In this installment of the seven part series (the first five installments may be found here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5), I’ll explore the basics of cartridge and gun choice, and add a few interesting additional tidbits. As we embark on the two final articles, keep in mind that there is no such thing as the perfect gun or cartridge, a universally wonderful combination that works equally well for everyone. While my daily carry gun is a Glock 26 embellished with a few helpful accessories, before that gun was invented, I carried a variety of handguns, including a Glock 19, A Browning BDA .380, a S&W Model 59 (much modified), A Colt Commander, and even a Colt Detective Special, to name a few. Even today I occasionally carry a S&W Bodyguard .380.
Cartridge choices for handguns are relatively simple. For revolvers, the .38 Special and .357 Magnum predominate. Federal has recently introduced a .327 Magnum cartridge which produces muzzle energy greater than the 9mm but less than the .40 S&W (in the area of 430 FP), but it remains to be seen if it captures a lasting place in the American cartridge catalogue. One can also obtain revolvers in .44 Special, .44 Magnum and larger, much more powerful, specialized cartridges most commonly used for hunting, but for most people choosing a revolver, the choice is .38 Special or .357 Magnum. The .357 is nothing more than a .38 special with a slightly longer case which allows more powder, greater bullet velocity, and therefore, more power.
How much more velocity and power? Remington provides a handy means to compare such things with their ammunition. Bullet velocity is commonly measured at the muzzle, 50 and 100 yards for handgun ammunition, and is expressed in feet per second (FPS). Bullet energy is also measured at those distance points and is expressed in foot pounds (FP). Bullets are weighed in grains. I’ve compiled a table using Remington’s data for the six most popular handgun cartridges. Only the .38 SP and the .357 Magnum are purpose-designed revolver cartridges.
What do these numbers mean? Generally speaking, the heavier the bullet, and the faster it can be propelled, the better. This combination will generally result in the greatest amount of energy, which generally results in the greatest potential stopping power. However, keep in mind that only rifle ammunition has what might be considered true “stopping power,” and even that is subject to various caveats. The idea that there is such a thing–particularly in common handgun ammunition–as a bullet that will immediately end a deadly threat with a single impact is an iffy proposition. Much depends upon bullet placement. All handgun ammunition is a compromise between potential effectiveness and the ability to carry a defensive weapon at all as rifles tend to be hard to carry and particularly to conceal.
I’ve included the 50 and 100 yard figures primarily as a means of comparison for the technically minded. What really matters is muzzle velocity and energy because very few gunfights take place beyond seven yards (most are much closer, in the area of 7 feet or even less). At such distances, very little—if any–velocity and energy is lost from the figures obtained at the muzzle.
Notice that the muzzle energy figures for the 9mm and the .45 ACP are similar but their velocity figures are quite different. The 9mm obviously produces its energy through greater speed while the .45 does it via its much greater bullet weight. At the same time, the .357 Magnum produces much greater muzzle energy and velocity which might lead us to believe that it is far more effective than the 9mm or the .45, yet real world experience suggests that the .45 is the superior stopper among the three. I’ll be writing an article in the future on bullet stopping power, drawing on several of the best sources of the last few decades. The point is that when it comes to stopping power with handguns, there is far more involved than just bullet weight, muzzle energy and velocity, though they are a useful means of comparison.
Smaller revolvers like the Ruger LCR are chambered only in .38 special (there is a .357 model, the KLCR-357 which is slightly larger and more solidly built), and while any revolver chambered for .357 magnum will also fire .38 special ammunition, the opposite is not true.
NOTE: .38 special ammunition may be safely fired in revolvers chambered for .357 magnum, but .357 magnum may not safely be fired in revolvers chambered for .38 special ammunition. Thankfully, the cylinders of .38 special revolvers are generally too short to chamber .357, but one should never fire ammunition other than than specified by the manufacturer in any weapon.
It would be wise to consider .38 special to be the smallest cartridge appropriate for self defense in revolvers. Smaller calibers are available, but there is no advantage in size or otherwise in such weapons. Revolvers chambered for .357 magnum and larger calibers are themselves larger and heavier, often much larger and heavier, than smaller, short barreled revolvers chambered in .38 special.
Common cartridge choices for semiautos are somewhat more numerous: .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W and .45 ACP predominate. Again, there are a variety of other available cartridges, but these are the primary four. Of the four, the .40 S&W is the most recent, having been developed from the 10mm cartridge as a shorter cartridge with less brutal recoil characteristics. It does approximate the performance of some .45 ACP ammunition with lighter bullet weights, while being physically small enough to use the same frames and slides as guns chambered in 9mm. Generally speaking, none of these cartridges is interchangeable. Particularly with semiautos, one should load and fire only those cartridges for which a given handgun was designed. In this genre, the .380 is generally considered the smallest cartridge effective for self defense. Handguns chambered for it, such as the polymer Ruger LCP, can be very small and light indeed, but as with very small and light revolvers, tend to have mediocre sights and triggers and because of their very light weight and small size, tend to impart considerably more recoil energy to the shooter. The muzzle flash and report of these weapons is also prodigious. This often results in equally mediocre accuracy.
Cartridges are commonly named for their bullet diameter and developer, or to clearly differentiate them from similar cartridges. The .357 Magnum, for instance, fires a bullet whose diameter is 357/1000 of an inch, and the “magnum” designation is intended to denote a more powerful version of the .38 Special, which fires a bullet of the same diameter. The .357 gains its extra power from a slightly longer case, which allows slightly more powder. The .40 S&W fires a bullet of 400/1000 inch diameter, and major development work was done by Smith and Wesson. It is essentially a development of the 10mm cartridge, but the case is slightly shorter to allow smaller framed weapons to fire it with less recoil. Again, the .40 S&W designation clearly differentiates it from 10mm ammunition, though both fire bullets of essentially the same diameter. While it is possible to fire .40 S&W ammunition in a handgun chambered for 10mm, the opposite is not true, and again, it is always best to fire only that ammunition for which a gun is specifically chambered, particularly with semiautos.
BROAD AMMUNITION GENERALIZATIONS:
For self defense, only jacketed hollow points should be used. Hollow points have the greatest likelihood of expending more of their energy within a target–thus having the maximum stopping effect–and the least likelihood of over-penetration and ricochet as they will tend to “mushroom” or fragment on impact with solid objects. Full metal jacket, or “hardball” ammunition–lead bullets fully encased with copper and with rounded noses–are military issue due to international treaties and because of the military need for greater penetration of cover.
These are common 9mm cartridges. From right to left, is a Remington full metal jacket (FMJ) cartridge, a Remington jacketed hollow point (JHP) cartridge, and a more recent development, a Hornady “Critical Defense” cartridge. The red polymer insert in the hollowpoint cavity is designed to prevent clothing fibers from filling the cavity and preventing fully expansion of the bullet.
In the military context, it is often better to wound than to kill an enemy. A wounded enemy takes three people out of the fight: the wounded soldier and two of his comrades to carry him. FMJ ammunition is entirely appropriate–and much cheaper–for practice, but not for daily carry.
NOTE: Some of our more recent enemies do not share our determination to leave no man behind on the battlefield. This may eventually factor into ammunition design for our military. It seems rather silly to fret over the potential damage done to an enemy by a hollow point pistol or rifle bullet when we’re simultaneously shooting them with 30mm cannon rounds from attack helicopters or missiles launched from drones that actually tear them limb from limb or reduce them to atoms.
On February 17, 2013, I published an article titled “Billions And Billions Of Bullets,” dealing with the truly extraordinary numbers of cartridges being published by various agencies of the Federal Government, agencies like the Social Security Administration one might think would have no need for such purchases. The overwhelming majority of handgun cartridges being purchased are hollow points. As I explained in that article, hollow point ammunition is duty ammunition, ammunition intended for serious, deadly purposes, not training ammunition. Training/practice ammunition is quite a different matter.
Practice ammunition, whether with lead bullets or jacketed bullets, generally does not use hollow point bullets, and is therefore generally substantially cheaper than carry/duty ammo, however, it is often of lower power and will therefore have different recoil, report and muzzle flash characteristics than carry ammo. In fact, some light-loaded practice/target ammunition may cause malfunctions in some semiautos. This is so because their springs must be designed to function with the more powerful carry ammunition. The lesson is to practice, upon occasion, with the ammunition you intend to carry.
Another significant issue is ammunition cost. If you’re going to be truly proficient, if you’re going to have the confidence that will help to ensure that you’ll likely be able to avoid using a handgun, which should be your preferred outcome, you must practice–and practice correctly–regularly. Anyone can learn to shoot, but shooting well under pressure is an acquired skill, and a skill that is degraded without consistent, correct practice.
All of the ammunition that follows was priced in lots of 1000. This may sound like a great deal of ammunition, but when learning to shoot–particularly if you attend professional schools–this amount of ammo can be consumed with amazing speed. Revolver cartridges and the .380 can be sometimes difficult to find in 1000 round lots, but when purchased in that quantity, one can usually save $20 or more over the per-box price. The prices listed are quite close to those of other brands currently for sale on the ammo market. Hollow point ammunition suitable for concealed carry normally comes in 50 round boxes, but every manufacturer markets ammunition claimed to be nothing short of miraculous in 20 to 25 round boxes at much higher prices.
In revolvers, .38 special ammo is generally cheaper than .357 ammo of the same type, and this is particularly true for ammo employing lead bullets. Be aware, however, that .357 practice ammo with lead bullets is infamous for leaving significant amounts of lead fouling in revolver barrels, requiring time, tools and dedication to remove (too much fouling degrades accuracy and can actually be dangerous). In semiautos, 9mm ammo is generally much cheaper than the other three most common types and is generally much more readily available. Checking prices on the Midway USA site (a popular supplier of ammunition and all things gun–I’ve found them uniformly excellent to work with–their web site can be found here) circa Early March, 2014 I found these prices for 1000 round lots of common ammunition:
NOTE: As this article is reprised in early March, 2014, the significant national ammunition shortage that drastically drove up ammunition prices has begun to abate. Most common ammunition–with the exception of.22LR–is easier to find and much more plentiful, though there are still shortages in many places at least part of the time. Prices are still somewhat higher than when the latest run on ammunition began, but I was able to buy Remington .380 practice ammunition–FMJ, brass cased and reloadable–for about $15.00 per box of 50 cartridges last week at a local WalMart, a good price indeed. Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats continue to be the greatest ammunition and firearm salesmen America has ever known.
Legend: LRN: Lead Round Nose. FMJ: Full Metal Jacket—the bullet is round nosed and fully encased in a copper jacket. JSP: Jacketed Soft Point—the bullet has a partial jacket with a flattened lead nose exposed. SJSP: Semi-Jacketed Soft Point–the bullet has a partial jacket with a flattened lead nose exposed. Bullet weights are expressed in grains. All are listed in 1000 round case lots. All have fully reloadable brass.
Magtech .38 Special, 158 Gr. LRN, $309.99
Magtech .357 Magnum, 158 gr. SJSP, $452.99
Magtech .380 ACP, 95 gr. FMJ, $304.99
CCI Blazer 9mm, 115 grain FMJ, $252.99
Remington UMC .40 S&W, 180 gr. FMJ, $379.99
Remington UMC .45 ACP, 230 gr. FMJ RN, $439.99
By way of comparison, 2000 rounds of .22LR ammunition–and there are many models chambered for this caliber in revolvers and semiautos–can currently be had for about $389.00 (about $195.00 per thousand). This is a relatively high price for what used to be very inexpensive ammunition. Midway’s catalog lists many different types of .22LR, but virtually every one of them is out of stock with no backorders being accepted, which means that Midway can’t predict when they’ll have them in stock.
However, .22LR is not a good choice for a self-defense arm, though for a backup gun to be used only at near contact range as a last resort if a primary arm is lost or out of ammunition (an article on just such a weapon is available here), it is a reasonable choice. That said, the .22LR is a very versatile–though currently hard to find and relatively expensive–cartridge and no shooter should be without at least one .22LR rifle, and arguably, a .22LR handgun, but more about that later
New Factory Ammunition Alternatives:
The ammunition about which I’ve been speaking to this point is factory loaded with all new components. A great deal of money can be saved with factory-reloaded ammunition. Such ammunition is usually loaded with once fired (and properly cleaned and resized) brass and sometimes less expensive bullets. This allows a manufacturer to provide a line of quality ammunition at very reasonable prices, particularly when compared with their top of the line defensive ammunition.
Such ammunition is virtually always completely reliable, however, it is a good idea to use nothing but first quality ammunition loaded with all new components in a firearm upon which you depend for your safety.
One can also save quite a bit of money by reloading ammunition, which for many people is enjoyable. Once the necessary equipment has been purchased, the price per round can be lower than even factory-reloaded ammunition. However, reloading is labor intensive and time consuming. Many experienced shooters buy their handgun practice ammunition in bulk and reload only specific, larger rifle cartridges, taking great time and care to produce the most accurate ammunition possible.
WHICH CARTRIDGE SHOULD I CHOOSE?
As the Texas Ranger suggested earlier, in ammunition, bigger is sometimes better. Consider the Moro uprising of 1899-1913. The Moros, Islamic revolutionaries in the Phillipines, fought a protracted jungle war with the US Army. This was America’s first real war against an Islamic enemy (save the Barbary Pirates in Jefferson’s time) and its first jungle war. The Moros were small in stature, being only a bit over five feet tall on average, but were fierce and fearless, willing to sacrifice themselves in mass ambush attacks. Many would drug themselves prior to combat, lowering their resistance to pain and increasing their homicidal rage.
At the time, the US Army’s issued revolver was a .38 caliber which was quickly discovered to be wanting. The round nosed lead bullets fired at slow velocities might inflict wounds on a charging, drug crazed Moro that would eventually result in his death, but proved to be exceptionally poor in stopping such charges, even with multiple torso hits.
Desperate for a better gun/cartridge combination, the Army first tried several thousand German Lugers in 9mm. They were beautifully designed and made pistols, but they were complex and prone to malfunction in jungle fighting and the FMJ 9mm rounds were no more effective at stopping the Moro. These were soon replaced with Colt revolvers in .45 caliber, and though less technologically advanced than the Luger and 9mm, the heavy, slow bullets were effective in stopping Moro warriors.
In 1911 the Army adopted what is authentic American genius John M. Browning’s most enduring handgun design: The Colt 1911 semiautomatic pistol in .45 ACP. Large, heavy and reliable, the 1911 fired much heavier jacketed .45 caliber bullets that proved to be excellent man stoppers, however they did not see service until after the end of the Moro conflict. Revolvers would never again be a general issue weapon in the American military. The model 1911 in various configurations and the .45 ACP have been very popular since and is still used by elite U.S. forces. The Beretta M9 (military version of the 92F) 9mm pistol was adopted for general military issue in 1985.
Consider too the experience of Chuck Taylor, founder of the American Small Arms Academy the school from which I am proud to hold instructor’s certification. Many years ago when Taylor was the editor of SWAT Magazine, he conducted an experiment that remains controversial to this day. To better gauge the energy imparted to a human being by the various popular calibers, he donned a high threat level bullet resistant vest and was shot—at near point blank range–by a variety of weapons and bullets to gather data on the strength of bullet impact as felt by a human target.
Taylor wore metal trauma plates over the thick Kevlar of the vest, and it was on the trauma plates—they were frequently replaced to avoid the possibility of unintended penetration–that all rounds were stopped. Unfortunately, that test is not, to my knowledge, available on the internet. However, I recall that of all the rounds tested, up to and including a .7.62 (.308) fired from a battle rifle, no round imparted greater felt impact energy, and by a considerable margin, than the pistol caliber .44 Magnum fired from—if memory serves—a revolver with a 6″ barrel.
So are we to conclude that a heavy handgun bullet (app. 240 grains) in .44 caliber is more effective than a heavy rifle bullet (app. 168 grains) in .30 caliber traveling essentially twice as fast? If bullet diameter and weight and velocity were all that mattered, that might be a reasonable assumption. However, there is no question that the .308 is a far more deadly round in actual combat where body armor is not the rule and where greater distance is more common.
This brings up one of the classic shooter controversies: 9mm vs. .45 ACP. The basic argument is which is best, a larger/heavier, slower bullet, or a smaller/lighter but faster bullet? Proponents on each side often engage in lengthy proofs in the print and Internet gun community fraught with righteous anger and disdain and broad swipes at the manhood of opponents supported by scientifically derived (or not) ballistic tables and anecdotal evidence of horrendous failures of the cartridge they disfavor. The truth is any of the cartridges I mention here, properly placed, will be effective. Poorly placed, the most powerful handgun cartridge will have minimal effect.
In truth, I have carried both cartridges and have never felt under-armed with either. In fact, I’ve been carrying the 9mm almost exclusively for the last sixteen years. There are indeed instances where people have been shot multiple times with either cartridge and have barely been affected, only to more or less fully recover later. On the other hand, there are many instances of attackers being completely and immediately stopped by single rounds. Generally, the .45ACP has a well-deserved reputation as a man-stopper and will, in objective, “scientific” measurements tend to outperform smaller, lighter calibers. Interestingly, the .357 125 grain JHP, when scientific measures are applied, often bests both. However, there are many other factors to consider.
A full-sized model 1911 has a seven-round magazine of .45ACP. It is an excellent, but large and heavy handgun and while some people do commonly carry it, it is hardly an optimal concealed carry choice for most people. In recognition of this reality, a number of companies produce many models of the 1911 with smaller proportions. Because the focus of this article is on concealed carry, following are the specifications of three Glock handguns, all subcompact models, and the Ruger LCR.
Keep in mind that it was the decade-long (now thankfully defunct) Clinton gun ban that gave birth to the Glock 26 and a great many other similarly sized handguns by other manufacturers. Under the ban, new magazines were limited to 10 rounds, so Glock, whose smallest gun at the time was the G19 with a 15 round magazine, designed the G26 for ten round magazines, making a much more concealable weapon that still carried an impressive amount of ammunition. It certainly gave the gun banners fits. Irony can, upon occasion, be particularly satisfying.
I picked these handguns not only because I am fond of Glocks and regularly recommend them, but because one can choose either 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP in three separate, imminently concealable handguns that are, for all intents and purposes, nearly identical in size and weight. One can find a variety of larger handguns with larger ammunition capacity, but all will be heavier and much harder to conceal.
SUBCOMPACT HANDGUN COMPARISON (weight in ounces):
G26: 9mm, Barrel: 3.46”, L: 6.29”, W:1.18”, H: 4.17”, Weight: 19.75/26.1 (unloaded/loaded), 10 Round magazine capacity.
G27: .40 S&W, Barrel: 3.46”, L: 6.29”, W:1.18”, H: 4.17”, Weight: 19.75/26.98, 9 Round magazine capacity.
G36: .45ACP, Barrel: 3.78”, L: 6.77”, W:1.13”, H: 4.76”, Weight:20.11/26.96, 6 Round magazine capacity.
LCR: .38 Special, Barrel: 1.875”, L: 6.5”, W: 1.283”, H: 4.5”, Weight: 13.5 unloaded, 5 round capacity.
Notice that the .45 ACP model is larger and heavier than its 9mm and .40 S&W cousins, but not by much, which is a testament to Glock design and engineering. The largest difference is in magazine capacity. With one round in the chamber and a spare magazine, carrying a Glock 26 yields 21 rounds. For the Glock 27 it’s 19, and for the 36, 13. A Ruger LCR with a speedloader yields 10.
There are two primary types of magazines: single and double stack. This photo depicts a single stack magazine—for the Walther P22 pistol in .22 LR—and a double stack magazine—for the Glock 26 in 9mm.
The Walther magazine holds 10 rounds, each directly atop the other. The Glock magazine also holds 10 rounds of much larger ammunition in a shorter magazine. It does this by means of making the magazine wider so that each round can slightly overlap the others (notice the windows in the back of the Glock magazine). While this makes the grip of the handgun larger in diameter, the Glock design minimizes this problem because it has no grip panels that must be attached to the frame by means of screws, adding width. The entire grip/frame is polymer and can be quite thin yet very strong.
Glock has recently introduced an entirely new handgun in .45 ACP, the G30S. This weapon has a slimmer slide and overall smaller configuration, yet has a double stack 10 round magazine. It’s an intriguing combination, but because it is so new, I have no actual experience with it.
The Glock 26 and 27 use double stack magazines, but in order to keep the Glock 36 as compact as possible–roughly the same size as the 26 and 27–a single stack magazine is necessary. Despite being much smaller than the full-sized Colt model 1911, the little Glock has an ammunition capacity of only one fewer round.
For revolvers, there are two primary means of rapid reloading: Speedloaders and leather or nylon pouches.
This is a Safariland speedloader (Safariland makes several different models). Cartridges are snapped into the device and when it is inserted into the cylinder and pushed against the ejector star, the device releases the cartridges into the cylinder. With practice, very quick reloads are possible. Various pouches that fit on the belt are also available, but the cartridges must be loaded by hand. With practice, it’s not difficult to load two at a time with reasonable speed, but of course, this method is surely slower than reloading using a speedloader, which is—for most people—slower than reloading a semiauto with magazines.
The choice of a handgun for daily concealed carry can be quite complex, yet once one has settled on a cartridge, it may come down to nothing more than the appearance of the weapon or the way it feels in the hand. Few handguns are more beautiful or feel more comfortable and “right” in the hand than the Browning Hi-Power in 9mm (John Moses Browning was indeed a genius). Once one masters the manual of arms, few handguns are easier to shoot with great speed and accuracy than the model 1911, and I’ve owned several 1911’s and a Hi-Power. Yet I adopted Glocks, buying one of the first Glock 19’s available where I was living when they were introduced to the United States and I haven’t looked back. When the Glock 26 was introduced, I snatched up the first gun I could find. I’ve been carrying them since, recently trading my generation three for a generation four 26. Even Chuck Taylor, who used to carry a custom 1911, has been carrying Glocks in .40 S&W for a long time.
If your heart is set on a Sig or a Walther, or a Smith and Wesson has caught your eye, no problem; they make fine firearms. My point is merely that Glocks do everything a carry handgun should do. They are utterly reliable, easy to shoot well, light, virtually indestructible, operate with revolver-like simplicity, are safe, accurate, very easy to clean and above all, they simply work. There are many good reasons Glock owns the American law enforcement market. And as I noted, they are available in large, medium and compact sizes in every popular caliber.
If you are a new shooter, take care not to fall into changing handguns like shoes. Yes, it’s great fun, but what you need to do is build your abilities and your situational awareness. Find one handgun that works for you and learn everything about it. Shoot it as often as possible and carry it until its safe and effective use is second nature, but remember that over-familiarity causes negligent discharges. Any firearm must always be respected, and there is never a legitimate reason to ignore basic safety rules.
You’ll almost certainly try a variety of holsters, magazine pouches, and a variety of other accessories. That’s OK too, for we’re different and have different lives and needs. But one thing needs to remain the same as you learn and grow in awareness and effectiveness: your handgun.
One primary reason I settled on the 9mm is its lack of recoil, accuracy and relatively low cost. I can shoot it a great deal and maintain my skills. I am confident that should I ever have to use the weapon to defend my life or the lives of others, every shot will impact where I want it to impact. This confidence is hard won and priceless.
The most important weapon you’ll be using is your mind. It is this that must be trained and improved. Your handgun is merely a tool employed in the process, but every craftsman uses the best, most reliable tools he can possible afford, because anything less produces inferior results.
The last installment of this series—which will be posted on Wednesday, March 12, 2014–will focus on the issues and equipment relating to carrying a concealed handgun and several other related topics.