Handgun Caliber Doesn’t Matter

Tom McHale answers, what handgun caliber is best for concealed carry?

Handgun caliber
Which one do you choose?

Tom McHale headshot low-res square

USA –-(Ammoland.com) “It's not the size mate, it's how you use it.” ~ Nigel Powers, Super Spy Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

Wise words for a comedy movie and certainly relevant to the never-ending handgun caliber wars.

  • What caliber is best for concealed carry?
  • If I use a 9mm, won’t the bullets just bounce off my attacker?
  • If I choose a .45 ACP, is there a chance that I might inadvertently destroy nearby buildings?
  • Which buzzwords do I have to consider? Knockdown power? Stopping Power? Incapacitation? Penetration? Constipation?

When we start talking about all this stuff in theory and spice it up with Vietnam anecdotes, we cause ourselves a lot of unnecessary grief.

“When I was in ‘Nam, Charlie snuck into my foxhole one night. I plugged him with one shot from my 1911 and it knocked him 123 feet in the air right into a low flying F-105. After that, .45 is the only caliber I’ll use.”

OK, so maybe I’m making a bit of light about the value of anecdotal data, but anecdotes are exactly part of the problem in the great caliber debate.

  • “I heard…”
  • “I saw a Youtube video of a guy getting shot and he didn’t even know it.”
  • “I saw a youtube video of a shooting and the guy fell down after the first shot.”
  • “When I shot that deer, it cartwheeled 17 times.”

And so on.

handgun Ammo Entry and Exit Holes
Handgun bullets make holes. No more, no less. Some holes are slightly bigger than others, but when you really start comparing diameters of the popular handgun calibers, we’re not talking orders of magnitude of difference.

There are far too many variables at play to compartmentalize ammunition effectiveness into nice little mathematical buckets. Handgun bullets make holes. No more, no less. Some holes are slightly bigger than others, but when you really start comparing diameters of the popular handgun calibers, we’re not talking orders of magnitude of difference.

Let's consider the range of self-defense calibers from .380 ACP to .45 ACP.

If we’re talking about unexpanded bullet diameter, common self-defense projectiles range from .355 to .451 inches. That’s a difference of only 0.096 inches. That’s less than the thickness of two pennies. If we’re talking expanded bullet diameter, assuming 1.5x expansion performance, then the range is .5325 to .6765. That’s a difference of 0.144 inches, which is the same as a penny stacked on a nickel. Yes, bigger bullets make bigger holes, but I mention these numbers to put things in perspective. A small fraction of an inch diameter wound channel difference isn’t all that significant in the context of a six-foot-tall, 200-pound irritable bad guy.

When it comes to energy or the ability to destroy tissue, an “average” 9mm defense load might deliver about 400 foot-pounds at the muzzle. An “average” .45 ACP defense load would unload about 425 foot-pounds. While that may sound like a lot, it’s not.

If you consider momentum, the ability to penetrate and move things, a 9mm load will present about 21 lbs-ft/second and a 45 will deliver about 30 lbs-ft/second. That level of pure momentum is roughly equivalent to hitting someone with a gallon of milk moving at three and a half feet per second.

Before folks get all upset, I’m not equating getting shot to getting bonked with a flying milk carton. While the milk will make a big mess, it’s not going to kill you unless you bought it on sale at Food Lion. My only point is that handgun bullets just don’t have all that much pure energy – at least not enough to make people fly across rooms and explode. They hurt, they can incapacitate, they wound and they certainly can kill, but they won’t physically launch people through walls and windows like in the movies.

When shot, living things may fall, jump, collapse, spring backward, jump, flip or do nothing at all. The important thing, to note, is that none of these actions, with the exception of the “nothing at all” choice, are a direct result of the energy and momentum of the projectile. These reactions can be the result of pain, fear, conditioned response (people are supposed to fall down when they get shot), damage to those bodily systems that keep us balanced and standing, or a million other things.

A scientific look at things like bullet diameter and energy seems to indicate that 9mm and .45 ACP (as examples) are not really all that different. What about actual performance as measured by actual shootings? Do certain calibers create dramatically different results in lethality or the ability to quickly incapacitate? Again, we have to set anecdotes aside. For every story of a guy who flew 10 feet backward when getting shot, there’s another story of some other guy who didn’t even react to getting shot – and kept fighting.

We can get some statistical indication of caliber performance from looking at compiled data of actual shootings, but we even have to interpret that with a grain of salt. In a pure statistical model, all variables are carefully controlled. In real world shootings, there is no such thing as variable control. People are different. People are moving. Shots impact in different places and from different angles. Some people feel pain. Others are on drugs and temporarily impervious to pain. But even with all that said, there’s some interesting data about caliber performance available.

I recently read an interesting article by Greg Ellifritz published on the Buckeye Firearms Association website. Over a 10 year period, Greg collected data on actual shootings and categorized a number of things like the lethality and one-shot stop percentages by caliber. Greg developed “rules” on how to consider the raw data and establish some level of variable control – I’ll let you review that in his findings. For purposes of this article, I’ll offer his observations for one shot stops.

As a concealed carry holder, I’m not interested in anything but stopping whatever violent action caused me to draw a gun in the first place.

Data courtesy of Greg Ellifritz.
Data courtesy of Greg Ellifritz.

This is one look at historical data, but other studies show similar results. There’s not a tremendous difference in performance between common calibers. Listening to caliber selection arguments, one might expect some calibers to be 38 times more effective than others, but it’s just not the case.

So what’s my point? The table above is most definitely NOT a guide to caliber selection. Just because one caliber shows higher one shot stop percentage or fewer hits per incapacitation doesn’t mean all that much. As I mentioned earlier, there are simply far too many variables at play to ever make absolute judgments like that.

If there is a point to be made, it’s right there in front of us in the numbers. Consider the number of shots to incapacitate. Not how many, but the fact that you have to have hits in the first place. Choose whatever ammo you’re comfortable with and spend more of your energy developing the skills to make hits when you need to, and less arguing about which caliber is the “magic bullet.”

If you want an interesting read, check out this FBI article on Handgun Wounding Factors.

Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness

About

Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon . You can also find him on Google+, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

43
Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
31 Comment threads
12 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
35 Comment authors
JonProtechdiverRiver Walleye GuyscottSmytonkatruck Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Jon
Guest
Jon

I shoot everything from 22 LR, to 380ACP, 9mm, 40S&W, Colt 45, 44 Magnum. One thing that has always given me pause to think about the rate of fire and accuracy. The 22 LR’s advantage over all of the other calibers is, with little training, is the ability to put about 3 rounds down range for every shot from one of the heavier calibers. As far as reliability goes, modern manufacturing has greatly improved the 22 LR to the point where a FTF is exceedingly rare with high grade ammunition. I hope I never find out, but I think there… Read more »

Protechdiver
Guest
Protechdiver

I have to say, since working In EMS for 30yrs, all cal bullets can and will kill. One time I actually had a critical PT that was shot with a pellet gun and almost died from a ruptured spleen. It comes down to many factors. Most of which I have to say is, location, location, location. Along with distance from person.

scottS
Guest
scottS

That is something you NEED to KNOW before carrying!

mytonkatruck
Guest
mytonkatruck

I carry daily, but The one thing I hope is that I never have to find out if my caliber would stop someone.

Stephen G
Guest
Stephen G

Practice and practice more. I prefer a 38, 357,40, 9 and 45 for they have weight and power. Any round will kill but a bigger punch works more often and why chance it with smaller bullets. I want the more violent round because you have a much better chance to stop some one. Each to their own as long as you can use it properly. 45 and 357 is my choice.

weggo
Guest
weggo

The entry/exit pics are nice, but why not pair them together?

Jason D.
Guest
Jason D.

I’m realizing lately that I’ve made horrible decisions with buying then trading in firearms based on caliber concerns. I have a wide variety of calibers now, mostly sub-compacts for EDC that I’ve been going up and up in caliber. I don’t have time to practice nearly as much as I should be doing, so I seriously wonder why I have so many that I’m just ok with accuracy-wise. I live in a populated area, so unless I’m shooting within a couple feet I dread the possibility of a stray 40 or 357 missing the threat entirely and causing serious harm… Read more »

GR8GUY
Guest
GR8GUY

** CONTROVERSIAL ** EXPERIENCE HAS SHOWN… While Shot PLacement is ‘KEY’, SPEED -my conservative cretins- is the SECRET to ENDING a confrontation – NOW! SPEED – NOT ACCURACY. Accuracy runs a close first, but still comes in 2nd! Practice SPEED, and u will find irrefutably, that the party breaks up the split second your attacker’s see/hear u firing. IN THE MAJORITY OF CASES (also FBI proven) – THEY BOLT!! 3rd: VOLUME! IF THEY’RE STILL HOLDING THAT GUN (whether running r not), UR STILL SHOOTING. ESPECIALLY: For the ones that turn around (while running) to throw the wild shots – KEEP… Read more »

Walter Goffart
Guest
Walter Goffart

I carry a Ruger SR-22. I love it. It has a 10 shot clip. So after emptying 10 shots what ever the bad guy is doing he will quit long before I get to the 10th shot off. I too agree that shot placment is the key to self defence.

Please support the right to carry and conceal! Everyone should have a self defence permit.

Ned
Guest
Ned

I know a man who actually carries a .22 lr. He literally had trouble shooting anything but a .22. His wife can easily handle a .38 or 9MM. Shot placement is the the thing. But a .22 lr out of a 2 or 3 inch revolver is not typically going to disrupt as much tissue as a bigger bore caliber. There’s been a lot of changes in bullet tech recently, that has improved smaller calibers. Use what you are comfortable with. Shoot until the attacker stops.

Exador
Guest
Exador

I carry a .32 because it allows me to CARRY IT. I’ve had too many friends with 1911s or .357s that are gung ho about carrying them, for about 6 months. Then they are just “too heavy”, “too bulky”, or they can’t properly conceal them.
Better to have what you can carry.

Troy Vaughn
Guest
Troy Vaughn

I started shooting at age 8. Now 50. Still active in law enforcement. My choice in hand guns are the Glock 10 mm and FN 5.7×28. Although completely different results, I feel these choices are hard to beat in a semiautomatic pistol. My choices in long guns are my FAL 308, Weathby 257Mag and Savage BA110 338 Lapua Mag. Each having a specific type of performance. But. Yes. When everything goes south. Nothing beats a decent Shotgun.

Diamondback
Guest
Diamondback

If faced with a threat and all you have is a handgun, shoot them twice regardless of caliber. That’s what I got from all the data provided. Handguns are only good for allowing you to fight your way to your battle rifle anyway. With the isis/isil/Al Qaeda threats facing America, all patriots should be insisting on being able to exercise their preexisting right as protected by the Constitution and BoRs by bearing/carrying their battle rifles daily as to be prepared for the coming attacks – most of which will probably occur in the genius “GUN FREE ZONES” established by bureaucratic… Read more »

River Walleye Guy
Guest
River Walleye Guy

This comment, “Handguns are only good for allowing you to fight your way to your battle rifle anyway.” is so cowboy/Chuck Norris/Hollywood,… Many examples out there of handgun shootings resulting in the BG (or plural) running off, if the handgun was fired at all. The handgun is a psychological weapon.

Dave Hoback
Guest
Dave Hoback

I’ve preached this to the hundreds of students I’ve had. Bullets make holes! Period! There is no such thing as “hydrostatic shock” with standard handgun calibers. There are three ways a person can die from being shot. Either the bullet hits vital portion if brain, severs cervical spinel cord or blood loss. The more holes made, the quicker blood is lost. But what about the size of the holes? Well yes, to some degree. But modern hollow point ammunition has really negated that argument.

AW
Guest
AW

No Such Thing As Hydrostatic Shock??? Numerous autopsies and dissected animal bodies demonstrate this effect. There are far to many videos of this proof. Anywhere from ballistic gelatin tests, hams, roasts, exploding prairie dogs and coyotes. Oh yes! All those poor melons too. That’s main purpose of fragmentation ammunition and why the special services and others use them. Massive and immediate destruction that makes near vital organ shot placement very effective. The right will cause this effect and need not be restricted to just rifle rounds. I have seen many idiotic tests using hanging examples. Hanging does not allow objects… Read more »

David Hoback
Guest
David Hoback

I was speaking of handgun calibers only. But yes, when you take the .223, 60gr, ballistic tip ammunition that I hand load… Moving at 3400fps. Well. Now we can get into that. Those loads have no problem making a small entry hole and coming apart inside, causing horrific damage, on exit. But again, this is not “shock”. This is an object tumbling and breaking apart inside the target. Causing tearing(more wound cavities) of the target. No handgun caliber can cause this type of damage. I have seen a deer hit with a single 30 06 round, clean broadside shot through… Read more »

AW
Guest
AW

You are making statements that move away from, that are purely opinionated and NOT FACT BASED. That which may prevent your so-called students and CCW carriers from READING ALL this article’s pertinent information by not just glancing through the document.
ATTACHED DOCUMENT (If you want an interesting read, check out this FBI article on Handgun Wounding Factors).

Handgun Wounding Factors and Effectiveness
https://www.scribd.com/document_downloads/252518687?extension=pdf&from=embed&source=embed

Have you written or published any such said documentation(s) ? ? ? Upon which the article based. TRUE FACTS(.)

Chris
Guest
Chris

AW, Be careful placing too much emphasis on the FBI’s information. There own suggestions/guidelines have resulted in LEs being killed over the years. Sadly they decide this after an investigation about why one of their own died during a firefight. While I agree with some of their suggestions, I quote, “It is essential to bear in mind that the single most critical factor remains penetration. While penetration up to 18 inches is preferable, a handgun bullet MUST reliably penetrate 12 inches of soft body tissue at a minimum, regardless of whether it expands or not. If the bullet does not… Read more »

AW
Guest
AW

Oh! Believe me Chris. When I say that was not placing to much emphasis in the FBI report in only that you did as the article’s writer wanted done. That is to read the article and statistical information OBJECTIVELY FOR REAL LIFE USE. I am glad that you have did that exactly. Misleading individuals with pure and erroneous opinionated statements is another matter because REAL HARM comes from such beliefs. Usually at someone’s else expense.There are far too many firearm owners who believe because they own firearm(s), are a range instructor, are current or ex-military and L/E makes their words… Read more »

Tony Simon
Guest
Tony Simon

I wrote a similar article last week about the .40 Smith and Wesson not being a “obsolete” round. I have heard many “experts” make this statement since the FBI announced they are switching back to the 9mm as a standard duty caliber. You would have thought I said ” the 9mm is useless and you would be better off with a 22 LR”, I got insane frothing at the mouth comments from people. Many people are so attached to their perfect pistol caliber that they ignore facts. Shot placement and penetration are the most important factors and all pistol calibers… Read more »

Juan Lago
Guest
Juan Lago

“The first rule in a gunfight is HAVE A GUN.”

MJS
Guest
MJS

One thing one must remember with each caliber listed on the initial report is the number of incidents each caliber was involved in. The .32 ACP only had 25 people shot and the .44 Mag had only 24 people shot. These are two calibers very rarely carried due to one considered too weak while the latter is considered more gun than needed by most with harsh recoil and hard to conceal. Then the polar opposite is the 9 MM which had 456 shot showing this caliber to be very popular amongst the CC crowd. So one must consider how many… Read more »

jack burton
Guest
jack burton

You mean that Hollywood has been lying to me all these years?

Dale
Guest
Dale

Thanks for the article. Most important information is If you are in a situation where your life is in danger you will: 1) Have to have your gun with you (all the time since you can’t predict when). 2) You have to be able to get your gun into action and get hits (do you train the way you carry? Have you practiced drawing your gun from your normal carry setup at least 3,000 times?) 3) Odds are you will have to hit the bad guy at least 2-3 times (don’t always shoot the same number of rounds per shooting… Read more »

Anonymous1
Guest
Anonymous1

I am hesitant in discussing this matter but my reluctance to do so could have a much greater impact. Nothing can ever serve you better than or replace experience in life. I have been longtime firearm owner before the story below. I as many, regret that my home state is a “May Issue” state and CCW Permits are not easily obtained even for those that genuinely need them and I do not carry. So take full advantage of that unalienable right if permissible in your State or City. Please note that this story was for CCW round calibers sizes purposes… Read more »

Vanns40
Guest
Vanns40

You will not be receiving a Christmas card from Food Lion. New slogan: “Sweet milk from non-lethal cows”.

Lawrence Muhr
Guest
Lawrence Muhr

I do not know all of the arguments for best, etc. I do understand Newtons Law of “every action has an opposite and equal re-action”. At the range, I can tell my .22 (I love to shoot them), and when I shoot my .40, .45, .357 and .44 Mags. there is a distinct reaction at my end, so I conclude, there must be a equal action at the other end. Personally, I hope to never learn the bottom line, but I do try to stay in condition “yellow” unless something clues me into going “red”. To avoid a situation is… Read more »

Chris
Guest
Chris

While interesting, not all of the contentions in this article are supported by real world data. The following information does not copy and paste here very well, but this is the results of real world shootings. http://www.handloads.com/misc/stoppingpower.asp?Caliber=0 Diameter and Penetration are the average from bullets recovered in actual shootings. All data taken from Evan Marshall and Ed Sanow’s book: Stopping Power: A Practical Analysis of the Latest Handgun Ammunition and used with permission from the author. Top loads for each caliber Brand Bullet Shootings One Shot Stops Percent Diameter Penetration Federal 308 168 gr Match 112 110 98% 0″ 24.9″… Read more »

Tom
Guest
Tom

This info looks much more realistic than the authors figures.. I am surprised that no Buffalo Bore brand ammo is listed though..

Nate O
Guest
Nate O

I’m not surprised. While Buffalo Bore and Underwood ammo are BA loads with a lot of power I think these stats are more based on what is actually used and not what is ideal. Let me clear that up with an example: If 10,000 LEO’s are carrying .40S&W’s then obviously there are going to be a lot of shootings involving the .40S&W over other calibers. .22LR was likely on the authors list because everyone and their grandmother has a .22, if someone is not particularly firearm defense orientated they might just use a .22.

Mikial
Guest
Mikial

So, the author wants me to believe that a 32ACP, .380 and a .38 Special a statistically take fewer shots to incapacitate than a .45? I’ve seen autopsy reports (with photos) from FBI investigations concluding that the penetration of a .40 was insufficient to incapacitate an assailant before multiple rounds were shot into his torso. The bottom line is placement. Go to the range. Go to USPSA meets. Practice. Place the round in a vital spot, preferably the vermilion zone of head, and it will stop an assailant. Buy quality ammo (not FMJ) and select a caliber you can shoot… Read more »

Danny Willard
Guest
Danny Willard

Read a lot over the years about which gun to carry/use. Have carried as law enforcement .357 magnum revolvers. Now the most comfortable gun for me to shoot accurately with is a 1911 in .45 ACP. Your information was very good and the main thing is not what you hit with but where you hit to stop someone. Your article was informative, thanks.

Sharon Starr
Guest
Sharon Starr

The “magic bullet” most definitely was getting bonked with the gallon of milk. I just snorted my milk out my nose laughing at that! You know us Starr girls snort when we laugh. Great article, point well taken.

anonymous
Guest
anonymous

22s kill a lot of people. People can be shot once by a .22 and die because the bullet bounced around inside their body or went into the braincase. A person can be shot six or seven times by a .357 or .45 into the chest and survive. I had to shoot two people who tried to rob me. Got one 380 acp into one thug and he ran about half a block or so before collapsing on a person’s porch with his intestines hanging out. First cop on scene thought the dude was dead because he had turned pale… Read more »

David Hoback
Guest
David Hoback

Yeah! Gots to get them .22’s! Cause they the ones that bounce around all the way up to the brains! You need to read some more youngen.

anonymous
Guest
anonymous

I have read. Its called medical reports. Bother to learn why mob hitmen use .22s.

anonymous
Guest
anonymous

.22s kill a lot of people. People can be shot once by a .22 and die because the bullet bounced around inside their body or went into the braincase. A person can be shot six or seven times by a .357 or .45 into the chest and survive. I had to shoot two people who tried to rob me. Got one 380 acp into one thug and he ran about half a block or so before collapsing on a person’s porch with his intestines hanging out. First cop on scene thought the dude was dead because he had turned pale… Read more »

David Hoback
Guest
David Hoback

WOW! The .22 “bounced around inside their body? You shot “one thug”. A blood trail “a few blocks long”? Which, I’m sure, you checked with some awesome hunter tracking ability, right?

Ok young boy. The grown ups are talking. So don’t interrupt, ok?

Matt
Guest
Matt

This account is actually fairly consistent with reality. So maybe shut your mouth and don’t insult people that you don’t know. You sound much more like a young boy than he does.

Dan W
Guest
Dan W

Great article, as well as the linked FBI article. Preparation and practice are the most effective keys to handgun defense. In such a volatile situation, with adrenaline pumping, heart racing, and mental fog, having practiced how to handle yourself, is the only saving factor. A 22LR in the forehead with incapacitate someone, but you will be doing well if you can hit their torso a couple of times. A larger caliber is obviously more advantages in that situation, but you still need to be able to manage the shot.

JohntheDeerking
Guest
JohntheDeerking

One more serious and intelligent discussion in selecting handgun caliber. I have a personal choice and will allow others to make their own choices. My contention is, that people should carry, that whatever they choose be right for them, and that they try for the biggest /fastest bullet the can handle. I don’t even quibble over automatics vs. revolver. There are very few really wrong answers.

durabo
Guest
durabo

“Because they don’t make a .46.” (Texas Ranger H. Joaquin Jackson’s reply when asked why he carries a .45 ACP pistol)