Balancing Power and Recoil for Self-Defense

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Concealed Carry

 

After training hundreds of individuals and doing considerable research on handguns and cartridges, I have come to realize that many shooters do not realize the work a handgun cartridge must do. There has been considerable research and intensive testing during the past two decades—more so than the previous 100 years. The FBI set the need for penetration, expansion, and diameter forth after expensive and extensive testing, but how many shooters truly understand caliber, ballistics, and bullet choice?

Several expended handgun bullets

Handgun bullets penetrate to different depths and expand differently. The choice must be based on good research.

Personal experience can never approach that level of research and its validity. Just the same, there are those who beg to differ and take a nonchalant attitude toward personal defense. That’s fine because it is their hide. They are only responsible for their own actions.

I come from a law enforcement background. When in charge of choosing the duty load at two different agencies, it was more than my own hide I had to consider. Not only my fellow officers, but also the public had to be protected, and this meant the best possible choice. Each agency allowed the 9mm or .45 cartridge as long the individual officer could qualify with his choice. Even in an institutional environment, I had to parry opinions that were formed from too much TV and bad movies.

The notion that a handgun caliber could actually knock a person down dies hard. There were a number of so-called studies published in the popular press. As I told one young officer who wished to discuss these tests, “Prove that they even occurred before we discuss them.” Studies with secret or confidential sources have a validity of zero. Someone claimed to have shot a large number of Alpine Goats. If such tests were conducted—and I am more than skeptical—the value of shooting drugged animals and measuring the time it takes for them to collapse is worthless as related to self-defense.

Hornady bullet

The Hornady Critical Defense is a well-designed bullet that offers life saving performance.

Choosing a handgun and cartridge is serious business. You need to find the best information possible. My information doesn’t come from some guy at the pawnshop or an internet commando. Most have titles like Doctor or perhaps Captain or Special Agent. Dr. Vincent DiMiao and Dr. Martin Fackler were highly intelligent individuals with great medical experience. But then so was Colonel LaGarde, a highly decorated and effective field officer. Colonel Thompson was among the finest military officers ever to serve and a man of great personal integrity.

The Thompson LaGarde tests were thorough and painstaking. I also study the results of FBI ammunition testing. These results are repeatable and verifiable. They will be consistent no matter who does the testing if properly administered. You may compare one load to the other using ballistic gelatin. I often use water testing because it is simple, and I am able to compare loadings quickly and easily with reasonable validity. Water results are within 10 percent of the results gained in gelatin testing, and that makes them viable for most purposes. Nothing duplicates human musculature and bone. Humans are pretty tough and will take a lot of punishment—particularly when the tox sheet is off the charts.

The goal is to put the opponent out of the fight with the minimum number of rounds fired. The need to stop them must be so great that it does not matter morally or legally if they die as a result of being stopped. As I have often pointed out, the more shots fired, the greater the likelihood of death. One heavy blow is more likely to stop the opponent than a series of light blows. But you have to hit the target.

1911 pistol with slide locked back and three boxes of ammunition

A steel-frame .45 remains one of the best choices for personal defense for those that practice diligently and learn to control the pistol.

When you fire and hit the target, will the caliber and load you have chosen stop the attack, or will they be unaffected by your hits? People die of a variety of causes after being shot, sometimes days after being shot. That doesn’t do you any good if you are wearing a toe tag as well. Lethality doesn’t matter at all. Stopping the attack does matter, and a cartridge with good wound potential may do that.

Shot placement is the key. We have to understand muscle and bone structure. When we fire, we fire for the center of mass, the center of the target that is exposed to us. If possible, we fire for the arterial region. The cranium is a tough area of the body, and a difficult target at best in a personal defense situation. Choosing a minor caliber and then hoping for a headshot demands considerable skill and more luck than I care to chance.

Some folks have learned a few phrases concerning wound ballistics, and put them into a catchy word salad. That’s OK if you write for Grimm or Criminal Minds, but not if someone is relying upon your recommendation for personal defense. If you choose a load that is used by a major agency, then you will probably have good results.

Woman displaying a concealed handgun

This pistol instructor finds the Glocks light weight and reliability ideal for personal defense.

There are several criteria that must be present for good results in a personal defense scenario. There are many needful skills, but it all boils down to shot placement. (One writer told us that we should carry the heaviest load possible because we can control the load but not where we put the bullet. This goes against all police training for 100 years.) There are two criteria for the handgun bullet, regardless of caliber. These are penetration and expansion.

When a small bore performs beyond expectation it is usually because it has penetrated to a vital area. When a large-bore handgun fails, it is usually due to under penetration. There are loads that limit penetration by design, and as a result, severely limit the effectiveness of the caliber. This is fine for range safety but not for a handgun that may be called upon in a wide range of scenarios.

You would expect the larger bullets to do more damage, and they do. The larger the diameter, the greater the damage. Some calibers do not need to expand to be effective. Small bore calibers do not always benefit from an expanding bullet, as penetration may be limited to the point the bullet does not reach a vital area. Energy isn’t a good comparison baseline but useful in comparing cartridges to the others. Actual damage is what counts.

Bob Campbell shooting a pistol with +P ammunition

The 9mm pistol is controllable even with +P loads and offers a high degree of protection.

So, with the laws of physics in effect, the sure thing would be to carry a .357 Magnum or .44 Magnum handgun. Well, that is heavy on the belt, so we will carry an Ultra Light .45. We have another problem that isn’t part of wound ballistics but affects shot placement. That is recoil.

A hard-kicking handgun is very difficult to control. It isn’t enjoyable to fire and use, and practice sessions will not be undertaken. There may even be sharp edges that make firing the piece painful. Even the .38 Special can be painful in a lightweight handgun. So we need a balance.

A beginner may be startled by heavy recoil and never advance. However, we are not really talking about beginners, but rather a good choice in caliber for a shooter willing to practice. The balance of the weight of the gun also matters. A heavier firearm will absorb recoil more efficiently.

There have been numerous trick calibers that limit recoil. The 5.7mm cartridge is one. The .22 TCM beats the 5.7 by a margin, and yet the .22 TCM isn’t something I would care to take into a gunfight. It is accurate and a great pest and varmint load, but I find a 9mm in the same size handgun quite docile. This brings us to another factor, gun size—and gun size is a true limiting factor.

Upset Hornady bullet

This is Hornady’s 124-grain XTP. Expansion and penetration are ideal.

We want to carry a decent-sized handgun that enables us to control recoil, but one which is light enough for constant carry and which strikes a formidable blow. This is where holster choice affects your ability to defend yourself. With a properly chosen holster you may conceal a Ruger SP101 with heavy +P loads. You will be able to shoot it much better than an aluminum frame snub nose .38. That is one of the best examples I can give.

By the same token, a 30 ounce .45 is controllable. Among the best choices is a 9mm with +P loads. I clocked the Double Tap 115-grain JHP 9mm at over 1,350 fps from the Vickers Tactical Glock. Recoil is controllable; mild by my standards. A .357 Magnum with a 110-grain JHP at 1,350 fps in a revolver is more difficult to control.

Recoil is sharp. Why? The action of the self-loader absorbs some recoil. But the 9mm uses six to eight grains of fast-burning powder to achieve the same velocity the .357 Magnum does with 14 to 16 grains of slower burning powder, resulting in less recoil energy for the 9mm. For personal defense, the 9mm is superior in control and offers excellent wound ballistics given the proper loads.

The bullet must penetrate intermediate barriers and reach the vitals. The barrier may be a heavy jacket or an arm bone. Small calibers are more easily stopped by heavy bone. A bullet with a round ogive is more likely to bounce off bone. An expanding bullet such as the Hornady XTP hollow point or Hornady Critical Defense bullet will increase wound potential by cutting flesh rather than simply pushing it aside.

Britnay Caton displaying Glock pistol in a holster

Britany Caton is a professional firearms instructor. Her daily choice is the Glock 19 9mm.

The greater the blood loss caused by the projectile, the more quickly the body shuts down. I have tested the most modern loads, including the Federal HST and Winchester PDX bullets. They are great designs with a good balance of expansion and penetration. However, any hollow point may fail to expand. They may hit bone and close rather than opening. Then, all you have is bullet weight and diameter.

The most efficient combination for most shooters seems to be a mid-frame handgun with a mid-caliber cartridge. The Glock 19 9mm, Honor Guard 9mm, and similar-sized 9mm handguns are concealable and offer excellent shooting qualities. The Glock 43 is lighter, with a smaller grip, and a bit harder to use well, but the Glock offers reliability and may be mastered with practice. A formidable home defense handgun is a .38 Special +P revolver loaded with +P loads such as the Federal HST. This is still one of the finest all around choices for a shooter that has little time to practice.

The hard-kicking .357 Magnum revolver and .357 SIG self-loader share similar traits. The revolver has the advantage in bullet selection and power at the top end. The self-loader holds more cartridges. Each requires a considerable commitment to master. Each of the .357s is hard on the handgun in long-term use. They are high-pressure numbers, and while the handguns will not blow up, wear on small parts is a problem.

Bob Campbell shooting a steel-frame Commander 1911 pistol

A steel-frame Commander .45 is controllable for those that practice.

The .45 ACP cartridge operates at less pressure than the 9mm, .40, or .357 SIG. Unlike most handguns calibers, the .45 ACP earned an excellent reputation with the standard jacketed loading. Public safety and common sense demand you take advantage of modern JHP loads, but it is good to know that standard ball load is plenty effective. The key to mastering the .45 is to select a handgun with a weight of 30 ounces or more. A SIG P220 or steel frame Commander is ideal.

When all is considered, most shooters will find the mid-frame 9mm pistol offers the best balance of control, accuracy, and wound potential. Are there overlooked combinations that may offer even greater advantages? Not in my opinion. The .40 is a fine service cartridge in full-size pistols, but shooters armed with the .40 have arrived at class with poor habits including flinch. Much the same may be said for the .357 SIG.

A somewhat overlooked combination with a small, but loyal, following is the .38 ACP Super. Chambered in .45-size handguns, the .38 ACP Super offers a 100 – 150 fps boost over the 9mm +P and is among the most docile handgun calibers for the power. With standard pressure loads, the .44 Special and .45 Colt revolvers are viable home-defense handguns, but large and heavy to carry on a regular basis.

I think we keep coming back to the baseline. The .38 Special +P and the 9mm Luger are good places to be.

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What self-defense or home-defense load do you prefer and why? Share your answers in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (26)

  • Larry Mortland

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    I have carried a 911 for over 50 years to include time on the ground in Viet Nam on 2tours. I had studied the need for and development of the .45; a bull is a pretty tough animal with thick hide and big bones and the test platform which was used for the .45. The need to stop a drug induced and physically enraged warrior was why the .45 made the grade. In home it’s good as the rounds will most likely not penetrate a wall and cause damage to an innocent party.

    Reply

    • Adam

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      The 45 ACP made the grade in an era of lead or jacketed round-nosed bullets. Metallurgy and bullet design have advanced significantly in the last 116 years.

      Reply

  • Doug

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    I agree that for many people the 9mm is a usable cartridge. It is just that I feel sorry for them. The 45 is big and clunky and the lighter short barreled version of them lacks power. You need 5″ minimim in a 45 to do any serious and reliable work at any distance at all.

    My favorite cartridge is the 40S&W 155 grain Double tap gold dot or Underwood XTP in the same weight and the 357 magnum. in 125 grain for smaller (less than 5″ guns) and the 158 or even the 180 if it is a buffalo Bore and 6′ or more of barrel.

    The real news is on the .40 S&W. I have a M&P 4.25 inch original M&P 40. It is a fine piece and hits hard and is highly accurate. It does have SOME of the snap recoil some folks bitch about but not anything that gets in the way of my shooting and follow ups. However my newer 5″ M&P model 2 in 40 using the same 155 grain hotter ammo mentioned above exceeds all expectations. Less muzzle flip, better trigger and is a brezee to shot even with the “hot loads” I choose as carry loads. Be it Double tap 155 bonded, Underwood xtp 155s or buffalo bore 155s. And while the 4.25 inch barrel exceeds (with said brands of 155s) by a lot,the energy implied/tested through personal chrono readings, the 5″ barrel makes this firearm a monster. I get 1425 fps minimum with the mentioned loads and 700 plus energy which exceeds all but the longest barreled 357 magnums using 125 or some 158s. I completely understand the momentum of the 45 (at close range) and like wise would like to remind your of the Gaby Giffords incident where she was shot in the BRAIN with a 9mm and survived. I am glad she did but if ot had been a full power ..40 it likely would have blown her head to pieces. 9mm like 223 s make pencil sized holes which may hit the mark but a pencil hole is not what I want produced in a critical defense situation. I am 6’2, 225 lbs so may be bigger than your typical reader, but I simply do not trust a 9mm to do the job with one or two shots that a .40 or 357 mag. will do with the proper ammo. And I sure as hell don’t want to show up in court defending a personal shooting that required 15 rounds of a 9mm to stop the target. Cops get away with that some but civilians could be in serious trouble.

    Reply

  • James McWhorter

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    Hello, I’m a fanatic of the .44 magnum and I need to know for concealability can I use a 44 snubnose or a 4″629 or 29?

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      Sir

      Try the new SW M69 .44

      Bob

      Reply

  • Norman Witzler

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    Any thoughts on compensated barrels?

    Reply

    • rkc

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      Compensated barrels rob the load of velocity, which is pointless. Use a lighter load if you have too much recoil as barrel porting does the same thing. The compensated barrel throws ejecta straight up which means you cannot use it for firing from the retention position. Many good guns were ruined by this gimmick. For the .460 Rowland long barrel gun for hunting, fine, otherwise, no.

      Reply

  • Bill Colby

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    Personally I like to carry a 9MM in the summer when people wear light clothing and a 45 ACP in the winter here in Colorado where people tend to wear heaver clothing. I prefer 230 gr. Gold Dots in the winter and 124 gr. GD’s in the summer. Ballistics were checked on gallon water jugs, Rock Chucks and Prairie Dogs.

    Reply

  • Kenneth

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    Nice article, and since the author has much more experience in this area than me, there’s no argument. However towards the end, it’s mentioned that in the author’s opinion no combination has been overlooked. I have to say that when it comes to power vs. weight combination. I’ve found the 327 magnum, in the 6 shot Ruger sp101, to be a comfortable mix. Of course there aren’t enough factory ammo choices, to really explore all the possibilities that are available in the more popular calibers. But I believe that the potential is there. It’s a little powerhouse, in a size that is great for concealment. So if you’re a reloading enthusiast, you might want to give this one a look. Especially if you’re looking for a good caliber self defense gun for the wife.

    Reply

  • MacII

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    Bob,

    Another excellent article. You do impress.

    But I have a couple thoughts. First regarding the “center mass” point of aim I see recommended most often. One other writer suggested considering aiming for the center button in the middle of center mass, or where it would be if the target was wearing a shirt that buttoms up the front. His idea is that with a more refined point of aim, instead of the rather large entire “center mass”,you are more likely to get a “good hit”. He argues that a more finite point of aim is more likely to result in a good, true center mass hit. He persuaded me. Aom small, miss small.

    Second, my personal choice is a Glock 29 in 10mm. Relatively small and light but 15 rounds capacity using the Glock 20 mags. Is recoil a bit stiff? yes, beyond doubt. Does it hurt me enough to cause a flinch like the .454 Casul? No. I am a believer in energy transfer as a cause of tissue disruption and bone fragmentation.

    I was originally trained in the military over 55 years ago and the 1911 and the 45 ACP were the only choice available. We had to learn to deal with the cartridge and I discovered that while the .45 had some noticeable recoil, it never killed or disabled me. Do I think recoil is fun? Not in any respect, but there are other things about life that are not enjoyable but which are neceesary on a day to day basis and so you just do them.

    I do not believe that today’s young people are infinity weaker than we were (we were just before the 60’s generation and they were skinny wimps with the hand strength of a rotten grape — yet they mastered the .45),. I do think that the later generations are pampered and work averse. Therefore, they avoid recoil instead of confronting it and mastering it in some cases. I have fired tens of thousands of .45 rounds and it has never hurt me. In my 76th year, I shoot the 10mm in the glock 29 and while there is a sharp recoil impulse, so what? It is not gonig to kill me and with the right attitude and practice, I shoot the 10mm as well as I shoot the 9mm. That is just me but I am nothing special and if I could learn to do it, I do not believe it is imossibly difficult.

    Finally, about ending a fight, I have read studies, including the original Thompson/LeGarde study and a number of more modern FBI reviews. Further, back when the Department of Defense determined that 300 foot pounds of muzzle energy was the absolute minimum for a Personal Defense Weapon. The 9mm gets there, somewhat. But still when you compare the energy of a 9mm to that of the 5.56 X45, the 5.56 is usually about 3 times the energy of the 9. Again, if you look at the venerable 30-06 it either is or is very close to 10 times the 9mm. However, it is also close to 3 times the muzzle energy of the 5.56 or .223.

    My point is that if 1,000 plus foot pounds of muzzle energy is about the minimum for a long gun, why would we automatically think that 300 foot pounds from a pistol is wonderful or the equivalent in fight ending? If that were true, why isn’t the M-16 or AR15 chambered for the 9mm instead of the 5.56? Why would the government want to purchase vast amounts of far much more expensive rifle ammo if a pistol cartridge is all that you need.

    While I agree there isn’t a direct correlation between mjuzzle energy and stopping a fight, if one is relying on an expanding bullet to make a difference in the “one shot stop” equation, then 10 times the muzzle energy, it seems to me, is far more likely to deform a bullet than 10 times less. The 10mm I shoot is roughly twice the energy of the smaller — by one milimeter — 9mm. I count on the 10 to penetrate deeper through most any medium and to expand a 10mm projectile more reliably than the 9mm projectile which may lack sufficient impact energy to expand.

    Yes, it takes time and practice to grow compfortable with the 10mm and the recoil is stouter than the 9mm, but I have confidence it is more likely to deliver the goods than its smaller brother. I am content with my 15 rounds of 10mm being more adequate than 17 rounds of 9mm.

    I found some correlated FBI statistics on 10mm “one shot stops” and, if memory serves, it was in the middle 90 % of the time that one shot ended the conflict. Unfortunately there were not a lot of 10mm records to analyze. However, there was a very large number of 9mm shootings and the one shot stop percentage was around 50 % of the time and there was a really large number of cases to corelate. So, 9mm was pretty good but the 10mm was (albeit with a far smaller sample) spectacularly good. Hence my decision to go with the 10 primarily.

    The last word — my 122 pound 74 year old wife shoots my 10mm Glock 29 and doesn’t really understand those who say it is too much recoil for them. She had to learn, but she was not about to be outdone by her 230 pound husband.

    Reply

    • RKC

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      Aiming at a finite point is better than aiming for an area. But center of mass is misunderstood. The person must be educated that we will not likely be firing at targets squared to us. Center of mass is the center of the target we have, whether it is a shoulder, hip region, or a small exposed area. When firing for the center of the target we have a higher likelihood of a hit, and make the hit in the arterial region is possible.
      Thanks for reading

      Reply

  • Yosemite

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    Good article! The mention of the .38 Super is the first I have heard in a while. It did not catch on in American for whatever reason BUT it did get big elsewhere. The .38 Super +P or +P+ would fit in most situations for most everyone IF they could handle and fire one and compare it to the 9mm or .38 Special, even the .357 Mag with certain loads. The Ruger GP/KGP100 with heavy barrel tame the .357 Mag in my opinion.
    The 110 grain load is a monster flame thrower. If you don’t it the bad guy with the bullet…the flame should take him out if he very close. Recoil wise… the Desert Eagle would put TWO shots down range and on target while a revolver is still under recoil of the first round fired.
    Of course the DE weighs a considerable amount more and it is gas operated….

    Speaking of snubbies and autos. Desert Eagle and Coonan made .357 semi autos…..The Ruger LCR hammerless .357 Mag would be hard to beat with it’s steel frame and weight ….one could shoot .38 Special +P+ all day long with little fear of wear and tear, and still use .357 Mag IF they run out of .38 ammo.

    I do not understand why people go with the 9mm 147 grain JHP. It was not designed for handguns. Sure it over penetrates but so does the ball ammo. I would think in most places with others around, one would have to be concerned about the round over penetrating and hitting someone…..The Hornady and other rounds made for 9mm handgun personal protection/Self Defense would seem to be the best choice for such work/role.

    IF a .45 ACP is functioning/feeding reliably and everything …. and one is using various standard loads and self defense/ personal protection roles that perform as they are claimed to be without going to heavier loads that require stronger springs…. Don’t the heavier springs effect the performance of other loads? Also with heavier springs makes the weapon harder to chamber a round in the traditional grab the slide and pull it all the way to the rear and let it go.

    There was no mention of the .41 Rem Magnum.. IT is NOT A Middle of the Road Mag between .357 Mag and the .44 Mag as some people think and believe! . It is in it’s own class. Way ahead of the .357
    If one reloads …they can make it outperform the .44 Magnum at least in Ruger Blackhawks. Not real sure if those loads are safe or in OR recommended for use in other revolvers. Ruger used to make it in the Redhawk. Desert eagle made one in Semi auto. I THINK Dan Wesson made a double action revolver in the caliber. We KNOW S&W made one in double action…….Some people complain about the recoil…..given the right training and time one can overcome the recoil.
    I have let a few people fire my .460 Weatherby Mag Most had never shot any firearm before…..I went through safety and how to aim and how to hold and how important a proper stance was and to hang on to the firearm and lean into it…. They fired a standard out of box round and had no problems did not hurt or anything else…..

    It is a crying shame the .41 Rem Mag never really caught on the way other rounds have……just like the .38 Super. They are excellent rounds for self defense and the .41 mag is an excellent hunting rounds and reloaders and people make their own bullets can definitely make hard cast rounds that will penetrate large dangerous critters with more than Two legs.

    Reply

    • Bob Campbell

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      .41 Magnum is a good cartridge but what in the hell those writers and SW were thinking when they thought it would be adopted by cops, I do not know. A pencil barrel fixed sight .44 Special or .45 Auto Rim would make a better choice, overall, unless large animals are involved.

      Meanwhile you should get a subscription to Gun Tests Magazine. They have an upcoming test of the .38 Super.

      Yes, the Super is a good cartridge but just a few appreciate it.
      Thanks for reading.

      Reply

  • EnzoFromNM

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    I personally carry a .45 acp. It’s not too heavy to carry around all day and the recoil is manageable. I have a springfield xdm with a 18 pound spring, which helps with the recoil. You forgot to mention that you can shoot more powerful loads with a stronger spring in your pistol. I also have a Ruger sr45 and the factory spring makes it recoil like a 9mm pistol. If you can upgrade your spring you can shoot bigger heavier loads in your semiautomatic pistol. I’m saving up for a .460 Rowland kit for my .45acp. I’m also going to upgrade the recoil spring when I get the .460 Rowland. Stronger spring, less recoil.

    Reply

  • Deplorable Robert

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    First, I want to say thank you for all the articles you all publish. The more info, the better INFORMED we can be.
    Second, I want to say thank you for including the .357 Sig in your “evaluation”. That is usually a left out cartridge. And right you are to include it, as the FBI approved this round because of its superior ballistics.
    My “biased” opinion is that, while you are correct about recoil, one gets used to it if you train with what you carry. I don’t flinch when shooting this cartridge and I carry with 147 grain Hornady hollow point cartridges.. The energy and velocity is better than MOST 9mm or 45 acp rounds. I say most only because you can purchase or handload a hotter round than what is the average store carries. Buffalo Bore is an example of this. I have resisted getting some. But, by Handloading my own, I can say that my 115 grain hot loads are very easy on recoil, and even a pleasure to shoot. Even my kid sister smiled when she was out for recent practice. I don’t recall exactly my amount of grains of powder, but I use VihtaVuori and Hornady 115 grain hollow point cartridges to practice with. Am guessing velocity is about 14 or 1500 fps. Next I will purchase a chronometer to fine tune my loads.
    Thanks for reading my novel, and sorry if I got off subject and into reloading😎

    Reply

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