Choosing the caliber and ammunition for the gun you will carry is very important for more reasons than simply determining how well you can control your handgun. So what caliber handgun is the best? Contrary to what many people may believe, .45 is not the only right answer; as a matter of fact, there really isn’t one. It has been proven, in multiple studies, that bullet placement is a more reliable “fight-stopper” than the round itself. There are multiple factors to consider in your caliber selection. Penetration is a vital feature. In the late 1990’s the FBI conducted studies which concluded that bullet should penetrate at least 14-16 inches to be considered reliable. Permanent cavity is the space created in a target by the transfer of the bullet’s energy, and the greater it is, the greater the chance of vital organs being destroyed.
9mm parabellum, 9x19mm, and 9mm luger (all synonymous) is the most widely used pistol caliber, making availability excellent. It is an excellent round with a good balance of velocity, penetration, and permanent cavity. The 45ACP/ 45 Auto (also synonymous) has a somewhat lower velocity than the 9mm, but creates a 40% larger permanent cavity than the 9mm. Recoil in a .45 is also greater, while magazine capacity tends to be lower than in a 9mm. .40 caliber can be though of as a mid-point between 9mm and .45, with excellent capabilities for a large permanent cavity. The .380 is also a popular round for subcompact and concealed carry guns, and doesn’t give up much in a 3.5” or shorter barrel. Studies have shown that while the .380 does not perform as well as a 9mm, the difference in effectiveness between a .380 and a .40 is less than the difference between a .380 and a .32 ACP, with less recoil, and more controllability than the 9mm in the same size gun. The .22LR cartridge on the other hand, while less expensive and with less recoil, does not produce enough energy to reliably stop a threat quickly enough beyond 8 feet, and is not considered suitable for self defense.
Other calibers that are used in self defense, though not as commonly, include the .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, .357 Sig, and 10mm. The .38 Special was used by law enforcement for many years, and is considered by many to be the minimum necessary for personal protection. The .357 Magnum is a powerful cartridge which along with excellent penetration and a large permanent cavity, produces a lot of recoil and can be difficult to handle.
Ammunition can be found in different levels of pressure, including standard, +P, and +P+, which produce higher than standard pressure and velocity. These +P and +P+ cartridges can only be used in guns that are rated for higher pressures, and will produce more recoil than standard cartridges. Be wary of people that tell you that cartridges loaded to higher pressures are the “only self defense ammunition out there”. Recently I had a student inform me that someone tried to sell them +P ammunition for a handgun that wasn’t certified for it, stating that it didn’t matter, because it’s just self-defense ammunition.
Once you have determined the caliber handgun that best suits you, you still have to decide what type of bullet will work best. The two most common types of rounds are Jacketed hollow-point (JHP) and Solid full metal jacket (FMJ). JHP bullets are considered by most to be the best choice for defense ammunition, but some studies have shown that expanding rounds at handgun velocity are unreliable. Another factor to consider with JHP is that while the bullet’s expansion creates a larger permanent cavity, it also reduces the penetration depth. Another option is Solid FMJ bullets, which do not lose their energy as quickly, giving them greater penetration, albeit with a smaller permanent cavity.
So, taking all these factors into consideration, which caliber is the best for you? Believe it or not, this article is not designed to work as a 10 question quiz that gives you the answer at the end. Instead, now that you have all of this information concerning your options, it is time to find the one that works for you. How? The single best piece of advice I can give you is this: go out to a range and shoot the different make and model guns that you have narrowed your list down to, in the different calibers available, and figure out which one you have a good grip with, can handle, and are accurate and comfortable with. That is the gun and caliber for you!