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Best Defense Handgun Calibers

After a recent group field trip on August 20, 2016, those who stayed with the group weren't ready for the day to end and spent the rest of the daylight shooting.  In response to images from that day, a group regular took the time to tell me (again) how much my daily carry handguns suck.  My daily carry handguns rotate between a:  Glock 19 Gen 4, Smith & Wesson 3913,  and a Sig Sauer P230.    Although my handguns are not match accurate,  I have every confidence that they are combat accurate. 

His opinion went well in-depth into handgun calibers and felt strongly that if you aren't shooting .40 and .45 calibers, you are just carrying dead handgun weight.  The three most common defensive handgun calibers are the 9mm, .40, and .45 calibers which is what we'll cover.  This article is not meant to convince you that one handgun caliber is better than another.  It's merely an attempt to dispel the handgun myth that "bigger is better".

Caliber popularity rises and falls.   It comes and goes depending on what is popular at the time.     I remember a time when everyone had to have a .45 caliber.  Then in the early 1990's,  Smith & Wesson released the .40 caliber to bridge the gap between 9mm and .45 caliber.  For a while, .40 was the caliber to have.

Any caliber will work well for self-defense, but you'll come across many people who feel if you don't shoot what they shoot, it's not good enough and those people are usually very free with their opinions and their opinions are often based on an article or something they read in an internet forum.  It's the whole Ford vs. Chevy and Jeep vs. everyone debate, but with guns.

This persons assertion that any caliber below .40 (specifically 9mm) is too weak to drop someone is ridiculous.  Alternatively,  to say that the 9mm is better than the .40 or .45 is just not true.   In fact, the .40 and .45  can do some things better than the 9mm.  One of those things is penetrating a hard barrier like car bodies, doors, and walls.   For our purposes, we're discussing personal defense use where barrier penetration is almost never a factor.

His argument went on to include the science of ballistic gel.  For those who don't know, ballistic gel is a block of gelatin used to simulate the resistance of flesh and study the predicted affects on the human body.  Gel tests are great if you need to simulate shooting an extremely obese attacker, but they do very little to simulate real world conditions.  In real world conditions, the bullet really just needs to transfer energy, create a wound path,  and ideally to critical areas.


Some will argue the value of a larger calibers "stopping" or knock down" power believing that the bullet weight translates to an immediate and concentrated transfer of kinetic energy which it does not.  The strangest myth people keep repeating is that the .45 ACP round gets its unique stopping and knock down power because the bullet tumbles instead of spirals like all other calibers.   Safety clear your .45.  Look down the barrel and you'll see rifling.  It's designed to spiral for accuracy.  If your .45 has a habit of tumbling rounds down range, you either have bad ammunition or a damaged barrel crown.  


Let's apply Newton's law to this.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.   When you fire, the recoil you feel is equal to the energy the bullet has as it leaves the muzzle.  Have a look on YouTube and search "body armor test".  You'll find numerous people testing their body armor at point blank range.  All of the bullets energy is contained and delivered to the armor surface and  nobody is knocked down.  While you're there, search for a few hunting videos.  You'll find plenty of animals hit with rifle rounds far more powerful and heavier than handgun bullets and none of the animals are launched into the bushes when hit.


Stopping power is achieved by hitting a critical area and/or rapid blood loss as a result of the bullets wound path and cavity.  All calibers discussed will shut a person off if hit  in the head, heart, or severing high spine.  All calibers can cause significant damage to vital organs.  All calibers discussed will make a person bleed.  While larger calibers will create a larger wound path and cavity which translates to more rapid bleeding, there is no round that stops or takes you off your feet like in the movies.   There is no "knock down" power. 

Another  factor to consider is capacity and concealment.  A larger caliber generally reduces the capacity and concealment.  There are variables that allow for a more compact handgun, but reduce the capacity.  According to FBI statistics, most gunfights conclude with a 70-80% miss rate.  Knowing this, would you rather place your faith in less hits with a larger caliber or more hits with a smaller caliber?


For self defense situations, your most likely scenario will be  as a robbery victim or witness.  These are close quarter combat scenarios that will most often happen within 10 feet.  At that distance, whatever caliber allows you to get hits on target quickly, effectively, and repeatedly counts so much more than having one caliber over another.   While true that a larger caliber will have more recoil which makes making follow upshots more difficult, we're still talking about distances of less than 10 feet.   Unless you drop the gun, hitting a person less than 10 feet away shouldn't be difficult.


The greater the caliber, the more the shooter will experience muzzle flip and felt recoil.  The more you experience both, the less likely you'll be able to maintain follow up shots on target.  Of course, you can practice and learn to manage the recoil, but have you looked at ammo prices lately?   I based the following figures on Walmart target ammo prices from within 2-3 days.   Look at the prices and figure out how much you want and can afford to practice. 

9mm.  Box of 50 sells for $9 - 11.
Cost per round comes to  .18  -  .22 cents per round.

.40.  Box of 50 sells for   $15  - $18.
Cost per round comes to    .30  -  .36 cents per round.

.45.  Box of 50 sells for $33 - $35
Cost per round comes to  .66  -  .70 cents per round.

The shooter is far more important than the caliber.  Misses with the 9mm are the same as misses with the .40 and .45.  At close quarter distances, hits with the 9mm aren't much worse or better than hits with the .40 or .45. 

If I shot a guy in the leg with one caliber and the other leg with another,  the bone struck with a larger caliber will be more broken, but the result will still be a broken bone.   If you hit the guy with any caliber in a critical spot, the result will still be a dead guy.  The  victim won't have a preference and the only people who would notice the difference would be the surgeon and medical examiner. 


As you may have noticed, the description of this article was in jest.  There really is no best handgun caliber for self defense.  It only matters what is best for you.  If you're one of those people who have to have what others shoot, don't take the advice of some random guy on the internet like me or the guy who often complains to that random guy.   People far smarter than us have spent a lot of money and time testing these calibers in real world scenarios. 

As of early 2016, the FBI will be re-adopting the 9mm as their primary sidearm caliber.


MARSOC (Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command) added the 9mm Glock 19 to their preferred/authorized sidearm list. 

US Army Rangers use M9A1's and Glock 19's.  Both shooting 9mm. 

US Army Delta Force is in the process of converting sidearms from .40 to 9mm in Glock 17's, 19's, and 34's.

US Navy SEALs are in the process of converting sidearms from the Sig Sauer MK25 to the Glock 19, both in  9mm.


Shayetet 13,  Israel Defense Force's US Navy SEAL counterparts,  carries: Beretta 92FS, Sig Sauer 226 and Glock 19's.  All in 9mm.


Send those guys an email and tell them they're doing it wrong.