effective at stopping someone with only one or two shots to the main body area. Obviously there are exceptions, such a bullet through the heart or a bullet through the eye. But you should not be relying on your ability to hit these relatively small targets on a person who is in motion. Therefore, even though you can find semi-automatic pistols in 22LR and 32 Auto, these calibers are not a good choice for self-defense. (Note: The 22LR cartridge is a rimfire cartridge and not a centerfire cartridge. The firing pin makes contact with the outside rim of the case and this ignites the gunpowder inside the case. If you have hunted with a 22LR rifle and you have shot a wild game animal in the body then you may have been surprised to see the animal continue on its way as if nothing serious had just happened to it. The animal probably eventually died from its wound but the 22LR bullet is simply not big enough or powerful enough to consistently terminate a wild game animal with a body shot. However, if you hit the heart or the brain then a quick kill will result. But the heart of a small game animal is a relatively small target and it is not easy to predict exactly where the heart will be based on your line of fire and the angle at which the animal is standing in the woods. Therefore I have consistently recommended that if you hunt small game animals with a 22LR rifle then you should get close enough so you can accurately shoot the animal through its brain because the head of a wild game animal is easy to see.)
The following table contains some ballistic information on the handgun calibers that are shown in the above picture.
(gr = grains) (fps = feet per second) (ft-lb = foot-pounds)
|Caliber||Diameter||Grain Weight||Velocity 50 yards||Energy 50 yards|
|22 LR|| .224 inches|| 32-40 gr|| 1000-1085 fps|| 78-90 ft-lb|
|32 Auto|| .321 inches|| 60-73 gr|| 900-1050 fps|| 109-147 ft-lb|
|380 Auto|| .355 inches|| 88-95 gr|| 912-1050 fps|| 166-220 ft-lb|
|9 mm|| .355 inches|| 115-135 gr|| 960-1038 fps|| 268-291 ft-lb|
|40 S&W|| .400 inches|| 155-185 gr|| 861-978 fps|| 325-387 ft-lb|
|45 Auto|| .451 inches|| 185-230 gr|| 819-862 fps|| 299-342 ft-lb|
|38 Special|| .357 inches|| 110-158 gr|| 775-939 fps|| 203-242 ft-lb|
|357 Magnum|| .357 inches|| 125-158 gr|| 1149-1313 fps|| 453-510 ft-lb|
|44 Magnum|| .429 inches|| 180-300 gr|| 1083-1339 fps|| 716-806 ft-lb|
Most of the data in the above table was summarized from the Hornady website at the following internet address:
The above table shows that there are different grain weight bullets available in all the handgun calibers. As I have already mentioned, I personally recommend the heaviest grain weight that you can find in a specific caliber to maximize knock down energy, minimize recoil, and improve accuracy.
The above table also shows the velocity and energy of the bullet at a distance of 50 yards from the handgun. As I have already mentioned, most self-defense situations occur in homes or buildings where the distance to the target is a lot less than 50 yards. If the distance was more than 50 yards, and if I had time to pick my weapon for self-defense, then I would select a semi-automatic rifle because a rifle is more accurate and more powerful at distances of 50 yards or more.
The above table shows that the calibers available for a semi-automatic self-defense handgun (380 Auto to 45 Auto) have velocities in the 819 to 1,050 fps range. This difference in velocity does not make a significant difference, especially at a distance of 50 yards. At 819 fps a bullet will travel 50 yards in approximately 0.18 seconds. At 1,050 fps a bullet will travel 50 yards in approximately 0.14 seconds. This trivial difference of 0.04 seconds in speed will not make any difference in a self-defense situation. Therefore the velocity of a specific caliber of handgun bullet is not a variable that needs to be considered in the choice of the best caliber for a self-defense handgun.
The above table also shows the energy of the bullet at a distance of 50 yards from the handgun. That energy will be applied to the nose of the bullet to push the bullet into the target. Larger diameter bullets will have a larger area over which the energy will be felt. Larger diameter bullets will also create a larger diameter hole in the target and therefore cause more internal damage to the target. The 9 mm, 40 S&W, and 45 Auto are all reasonable choices for a self-defense handgun. The 9 mm is a reasonable choice for a weaker person. However, the 40 S&W and the 45 Auto are a little better than the 9 mm because they hit the target with more knock down force (energy) and they create a bigger internal wound in the target. In a self-defense situation both of these factors are extremely important. The 40 S&W is smaller than the 45 Auto (11% smaller diameter and therefore a 21% smaller wound area in square inches) but the 40 S&W has approximately 9% to 13% more knock down energy than the 45 Auto. Therefore these two calibers are approximately equal from a ballistics perspective. This has been confirmed in the law enforcement data that has been published and that data shows very, very little difference in the effectiveness of these two calibers in law enforcement situations.
Handgun Recommendations for Self-Defense
I have consistently recommended the following semi-automatic handguns for self-defense:
- Glock: A Glock semi-automatic handgun is the best, most reliable handgun that is currently made anywhere in the entire world. Therefore you should buy a Glock handgun for self-defense.
- Full Size or Compact: I have consistently recommended a full size Glock for self-defense. Compact models are also available but they have smaller magazine capacities and in a self-defense situation more ammunition is better than less ammunition. However, the compact models can be used as a concealed carry weapon. However, in my opinion, they are a little too big to be easily concealed and therefore I do not recommend them for concealed carry for the average person. Instead I recommend the Ruger LCP as the best concealed carry firearm for the average person because it shoots six 380 caliber bullets, it weighs approximately 12 ounces when fully loaded, and it can be easily inserted into your pants pocket and its flat design (less than 3/4 inch thick) does not create the silhouette outline of a pistol in your pocket and therefore it is almost invisible. More information about concealed carry pistols is on my website here.
- Caliber: I have consistently recommended the full size Glock 40 S&W as the best choice for most people because it will fit comfortably in the hand of most people and most people can control the recoil of the 40 S&W. However, I have also mentioned that the Glock 45 Auto (Model 21SF or Slim Frame) is a good choice if you have a larger hand and you can control the additional recoil of a 45 caliber pistol. Finally, I have also always suggested that you hold the gun in your hand and that you test fire the gun before you purchase it to make sure it is the best choice for you. If you are a little weaker than the average person then you may need to consider the 9 mm Glock.
- Magazine Capacity: The full size Glocks hold 17 of the 9 mm rounds, or 15 of the 40 S&W rounds, or 13 of the 45 Auto rounds, depending on the model of the firearm. Although the Glock 40 S&W holds 2 fewer rounds than the Glock 9 mm, the 40 S&W bullet creates a bigger wound than a 9 mm bullet (13% bigger diameter and therefore a 27% bigger wound area in square inches), and the 40 S&W bullet has between 21% to 33% more knock down energy than the 9 mm bullet. Therefore it should take fewer 40 S&W bullets to incapacitate a person when compared to the 9 mm bullets. This could be extremely important in a self-defense situation where your life or death may depend on the effectiveness of the caliber of bullet that you are using to defend yourself. (Note: Magazine extensions are available for the Glock magazines that will add two additional rounds to each magazine.)
For the average person, a full size semi-automatic Glock (Model 22) that shoots the 40 Caliber S&W bullet and that has a 15 round magazine capacity is the best choice for a self-defense pistol. This is the same handgun that the overwhelming vast majority of law enforcement officers in the United States of America voluntarily select as their primary sidearm. These men and women are intelligent individuals and they know that their lives may occasionally depend on their handgun selection. These men and women also have access to a significant amount of information about every handgun caliber, including all the "special" calibers, and they very carefully evaluate all of this information, and they still choose the Glock Model 22 that shoots the 40 Caliber S&W bullet as their primary sidearm.
Holster recommendations for semi-automatic pistols are on my website here.
I also strongly recommend that you install a laser sight on your self-defense handgun. Laser sights are discussed on my website here.
I do not mind if you completely disagree with my recommendations in this article. You are an adult and you have the right to your opinion, just like I have a right to my opinion.
There is a big difference between:
When an individual has the freedom to choose then the person will usually consider a variety of different factors before making a decision. The decision the person makes may or may not be the best choice in the long-run but it was the choice that seemed most logical at the time the choice was made.
- a decision made by an individual based on his or her freedom to chose any option he or she wishes, and
- a decision made by a government organization or by the military for all the people under their authority.
When a government organization or the military makes a decision then that decision is frequently influenced by one or more of the following factors:
In conclusion, just because some government organization or some branch of the military adopts and issues a low caliber firearm to their people does not automatically justify that firearm as being the best choice for everyone. I strongly recommend that you make your firearm choices based on a variety of factors that are important to you and that you do not simply buy a firearm because the military uses it.
- Political Issues: The people who have the authority to make the decision are frequently influenced by a wide variety of political issues that have almost no bearing on the decision that currently needs to be made. For example, the mandatory medical insurance law in the United States of America was passed by our politicians and those same politicians carefully exempted themselves from being subject to the law that they insisted all other U.S. citizens must comply with. A reasonable amount of time has passed since that law went into effect and therefore most of the adults in the U.S. should now have a pretty good idea of how successful that law was in improving the standard of living for the average person in the United States.
- Cost: Cost is always a factor in any decision making process. However, when the cost only applies to one person then small differences in cost may not influence the final decision. However, when the cost is multiplied by millions of purchases then the cost factor becomes very significant. Therefore when you hear that some government organization or some branch of the military has decided to issue small caliber firearms to their people then this decision may have been influenced by the lower cost of millions upon millions of rounds of ammunition. For example, 9 mm ammunition is cheaper than the same ammunition in a larger caliber.
- Standardization: One size does not always fit everyone. However, when the government or the military makes a decision they will usually select something that 95% of their people can use successfully. In the case of a handgun this would be a low caliber handgun that most people can comfortably hold in their hand, and that has minimum recoil so that weaker individuals can still control it, and that has a reasonable degree of accuracy even for a weaker individual. A 9 mm handgun meets all of these objectives and it can be successfully fired by the weaker individuals in the military.
- Other Factors: Although a government would never admit it, sometimes a government may believe that it needs to reduce the "surplus population" inside their country. One simple way to accomplish this objective would be to give their soldiers firearms that jam frequently, or that have frequent misfires, or that shoot a small caliber bullet that has a limited lethal range and that is not very effective at stopping enemy soldiers.
Expensive high-quality premium ammunition will usually improve the performance of any handgun for self-defense purposes.
However, there are several variables that could interfere with the performance of expensive ammo, such as several layers of thick heavy clothing in the winter.
In addition, an expensive bullet will not improve the performance of a low caliber handgun so that it equals (or almost equals) the performance of a higher caliber handgun. For this to be true the high caliber handgun would have to be using the lowest quality ammo available for that handgun. If the high caliber handgun used the same type of premium quality bullet that is recommended for the low caliber handgun, then the high caliber handgun would consistently do better in a self-defense situation when compared to the low caliber handgun.
If you already own a low caliber handgun then you can improve the performance of that handgun by using premium quality ammunition for self-defense purposes.
However, if you have not yet purchased a self-defense handgun then please do not make your choice based on the illusion that premium ammunition makes all handguns equal.
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