Handgun Cartridges — A Retrospective Look

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, General

The explosion in handgun choice, and the proliferation of handgun calibers and loads, is immensely interesting. Whether you wish to use a certain caliber and load or not, each is intriguing. However, did you know that the popular cartridges of today fill the same basic niche in the same relation to others since Sam Colt codified the pocket, belt, and holster pistol. Colt’s revolvers were offered in .31, .36 and .44 most commonly. The .31 served the same role as today’s .380 ACP pocket pistol; the .36 was the 9mm of the day, and the .44, well, the .44.

Multiple cartridges ranging from 9mm to 12 gauge

One thing is for certain; compared to long-gun cartridges the handgun cartridge isn’t very powerful.

Along the way, there was some shoe horning of different calibers into small frame sizes. The Colt Army .44 used the .36 frame. The cylinder was rebated to allow use of a .457-inch ball and the frame was cut out to allow the greater diameter of the larger cylinder. The .44 Colt Army solved the problem of a portable man stopper and horse killer but proved to shoot loose more quickly than the .36 Colt Navy, which wasn’t surprising. Momentum will do that. We relearned that with the .40.

The cartridge revolver followed much the same path. After all, the first cartridge revolvers firing serious cartridges were modified from cap and ball revolvers. The new cartridges in .38 and .44 were not as powerful as a fully loaded black powder revolver, and the pointed bullet was harder and less likely to expand than the soft lead ball previously used.

Soon, we had the .32 and .38 pocket revolvers and the powerful .45 Colt revolver cartridge. The .38-40 was in ballistic terms the equal of the .40 S&W, even offered at one time with a 165-grain JHP loading. The .44-40 is similar to the 10mm with a 200-grain bullet at about 1,000 fps. I suspect that there wasn’t a lot that needed doing these cartridges could not do.

Denim target with bullet holes

Sometimes the author uses denim to test bullet expansion.

Once we had these three cartridges—and the .32-20 WCF for small game—we had the handgunning world well covered. The next big step was the popularity of self-loading pistols. The .32 ACP was hotter than the .32 Smith and Wesson Long with a 71-grain bullet at 1,000 fps versus the .32 revolver’s 98-grain RNL bullet at 750 fps. The .45 ACP was introduced in 1905 and the 9mm Luger adopted by Germany in 1908. These cartridges offered considerably higher velocity than comparable revolver cartridges and were efficient as they were designed from the outset for smokeless powder.

There were a number of interesting high-velocity cartridges available at the turn of the previous century. The .32-20 WCF was among the first cartridges hot loaded by handloaders and this whetted their appetite for Magnum cartridges. A 115-grain, hard cast, lead bullet at 1200 fps is pretty interesting. Then, the Borchardt cartridge found its way into the Mauser C96 and eventually became the hot bottleneck 7.62 x 25mm Tokarev. A hard jacketed 86-grain bullet at 1400 fps has much to recommend in penetrating web gear.

There were no internet forums at the time, but word of mouth and periodicals contained lively debate on handgun cartridges. Many loved technology and found the new German pistols—the Luger and the Mauser—interesting even if terribly expensive. Pragmatic lawmen kept the Colt SAA and trusted the piece with good reason, but some began to appreciate the steady trigger and two extra shots of the 1911 .45.

Two revolvers fitted with Ahrends wood grips

These revolvers, fitted with Ahrends grips, are chambered for the .357 Magnum and .38 Special cartridges, respectively. They get the job done and fill a real need.

Those who used the 1911 in combat formed opinions that were to be respected and which still hold true today. As an example, T E Lawrence and his brother each obtained 1911 .45s as soon as the pistols were available in Europe. Lawrence’s brother noted that the Colt was ‘leagues ahead of everything else in the trenches.’ Lawrence also used the Mauser Broomhandle and Colt SAA.

By 1900, there was some scientific testing of handgun bullets against cadavers and live animals. This was valuable in its day, and pine boards were used to test pistol penetration. One such pine board test damned the poor performance of the .41 Colt, as an example. Animal testing included hunters in the American West using handguns to take game.

The .44-40, particularly with heavy loads, was widely respected as an outdoorsman’s cartridge. As Elmer Keith remarked, ‘a big deer is about the size of a man and about as hard to put down, but a man is more susceptible to shock.’ Meanwhile, the .380 ACP was developed for use in .32 ACP-size pistols and has retained a relative position in the scheme of things since. So, have the 9mm and the .45. Each has hung on based upon some perceived or real advantage. Each has profited by modern powder and bullet technology with incrementally improved ballistics.

.38 caliber revolvers with a Philippine Bolo

The .45 certainly gives a greater degree of confidence that the .38, no matter what the action type. Against a Philippine Bolo odds were even.

Outdoorsmen experimented with the .38 Special, and law officers did as well, looking for a more powerful loading for their service revolvers. Quite a few .38 Special, .44 Special, and .45 Colt revolvers were blown with the cylinder exploding and the top strap peeled back. Cartridges originally designed for black powder can hold enough smokeless powder to turn the revolver into a hand grenade. The self-loader will usually suffer breakage of the small parts and not blow when the shooters tried to turn the .45 ACP, as an example, into the .45 Colt.

Along the way, certain cartridges enjoyed short spans of popularity and today appeal to diehard fans. The .38 ACP Super and .44 Special, each excellent cartridges, are among these. The .38 Super allowed Colt to offer a middle of the road caliber after they stopped manufacturing the Model 1900 .38 ACP and also allowed them to offer a pistol legal for sale in South America, where military calibers were prohibited.

The caliber was popular with the FBI as it offered the greatest penetration of any common pistol caliber. It was used against the new breed of mechanized bandit. When the .357 Magnum was introduced in 1935 it pretty much replaced the .38 Super. We were, after all, a nation of revolver men, never mind the .357 Magnum cost twice what a good .38 Special revolver cost.

Barnes all copper bullet

The Barnes all copper bullet is something of a wonder bullet that offers excellent performance.

An incidental trend was the development of hunting-oriented cartridges. These included the popular .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and eventually the mighty .454 Casull. The .41 Magnum makes one wonder what Smith and Wesson and gunwriters were thinking.

A service pistol over 35 ounces becomes a burden at the end of the day and .38 Special +P recoil is about all the average cop, qualifying once a year, is willing to stand. Yet, the 48 ounce .41 Magnum was introduced as a cop gun. It petered out pretty quickly, more quickly than the later 10mm. Later, the FBI found the 9mm not enough and the 10mm ideal, then the 10mm too much, the .40 just right, and the 9mm back on the list. I would put in a vote for the .38 Super. The FBI agents armed with the Colt .38 ACP Super, in 1932, were possibly the best-armed agents ever.

Today, the .38 Special, 9mm, and .45 ACP have enjoyed well over 100 years of service with no end in sight. There is a lot of interest in other calibers, some of which are pretty surprising. As an example, several of my acquaintances choose the 7.62 Tokarev as a carry gun. I would like to see a ¾-size 1911 chambered for the 7.62 x 25mm. If loaded with the 85-grain Hornady XTP bullet at 1500 fps, we just might have a very interesting combination for carry and field shooting.

Three Barnes all copper bullets

I suspect it would shoot as flat as a stretched wire. I will have to get by with the Tokarev for the moment. The primary requirement I have for a handgun is quality manufacture and reliability. Modern handguns are more reliable and accurate than ever. The ergonomics of the better class are excellent. Modern 1911s resemble their primogenitors but CNC machining and other improvements have made them much better handguns.

The same may be said of Smith and Wesson revolvers. They are more reliable and even safer with transfer bar ignition. Ammunition is also better. As an example, in 1916, Winchester was given a military contract that specified no more than one primer failure in 100,000 cartridges. The standard is even higher today. That is what is called service grade reliability.

Having seen the JSP fail in police work and wonder loads such as the B.A.T. come and go, forgive me if I am not excited about the newest wonder load claiming to do what the best loads from a 100-year-old maker cannot. The ones we have work pretty well and will be going for some time. When a member of our protein-fed ex-con criminal class looks at you as if you owe him money and isn’t taking no for an answer, the choice is more than theoretical. Cartridges sometimes work in very specific ways and we arrive at different answers to the same problems. These are interesting times.

Old or new? How much difference do the modern calibers vary from those of a century ago? DO you agree with the author’s analysis or have a different view. Share your answers and opinions 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.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (26)

  • superauto

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    A little late to the party, but this is probably the most informed pistol comment I have seen in the last 10 years:

    “The FBI agents armed with the Colt .38 ACP Super, in 1932, were possibly the best-armed agents ever.”

    Amen, and advice we would all be well advised to consider. A great round 85 years ago, and with today’s loadings, better than anything else out there.

    Reply

    • RK Campbell

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      Superauto,

      Thanks for reading. My son is a military intelligence officer and the proud owner of a Nvoak custom .45. I am presently working up a .38 Super Commander type for him. He asked if I could find a good .38 Super — watch for more on this in these pages, but will be a few weeks to a few months as we complete the project.

      Reply

  • Patrick Alexander

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    Excellent article. This is the first of these I have seen and I sincerely hope not the last !

    Reply

    • rkc

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      Thanks for reading!

      Bob

      Reply

  • Steve

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    I to have thought about “What if” with my Combat Commander in 7.62×25.

    Reply

  • Mike Mosher

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    As an afterthought on the 44-40 WCF, many of those were of the “Ballon head” design to allow one to cram much more black powder into them. A recipe for disaster when switching to smokeless powders. No thick case web to withstand the higher pressures that smokeless powder led to case failures as my uncle discovered.

    Reply

  • Mike Mosher

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    How about the .327 Federal Magnium? Available (or was) in the 3″ S&W J frame 632 Power Port, with Performance Center DNA, 6 shots over 5 for 38 Special yet close to 357 Magnium ballistics. My personal carry, a 7.62 X 25mm in a Wheelgun. I refinished the satin stainless finish To match my Colt Ultimate SS Python. The Power Port gives the impression you’re firing a .40 S&W out of it. Ruger had the LCR chambered for it as well as a Blackhawk. One of the GP’s also. I rechambered a 6″ Bisley Single Six in .32 H&R Magnium to .327, a very accurate and hard hitting combo. I’ve always loved the .32, very underrated. The Colt 1847 .31 Caliber is the gun that really “Won the West”, miners always had a pocket “hideout” gun and when you couldn’t wear you holstered Colt SAA into town, guess what discretly rode in the pocket!

    Reply

  • GIB

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    WOW… the best article you have had. Really enjoyed. Objective and informed. I wish he had not mentioned the Tokarev [which I carry] as it is a hidden secret and would like to keep it that way. What a wonderful gun if modern manufacturers would produce in that caliber… or even redo the gun. BUT AGAIN GREAT ARTICLE.

    Reply

    • rkc

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      Thanks for reading and thanks for your comments. This means a lot.

      Best

      Bob Campbell

      Reply

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