Handgun Cartridges for Self Defense
In my never ending quest to become a better pistol shooter and improve my self defense capabilities, I’ve come across a plethora of bad information and advice concerning cartridge selection for self defense. I find the vast majority of this garbage in debates concerning which cartridge has the most stopping power or similar nonsense. And nonsense is exactly what most handgun caliber selection for self defense arguments are about. Well, maybe not entirely nonsense, but mostly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve covered this topic. This topic has been present in several other posts on my blog such as my contribution to the caliber versus capacity debate and an early firearm for concealed selection guide among others. However, I figured it was time to revisit this topic as additional experience and training has once again expanded and adjusted my opinions.
Let me start by addressing the elephant in the room. I said handgun cartridge selection for self defense arguments are mostly nonsense. I hold that opinion now for many reasons. First, in many conversations I frequently recall Tim Givens mentioning that handgun cartridges aren’t very powerful and then demonstrating his point by holding the slide forward on his pistol while firing a round into a target when I attended his Combative Pistol course. In the same vein I often recall a video of Clint Smith saying, and I’m paraphrasing: pistols are for putting holes in people, rifles are for putting holes through people, and a shotgun, with the right load, will take a chunk out of a person. Then there is Greg Ellifritz’ research on pistol usage that supports the notion that shot placement is a far more important factor for effectively stopping a deadly threat than caliber. The list of reasons goes on, but suffice to say that stopping power stems from shooting and self defense ability rather than coming from caliber.
So why continue exploring this topic if caliber is irrelevant? Remember, I said it’s “mostly” nonsense. The nonsensical part of those common debates is that the focus is typically on the caliber itself and it’s stopping power. That hyper focus leaves out all of the other components that are fundamental to the complete self defense weapon system that the ammunition is a part of. That is the gun, the holster, the belt, and the carry method. In my current opinion, caliber selection has a profound effect on the defensive pistol weapon system making it critically important to consider and that’s something I think is frequently overlooked.
That said. Let’s explore some commonly carried cartridges (of various calibers).
The 22 Long Rifle and Rimfire Relatives
Some folks might find it surprising to learn that some folks carry pistols chambered for 22 Long Rifle (I’ll refer to it as 22 from here on out). The 22 market is huge. Ammo is relatively inexpensive and there is a large selection of pistols chambered for it. Not to mention plenty of conversion kits for popular pistols. As a result, the 22 doesn’t limit the selection of other components for the defensive weapon system unless the selected pistol is one not commonly supported by quality holster manufacturers.
Based on everything I’ve said so far, it seems like 22 is an excellent choice for a self defense cartridge assuming loads with good defensive projectiles (which I won’t cover in detail in this post) can be found. In fact, I might even go as far to say it’s not a terrible choice if it was a centerfire cartridge. However, it is a rimfire cartridge and that to me is enough to toss it out as a cartridge to consider for self defense. Rimfire cartridges have a very high failure rate when compared to centerfire cartridges. Reliability, in my opinion, is the most important quality of a defensive weapon system. The last thing I imagine any self defender, including myself, wants to hear is a click when a bang is what is needed.
.25 ACP, .32 ACP, and the Mouse Gun
Both .25 ACP and .32 ACP are centerfire cartridges poke holes in targets just fine. However, selection and availability isn’t great. While some loads can be found with quality defensive projectiles, the ammo tends be more expensive than other common cartridges making practice and skill development cost prohibitive for some. Even if cost isn’t an issue, most of the guns available in the market chambered for these cartridges to be super small guns, commonly referred to as mouse guns.
While mouse guns are easy to conceal and comfortable to carry, they can be difficult to manipulate (due to their size). Difficult manipulation is not something I find desirable in a defensive weapon system. Furthermore, holster selection for mouse guns chambered in these cartridges is limited at best. This translates into either compromising safety or limiting the carry method or both. While I agree any gun is better than no gun, I suggest looking at other cartridges that don’t limit the weapon system to only suboptimal options.
Market support for .380 ACP (380 from here on out) today is healthy. While 380 ammunition availability and selection isn’t quite as abundant as some other cartridges, there are plenty of good defensive loads available. However, 380 is generally more expensive than some other common defensive handgun cartridges which may make practice and training cost prohibitive for some. While most pistols in the market chambered for this cartridge are typically small there are a handful of larger options that don’t pose the same manipulation difficulty challenge that smaller guns present.
In addition to difficult manipulation, small guns chambered for this cartridge (and the remaining cartridges I will cover in this post) also tend to be a lot less fun to shoot not to mention more difficult. The lack of fun (and difficulty) in shooting this gun comes primarily from managing the recoil from these pistols given there is very little real estate to grip. As a result, many folks tend to not practice and train with these smaller guns – I’m guilty of this.
The other drawback to the guns available in the market for this cartridge is similar to the draw back of the mouse guns. That is holster availability is limited. However, there are a handful of good quality holsters available. As such, there is enough market support for this cartridge to carry an adequate defensive weapon system.
In my current opinion, 9mm is the most supported cartridge in the market today. Ammo availability and selection is abundant compared to other pistol cartridges (nevermind the current ammo crisis). Cost per round tends to be the lowest compared to other pistol cartridges. There is no shortage of guns, accessories, or holsters to choose from. Seems like every gun manufacturer makes a 9mm gun. However, holster and accessory market support varies quite a bit so it pays to do some research there before purchasing a defensive handgun chambered for 9mm.
In my opinion, 9mm is currently the optimal cartridge choice for defense against threats of the two legged variety and it’s not just because of the market conditions that are providing a great selection of adequate defensive weapon system choices and it’s definitely not because I think it is ballistically superior.
Let me break it down. The 9mm is ballistically adequate (given Greg Ellifritz’ findings) for civilian self defense. Market provides more options to fine tune a 9mm defensive weapon system. Disregarding the 2020-2021 ammo crisis, 9mm is the least cost prohibitive cartridge to train with. Given the same defensive pistol, a variant chambered for 9mm will have a higher ammunition capacity than variants chambered for larger caliber cartridges. Generally speaking 9mm allows a shooter to put shots on target at a faster rate due to having lower recoil than larger caliber cartridges. In that same recoil vein, it’s easier to achieve an adequate level of shooting proficiency with 9mm than it is with larger caliber cartridges. As such, a 9mm gun is almost always what I suggest when folks are looking for a defensive pistol recommendation.
40 and 45
Both .40 S&W and .45 ACP have very strong market support. Albeit, cost per round tends to be higher than 9mm. Most of the well supported 9mm defensive pistols are offered in 40 and 45 variants. As such, they benefit from the same holster and accessory options. That makes both .40 S&W and .45 ACP viable options as defensive cartridges.
That said, I think they are sub-optimal compared to the 9mm even though they are ballistically superior. Here is why. As I’ve established, I’m of the opinion that ballistic superiority is far less important than shot placement. Both 40 and 45 will require a higher level of skill to adequately place good shots compared to 9mm because of the additional recoil management that will be necessary. I’m not talking about a significant difference in skill level but it’s present. While this is anecdotal evidence, I generally score better in IDPA matches with a 9mm pistol than I do with a .45 ACP pistol (some folks will argue it has more to do with familiarity than it does with recoil management). From a training and practice cost effectiveness perspective, 9mm wins. From a capacity perspective, 9mm also wins.
I’m not going to tell anyone that 40 and 45 are trash (because they’re anything but) and they shouldn’t use them for defensive purposes. Rather, I think they are slightly less optimal compared to 9mm. That said, the one thing I’ve learned from the current ammo crisis is that having at least one additional defensive pistol in a different cartridge is a good idea. Especially if one maintains a healthy inventory of that cartridge for training and practice purposes. Even more so if that pistol is a variant of the 9mm defensive pistol so other components of the defensive weapons system can be shared and remain as consistent as possible. My cartridge choice for an additional defensive pistol is .40 S&W because that is the only variant available for my defensive pistol.
I was initially going to lump the 10mm Auto in the 40 and 45 section but I ended up changing my mind. While the 10mm has, once again, been gaining popularity and market support, there is still a big difference in market support between the 10mm and the other two cartridges. Additional 10mm variants of market supported defensive pistols are less prevalent. This limits holster options for a 10mm based defensive weapon system. Even so, there are enough adequate options available.
The other thing to note is that 10mm Auto is ballistically superior to previously discussed cartridges. While my opinion about ballistic performance not being as important as shot placement still holds, it wavers when thinking about defense against predators of the four legged variety. While I have not seen extensive research on this subject and my opinion is based on my own conjecture, a projectile will likely have to travel through a lot more bone and tissue to reach the vitals on a charging four legged creature in order to physically incapacitate it. So while we are still talking about poking holes, we are now talking about poking deeper holes.
This is my reasoning for my preference towards ballistically superior handgun cartridges when it comes to defense against wildlife. Perhaps someday I will come across research that shows me that ballistics are not as important as I think they are for this application. Until that day, 10mm is my cartridge preference for semi automatic pistols intended for this application.
Wheel Gun Cartridges
I haven’t mentioned revolvers in this post yet. While I’m a fan of the wheel gun, it’s not what I prefer for defense against two legged predators. I firmly believe the semi automatic pistol is a superior platform for that application. However, there are folks who only have access to a wheel gun for some reason or other.
All of my opinions about cartridge selection for defense against two legged predators still hold when it comes to revolvers. Rimfire cartridges still present reliability concerns. My preference towards lower cost per round to maximize training and practice within a given budget still holds. This means I think a revolver chambered from 9mm is preferable compared to other cartridge options because I still think it’s the optimal cartridge for this application. When it comes down to using a special cartridge in a magnum chambered revolver, I would pick the special cartridge assuming defensive load availability and cost per round isn’t prohibitive. That means I would opt for .38 Special over .357 Magnum.
On the other hand when it comes to self defense against wildlife, my preference towards ballistically superior cartridges also holds with one caveat. One has to be able to shoot the ballistically superior cartridge well. Don’t carry a round if you can’t place the shot under pressure. The sweet spot for me here is the .44 Remington Magnum (44mag). This is when I personally think that carrying a revolver is preferable to carrying a semi automatic pistol given I am unaware of a reliable semi automatic pistol chambered for 44mag being available in the market.
At the end of the day, the cartridge selection comes down to the individual. Carry what you think is right in a method that works for you. I only suggest it is done safely in a quality holster. I hope that my opinions have given you all some fodder to chew on.