Competition Opinion Self Defense

Capacity Over Caliber Part Deux

Every time I engage in the caliber vs capacity debate, I end up ruffling some feathers. The feather ruffling often yields conversations that challenge my opinion and help me grow. So, here we go again.

I ruffled some feathers a few days ago with my updated take on the infamous and never ending caliber vs capacity debate. The best thing about that is that the feather ruffling led to some animated, but very insightful, exchanges that challenged my opinion. A few of these made me realize that my current opinion was very narrow minded.

At the risk (or benefit depending on perspective) of ruffling even more feathers, I want to expand a bit on my current opinion and what the discussions made me realize.

First and foremost, context matters and by context I’m talking about the application (or the mission). That context drives weapon system selection. The system is made up of many parts. It includes the weapon (and platform), the cartridge, the accessories, the supplementary gear, the carry method, and the shooter (including their skills). Another variable that can’t be ignored are the resources available in order to make adjustments or improvements to the weapons system.

I mention the weapon system because the shooter’s familiarity with it and skill level plays the largest role with what I consider to be the most important factors when it comes to shooting in general: accuracy and speed. In every application I can imagine, everything ultimately comes down to putting as many projectiles in the right places to accomplish the task at hand in the shortest time span possible. The two ways to reduce the time span are reducing split times (time between accurate shots fired) and reducing reloading time. The latter underscores the importance of capacity in a fairly obvious manner. The former is a bit more nuanced so I’ll talk a bit more about that first.

Before diving into it, I’m going to narrow the discussion by focusing on pistols. I’m doing this for the sake of brevity and also because the caliber vs capacity debate tends to me most prevalent to carry pistols intended for self defense. With that out of the way, let’s talk about split time reduction.

In my opinion, the most obvious factor when it comes to split times is skill. Folks with a highly developed level of skill can shoot accurately faster than folks with a lower level of skill given the same weapon system (including the same cartridge). It’s for this reason that I placed a strong emphasis on selecting a weapon with the lowest learning curve in the previous post. One very insightful conversation about that post helped me realize my bias towards a modern striker fired pistol (because it offered the simplest operating system) was short sighted and that I glossed over the importance of gun fit.

Proper gun fitment is extremely important and can’t be overstated. When a gun doesn’t fit a shooter properly, the shooter has to compensate in order to overcome deficiencies in the interface between the hands and the gun. In some cases with enough training and practice, a shooter can develop enough skill to shoot a bad fitting gun well. However, the improper fitment limits the shooter’s ability to shoot accurately at faster rates. I personally learned this less while attending a Carry the Day Texas Tactical Pistol/Rifle Class a while back. The difference in accurate shooting speed I experienced after switching to a gun with a good fit was night and day. While my experience is anecdotal, experienced pistol shooters and instructors tend to agree that proper fit is very important and can become a limiting factor for folks who are attempting to reach higher levels of skills.

In terms of operating system (or manual of arms), I suspect my bias towards modern striker fired pistols comes from my current skill level. While I do shoot competitively and I’m constantly working at getting better, I compete with what I carry. Which happens to be a modern striker fired pistol, which I haven’t found to be a limiting factor in my quest to develop a higher level of skill. That said, I failed to take into account that top competitive pistol shooters tend to use either CZ or 2011 style pistols as their race guns in the fastest competitive divisions. Both of those styles use slightly more complex operating systems, but tend to have much better triggers than striker fired pistols. Combining that observation with my previous statement of “I also don’t know a single armed self defense professional that wouldn’t suggest a modern striker fired semi automatic pistol” and some of the insights gained from conversations regarding the previous post, I’ve changed my opinion again and accept the possibility that at a certain point along the skill development journey to accurately shoot faster trading in the simpler striker fired pistol for the slightly more complex CZ or 2011 style pistol might be worth it. I strongly believe that holds true for competitive applications and should be considered for defensive carry applications.

I still believe that lower recoil is important to split time reduction. In my opinion, this simply comes down to how much effort or work is required to recover from the flip induced by the recoil and shoot again accurately. Less effort means faster recovery and faster accurate shooting. Lower recoil can be achieved two ways. The first is using a larger or heavier pistol. The second is opting for a smaller cartridge. As I’ve stated in the past, the cartridge has to be large and powerful enough to penetrate deep enough to perforate vital organs in order to achieve physical incapacitation and there is no evidence (such as the evidence presented in Greg Ellifritz’s study) suggesting that larger and more powerful pistol cartridges provide any meaningful benefit.

What about reducing reloading time? In my mind, the most obvious answer to this is using the largest capacity magazines available. However, I also think this solution is a bit naive. While I can’t deny that more bangs between reloads reduces reloading time, we can’t ignore that good hits reduce reloading time. In fact, good hits reduce overall engagement duration which includes reloading time.

From a competitive perspective, depending on the stage, after a bad hit (or miss) a competitor will have to choose between taking a follow up shot or taking the penalty in order to achieve the highest score possible on a stage. Taking additional follow up (or make up) shots means more shots fired on a stage and therefore might result in an additional reload that could have been avoided and therefore increasing the time spent reloading during the stage.

From a self defense perspective, after a bad hit (or miss) a defender may have to take an additional shot in order to physiologically incapacitate a target unless the target changes their mind (a psychological stop). In this context, reducing time between good hits also reduces the duration of the defensive encounter and reduces the number of shots required to end the encounter. A lower number of shots yields a lower number of reloads needed during the encounter and therefore less time spent reloading during the encounter.

Thinking about it that way, it seems to me that the same factors that reduce split times also indirectly reduce overall reloading time as well. For that reason, I prioritize gun fit, operating system, and lowest recoiling effective cartridge over magazine size.

That might sound like I’m choosing caliber over capacity. However, remember that this debate is usually had when talking about variants of the same gun and the decision process is a bit more nuanced than picking the gun with the largest caliber or the the gun with the largest capacity. For example, let’s consider that I’m selecting between a VP40 (chambered for .40 S&W with a 13+1 capacity), a VP9 (chambered for 9mm with a 15/17+1 capacity), a Glock 19 (chambered for 9mm with a 15/17/19/24/31/33+1 capacity), or a Glock 23 (chambered for .40 S&W with a 13/15/15/16/22+1 capacity). Using this example, I’m going to start by picking the guns with the best fit. For me that would be the VP40 and the VP9. Next, I’m going to pick the guns with the best operating system matched to my skill level. With this example, the VP40 and the VP9 still make the cut since they have the same striker fired operating system. Next, I’m going to pick the gun and cartridge combination with the lowest recoil. That leaves me with the VP9. Finally, I’m going to opt for the 17 round magazines. So in essence, I’m ending up with the best fitting gun chambered for the smallest effective cartridge with the largest capacity it is available in.

So what do I take away from all of this? The more I learn, the stronger my opinion is that capacity trumps caliber when it comes to defensive pistols. However, I also hold the opinion that capacity shouldn’t take precedence over weapon selection and more importantly weapon fitment. Slower hits are always preferable to fast misses (or what I like to call “bad hits” since that projectile comes to rest somewhere). Faster good hits are preferable to slower good hits.

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