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What Is The Best Caliber For Self-Defense?

What Is The Best Caliber For Self-Defense?

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Few topics can light up a range-side or gun store discussion like handgun caliber. Most every long-time handgun owner feels strongly about one caliber or another being the best. When speaking of defensive use, the term “stopping power” almost always enters the discussion. Is there a best caliber for self-protection? This article looks at both professional opinion and conventional thinking to answer that question.

For purposes of framing the discussion, we’re talking primarily about the differences between two common choices for a defensive handgun: 9mm Luger and 45, whether it be the ACP, Long Colt, or any other sub-category of 45.

What Is the Goal of Defensive Shooting?

To defeat a common myth from the start, defensive shooting does not have killing as its purpose. The sole purpose of a lawful self-defense shooting is to stop the attack. Despite what movies and TV would lead us to believe, only one in six people who sustain gunshot wounds die. Also counter to typical media portrayals, a single round fired from any caliber handgun has less than a 25 percent likelihood of stopping an attack. Odds go up substantially—to about 63 percent—with two shots.

Bullet Selection

It’s important to distinguish defensive ammo—including hollow point, jacketed hollow point, and newer variants (HP)—from target ammo, typically with full metal jacket (FMJ) bullets. In any caliber, FMJ is made to penetrate and cruise on in as straight a line as its speed and mass will permit. HP is made to expand in size, and sometimes fragment into smaller projectiles, after a certain distance after impact with solid tissue. The wider the expansion, the more dramatic the fragmentation, the greater the would channel and the more “stopping power” might be conferred upon the round, under ideal conditions. By ideal conditions, I’m referring to a center mass shot on a typical 12-14-inch thick critter, whether two-legged or four. Miss slightly, and that round may sail through muscle and exit the other side, perhaps not even slowing down the subject.

Performance of the smaller calibers like 9mm and .380 ACP HP has come a long way in recent years. Loads once considered insufficient for penetration of clothing and fat are better dialed-in for personal defense. Lots of shooters like 45 for the confidence-producing big hole it makes. But in some cases, this slower-moving projectile (typically around 850 feet per second as compared to in excess of 1,000 fps or more from 9mm), can produce less penetration and fragmentation.

You Don’t Need A Firearms License For This Weapon!

It could be said that HP is a responsible selection of ammunition for the self-defense handgun as compared to FMJ. It’s been made to expend its energy on the first thing it meets, and is less likely to sustain velocity and cause damage beyond the intended target (need I say again under ideal conditions, which only exist in the laboratory?).

A good strategy is to check out your ammo manufacturer’s website where ballistic data can often be found, or even YouTube videos where some producers have gone to the trouble to re-create FBI protocol gel block tests.

What Matters More Than Caliber?

We’ve established that a handgun is a relatively weak weapon against a mammal like the typical human being. Permanently etched in my own memory are two grown men whom I met with in the emergency department in connection with my work, both of whom had been shot in the skull—one with 40 S&W and one with 9mm. Both had wounds that started on the side of the head and, rather than penetrating, the bullet had followed the curve of the skull until it got around the side, behind the ear, and simply went on its way. Both individuals had nothing more than minor scalp wounds. A look at war photos online will show an astonishing (but gruesome) selection of photos of soldiers who survived shots to the lower half of the face.

Anyone who’s studied defensive shooting much knows that it is only a round through the brainstem or upper spinal cord that guarantees an instant stop. In all other cases, including an eventually round right through the heart, the continuation of the attack depends on the determination of the attacker.

Shot placement, followed by a sufficient number of rounds to deflate the assailant’s determination or physical capability, is far more important than caliber.

Decide What’s Right for You

Knowing the above, I prefer to carry something that offers more rounds in the gun, as well as an extra magazine, discreetly riding in a pocket. For me, navigating daily life, that means 380 or 9mm. While I admit there is greater “oomph” in the 40 and 45 loads, the former of which I carried for years and still do on occasion, it is my present and usual choice to carry something that holds more ammunition and is instantly accessible in my waistband.

When you’ve learned how your selected rounds perform in terms of expansion, penetration, and so on, compare that to your likely defense scenario. For example, if you’re being stalked by a 350-pound behemoth or live in a region where people wear heavy layers of clothing most of the year, the .380 may not have sufficient penetration to be effective. Comfort will play a factor, as well. If you can fit your favorite 45 into a concealment rig, have at it. Many people can’t make that work. Choose something you’re confident about in terms of performance, as well as something that is wearable. The coolest or most beloved handgun, left behind because it’s too big, can’t help you defend your life.

What is your favorite caliber for self-defense? Share your advice in the section below:

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11 comments

  1. I’ll stick to the .44 240 gr mag. Hit him anywhere and he/it is going DOWN!!!!!!

  2. Well if it’s the number of rounds in your gun that count more than the caliber; then the Kel-Tec PMR 30 seems to be a very good gun to carry. It is easy to get the 2nd shot into the target as there is very little movement of the gun after you fire it. And it holds 30 rounds in the magazine. And I believe that a great number of people have been killed by 22 bullets over the years …and the 22 magnum is a lot more powerful.

    • The .22 mag is one of my favorite rounds. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to make a compact, semi-auto that could be easily hidden. I think it was Kel-Tek that recently came out with a .22 mag but it’s a full sized pistol that holds 30 rounds. If I’m going to carry a full sized auto I’ll stick with my 1911.

  3. The best round for self defense is the one you can control with a great degree of proficiency, place accurately and are comfortable firing under all conditions.

  4. Interesting article. While serving in US Army I carried a .45 cal pistol daily as a MP. After eight years I separated from the army and began a career in City Law Enforcement and swore I would never carry a .45 again. I went to a .357 for on duty carry and a .38 off duty. It didn’t take long to move up the caliber list and carried a .44 mag with .44 specials in the weapon to prevent over penetration in a city environment. I carried magnum loads in a speed loader if the occasion should arise where they were needed. This lasted until the first primer backed out and cause the gun to seize up. I then returned to the .45 cal in a Colt Combat Commander. I have now carried a .45 Commander for 37 years without a complaint. Off duty, in the summer I carried a Walther PP, .32 cal. and I could shoot better with it than the Commander, but not by much as I would shoot the center out of targets with my .45. Being comfortable with your gun is important as is caliber, but neither does you any good if you can’t hit your target. If you can’t hit your mark with a .50 caliber handgun but can hit your mark with a .22 cal, then the .22 cal is what you should use. Shooting skills are Perishable skills. Practice, Practice, Practice. Then when you have some free time Practice some more. Learn situational awareness skills. I have been away from law enforcement a number of years and still scan a room when I enter. I scan the streets and buildings when walking down the street. But what ever you chose to carry PRACTICE.

    • I also carried a 1911, 45 while in the MP’s. I never liked it very much and consequently was never as proficient as I should have been with it. However, being a combat MP it was usually a back up weapon to the M1 carbine. I guess I just dated myself didn’t I? They are antiques now.

      In any case working law enforcement as a civilian (although I only did it for eight years) I much preferred the 357 revolver over a pistol. Less movement, more stopping power and easier to get on target with a second shot than a 45 semi-pistol, at least for me, and not as heavy as a rule. 44 mags. have way to much power and usually shoot through the target and continue on. Not recommended unless of course you are dirty Harry. Most of us carried a back up which was usually a colt detective special in 38. Which allowed extra ammo because we could use 38’s in the 357.

      While I worked law enforcement I began flying and decided that was a much more rewarding occupation then law enforcement. I was never sorry I made that decision.

  5. I have had numerous cal pistols from 44 mag downwards. Best advice I can give is that a hit with a 22 hv lr is far better than a clean miss with a 44 mag! Better to be proficient with a lighter caliber.
    It is not like the movies. Even an upper torso hit with a 22 will send most people into shock.
    And a hit anywhere in the head is an attitude changer no matter what size person.

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