Best Pistol Caliber for Self-Defense – Is the .45 ACP Outdated?

What is the best pistol caliber for self-defense? .45 ACP or 9mm? This is a storied debate, that generally ends with some agreement that the real determining fact is a shooter's preference.

Arkansas-( to The Yankee Marshal, the .45 ACP is out of date. Well, actually, he says it sucks. Since I’ve subscribed to his YouTube channel for a while now, his claim here doesn't surprise me. He’s generally amusing and often provocative, and even when I disagree—especially when I disagree—I like seeing opposing views. His specific point in this video is that the old .45 limits magazine capacity and lacks enough hard-barrier penetration. At the same time, he says that we each have to make our own decisions on what we carry.

But is he right that the .45 isn’t such a good choice today?

I agree with him that the cartridge isn’t significantly better than the other standard calibers. The classic Thompson-LaGarde report basically said the same thing—they couldn’t find all that much difference among the cartridges that they tested, but the Army wanted a .45, so they decided the .45 was the best.

45 ACP
45 ACP

As Jeff Cooper observed long ago, the .45 ACP is the semiautomatic version of the .45 Colt the round that fed the Single Action Army, a cartridge that had proved its worth. But was the Old West shooter right when he said that he carried the .45 because Col. Colt doesn't make a .46?  My notion is what I call the three ps: placement, penetration, and punch. Use a bullet that you can put on target that will go deep enough and do enough to stop a lethal attack, and good luck unto you. And while the subject of stopping power is a dense thicket of competing claims, many dubious, what evidence we do have suggests what I’ve said, that lots of handgun rounds will do the job.

With that being said, shouldn’t we all go with the 9mm Luger?

The Yankee Marshal didn’t say so—that hard-barrier penetration, again—but I’m going a step further to say that the .45 ACP still has a job to do.

What if, for example, you live in a state that limits you to ten rounds in the magazine? One of the good arguments for the 9mm is capacity, but if you’re arbitrarily limited to ten, there are good choices in handguns that are reasonably compact and hold ten cartridges—or close to that number—of the semiautomatic version of the good old round used in the Colt Single Action Army. Bigger may not always be better, and hollow points may not expand, but as the saying goes, there ain’t no such thing as a shrinking bullet.

And then there are all the little guns, the beguiling subcompacts that make us buy pants with large pockets. If your magazine will hold only six rounds, again and in a single-stack model, six 45s isn’t that much more difficult than six of any small caliber.

Each One, Teach One: Preserving and protecting the Second Amendment in the 21st century
Each One, Teach One: Preserving and protecting the Second Amendment in the 21st century

There is the matter of recoil to consider. And this is for you and your hands to figure out. In my own experience, given all the variation in handgun sizes and weights, recoil to me is not all that different among 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, and .45 ACP. Your range experience may vary. And that’s the point.

As The Yankee Marshal said, pick your caliber. But the .45 doesn’t suck, and it hasn’t lost its usefulness.

About Greg Camp

Greg Camp has taught English composition and literature since 1998 and is the author of six books, including a western, The Willing Spirit, and Each One, Teach One, with Ranjit Singh on gun politics in America. His books can be found on Amazon. He tweets @gregcampnc.

  • 86 thoughts on “Best Pistol Caliber for Self-Defense – Is the .45 ACP Outdated?

    1. My dear friends, don’t let anybody full you, 45acp is the best for self defense to carry,
      After i see what i saw, no doubt for me that 45acp is by far a lot better than 9mm,

    2. To keep it particular to the 9mm vs .45 debate, assuming both are similarly jacketed, .45 as a subsonic round and a larger projectile will produce a larger amount of impact trauma on the target, whereas the smaller, faster 9mm projectile will have a higher tendency to penetrate.

      Neither is “Best” – it depends on your needs and philosophy – are you trying to neutralize or to provide deterrence?

      If this is to be your last line of defense only, you wouldn’t want to give an attacker an opportunity to persevere – .45 is the best bet in that regard, especially since ammo may be in short supply – military and other “direct action” units train to [pardon the expression] “double tap” since they usually use 9mm sidearms or even SMG (usually in single fire mode – unless support during breaking contact activity.) Basically, you will need 2 shots of 9mm for every shot of .45 if you are trying to stop someone in their tracks.

      That said, this isn’t hollywood where someone can take 20 rounds and still wage a successful counter – getting shot is highly traumatic and most organisms flee or acquiesce afterwards, but some may press on – bears, chemically influenced, zombie-apocalypse levels or desperation, etc.

      IMHO a 9mm OR .45 is really just a backup to a shotgun, which is a backup to a rifle.

      In a SHTF scenario, any gunshot wound will likely become fatal eventually – access to medical treatment will be greatly hampered – we’ll be lucky enough to survive the myriad of illnesses, cuts, scrapes, and broken bones let alone getting lead-ventilated.

    3. Carry a 9mm Luger pistol AND a .45ACP pistol and., for backup, a .38 Special revolver. Or vice versa.

    4. The classic caliber argument is 100% personal preference and everyone already has their favorites. All of them have their pros and cons, no caliber is perfect.

      For me if cost was not a factor I would choose the 45, since it is I choose the 9 – it is probably the best overall cartridge IMO. There must be a reason why the Military, FBI, and LE choose it more often over others. The 40 & 10 have their place too with superior hard target penetration

    5. Get some .357 Sig in Underwood with 1475fps and 604 fps and call it a day. You can change many 40 cal handguns into 357 Sig with just a barrel change.

    6. I really hate to return to this subject, but I am compelled. I just watched episode 39, first airing 22 November 2017, of “Gun Stories”. In this episode FAT Boy Institute (hereinafter FBI) Supervisory Special Agent Ray Cook of the Firearms Unit explains that after the 1986 Tamiami Highway shootout, the FeeBees did a study, including medical Drs, to find out which caliber served their needs best. SSA Cook claims that they found that the caliber did not really matter, but rather the critical factor was penetration. The FBI decided that 12 to 18 inches of penetration was optimal, more than 18 inches provided uncontrolled bullet travel (and therefore potential liability), while less than 12 inches of penetration may not reach and damage vital organs and blood vessels.
      So, all FBI pistol and carbine ammunition is selected based upon penetration and not caliber. SSA Cook notably stated, “Hate the cartridge, not the caliber.” Then Cook went on to say that bullet design is the deciding factor in cartridge design. Sounds good, except that the Fee Bees are professional liars and are good at what they do.

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