This article provides guidance about cartridge choice. All the articles in this series may be found by entering “guns and liberty” into the SMM homepage search bar.
WHICH CARTRIDGE SHOULD I CHOOSE?
As the Texas Ranger suggested in an earlier article in this series, with 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 die 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 a revolver in .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 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 a jungle environment, and the FMJ 9mm rounds, though they had superior penetration characteristics, 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, relatively 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. The 1911 did not see service until after the end of the Moro conflict, but the preference for semiautos over revolvers as general issue weapons in the American military gained its first foothold. The model 1911 in various configurations and the .45 ACP have been very popular since and the 1911 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, though circa 2020, the military is replacing it with two Sig Sauer designs, the M17 and M18, both polymer framed, striker-fired 9mm designs..
Consider too the experience of Chuck Taylor, founder of the American Small Arms Academy, the school from which I am proud to hold instructor 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–capable of stopping rifle cartridges–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, I have been unable to find that article 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.
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 common.
Taylor’s article on handgun choice at the ASAA website is certainly worthy of your time. His article on handgun ammunition stopping power is also valuable for its rational, informed, and entirely sensible approach to the issue.
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 engage in lengthy proofs in the print and Internet gun community fraught with righteous anger and disdain and broad swipes at the lack of 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.
Keep in mind that by “effective,” I mean capable of stopping a deadly threat within a reasonable span of time. There is no such thing as a Star Trek phaser that instantly incapacitates–or vaporizes–an attacker with a single energy strike on the torso. Human physiology and psychology are so complex that people receiving mortal wounds from a single bullet may well continue to move, run, jump and carry out an attack even though they will collapse and die within seconds to minutes. People who also receive non-fatal, single bullet wounds have been known to instantly collapse and cease all hostile actions due to the OMG! I’ve been shot! effect. It is reasonable to train to deliver multiple shots to the center of mass–not at exactly the same spot-particularly when using handguns, as a means of having the best chance of ensuring a rapid stopping effect. As our military has discovered, it’s wise to do this with 5.56mm rifle bullets as well.
I have carried 9mm and .45 ACP cartridges–and the .40 S&W and .357 Magnum–and have never felt under-armed with either. In fact, I’ve been carrying the 9mm almost exclusively for the last eighteen years, for about the last six with the Hornady Critical Defense cartridge. Modern bullet design has substantially improved handgun cartridge performance. 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, such as recoil and muzzle flash.
A full-sized model 1911 has a standard 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 many people. In recognition of this reality, many companies produce 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 revolver.
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 gun banners fits. Irony can, upon occasion, be particularly satisfying.
I picked these handguns not only because I have long and very positive experience with Glocks and regularly recommend them, but because one can choose either 9mm, .40 S&W or .45 ACP (and other calibers) in multiple 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 harder to conceal.
SUBCOMPACT HANDGUN COMPARISON (weight in ounces):
photo credits: Glock and Ruger
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–which uses substantial polymer in its frame–with a speedloader yields 10.
There are a number of new Glocks of interest to those primarily interested in concealed carry, among them the Glock 43, which is nearly the same size at the Glock 26, but is narrower. To achieve this, a single stack magazine of six 9mm cartridges was necessary. Glock took a long time to bring this gun to market despite many competitors having similar weapons. I have two articles on the Glock 43, which I have carried for more than two years: here and here.
The G43 magazine holds 6 rounds, each directly atop the other. The Glock 17 magazine holds 17 rounds in a longer, heavier 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 G17 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 also markets its smallest handgun, the G42, in .380 ACP. It is fractionally smaller and lighter than the G43. A single stack pistol, it has a magazine capacity of only 6 rounds, providing only 7 rounds with a round in the chamber. Its specifications are:
G42: .380 ACP, Barrel: 3.25”, L: 5.94”, W:.94”, H: 4.13”, Weight: 13.76/14.36 (unloaded/loaded), 6 Round magazine capacity.
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 carrying spare ammunition: Speedloaders, and leather, polymer or nylon pouches.
This is a Safariland speedloader (Safariland makes several different models). When I was required by regulations to carry a .357 revolver, I carried three Comp I speedloaders. 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 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–in the traditional sense of sensuously curved lines, deeply blued steel and beautifully rendered walnut–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. Several years ago, I traded my Glock 26 for a 43, primarily because Mrs. Manor was fond of the 43, and it’s good to be able to share magazines. Even Chuck Taylor, who used to exclusively carry a custom 1911, has been carrying Glocks for many years.
Caliber choice may take precedence over make or model. As article 11 of this series noted, 1000 rounds of .45 ACP practice ammunition costs—circa April, 2020—about $319.99, while 1000 rounds of 9mm practice ammunition costs only about $213.99 and .40 S&W, about $299.99. If ammunition cost isn’t a disqualifier, one might consider a .45, but if cost is a matter of some concern, one will obviously be able to practice a great deal more with a 9mm. Ultimately, it is practice, and the ability to place shots precisely under stress that will largely determine effectiveness. In any case, Sig, Walther, Smith and Wesson, Glock and other manufacturers make a wide variety of fine handguns in each of the common calibers, though their prices vary widely.
If your heart is set on a Sig or a Walther, a Ruger, or a Smith and Wesson has caught your eye, no problem; they make fine firearms and I own several Smiths and have owned several Walthers too. 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 dissemble, clean and reassemble (an important consideration with any firearm) and above all, they work. There are good reasons Glock essentially owns the American law enforcement market. And as I noted, they are available in large, medium and compact sizes in every popular caliber, and in more configurations than ever before.
NOTE FOR THE NEW SHOOTER: As I’m sure will become apparent in the comments, some people despise Glocks for a variety of reasons, and some are–should we say–unusually passionate, even a bit concerning, in their preferences and opinions. Brand loyalty and personal preferences exist in every sort of product. The discerning reader will note that I do not disparage other brands, and own non-Glock firearms, but I carry a Glock daily because it is reliable, accurate and meets my particular needs.
If you are a new shooter, take care not to fall into changing handguns like shoes. Yes, it’s great fun, but building ability and situational awareness must take precedence. 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. If you’re not certain–absolutely certain–a firearm is loaded or chambered, don’t pull the trigger to find out; visually and physically check the chamber and magazine well and be sure and safe.
You’ll almost certainly try a variety of holsters, magazine pouches, and a variety of other accessories. That’s OK too. We’re individuals, 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 relative lack of recoil, accuracy, generally larger magazine capacity in most handguns, and relatively low cost. I can afford to 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, and the cartridge I’ve chosen will be maximally effective. This confidence is hard won and priceless.
How much will a quality handgun cost? Contemporary guns range from $400 to $550, though some may be found slightly less expensively, and others reach into the $800-$1000 dollar range. H&K makes fine handguns, but they tend to be pricey, while many 1911 models made by Ruger and a variety of other manufacturers also cost $800 and more. With handguns, as with everything else, you get what you pay for, and those that buy cheap handguns merely to get something in their hand as quickly as possible inevitably end up spending more to buy the more expensive and higher quality gun they really should have bought in the first place as soon as they gain enough experience to realize their mistake.
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 next article in this series, next Tuesday focuses on holster choice. I hope to see you there.