Having considered the first ten installments of this series–All the articles in this series may be found by entering “guns and liberty” into the SMM homepage search bar–perhaps you’ve decided you prefer semiautomatics over revolvers, and want a compact semiautomatic pistol for daily concealed carry. The next substantial question to be answered is: what caliber? Appropriate handguns are available in .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45ACP and a few other common calibers. Which is “best?” As the partial model chart from Glock in 9mm only illustrates, there are many choices available from that manufacturer alone in all of the common handgun size categories—very concealable to full-sized duty handguns–and many, regardless of caliber, are very close to the same compact size and weight.
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, or that is so unquestionably superior to everything else available it would be foolish to carry anything else. While my daily carry gun is a very concealable Glock 43 augmented with a Crimson Trace LL-803 light/laser, before that gun was invented, I carried a variety of handguns, including a Glock 19, a glock 26, A Browning BDA .380, a S&W Model 59 (much modified), A much-modified 1911, a Colt Commander, a Browning Hi-Power, and even a Colt Detective Special, to name a few. Even today I occasionally carry a S&W Bodyguard in .380 ACP.
Cartridge choices for handguns are relatively simple. For revolvers, the .38 Special and .357 Magnum predominate. 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? Gun News Daily.com provides a pretty comprehensive comparison of contemporary cartridges. Bullet velocity is commonly measured at the muzzle and is expressed in feet per second (FPS). Bullet energy is expressed in foot pounds (FP). The weight of bullets is expressed in grains. A 125 grain bullet weighs about .285 ounces. As distance increases, velocity and energy decrease.
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 highest energy level, 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 caliber or bullet configuration 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.
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 less). At such distances, very little velocity and energy is lost from the figures obtained at the muzzle.
Notice that the muzzle energy figures for the 9mm (+P– faster velocity–in this case) and the .45 ACP are similar–the 9mm is higher–but their velocity figures are quite different. The 9mm+P 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. 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–if limited–means of basic comparison.
Smaller revolvers like the Ruger LCR are designed for concealed carry. This revolver is produced in .22LR, .22WMR, .38 Special, .327 Federal Magnum, .357 Magnum, and 9mm Luger. 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 that 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 real 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 (Automatic Colt Pistol), 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 energetic recoil characteristics. The .40 S&W 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, though in some makes and models, the pressures generated by the .40 caliber round have produced some longevity issues when compared with the same general weapon 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 class, the .380 is generally considered the smallest cartridge effective for self-defense. It is true that people have been stopped and killed by the common .22LR, but simply because it is possible to stop or kill an attacker with a .22 doesn’t means it’s a wise choice of defensive ammunition. Handguns chambered for the .380, such as the polymer Ruger LCP, and the updated Ruger LCP-II can be very small and light indeed, but as with very small and light revolvers, tend to have mediocre sights and triggers (that on the LCP-II is a significant improvement over the LCP) and because of their very light weight and small size, tend to impart considerable recoil energy to the shooter. The muzzle flash and report of these weapons may also be surprising. These factors often result in 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 with a diameter of 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 gunpowder. 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 and less long-term stress on the frame, slide and barrel. 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, always fire only that ammunition for which a gun is specifically chambered, particularly with semiautos.
BROAD AMMUNITION GENERALIZATIONS:
For self-defense, hollow points have the greatest likelihood of expending more of their energy within a target–thus having the maximum potential 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 Hornady “Critical Defense” cartridge—the cartridge I carry. The red polymer insert in the hollow point cavity is designed to prevent clothing fibers from filling the cavity and preventing full expansion of the bullet.
In the military context, it is often better to wound than to kill an enemy. Theoretically, a wounded enemy takes three people out of the fight, at least temporarily: the wounded soldier and two of his comrades to tend and carry him, but the need to immediately stop a criminal attacker is a very different state of affairs. FMJ ammunition is entirely appropriate–and usually much cheaper–for practice, but not for daily carry, as it tends to be a less effective stopper, and often over-penetrates.
NOTE: Some of our more recent enemies do not share our determination to leave no man behind on the battlefield, nor do they universally try to medically evacuate their wounded. 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 cannon rounds from rotary and fixed wing aircraft, or blowing them apart with grenades, or missiles launched from drones that actually tear them limb from limb or reduce them to atoms.
Hollow point ammunition is duty ammunition, ammunition intended for serious, deadly purposes, not training or target practice. Training/practice ammunition is best suited for training.
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. Some light-loaded practice/target ammunition may cause malfunctions in some semiautos. This is so because their springs must be designed to function with more powerful carry ammunition. The lesson is to occasionally practice with the ammunition one intends to carry.
NOTE: A malfunction is a stoppage that can be quickly–mere seconds–cleared by hand and the firearm restored to firing status. A jam is a stoppage that requires tools–and time–to resolve.
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 having to use 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 within even a day. Revolver cartridges and the .380 can be sometimes harder 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, circa April, 2020, 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–such as Hornady’s Critical Defense cartridges–in 20 to 25 round boxes at much higher prices.
In revolvers, .38 special ammo is generally cheaper than .357 ammo of the same bullet configuration, 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. Interestingly, .380 ACP, though using less brass and lighter bullets, is substantially more expensive that the larger, more powerful 9mm cartridge.
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. Keep in mind ammunition prices can vary considerably. from place to place. I found these prices (circa April, 2019) for 1000 round lots of common ammunition:
NOTE: During the Obama era, ammo costs were astronomical, and many common rounds were scarce, forcing rationing on retailers. This trend reversed during the first three years of the Trump Administration, and ammo was once again plentiful and back to normal price levels. However, with the Coronavirus, common calibers are again scarce, prices have increased, and rationing, when ammo is available, is common.
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, $314.99
Magtech .357 Magnum, 158 gr. SJSP, $462.99
Magtech .380 ACP, 95 gr. FMJ, $258.99
Magtech 9mm, 115 grain FMJ, $213.99
Magtech .40 S&W, 180 gr. FMJ, $299.99
Magtech .45 ACP, 230 gr. FMJ RN, $319.99
By comparison, 500 rounds of Remington Thunderbolt .22LR ammunition–-and there are many models chambered for this caliber in revolvers and semiautos–-can currently be had for $26.99.
The .22LR is an important, standard cartridge, and few even moderately serious shooters do not have at least one gun chambered for it. Hopefully, as supply once again catches up with demand, it will once again be easy to find. Remember 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, and .22 LR is much, much better than nothing.
The .22LR remains a very versatile cartridge and no shooter should be without at least one .22LR rifle, and arguably, a .22LR handgun—Glock finally produced a .22LR handgun, the G44–but more about the .22LR in later articles.
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–usually marketed as “remanufactured”–ammunition. Such ammunition is usually loaded with once fired (and properly cleaned and resized) brass and usually less expensive bullets. This allows a manufacturer to provide a line of quality ammunition at reasonable prices, particularly when compared with their top of the line defensive ammunition.
Such ammunition is virtually always 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, a sort of Zen experience. Once the necessary equipment has been purchased, the price per round can be lower than even remanufactured ammunition. In the first years of the age of Trump, the availability of brass, bullets, powder and primers was longer an issue, and prices were reasonable, but one can expect Coronavirus-related shortages for some time.
Absent buying a progressive or automated reloading system, reloading is labor intensive and time consuming. Obviously, it requires consistent focus and attention to detail. 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 is one of the advantage of handloading.
The next article will cover the primary factors to be considered in choosing a caliber. I hope to see you there.