Choosing a Handgun Caliber

By CTD Blogger published on in Consumer Information

I’m going to open up a can of worms on this topic. There is perhaps no more effective way to stir up debate than to bring up the topic of handgun calibers.

Gold bodied, copper-topped .32 NAA Cartridge on a white background

The .32 NAA cartridge is a decent performing round, although isn’t always easy to find on store shelves.

First, let’s dispel a few myths: There is no such thing as a “man stopper” or a handgun caliber that is capable a “one shot stop.” Compared to their larger rifle caliber brethren, all handgun rounds seem puny and underpowered. That’s primarily because the handgun itself is a compromise between portability and power. The reason military forces don’t equip their soldiers with handguns as a primary weapon is because they’re just not as effective at quickly stopping an attacker as a rifle is.

How does one decide what caliber to get a handgun in? Dave Sevigny said it best when he told us to “just get the biggest caliber you can hit with or the one you’re most comfortable with.”

Why the emphasis on size? Because when it comes to a handgun caliber you need every bit of performance you can get.

Still, there is always the trade-off of size vs. concealability and portability. Few people would recommend carrying a small pocket pistol chambered in .357 Magnum. While such guns exist, they are difficult to shoot well and usually only hold 5 rounds or less.

Neither is a soft shooting .32 ACP caliber pistol with a 20-round capacity necessarily appropriate. A handgun is always a compromise, which is why you should choose based on ergonomics and the firearm’s intended role first (home defense vs. concealed carry) and decide on a caliber second.

Black Bersa Thunder .380 Concealed Carry Pistol, barrel pointed to the left on a white background

The Bersa Thunder .380 Concealed Carry pistol is reliable, soft shooting, and easily to conceal.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Handgun Caliber.

How comfortable is it to shoot in my pistol?

Most pistols are available in a variety of calibers. Once you’ve decided what model pistol you want, try shooting it in the various calibers.

A small handgun such as a GLOCK 26 firing a 9mm may be uncomfortable for some shooters while a larger handgun such as a GLOCK 20 firing a massive 10mm cartridge may be easily tamed in larger hands.

Like Dave said: choose the largest caliber you can comfortably shoot.

Can I afford to practice regularly with this caliber?

Larger caliber ammunition is generally more expensive than smaller caliber ammunition, so you need to add this cost difference into the equation. If you choose a larger caliber such as .357 Magnum or .45 ACP make sure that you can find ammunition that is inexpensive enough to allow you to practice regularly.

Is it a “standard” caliber?

Some calibers are simply more abundant and easier to find than others. Before you buy that pistol chambered in .45 GAP or 7.62 Tokarev, consider how easy (or difficult) it is to find a box of cartridges in that caliber.

When the ammunition shortage hit a few years ago we saw everything dry up, and the unusual calibers disappeared just as fast as the more common 9mm, yet these oddball cartridges were replaced on the shelves much more slowly than the more common calibers.

Terminal Ballistics

When it comes to a handgun, the last thing to look at is the actual performance of the round. Colonel Jeff Cooper once said about the little .25 ACP “If you must carry a .25 ACP caliber pistol, do not load it. For if you load it, you might use it. And if you shoot somebody with it, and they find out about it, they’re likely to be very upset with you.”

While a gun chambered in 25 ACP beats the heck out of not having a gun at all, it’s simply not adequate at stopping a determined attacker. A .22LR may meet all of our criteria listed above, being cheap, comfortable, and abundant, yet it too lacks adequate stopping power.

For most handguns .380 ACP should generally be the minimum caliber you choose. It seems like every firearm manufacturer is producing small .380 pocket pistols these days, although if you can comfortably conceal and shoot a larger caliber handgun, bigger is always better.

If it meets the criteria listed above and you can accurately shoot it, choose a pistol chambered in .45 ACP, .40 S&W, or .357 Magnum for a revolver.

Despite what anyone tells you, there is no magic number, no special caliber that reliably stops a determined attacker. Find a pistol that fits you and your needs, whether for concealed carry or home defense, and then get it in the largest caliber you can comfortably shoot.

Don’t worry about ammunition capacity; instead practice and focus on getting accurate shots.

What is your favorite handgun and caliber? What criteria did you use when choosing it? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

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Comments (17)

  • lord sanson

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    hair spray & a lighter. I sets ‘em on fire. My neighbor went to use his 1911 on sum escaped convicts who broke in on him, and it wouldn’t fire, they took it from him and tied him up and gang raped him. He’s a glock guy nowadays.

    Reply

  • Tom K

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    There’s No such Thing as Cheap ammo anymore.. Most handgun ammo is around $1.00 a round. There are a few exceptions, but are hard to find.

    Reply

  • rb

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    I’m not a doctor, and don’t play one on TV.
    So, in my humble opinion;

    I follow tradition. A well placed 22lr, will do far more damage than a 44mag miss. The best caliber is the one that you can CONTROL! Don’t let your EGO dictate your gun size!

    Bullets kill by shock. The human body consists of several enclosed systems. A one shot stop, is achieved by interrupting one or more of these systems, with such force, that either the brain gets overloaded, and decides to ‘shut-down’, or the projectile’s temporary cavity imparts such trauma to the internal organs, that the brain does a ‘no-mas’, and shuts down. Once down, people either bleed to death, suffocate, drown in their own blood or expire from no blood flow, or never recover from damaged internal organs.

    Reply

  • Michael Barletta

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    I have enjoyed reading the data contained in the many Internet programs. I have been educating myself so that I may proceed with some knowledge in making my choice in purchasing a new pistol. A few days ago I experienced an excellent presentation by a gentleman under the caption entitled “which 22 caliber pistol would be best for me”. One of the pistols he pointed out as his favorite was a High Standard supermatic citation 22 caliber military style target pistol. The narrator of this Internet video used the code name 22plinker. I would like to sell this pistol. It is in pristine condition being fired only four times since I personally purchased it in 1968 at the High Standard factory in Hamden, CT, Can you help me locate 22plinker. I am Michael Barletta tel # 203. 250 . 7002. E mail mikebarletta@cox.net. thank you.

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    Reply

  • Michael

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    personally speaking i bought my glock 22 gen 4 – for home defense. my original intention was to conceal carry a glock 27 after having adapted to the 40 S&W cartridge — and i know they say you should buy a gun that fits you. personally i’m old school – you were given a tool – shown how to use it and expected to adapt to the tool. the 40 was a little snappy for my taste but i found with some modifications to the gun – it’s very tame now. infact, i would wager it has less recoil than a stock 9mm. double taps to center mass are a dream and long range accuracy doesn’t suffer either. due to these things and it being a good overall full grip in my hand – i actually prefer to open or even conceal carry my glock 22. it’s a little beefy but i know after 1000+ rounds and a tiny bit of tuning on my behalf – i can comfortably carry this gun in a ready to fire state for instant draw and fire. i know because of it being a glock – it will cycle most anything i have to feed through it. i know because of having replaced the spring cups w/ marine cups – that even in rain, flood, or flat out submersed conditions – it will ALWAYS cycle and fire – and perhaps i went a little overboard w/ the viridan x5l attached to it – but i know that should i need to kick on a light in the middle of the night and don’t have the coordination to hold a flashlight w/ 1 hand and the gun in the other – w/ my taclight — where it shines, is where i’m firing — so if being blinded by 180+ lumens isn’t enough to get some moron out of my house in the dead of night, 1-2 trigger squeezes surely will and this goes for ANY condition. i know people preach and preach about bullet caliber and finding a gun that fits you.. i hate to say it but i respectfully disagree. i chose my glock based on ballistics information. bc i wanted to know for a fact that the 40 S&W round would drop an intruder with as few shots as possible and would penetrate enough to where there was no dumb luck that would save the person’s bacon. i was raised to believe you don’t point a gun at something unless you aim to destroy it. given that ringing in the back of my head – i wanted to make sure they weren’t getting up after 1-2 shots. thus the choice for 40 S&W. i would have gone 10mm but ammo availability here prevents that. and lets face it.. who wants to pay 20 bucks for a box of ammo and nearly 20 for shipping? all in – i spent 550 on the glock itself and probably in the ballpark of 300-400 in mod parts to tune the glock to fit me (minus the x5l). this might be a little steep but i KNOW that no matter what – my glock is there – it’s not so small that anyone could forget they have it.. nor is it so big and heavy that it’s a burden to carry. it can be controlled and isn’t a pain to fire. i know that whether in light or dark conditions – i can get rounds on target QUICKLY, and most importantly IF i have to discharge my firearm at a person – i don’t have to worry about having to squeeze off 5 or 6 well placed rounds to stop them. simply aim center mass and 1-2 rounds.. they’re not getting up, i don’t have to worry about putting half a magazine in them, and my issues are resolved quickly and easily.

    Reply

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