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Self Defense

Capacity Over Caliber

My updated opinion on the caliber vs capacity debate. Short version: there would be no debate if we detach emotion and put aside personal preferences as objective weapon selection naturally yields caliber for capacity.

Two years ago, I published my opinion on the infamous pistol caliber vs capacity debate and recently shared that post again on Twitter while mentioning that my opinion has evolved since then. Several folks were curious as to how my opinion has changed and I find myself sharing my updated opinion.

As I was gathering my thoughts on how to approach it, it became more apparent that my position has become cemented in valuing capacity over caliber. Perhaps the most notable part of the evolution is that I no longer think it’s a personal decision as much as it’s about selecting the optimal tool for the application. That’s not to say personal preference doesn’t come into play at all, but rather personal preference is negligible. Quite frankly, I’m not sure it’s a versus debate anymore. Let me explain.

This debate is generally had in the context of self defense weapons. More often than not, the context specifically pertains to defensive pistols and defense against would be criminals.

With that in mind, let’s consider weapon selection. I don’t know any armed self defense professional that wouldn’t suggest a defensive rifle (a defensive carbine to be more specific) as the best choice for a defensive weapon because it provides arguably the best balance of defensive capability and learning curve. A shotgun might also be suggested to folks who are unable to own a carbine legally due to local regulations. However, neither of those weapons are commonly discussed in the caliber vs capacity debate. I suspect the reason for that is because neither of these platforms lends themselves to the portability and conceal-ability requirements needed to be carried regularly by an armed self defender. So that leaves us with talking about pistols.

When it comes to pistols and weapon selection, I also don’t know a single armed self defense professional that wouldn’t suggest a modern striker fired semi automatic pistol. More specifically, the largest pistol that fits the defender and can be carried effectively. This suggestion sometimes sparks a debate with folks who have a preference for and carry a single action 1911 which generally has half the capacity of a modern striker fired duty sized pistol. A subset of these folks will attempt to remove personal preference from the debate by bringing up familiarity and capability with the weapon. While that is a very good point and I regularly encourage folks to become intimately familiar with their weapon, it doesn’t change the fact that those platforms are more complicated in the sense that they require additional steps in order to bring the weapon into the fight and safely returning it to the holster when the fight is over. Sure one can train enough to be proficient with the platform to where those extra steps are deeply ingrained and become second nature, but the extra steps remain nonetheless. I’m often met with attempts at a gotcha along the lines of “but a hammer fired double action single action like a Beretta or single action only 2011 has equivalent capacity”. That’s cool. I’m not in this debate to win it, I’m in it to identify the right tool for the right job with the largest capacity and the easiest learning curve. Hopefully, that point will become more apparent as this post progresses.

Those gotcha attempts are usually what turns the debate in the caliber vs capacity debate that sometimes ends with broken friendships. I’m joking about the broken friendships, but these debates can get heated.

Okay, that brings me to caliber selection and why I don’t think it should be up for debate. Greg Ellifritz has gone to great lengths to gather and analyze gunfight data in order to shed some light on the “handgun stopping power” with real world evidence. While the work has been criticized for the choice of statistical methods used, the evidence is very compelling to support the idea that when it comes to handguns the only thing that really matters is shot placement. Caliber size is irrelevant as long as the cartridge selected has sufficient penetrating power to penetrate the vital organs that will yield physical incapacitation.

One might be thinking, so if caliber is largely irrelevant then one’s preference is irrelevant and one should be free to opt for their favorite caliber. In my opinion, that ignores one’s ability with a cartridge. While I agree that shot placement is everything when it comes to physical incapacitation, gunfights are often decided by the first shot landing in the right place and that may not be the first shot fired. Okay, so then one should pick the cartridge they are most proficient with given the weapon choice? That’s the way I used to think.

I still think that opting to carry a weapon with the cartridge one is most proficient with is the best choice for a given day and a great place to start. I think there is a lot of value in developing proficiency with the cartridge with the lowest recoil that gets the job done. This idea got into my head as I spent more time shooting competitively and learning about the power factor concept. I’m not going to explain the power factor concept in this post, but I mention it in case anyone wants to go look it up and learn more about it. Within the context of this conversation, the key point is that less recoil translates into less recoil management one had to employ in order to take a follow up shot and that translates into less time between shots. To me this is very important because it means that with practice and training, one should be able to put more holes in the right places faster in a defensive situation. If one buys into what I’m thinking, then that means that 9mm, having the lowest power factor out of the other popular modern defensive pistol cartridges, provides the most potential for fast accurate hits. Given the same gun, opting for 9mm naturally yields the largest capacity.

CaliberWeightVelocityPower Factor
9mm124 gr1150 fps142
40 S&W180 gr1010 fps181
45 ACP230 gr890 fps204

Which brings us back full circle to my current opinion, caliber vs capacity shouldn’t be a debate and often I find that it’s not a debate if we can agree on a simple premise. That premise is that when it comes to self defense the simplest tool capable of doing the job with the easiest learning curve is the optimal choice. From that premise, all roads yield caliber size in favor of capacity when the tools are objectively evaluated for selection. So with that and as much as I enjoy my current defensive carry gun, I am open to developing proficiency with a simpler gun and cartridge with less recoil that is effective in it’s task and eventually replacing the current carry gun with it.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting folks go out to buy a new 9mm modern striker fired pistol if they don’t have one this very instant. I’m also not suggesting folks immediately stop carrying their 1911s and strap on that dusty Glock 19 that has been sitting in the safe but haven’t developed proficiency with. However, I think it’s worthwhile to detach emotion and put aside personal preference while evaluating whether one is carrying the best tool for the job and if they have the right skill level to be able to carry that tool confidently. If the result of that analysis is no, then I do think it’s worthwhile to start saving some money so that one can go pick up a 9mm modern striker fired pistol and start developing proficiency with it as soon as it’s reasonable to do so.

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