cartridge choice, Crimson Trace, Glock, Hornady Critical Defense, John M. Browning, Model 1911, Moro Uprising, negligent discharges, revolver speedloaders, Ruger, Safariland, Sig, Smith & Wesson
This article provides additional guidance about cartridge choice. All the articles in this series may be found by entering “guns and liberty 2023” 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 often better. The largest, heaviest bullet propelled at the highest velocity will usually be most effective. 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, allowing them to feel little pain and increasing their homicidal rage.
At the time, the US Army 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 (full metal jacketed) 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 .45 caliber, FMJ bullets that proved to be superior 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 some elite U.S. forces. The Beretta M9 (military version of the 92F) 9mm pistol was adopted for general military issue in 1985, though circa 2022, the military has mostly replaced 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. He was among the world’s finest firearms instructors, but sadly, died in May of 2020. 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 effects 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 line, which is not surprising as it was published before the Internet was ubiquitous. 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, weight and velocity were all that mattered, that might be a reasonable assumption. However, there is no question the .308 is a far more deadly round in actual combat where body armor is not universal and where greater distance is 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 engage in lengthy proofs in print and Internet platforms 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. To paraphrase a venerable axiom: “speed is nice, but accuracy is final.” Obviously, one wants the best combination possible, but a very fast miss is still a miss.
Keep in mind that by “effective,” I mean capable of stopping a deadly threat within a reasonable span of time—more or less immediately. 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 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. The famous Mozambique drill—two shots to center mass, one to the head—is a time-honored option. As our military has discovered, it’s wise to make multiple hits with 5.56mm rifle bullets as well.
I have carried 9mm and .45 ACP cartridges–and the .40 S&W, .38 special and .357 Magnum–and have never felt under-armed with any. In fact, I’ve been carrying the 9mm almost exclusively for the last two decades, for about the last decade with the Hornady Critical Defense cartridge. Modern engineering and bullet design have substantially improved handgun cartridge performance. There are indeed instances where people have been shot multiple times with the aforementioned cartridges 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—usually penetration tests in ballistic gelatin–-often bests both. However, there are many other factors to consider, such as recoil and muzzle flash, which with any .357 cartridge tend to be substantial. I used to joke, when required to carry that 125 grain cartridge, that even if I missed, the bad guys would be incinerated by the muzzle blast.
A full-sized model 1911, with a standard seven-round magazine of .45ACP, 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–it sunset in 2004) 1994 Clinton gun ban that gave birth to the Glock 26 and a great many other similarly sized handguns by other manufacturers. Under that 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 anti-liberty/gun cractivists fits. Irony can, upon occasion, be particularly satisfying. Circa 2023, D/S/C gun banners remain determined to limit the law-abiding to 10 round magazines. Despite the Supreme Court’s 2022 Bruen ruling, the usual suspect states and cities—blue—continue to try to limit magazine capacity.
I picked these handguns not only because I have long and very positive experience with Glocks and 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. Other obvious Glock choices are the 43, 43X and 48. 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 relatively 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 carried daily for six years: here and here. I say “carried,” because I’ve recently switched to a G43X MOS with a Crimson Trace green dot electronic sight. I’ll have an article on that combination when I’ve finished this updated series.
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 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 II speedloaders; there is no such thing as too much ammunition. 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, with experts approaching, but not quite equaling, the fastest magazine change times. 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).
Springfield Armory recently introduced it’s SA-35, an updated Hi-Power with features not used in the time of Browning. It’s reportedly an excellent handgun, but even that model no longer uses deep bluing, and most popular handguns now make substantial use of polymers. Some handguns are still made with steel, but that kind of bluing, outside multi-thousand dollar custom guns, is pretty much a thing of the past.
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—circa 1990–and I haven’t looked back. When the Glock 26 was introduced, I snatched up the first gun I could find. I carried that handgun until 2017, when I traded my 26 for a 43, primarily because Mrs. Manor was fond of the 43, and it’s good to be able to share magazines. The late Chuck Taylor, who used to exclusively carry a custom 1911, eventually carried 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 March, 2023—about $655.00, while 1000 rounds of 9mm practice ammunition costs about $342.00 and .40 S&W, about $500.00. If ammunition cost isn’t a disqualifier, and handgun size and weight are not an issue, 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, Ruger, Walther, or a Smith and Wesson has caught your eye, no problem; they make fine firearms and I own several Smiths and have owned several Rugers and 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 a portion of the non-police market every manufacturer eyes with envy. And as I noted, they are available in large, medium and compact sizes in every popular caliber, and in more configurations than ever before, including many models with pre-cut slides for electronic—slide-mounted, red and green dot–-sights.
NOTES 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 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. It’s also interesting to note that most recent additions to the compact and subcompact concealed carry market use materials and features pioneered and refined by Glock.
If you are a new shooter, take care not to fall into changing handguns like shoes. 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: 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. Prior to cleaning, do it twice, then do it again, just to be absolutely certain.
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, its inherent 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, as does FN, 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 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. I’ll also be producing a series of in-depth articles on the characteristics of revolvers, semiautomatic handguns, submachine guns and rifles in the near future.
Phil Strawn said:
I carry a Walther 9mm and my wife owns a Smith & Wesson 380. A lot of variations in hand guns for folks to consider. Good read.
Mike McDaniel said:
Dear Phil Strawn:
Quite so, and thanks.
The Remington Model 51 had that reputation in its day (John Pedersen was indeed a genius). Sadly, the Remington R51 – its resurrected, modern form – may look good but apparently suffers in its implementation. (This ignores what these guns may need in the way of special ammunition.)
Historically, that hasn’t always been the case. The flintlock displaced the earlier wheellock despite being inferior, because it was enough cheaper for that to make all the difference.
I cannot vouch for it of my own personal knowledge, but in Frederick Forsyth’s well researched novel “The Day of the Jackal” he has an armourer prepare rounds with a mercury load held in with paraffin wax sealing the tip, that bursts out and dissipates momentum in a human target to great effect. It’s certainly physically plausible, and leads me to suspect that a lighter load using potassium-sodium alloy (a liquid at ordinary temperatures) might be similarly effective through a different mechanism: it would generate a great deal of gas in a human target very quickly, by reacting with the moisture.
Mike McDaniel said:
Indeed, and the British were slow to adopt firearms, largely because the longbow far outranged early firearms, were more accurate at range, and had a far greater rate of fire.
I suspect mercury-laden ammunition is largely a fictional creation. Mercury is notoriously hard to work with, and certainly poisonous.